Santa Barbara is known as the ultimate California getaway, the perfect place for a romantic stroll on the beach at sunset or to bump into a sunglass-clad celebrity ordering themselves a latte at a local coffee shop. Yes, as a Santa Barbara native I have a pretty impressive list of celebrity beach sightings. But, I also know that enjoying a weekend with the family in Santa Barbara isn’t just about sunscreen, sand and waves.
Each time I return to my hometown of Carpinteria, just a fifteen minute drive down the coast from the city of Santa Barbara, I head to the hills, the foothills to be more precise. The view of the mountains from the beach can only be surpassed by the view of the ocean from the foothills. There are countless hiking trails that head up into the mountains and reward hikers with fabulous views; adventurous kids enjoy climbing the rocks or splashing in creeks along the way. Cold Spring Trail has been one of my favorite trails since childhood, though I have to confess that I’ve never actually made it all the way to the top of Montecito Peak. There’s no shame in turning around and heading back down the hill once the kids tire; that just leaves more time later in the day for an afternoon or evening visit to the beach.
Tip for parents of young children: Most of Santa Barbara’s favorite trails head straight up into the mountains, which will quickly tire little feet.
One of my favorite places to get outdoors with toddlers is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Little ones can wander around beneath the redwood trees or count turtles at the pond till they tire. Then parents can load them up in the car, and enjoy the spectacular views by the Santa Barbara Mission or along Alameda Padre Serra, driving back down to the city while the little ones nap in the backseat.
No visit to Santa Barbara is complete without admiring the city’s lovely Mediterranean-inspired architecture while walking down State Street. Simply popping into the many courtyards just off State Street and discovering the hidden fountains and statues can make for a fun, relaxing afternoon both for kids and their parents. Don’t miss the bronze dolphin statues in the La Arcada right next to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art or the tiled steps at Paseo Nuevo just across the street from Silvergreens Downtown, a quick service restaurant perfect for families with young children. Dozens of cafes with indoor and outdoor seating line State Street. Most restaurants feature farm-fresh produce and local wine. I can’t go downtown without stopping for lunch at my favorite Italian restaurant, Pascucci, or grabbing a “Red Pineapple” smoothie at local favorite, Blenders in the Grass.
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse and Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio State Historic Park are both within a block of State Street and should not be missed as they provide the opportunity to get a feel for the city’s rich past. The courthouse has been the background for many a Southern California legal drama yet it is as it has been for almost a century. The courthouse also has an 85-foot-tall tower, accessible for free by elevator nearly every day, a spiral staircase connecting the first and second floors, and scenic arched windows overlooking the beautiful sunken gardens, which are always open for exploration and relaxation.
When rain threatens to take down your day head to the movies or a museum. The Arlington Theater, one of Santa Barbara’s three historic theaters and home to the Santa Barbara Film Festival, occasionally shows family-friendly movies. The inside of the theater is modeled after a Mediterranean town at night complete with twinkling stars on the ceiling. Of course, a visit to the city’s iconic Santa Barbara Mission and the nearby Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History are also good choices on the off-chance that you catch a rare wet or stormy day on California’s Central Coast.
Every visitor to Santa Barbara should take a walk down Stearns Wharf. Families will especially love the small Sea Center run by Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History; kids will learn firsthand what it is like to be a marine biologist as they bring up creatures from the depths below the wharf or check the visibility of the water just like the scientists do. There are a few restaurants out on the wharf and locals can often be found fishing off the end of the pier.
Insider Tip: Yes, even the locals “play tourist” sometimes; I confess that on two occasions I have pedaled a surrey bike along Cabrillo Blvd down to the bird refuge. So, be warned, if your kids are anything like mine, they will beg you to rent a surrey bike for an hour. I encourage you to just say “yes” to this memorable experience as cheesy as it might be —as long as you have someone to help you pedal.
I may be more than just a bit biased, but the Carpinteria Beach, either the state park or the neighboring city beach, will always be my favorite place in California to sit back on the sand and watch the kids play. The beach is wide, clean and known for having very little undertow; in fact, it was once marketed as the “world’s safest beach”. To top it all off, we’ve often seen dolphins swimming just out past the breakers.
A weekend might not be enough time to see and do it all, but you can certainly give it a try. Pack up your kids and head to Santa Barbara. You won’t be sorry. Just be warned—you may never want to go back home!
Melissa Moore is a Coast Guard wife who sees her family’s transient military lifestyle as opportunity to explore the United State and Canada coast to coast with her two kids. Originally, Melissa is from a tiny beach town just down the coast from sunny Santa Barbara, but now calls the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC home — at least for a few years. Melissa contributes to Trekaroo as their Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia Guroo and can be found on Instagram as @DCTravelMom.