Santa Barbara lures families with spectacular coastal and mountain scenery and gorgeous beaches for strolling, swimming, and surfing, an iconic wharf, and some of the best whale-watching on the West Coast.
The just-right-sized city also pops with history, museums, green spaces, and bike trails—everything you could ask for on a family vacation.
Enjoy these 15 things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.
Learn About Dinosaurs at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Tour the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History with your kids to learn about the region’s long-time inhabitants, both people and animals.
Gaze at the 72-foot-long skeleton of a blue whale to comprehend the size of the world’s largest animal, affectionately named “Chad” by the museum staff. Roar back at a tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, and other formidable animatronic dinos residing in the museum’s woods.
Indoors, view dioramas of a bear, pygmy mammoth, California condor, and other creatures. Baskets, a plank canoe, arrow-making kits, and other artifacts detail the lives of the Chumash, Native Americans who have inhabited the Santa Barbara region for centuries. The Gladwin Planetarium, meanwhile, takes you to the stars and planets.
Follow in the Footsteps of California’s Early Settlers
Walk where the early Spanish settlers of California did at the five-acre El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. At the downtown park, which preserves the 1782 fortress site, you get a sense of the lives of the early settlers and military who lived within the white-washed adobe brick walls.
Peek into living quarters, the church, and the heritage garden, growing with plants similar to those used by the colonizers. Adobe dwellings from the 1830s and 1850s, and an exhibit about the Japanese Americans who lived in the area from 1900 to 1940 are also at the site.
Admire Spanish Colonial Architecture
Founded in 1786 by the Spanish Franciscans, four years after the El Presidio de Santa Barbara, the Old Mission Santa Barbara sits on 15 acres with enviable views of the San Ynez mountains. History-minded teens with an interest in architecture are likely to appreciate this National Historic Landmark.
The current Mission church, an active parish, was completed in 1820 and reconstructed after a massive 1925 earthquake. Known as the “Queen of the Missions” for its beauty, the Spanish Colonial-style church features a pale pink façade and two graceful bell towers.
On a self-guided tour, view the church, recreations of the living quarters and the kitchen, plus artwork, and artifacts in the museum. A small, but lovely garden blooms at the property. The Old Mission Santa Barbara is the only mission continuously managed by Franciscan friars since its inception.
Read: Best Small Towns in California to Spend a Day
Take in Sweeping Ocean Views at Stearns Wharf
One of the classic things to do in Santa Barbara with kids is to take in the harbor views from Stearns Wharf. The iconic 2,300-foot long structure, built in 1872, reigns as California’s oldest working wooden wharf.
For close encounters with wildlife, scan the horizon for dolphins, fish from the pier (no license required and rental gear is available), and visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Sea Center. You can gently touch sharks, sea stars, and sea urchins, view jellyfish and octopuses, and learn how scientists take samples from the ocean.
For a snack after your visit, try one of the 32 flavors of locally-made ice cream served at the wharf’s Great Pacific Ice Cream Company. To get out on the water, the Lil’ Toot water taxi cruises from the pier to the Santa Barbara waterfront near West Beach.
Walk With Kangaroos at Santa Barbara Zoo
At the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Australian Walkabout, you and your kids keep to a path while the kangaroos, emus, and wallabies hop through the habitat. That dynamic provides a sense of strolling in the Outback. More than 146 species inhabit the 30-acre zoo.
While you’re at the zoo, be sure to feed the giraffes. You can’t help but giggle when the friendly critters stick out their 21-inch-long purple tongues to grab lettuce from your hands. More highlights include gorillas, penguins, flamingos, and a flock of California condors, impressive with their nine-foot wingspan.
View Changing Exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art
You’ll be surprised by what you find at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and that’s the idea. Instead of a permanent collection, the museum supports “the art of our time” by gracing its galleries with new exhibitions, often by up-and-coming artists.
These exhibits change three times a year, so check what’s on before you visit, or take pot luck. Nurture Our Mother, the Earth Day Mural 2021, is the closest the museum comes to a permanent exhibit. The colorful mural featuring frogs, flowers, butterflies will be on view for nine more years.
Swim at East Beach, Santa Barbara
Anchor your family at East Beach—known as one of the best family beaches in California—a sandy swath with mostly mild waves for swimming, sunning, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. Rental equipment is available. Spread out your beach towel and picnic, and watch locals play volleyball at the beach’s popular courts.
For a break from the sand, pedal the shoreside Cabrillo Boulevard Bike Path toward West Beach and Stearns Wharf. En route, watch local skateboarders do tricks at Skater’s Point Skate Park.
Wheel Fun Rentals has bikes or signup via smartphone with Santa Barbara Bcycle for pedal-assisted electric bikes from the docking stations along the waterfront.
Read: Best Places to Go Kayaking in California
Stroll an Urban Oasis at Andree Clark Bird Refuge
The Andree Clark Bird Refuge, a less-visited gem not far from East Beach is the largest wildlife refuge in Santa Barbara County. Locals come to the 42-acre open space for a respite from urban scenery.
