A vacation that’s actually fun for the whole family is a rare thing indeed. But if any city can deliver, Santa Barbara can! In addition to plenty of beaches and parks, our coastal paradise has loads of attractions and outdoor opportunities to satisfy kids big and small. And with spring break just around the corner, we’ve got you covered when it comes to the top family-approved activities in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Located on beautiful grounds just behind Old Mission Santa Barbara in the famed Riviera neighborhood, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has been around for over 100 years. And in all that time, it’s figured out a thing or two. There are millions of artifacts and specimens for little archaeologists, biologists, geologists and paleontologists to discover, as well as special exhibits like the Bee Cell, an immersive hive that visitors can explore and the hands-on Curiosity Lab, where you can look at specimens through a microscope and talk with a naturalist. Take a stroll through the Prehistoric Forest and discover life-size dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Euoplocephalus and more. But the most famous and exciting exhibit here might be the one that greets you before you even step inside: A complete, 73-foot long skeleton of a blue whale, earth’s biggest animal. Standing next to this gentle giant named Chad will cut even the grown-ups down to size!
The Santa Barbara Zoo
Low-key and gorgeous, the easily accessible Santa Barbara Zoo sits on 30 acres of lush gardens that overlook the ocean, the mountains, and Santa Barbara itself. Small and manageable, the zoo makes for a perfect mini-outing, and won’t overwhelm even the littlest human creatures, although the collection of 500 animals—comprised of 146 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects—will be sure to elicit plenty of oohs and aahs. In addition to gorillas and giraffes, lions and elephants, penguins and flamingos, you’ll see some special creatures that are rarely exhibited, like the majestic—and gigantic—endangered California Condor, whose wingspan tops 9 ½ feet. And rest assured, the animals you’re seeing are part of the Species Survival Plans conservation program.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Located on Stearns Wharf, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is an engaging, interactive and hands-on experience that’ll excite budding marine biologists and their parents alike. Check out what’s happening in the various aquariums, get up close and personal with sea creatures of every stripe (err, fin) at the Intertidal Wonders exhibit, crawl through the giant, 1,500-gallon Surge Tank to experience a tide pool from the inside out and test your bravery at the shark touch pool and urchin touch tank. And don’t miss the “Dive In: Our Changing Channel” exhibition, where you can encounter Moon JellyFish, Two-spot Octopus, Giant Pacific Seahorses and more.
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, MOXI’s not just for kids. That’s right: All ages will be awe-struck with each of the three engaging floors, filled with hands-on exhibits focused on science and technology. As an added bonus, MOXI’s stunning rooftop Sky Garden gives guests a birds-eye view of Stearns Wharf, Cabrillo Boulevard and downtown Santa Barbara.
Any mom or dad will tell you that a meal out with the kids is not always the most reliable recipe for enjoyment. Either it’s too quiet and too fancy for the kids, or too … plastic-coated and chicken-finger-forward for the grown-ups. But Santa Barbara does family-friendly dining right. Shoreline Beach Café is located to the west of the harbor, the restaurant is right on the beach, so the kids don’t even have to sit still. Instead, they can run around, build sandcastles or bury their siblings in the sand. Santa Barbara FisHouse is another family favorite. Close to the beach, this open-space restaurant has a menu and ambiance that appeals to all ages.
Perhaps the favorite family activity when visiting Santa Barbara is a fresh-air one. It’s easy to wander out your front door and find plenty to do. Take a family sea kayak adventure through Santa Barbara Harbor. Or schedule a full-day excursion to Channel Islands National Park—a family fav that is sure to go down in the record books. Rent everyone cruiser bikes and explore Santa Barbara beach style along Cabrillo Boulevard.
The options don’t end there. Hiking trails wind through the Santa Ynez Mountains that create Santa Barbara’s stunning backdrop. Surf lessons and surfboard rentals are at the ready. A beach picnic on one of the area’s many miles of coastline is the perfect way to start or end the day.
If you’re looking for a place that has something unexpected for everyone, Santa Barbara is where X marks the spot for the entire family.