When the family is yearning for an outdoor escape complete with educational offerings, stay and play within the Santa Barbara South Coast, where the opportunity to learn abounds and the sunshine will brighten your spirits. From outdoor museums to botanical and zoological gardens, you will gain valuable knowledge while making lasting memories throughout our coastal enclave. Additionally, area hotels make for a cozy and quiet home base after a fun-filled day of absorbing hands-on California history. Not just fun for the kids, smiles and lasting memories are guaranteed for the whole family.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
The Santa Barbara Zoo is home to 146 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects, and more than 400 animals are exhibited in open, naturalistic habitats. Say hello to the many incredible species in residence, including Kasha, an Amur Leopard, Pauline, an African Lion Cub and Twiga, a Massai Giraffe. New to the Santa Barbara Zoo, thrill seekers can visit kangaroos, emus and wallabies up close in the Australian Walkabout. The immersive layout and natural design honors the land, animals and traditions of the Australian Aboriginal culture. Don’t forget to stop by the aviary section to learn more about Australia’s native bird species as well.
Families visiting the zoo will enjoy ocean views and the perfect conditions for kids to learn to their heart’s content about the zoo’s different species in about 90 minutes or less. The zoo offers plenty of fresh air, outdoor space and parking. Families with younger children are pleased to know that tickets are not required for children under two. However, all visitors must make a reservation in advance, as the zoo is open to both visitors and members.
Members of the Santa Barbara Zoo can participate in Early Explorers, a play-based early education program for children ages three to five, focusing on teaching through experiences. Your little one will get excited for train rides, art and animal encounters, and kids will also learn an appreciation for the natural world through gardening, outdoor play, exploration and discovery in the zoo’s 28-acre outdoor classroom.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History provides ample opportunity for parents and kids alike to explore the Museum Backyard nature play area, nestled in the oak woodland along Mission Creek. This nature-filled wonder includes a play stage, backyard creek, sensory garden and boardwalk. For a bonus educational treat, additional programming is available at the sensory garden to help children of all ages learn more about native plants, insects, butterflies and the work of natural scientists.
Back by popular demand is the crowd-pleasing Prehistoric Forest. Take a stroll back in time as you discover dinosaurs in the wild on the banks of Mission Creek. Dino-lovers of all ages will squeal with delight upon seeing these hand-crafted moving animatronics come to life before their eyes. Guests can continue their prehistoric exploration with Dinorama: Miniatures through the Mesozoic, a display of playful miniature dioramas that bring to life the Mesozoic Era, from Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous Periods.
The museum also offers the chance to explore ongoing exhibitions that showcase a multitude of wide-ranging subjects, including Chumash history, the ecology of Santa Barbara, space sciences, gems and minerals and Earth and marine sciences.
As you prepare for your upcoming visit, don’t forget to include time to admire the museum’s iconic 74-foot long blue whale skeleton located at the museum entrance. Fun fact, this blue whale skeleton is one of only five complete blue whale skeletons in the United States. It’s a rare opportunity for children and adults to gain first-hand exposure to, as well as an appreciation of, the world’s largest animal.
Speaking of blue whales, the museum’s sister location, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, invites the whole family to wander its fascinating marine life exhibits. Experience the wonders of the deep blue sea with incredible touch tanks and aquatic facts galore, all on California’s oldest working pier. You might even spot a sea lion or two roaming the water beneath you as you enter the museum.
Soak in Sunshine and History
Pair your visit to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum with a stop at Old Mission Santa Barbara, located just down the road (.04 miles away to be exact). Old Mission Santa Barbara is known as “Queen of the California Missions” and tenth of the 21 California Missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans. The self-guided tours are a paramount addition to your visit, and you will get the chance to take in the sights of the beautiful Mission church, the historic cemetery and mausoleum, a nine-room museum of historical artwork and artifacts and multiple lush gardens. There is a one-way flow of movement through the self-guided tour, and visitors will be provided with a map with arrows to guide you. After the tour, you can also admire the architectural design of the Mission’s exterior grounds and the beauty of the stunning A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden, home to 1,500 rose plants.
With a little advanced planning, build your own lesson plan with Old Mission Santa Barbara’s website, offering a variety of online resources that include the Mission history, points of interest and kid-friendly games. Before heading home, don’t forget to stop by the gift shop, currently open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and stocked with plenty of souvenirs to commemorate your visit.
Looking to learn more about the fascinating history of Santa Barbara? Plan a visit to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum downtown and explore a vast collection of artifacts, furniture, textiles, decorative arts and costumes that represent more than 500 years of Chumash, Mexican, Spanish and American history. Calling all film buffs: You can also dive into the glamorous film era of the 1920s that shaped Santa Barbara into the modern-day American Riviera.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is just the place to escape for a beautiful and breathtaking exploratory open-air adventure. This 78-acre living museum designed entirely with California-native plants provides 5.5 miles of easy walking trails. Along the way, you’ll discover wild-crafted gardens, a coastal redwood forest, a cacti-filled desert, and spectacular views along the Porter Trail. This magical outdoor paradise houses 1,000 plants, trees and flowers that exemplify the diverse botanical beauty of the region, and is a wonderful way to explore nature in its most beautiful form.