As you bike or walk around the 29-acre lake, look for ducks and swans in the water, basking turtles, and scores of seagulls and other birds flying overhead. Bring binoculars to see the wildlife better. The refuge’s bike path connects to Shoreline Park, a 14-acre green space with good views of the Santa Barbara coastline.
Watch Dogs and Surfers at Arroyo Burro Beach Park
It helps if you love dogs as Arroyo Burro Beach, known locally as Hendry’s Beach, has scores of them. Many residents walk their dogs along the shoreline here, five miles west of downtown Santa Barbara. Dogs paddle with them in the surf, and owners rinse off their pups at the dog washing stations.
Besides canines, the beach is known for the coastal cliffs that frame the sand, and the moderate waves that attract surfers and good swimmers, making it one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara.
At the Douglas Family Preserve sprawled on 70 acres atop the cliffs at Arroyo Burro Beach Park, take in the panoramic views, and stroll through oak woodlands and stands of Monterey pines.
Read: Best Places to Snorkel in California
Get Creative at MOXI
Visiting MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation, is an exciting thing to do in Santa Barbara with your kids. The 17,000-square-foot STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) focused facility powers the imagination with scores of hands-on exhibits.
Use 3D printers and laser cutters to construct inventions, create a soundtrack for a film, launch an air rocket, or build mini-cars, and then race them to discover the best aerodynamic designs.
The museum is located in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, a neighborhood between the Amtrak Station and Highway 101. There’s a lot to see here. Kids will especially like walking past the area’s colorful graffiti murals.
Explore the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
With 25,000 works from antiquity to the present in its permanent collection, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art stakes its claim as a West Coast artistic force, especially after its August 2021 renovation.
Although exhibits of permanent collection items vary, you and your teens might see paintings by pop artist James Rosenquist and canvases by Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, and Hieronymous Bosch.
Discover Bold Murals at Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Justice has an impressive home at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, one of the most unique places to visit in California. An operational facility, the 1929 structure is no plain Jane public building. Created in the Spanish colonial style, the building features a four-sided clock tower, impressive tile work and murals.
On a climb to the tower deck, walk up staircases adorned with Spanish and Tunisian tiles and look up at a ceiling decorated with Mudejar-style strips of wood in intricate patterns. The Mural Room, originally an assembly room and now used for weddings and events, dazzles with wall paintings, hand-carved furniture, and decorated ceiling beams.
The colorful murals portray aspects of Santa Barbara’s history. You see Chumash natives meeting the Spanish ships, thriving cattle ranches, and even Peter Pan, a homage to the original movie (look at a corner mural near the windows.)
Explore Downtown Santa Barbara on Two Wheels
Cycling with your teens in downtown Santa Barbara is a fun way to see the city. A designated bike lane runs along State Street from Stearns Wharf to West Constance Avenue.
Cafés, restaurants, and shops dot the lively strip. The ten or so blocks of State Street from Gutierrez to Sola are a pedestrian promenade with outdoor cafés and vendor stalls.
Since your teens are bound to like snacking and browsing along this European-style walkway, pedal the section that allows bikes, then lock your wheels, and stroll.
You can also cycle to many of Santa Barbara’s most famous sites. Start at Stearns Wharf, then stop at the Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and El Presidio.
To get your wheels the easy way, use your smartphone to sign up with Santa Barbara Bcycle. Then get your grab-and-go, pedal-assisted electric bikes from one of the 80 docking stations in popular city areas.
Whale-watching is an excellent thing to do in Santa Barbara with your kids and teens. The nutrient-rich Santa Barbara Channel attracts more than 27 types of dolphins and whales during different months.
As part of a 12,000-mile round-trip migration from the Arctic to Mexico, 45-foot-long Pacific gray whales come close to Santa Barbara as they head south from November to February and north, often with their calves, from mid-February through early April.
From July through September, search the horizon for the less frequent humpbacks and the sometimes sighted 80-foot-long blue whales, the largest animals on earth.
There’s a choice of bigger boats holding 75 people or smaller vessels with a 15-person capacity that put you closer to the sea’s surface. Either way, you cruise for an hour or more to reach the best whale-watching grounds.
You’re likely to see dolphins, sea lions, and harbor seals en route. Be sure to layer up as the temperatures in the channel can be much cooler than on land.
Read: How to Spot Marine Mammals From a Cruise Ship
See Harbor Seals
A visit to the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery, about 13 miles from Stearns Wharf, is an exciting thing to do in Santa Barbara with your kids. The 200-pound critters inhabit a beach below a cliff in the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve.
The easy, mile-long Coastal Valley Trail leads to the rookery overlook. From there, watch the blubbery pinnipeds sun, swim, and “galumph” the technical description of how the creatures move on land by undulating their bodies. From December to May, the seals birth and nurse their young.
Tempted to explore this enchanting place in more depth? Browse our luxury cruises to Santa Barbara and book your family getaway today.