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Santa Barbara Family Travel Guide: What You Need to Know to Plan Your Next Trip Here!

Santa Barbara Family Travel Guide: What You Need to Know to Plan Your Next Trip Here!

Santa Barbara is well-known for its welcoming coastal vibe, red-tile roofs and Mediterranean-like climate, giving the city its famous nickname, The American Riviera.  Not only does Santa Barbara have a year-round Mediterranean climate with great weather, but it offers stunning beaches, rolling mountain views, expansive vineyards, and eclectic communities giving it a small-town feel with big city amenities.  

Santa Barbara is located on a prime stretch of California’s central coastline bringing together the Golden State’s Spanish influence, laid-back vibe and is one of the most unique and charming places in California.  

If you're planning a trip to Santa Barbara, here is what you need to know, including my top recommendations on where to stay and things you need to do on your next visit. 

When to Visit Santa Barbara

There is no bad time to visit Santa Barbara. If you’re looking for a classic beach experience, the perfect months are July and August when the sun and the waters are warmest, but this is also high season with larger crowds and higher prices for hotels. 

Visiting in the shoulder season, late spring or early fall, is ideal because the weather is still very nice, but crowds have thinned and accommodations cost less.  

Winter is cooler and can be rainy. While you probably won’t be able to sunbathe or go swimming (without a wetsuit!), you can still enjoy most of Santa Barbara’s attractions for a fraction of the cost and with a lot more elbow room.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get to and travel around Santa Barbara is by car, with most visitors incorporating a stop here into a longer road trip along the Route 1 Pacific Coast Highway. 

Santa Barbara is also served by Santa Barbara Airport with frequent service to and from select cities, including a non-stop from Sacramento on Southwest Airlines, which is perfect for us. 

For a more leisurely journey, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train pulls into town at Stearns Wharf. Hugging the coast from San Luis Obispo south to San Diego, the route offers a window to some of California’s most breathtaking scenery.

Where to Stay

In Santa Barbara, you will find accommodations for every lifestyle and budget ranging from Luxury Resorts to Neighborhood Inns.  

  • The Ritz Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara: Located in Goleta oceanfront, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara is a quintessential California coastal luxury. Designed as a Spanish village with winding paths and white stucco walls capped with red tiled roofs, the Bacara evokes Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage with all of the modern comforts.

  • Hotel Californian: Santa Barbara’s premier urban destination located in the heart of downtown featuring 121-rooms continues to drive the revitalization of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.  CLose to all of thge restaurants and places you want to see in Santa Barbara and just steps from the beach with oceanfront views and the backdrop of the Santa Ynez mountains.

Other great options include Rosewood Miramar Beach, El Encanto (a Belmond Hotel), Hilton Santa Baraba Beachfront Resort and Brisas del Mar, Inn at the Beach.

For our first trip to Santa Barbara, we stayed at the Ritz Carlton Sana Barbara, which is located in the city of Goleta (also where UC Santa Barbara and the airport is located) and approximately 20 minutes from Downtown Santa Barbara.

Things to Do

Whether you’re planning on going as a couple’s retreat or a family get away, there is plenty to do in Santa Barbara.  During our recent family trip to Santa Barbara, we were able to visit many family-friendly attractions, lounge around the hotel pool and add activities for when we visit again in the near future. 

Here is what we were able to jam pack within a three-day weekend and recommend adding to your itinerary:  

Moxi - The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation

Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, has brought an added level of innovation, imagination, and fun to downtown Santa Barbara.  

Located on lower State Street, the Moxi Museum features three floors packed with tons of interactive exhibits and is centered around seven themes which all relate to science, technology, engineering, art, and math.  

This museum was a big-hit with the kids and super interactive, educational, and just plain fun.  I think we might have literally spent about half a day at this museum and the kids can't wait to visit again.

After exploring the exhibits, be sure to make your way to the stunning rooftop Sky Garden, where you'll get a birds-eye view of Stearns Wharf, Cabrillo Boulevard and downtown Santa Barbara and grab a bite to eat at Santo Mezcal, a modern contemporary Mexican restaurant located next door.

Explore Downtown Santa Barbara

The downtown area of Santa Barbara is nestled between the mountains and the ocean with State Street running through the heart of the city, where you'll find various restaurants, storefront shops, art galleries, museums, distinctive architecture and much more.

Be sure to visit the Funk Zone, which has become a fan-favorite in recent years and features lots of street art and murals. This neighborhood is home to numerous breweries, wine tasting rooms, cafes, art galleries, vintage shopping, and a wide range of dining that spans street food to fine dining cuisine.  

For a firsthand look at one of the country’s most beautiful public buildings, look no further than the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Designed in the Spanish-Colonial style and completed in 1929, the fully operational Courthouse is an iconic Santa Barbara landmark with its distinctive four-faced clock tower, red tile roofs, elegant arches and verdant sunken garden and grounds. 

It's also a great place to get photos with stunning backdrops of the courthouse or within the inner courtyard.

Santa Barbara Zoo

Explore the wonders of the natural world at the Santa Barbara Zoo, where the beauty of the wildlife is matched only by the lush grounds and sweeping ocean views.  

Located just two miles from State Street, this 30-acre park is home to more than 146 species, including mammals, reptiles, birds and insects, exhibited in open, naturalistic habitats overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Ynez Mountains. Some of the Zoo’s most famous residents include penguins, giraffes, anteaters, gorillas, and a flock of native California condors.  

The Santa Barbara Zoo has to be one of the most beautiful zoos that we have been to.  The zoo offers beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean which is something you don’t always experience at a zoo definitely worth a visit and sure to keep your kids busy for hours.

Santa Barbara Pier & Beach Walk 

Head to Santa Barbara’s Waterfront for a picture-perfect view of the coastline, including Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Harbor. You won’t be able to resist the pristine beaches, palm-lined shores, and the cascading Santa Ynez Mountains in the distance. 

Our kids enjoyed strolling along the beach as much as we did.  The sunset views made for some pretty picture perfect moments.  

Santa Barbara’s Chromatic Gate 

Near the beach walk, you'll find Santa Barbara’s Chromatic Gate, a large art piece that is definitely worth checking out.  It is a beautiful rainbow artwork sculpture that kept our kids so intrigued and made for a great photo location as it's such a photogenic spot to snap a few pics.  


Things to Add (on a Future Trip for us)

Our first visit to Santa Barbara was jam-packed with activities and I wish we had given ourselves a little more time to not only explore the city, but also have more time to just relax and enjoy the resort pools and beach.

When visiting again, I would prefer to stay in downtown Santa Barbara so we're within walking distance to all of the shops, restaurants and most museums.  The Ritz Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, where we stayed during this first trip, is an amazing resort, but a little far removed from the sights we wanted to visit.  

I feel that it is so nice that you should spend more time on property enjoying the resort amenities and pools, as opposed to leaving for a majority of the day to explore Santa Barbara.

For a future trip to Santa Barbara, we would consider adding these items to our itinerary, as well as visiting our favorites places from our last visit:

  • Santa Barbara Channel Islands National Park (known as the “Galapagos of North America")
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History 
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art 
  • Santa Barbara Botanic Garden