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Here's Where to Look for Fun Family Activities in Santa Barbara

March 12, 2019
11 min read
paddleboarders Santa Barbara Stearns Wharf
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Santa Barbara is one of our family’s favorite places to visit. There is something magical about the combination of beaches, mountains, quaint downtown and Zen beauty.

Perhaps it’s because it's somewhat geographically isolated from the sprawl of greater Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the increased popularity of the area’s wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley and up through Paso Robles. Or it could be the sprinkling of artists, hippies and celebrities that give Santa Barbara its special sauce.

Whatever the reason, this California beach city has captured our hearts.

The view at sunrise from Santa Barbaras East Beach.

East Beach

Of all the many amazing beaches in Santa Barbara, East Beach continues to be our favorite. It’s downtown, left of Stearns Wharf and near the zoo. Many collegiate and professional volleyball tournaments take place there throughout the year and it’s fun to watch the experts play. There is a playground for the little ones, a gym for adults and plenty of sand for the entire family to spread out. The waves aren’t large, and the waters are swimmable in most spots without big rocks or weird sea life. Beware the seagulls, though, because they can steal the lunch from your hands before you even notice it’s gone!

Cost: Free

East Beach in Santa Barbara offers something for all members of the family.

Bicycle and Buggy Rental

Along the downtown waterfront, several bike rental outposts rent individual bikes or bicycles built for two. There are also options for families with little kids, including seats on the front or back or even wagons to pull behind. Families can rent surreys (buggies) instead, which we did once and only once. They look fun but these contraptions are hard to pedal, hard to steer and large for a sidewalk where there are also pedestrians. Our legs ached after we had pedaled past the zoo and over to the lagoon to feed the ducks, only to realize we had to pedal all the way back.

Cost: Beach cruiser: $10.95/hour. Surrey: starts at $21.95 for three adults and two children

Bicycle rentals are a great way to tour downtown Santa Barbara and the waterfront.

Stearns Wharf

Originally built in 1872 as part of a deep-water port, Stearns Wharf has seen a great deal of history. The wharf has caught fire several times and been rebuilt with expanded room for visitors. A traditional wood pier, Stearns Wharf is sturdy enough to allow cars to drive out and park. Bicycles are not allowed, but pedestrians can easily walk to its end to taste the salt air. A small but interesting aquarium occupies one side of the extended wharf. Restaurants, shops and people fishing dot the other spaces. With decent waves to the west, visitors can spot surfers paddling out from the shore and sailboats leaving the harbor nearby. Don’t leave without trying one of the 25 flavors of salt water taffy at Mother Stearns; it’s good.

Cost: Free to walk the wharf.

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Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara, CA
Stearns Wharf (Photo by Ron Thomas / Getty Images)

Salt Cave

Along State Street, a business called Salt Cave Santa Barbara highlights the benefits of salt products, lamps and oils for health and wellness. Within the shop, the owners have created the largest underground salt cave in North America, where visitors pay a small fee to enjoy meditation and relaxation. Accommodating 20 or so people at once, the salt cave surrounds guests with rocks of Himalayan salt on walls, floor and ceiling. Gentle music plays as guests settle into comfortable lounge chairs or opt for the warm salt floors instead. The whole experience lasts about 75 minutes — enough time for several people to fall asleep. One of us interrupted the whole Zen vibe by snoring like a truck driver. Still, we relaxed and left refreshed.

Cost: Prices vary — contact Salt Cave Santa Barbara for details.

Completely surrounded by Himalayan salt crystals at Santa Barbara's Salt Cave.

Cat Therapy

Also off State Street and down a little walkway, Cat Therapy Santa Barbara is not a place I would have expected to enjoy as much as I did. It is a giant room filled with dozens of rescue cats, many looking for new homes. The felines welcome human affection and enjoy jumping into laps, being petted for hours and playing with toys dangling from sticks with string. Yes, the establishment serves coffee and tea at the Cat Café, but it’s really about the cats. Guests pay by the hour to sit and wallow in cat love and we were sorry when our time was up. Each cat had a name and wore color-coded collars to indicate its degree of friendliness.

Cost: Starts at $10/hour per person

Something about petting a friendly cat can be so calming and relaxing.

Shopping on State Street

For more than 100 years downtown State Street represented the center of Santa Barbara and strolling down this picturesque avenue can be a several-hour excursion. There are many good restaurants along the way and three movie theaters, including the historic Arlington Theater, which still plays host to the Santa Barbara Film Festival and first-run films. One of the kids' favorite places to explore now is called Antique Alley, which is chockablock full of collectibles, knick-knacks and artifacts.

Cost: Free — or not, depending on how much you spend.

Places like Antique Alley on State Street in Santa Barbara can occupy our kids for hours -- but no touching!