Learn How to Spot a Whale Tale
Set sail on the Santa Barbara seas for an unforgettable nautical adventure. Best viewed from February through May, thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate through the Santa Barbara Channel as they head south to Baja, California. Kids will squeal with delight as they spot dolphins, a variety of marine life and larger-than-life migrating whales in one of the best locations for whale watching on the West Coast. As you plan your on-the-water adventure, select from several outdoor outfitters that provide a variety of different whale watching adventures, including private charters for families to see these majestic creatures up close.
Take a Step into History
Downtown Santa Barbara is brimming with history and culture. Get in your daily steps and fresh air fix as you and the family learn about the storied history of our beautiful destination along The Red Tile Walking Tour, which includes 17 historical stops that embody the best of Santa Barbara’s Spanish-style architecture. Or, if whimsical architecture is more your passion, the Jeff Shelton Walking Tour highlights the extraordinary work of this visionary architect. Stops on this fantastical journey include the famous Ablitt Tower, which looks like a magical building straight out of a Dr. Suess book, The Pistachio House, El Andaluz and Vera Cruz.
Sailing and Kayaking/SUP Programs
Beginning in June, dive into various sailing or kayaking/stand-up paddling camps every Monday through Friday at Santa Barbara Sailing Center. Each morning kayak/SUP session includes land, water and beach games, paddling practice, snacks and team building activities. Campers will explore the harbor, nearby sea lion buoys and the kelp forest along Leadbetter beach. The afternoon sailing options for pre-swim-certified campers encourage confidence at the helm, and kids will participate in a safe environment within the Santa Barbara Harbor and along the Santa Barbara coastline. There is no commitment to a set amount of sessions. Capacity is limited to six kids per paddle session and five kids per sailing session.
Paddle Sports Center and Santa Barbara Adventure Company also offer kid-friendly SUP, kayak, surf and boogie board rentals and tours that will make for a sea breeze and sunshine-filled family outing. There’s bound to be an on-the-water activity that suits every member of the family.
FOR THE LOVE OF ART
Santa Barbara Museum of Art allows visitors to revel in the breathtaking exhibits ranging from original abstract paintings to life-size sculptures. Located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, this is the perfect stop for creative minds and provides a place for all members of the family to slow down and take in the beauty of artistic expression during vacation.
Science and Design
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation boasts myriad exhibits that help students discover the process of engineering design and inspire creative problem solving. Playful and empowering weekly summer camps are designed to encourage students to think like scientists and engineers. Come ready to make, move and MOXI-ify your mindset this summer. Daily admission is also available for the whole family if you prefer to follow your own schedule and interests at the museum.
Or, if you’re looking to explore and create from home, MOXI offers a variety of exploratory projects and challenges that can be completed from the comforts of home, or even better, your hotel room. From free digital programs, including mosaic projects and STEAM activities to toddler projects, the creative and curious minds in your household will rejoice. Choose from themed kits that dive into Sound, Light and Motion, as well as crafting and printable coloring pages.
Dive into Maritime Fun
Explore 13,000 years of human interaction with the Santa Barbara Channel at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (SBMM), and catch a bird’s eye view of the Santa Barbara Harbor from the fourth floor of the Santa Barbara Outdoor Visitor Center (located inside the SBMM). Highlights from the museum include a handmade Chumash plank canoe, the rare Point Conception Lighthouse lens, a working periscope, artifacts that tell stories of nearby shipwrecks and how a local oil spill in the 1960s helped spur the environmental movement. Kids of all ages are guaranteed to be entertained by the nautical hands-on exhibits.
You can also learn California’s storied history of human interactions with the sea through the SBMM’s Educational Programs. From the comforts of home or your hotel room, you can access SBMM at Home, a variety of virtual programs that include self-guided tours in the field, video tours of SBMM’s indoor exhibits and recorded lectures. You can also access various maritime-related arts and crafts projects, including coloring pages, Lego projects, knot tying, cooking and more.
For visitors of all ages, download the Maritime on the Move series to guide you on walking tours of Carpinteria, Santa Barbara Harbor and Oso Flaco Lake.
Hotels with Educational Guest Experiences
Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara
After exploring the ocean’s depths and discovering a love for the environment at the ripe age of seven, Jean-Michael Cousteau has since followed in his father, Jean Cousteau’s footsteps, by dedicating his life’s work to educate the world about ocean conservation. Thanks to a special partnership with The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, Jean-Michael Cousteau brings a unique opportunity for guests to participate in an interactive environmental educational program, fittingly named, Ambassadors of the Environment.
Through this hands-on program, resort guests can discover the Gaviota Coast’s natural wonders on land and sea, including kelp forest, a diversity of birds, the intertidal zone, and traditional Chumash culture through memorable adventures and activities. An a la carte menu of activities range from complementary to $60, with options for reserving exclusive family experiences. Please note that reservations are required for all activities.