The Perfect Five-Day Family Vacation in Santa Barbara

Experiencing the history and culture of Santa Barbara should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Experiencing the history and culture of Santa Barbara should be on everyone’s bucket list. Adam Fagen
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Blending big city culture with the relaxed vibe of a small beach town, Santa Barbara is best enjoyed when you have time to savor all that it has to offer. Families traveling to Santa Barbara will find plenty to do together—from relaxing on the beach to kid-friendly offerings both inside and out. Use this itinerary to plan five perfect days for families in the city known as The America’s Riviera®.

Day 1: Get Acquainted

Check into your hotel and get settled. Families will love the spacious suites and convenient location of the Fess Parker — a Doubletree by Hilton Resort. It may be tough dragging the kids away from this spacious outdoor pool to make the short trip to the beach. If it’s in your budget, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is built on 22 acres of lush gardens adjacent to the beach. Its complimentary Kids for All Season Program offers a wide variety of supervised activities at the resort. The five-star Belmond El Encanto nestled in the hills with an unforgettable spa for the parents and a large outdoor pool for the whole family.

Kick off your stay with a stroll along State Street, Santa Barbara’s main shopping thoroughfare. You’ll find everything you could want, from big-name retailers to specialty boutiques. Grab coffee and a pastry at The French Press or indulge in handcrafted ice cream at McConnell’s.

Make the time to stop at MOXI, Santa Barbara’s new museum focused on STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) for kids. It’s filled with interactive displays that will keep everyone entertained. Kids will learn scientific concepts like magnetism, propulsion, and centripetal force through creative play and fun displays. The Sky Garden on the building’s roof offers water features that explain fluid dynamics, plus it features beautiful views of the city.

Ready for some seafood? A trip to Santa Barbara Harbor makes for an ideal first-night dinner. Grab a table at Brophy’s Brothers, where you’ll enjoy fresh seafood in a casual atmosphere, and the kids will love watching the boats in the harbor.

Day 2: Cruising and Culture

Begin your day at the waterfront, exploring California’s oldest operating pier, Stearns Wharf, as well as the two beaches that flank it—East Beach and West Beach. Early risers will enjoy the crisp, salty air as shore birds busily go about their day and harbor seals play offshore. For the quintessential Santa Barbara experience, rent a bike at Wheel Fun Rentals to further explore the waterfront along the paved Cabrillo Trail. Stop for a casual lunch at the East Beach Grill and check out the sand volleyball courts on East Beach.

The wharf is also home to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, which focuses on interactive marine education. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the hands-on encounters with sea life, including a live shark touch pool. There’s a 1,500-gallon tidepool tank that children can crawl through (while staying dry) to get a different perspective on ocean life. Be sure to catch the movie that showcases the natural wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel.

In the afternoon, make time for culture at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art at the corner of State and Anapamu streets. A block over is the must-see Spanish Colonial Santa Barbara Courthouse. Climb the clock tower for a spectacular 360-degree view of the city, mountains, and ocean.

For a late-afternoon snack, walk to nearby Andersen’s for mouthwatering Danish pastries, then browse boutique shops. Parents may have time to grab some wine in the the El Paseo Historic Shopping District.

For dinner, head into the Santa Barbara neighborhood known as the Funk Zone, which is located between the waterfront and downtown. At The Lark, you can savor seasonal foods served at either its vintage train booths and communal tables inside or the lively outside patio. If you want something more casual, The Lucky Penny features individual wood-fired pizzas, allowing everyone to customize a pie with his or her favorites.

Day 3: On the Water

Start the day with breakfast at On the Alley on the Santa Barbara Harbor. You can fuel up with a big meal or just grab a smoothie before your adventure on the water. For today’s adventure, head out from the harbor on a whale watching tour with Condor Express. Schedules vary depending on the time of year, but generally run from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and include lunch.

After your marine excursion, walk to nearby Leadbetter Beach for an afternoon of sunbathing. A favorite of surfers and college students, Leadbetter has white sand, grassy areas, and picnic tables. At the Shoreline Café you can order a snack or a meal, and the kids can play in the sand nearby as you dine by the beach. If the weather doesn’t inspire time at the beach, check out the family-friendly Santa Barbara Maritime Museum instead. Adjacent to the harbor, it features an interesting collection of local maritime exhibits and artifacts.

A vacation in Santa Barbara wouldn’t be complete without experiencing sunset, and the best spot for that is Butterfly Beach. Spread out your blanket on this beautiful stretch of sand for prime viewing. Cap off your day with dinner at the Santa Barbara Fishouse on East Cabrillo Boulevard serving fresh, mostly local dishes.

Day 4: History and a Hike

With a busy day ahead, go straight to Helena Avenue Bakery, where you can grab a quick and delicious breakfast and order a picnic lunch to go.

Drive a few minutes outside of downtown to Santa Barbara’s chief historic landmark, the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Established in 1786 by the Franciscans, its grounds include the beautiful Mission church, historic cemetery and mausoleum, a museum, and gardens. The Rose Garden at the Mission is an excellent spot for that picnic lunch. Be sure to pause on the steps leading from the church to take in the stunning view of the Pacific before setting up your picnic lunch on the lawn or in the rose garden. Behind the Old Mission is the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, home to the only planetarium in Central California featuring live multi-media shows.

From the Mission, you’re only a five-minute drive from the trailhead for one of Santa Barbara’s most popular hikes and views, Inspiration Point. As its name suggests, this trail is a good first hike to inspire further exploration of Santa Barbara’s outdoor playground. It’s a relatively easy 3.5-mile round trip and rewards with beautiful vistas of the city and ocean.

Enjoy dinner downtown at the Canary Hotel’s Finch & Fork for comfort food and decor that evokes the city’s chic, laid-back vibe. Catch a late flick at one of the city’s old-style movie theaters (save on bargain Tuesdays) or see a live show at the Granada Theatre.

Day 5: One Last Fling

On your last day pay a final visit to the beach 10 minutes south of Santa Barbara in Summerland. With its wide shores and shallow entrance, Summerland Beach is ideal for swimming, and its picnic areas, showers, and playground make it popular with families. Enjoy a home-style brunch at the Summerland Beach Café and stroll among the town’s cute antique shops.

In the afternoon, head back to Santa Barbara and check out the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Its five and a half miles of trails will take you past native California plants, a redwood grove, and an authentic Japanese tea garden.

On your way out of town, make a pit stop at La Super-Rica Taqueria, considered by many to be Santa Barbara’s best taco shop. It’s super tasty, super cheap, and will give you another reason to come back to Santa Barbara.

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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