Cachuma Lake

Up Highway 154, also known as Cachuma Pass, the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area is a beautiful area with boating, swimming and secret rock slides where visitors slip down into pools of chilly creek water. Great for a day visit (about a 40-minute drive from the mountain base in Santa Barbara), Lake Cachuma is a good alternative to beaches and palm trees. The weather gets pretty warm in summer and when the beach fog rolls into Santa Barbara, this can be a welcome choice. Call ahead to reserve a boat. Or download a map of hiking trails, from easy to difficult, through trees and grasses with wildlife all around. Scores of wineries are also nearby if mom and dad are in the mood for for sampling.

Cost: Free to visit and hike; boat rentals start at $30 for two hours.

Cachuma Lake Santa Barbara, CA
Cachuma Lake (Photo by Geri Lavrov / Getty Images)

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Built in 1786, the Santa Barbara Mission is the 10th of 21 constructed as part of Father Junipero Serra’s sojourn from Mexico to Northern California. Every California fourth-grader learns about the missions of California, and our kids could recite factoids about how adobe bricks are made and the fine art of basket weaving. This stunning mission is so well-preserved that guests get an authentic feel for mission life in early California. There's a guided tour, or you can pay a small fee to walk through the buildings, church and interior gardens on your own. You can even walk through the old cemetery, which spooks and entices the kids at the same time.

Cost: Adult tickets are $9, and youths 4–17 are $4. Kids under 4 are free.

Historic and well-preserved, the Santa Barbara Mission is a must-see.

Places to Eat in Santa Barbara

Here are a couple of our family’s favorite places to eat in Santa Barbara:

La Super Rica Taqueria — The most crave-able Mexican food ever, La Super Rica Taqueria is a must for us. Even a local food critic proclaimed it her favorite. Order the melted cheese with chorizo and fresh-made tortillas and top with fresh pico de gallo salsa — you’ll thank us for the recommendation.

handmade tortillas La Super Rica Santa Barbara
Handmade tortillas at La Super Rica Taqueria make all the difference in authenticity.

McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream — Begun in Santa Barbara, McConnell’s Ice Cream has been scooping since 1949. Now widely distributed as a specialty product, this ice cream is tops for creaminess and variety. Family-favorite flavors include Sea Salt Cream & Cookies, Double Peanut Butter Chip and Whiskey & Pecan Pralines. Scores of photos from famous visitors dot the walls.

Shalhoob Meat Company Patio — What began as a family butcher operation has turned into a mighty fine patio restaurant. Order at the window and dine at the outdoor tables. Shalhoob's Patio serves the best tri-tip sandwich we have ever had. Hands down. A combination of secret spices in the marinade makes this beef delicious, slathered with horseradish, of course.

Backyard Bowls -- On Lower State Street in a nondescript storefront, Backyard Bowls dishes up incredible servings of delicious fresh fruits, granola, peanut butter, honey, bee pollen (if you like it, which we do) and other toppings. Soooooo good.

From Backyard Bowls on Lower State Street, these delicious breakfast bowls were immediately devoured.

Enterprise Fish Co. — Open since 1977 in a renovated brick warehouse, the Enterprise Fish Company claims to be the first restaurant to feature open wood grills in its kitchen. This favorite serves up freshly caught fish, beautifully prepared. With a diverse menu, even the kids are happy with the options here.

Enterprise Fish Company Santa Barbara kitchens
There's always something delicious cooking in the kitchen at Enterprise Fish Company in Santa Barbara.

Places to Stay in Santa Barbara

Dozens of great hotels dot the landscape around Santa Barbara. Here are a few of our favorites:

Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort — Just across from East Beach and Stearns Wharf on the downtown waterfront, this hotel is great for families. Rooms start at $249, and a single-night standard room will run between 53,000 and 80,000 Hilton Honors points.

The Ritz-Carlton, Bacara — We love this Marriott Category 7 property for the size of its pool, the spa, food options and fireplaces in a number of the rooms. Just 15 minutes north of Santa Barbara, rooms here start at $293/night (plus a $35/night resort fee) or from 60,000 Marriott points.

Kimpton Canary Hotel — This downtown hotel is well-appointed with beautiful rooms, a restaurant and a rooftop pool with a great view. Rooms start at $288 or from 70,000 IHG Rewards Club points.

Getting There

Santa Barbara Airport is served by a number of domestic airlines including Alaska, American, Delta and United. Frontier and Sun Country also offer service if you're looking for low-cost carriers. Burbank Airport is approximately a two-hour car ride if you're looking to fly Southwest into the region.

The view from our room at Santa Barbara Hilton.

Bottom Line

Santa Barbara makes for a terrific long-weekend getaway. Or stay for an entire week . . . there's plenty to see and do. Has your family visited Santa Barbara? What are your can't-miss spots?

Jon Bailey covers LGBT family travel for TPG and blogs at Follow Jon and his family’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram.

Featured image by From Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, you can watch boats, surfers and paddleboarders glide by. (Photo by John Bailey)