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Anytime our family can escape from our predatory sports schedule, we’ll hop in the car with the boys to drive up the coast to one of our favorite cities to visit, Santa Barbara. Here’s our list of can’t miss things to do with kids in Santa Barbara.
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Arroyo Burro Beach – Hendry’s
Our favorite thing to do in Santa Barbara with kids or on romantic weekends is to visit Arroyo Burro Beach. Though locals might tilt their head sideways if you ask for it by its official name. Hendry’s to locals, it’s the last name of the family that owned the beach land before the city bought it. Hendry’s Beach is located about 5 miles west of downtown Santa Barbara.
We love Hendry’s Beach because it feels so welcoming and safe for families and dogs. Pooches are allowed off-leash at Hendry’s and kids run everywhere, bordered by protective cliffs. There is a shady, little chill zone on the way to the sand with water-filled dog bowls. My boys found their comrades within minutes and proceeded to throw a football with them besides the waves.
The whole area has a very casual and friendly vibe and, indeed, one local approached Howard and me while we watched the boys concocting football plays and easily struck up a conversation.
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Adjacent to Hendry’s Beach is The Boathouse Restaurant at Hendry’s Beach. With windows that open to the panorama of the ocean, there is not a bad seat at this spectacular restaurant. I love their Boathouse Omelette, which is lobster, shrimp and spinach in Gruyere cheese and beyond delicious.
These chefs are seriously talented and don’t miss their signature Bloody Mary which comes with two thick slabs of bacon on the top.
Parking is free at Hendry’s Beach and plentiful in the attached lot but when we arrived, there was a line of cars to get in and it took a while to find a vacant parking spot. The lot is open from sunrise to sunset. You can’t get in after sunset but if you’re already there, you can stay and enjoy the evening there.
Take A Sunset Cruise
We had made reservations at Santa Barbara Harbor Stearns Wharf for a sunset sailing cruise with Sunset Kidd on Stearns Wharf. The boat crew, Tommy and Jody, greeted us like old friends. We were the last passengers to board, so the good seats in the aft (back) of the boat were already full. We could have sat inside the plastic-covered bridge with Captain Jody, but what fun would that have been? Instead, we sat on the bow (front) of the vessel, on a slice of the ship’s side, and held on to the cables and ropes as we got tossed around by the current. It was a bit scary at times seeing the hills of water gliding toward where we sat exposed and holding on to whatever we could grab. But the boys loved it, and it kept them distracted from fighting.
There is a cash bar available to guests and we sipped on cocktails and the boys had juice while the sun slid slowly into the ocean. As it got darker, the oncoming mountains of waves seemed larger. Daddy had to keep reassuring the boys that they weren’t as big as they appeared from a distance. Eventually, the chill did send us inside the covered bridge and we learned more about Santa Barbara history from Captain Jody.
Note: If you’re reading this during the post pandemic social restrictions, then you need to know that Sunset Kidd is only sailing with private charters. Their rate is $350 per hour with a 1.5-hour minimum. The vessel is certified to carry 16 passengers.
Next, we surprised the boys by taking them to a place where they could play with many cats roaming in one room. Cat Therapy rescues felines from shelters and fosters them until they are adopted. They all become cage-free once they are acclimated to the rest of the group.
Staffed by volunteers and financed by community donations and sales from their adorable gift shop, so far, they’ve saved over 600 cats since they opened in 2017, according to their website. The boys loved snuggling with the kitties and each chose a favorite and kept asking if we could adopt him. We couldn’t. The adults are allergic (Howard had to stay outside) and we have a dog.
Visitors can play with the cats for $12 per hour, mid-week, and $14 per hour if you come on a weekend.
Skater’s Point Skatepark
The boys had noticed a skatepark when we drove into town and asked if they could visit. Skater’s Point Skatepark is set next to West Beach and is free to the public. The Santa Barbara skatepark is more than 14.000 square feet of fenced-in concrete ramps, rails, and quarter-pipes. Helmets are required. We had brought both helmets and skateboards because this became their thing once the pandemic shut down all organized sports.
Skateboarders and scooterers of various ages rolled around the concrete park. Many of the kids were about the same age as my boys. Everyone took turns going off the ledges and ramps as parents like me covertly took photos of their kids. The skatepark faces the ocean alongside the boardwalk.
Skater’s Point Skatepark is adjacent to a huge parking lot where you could leave your car for $2 per hour.
Santa Barbara Trolley Company
Across the street from Skater’s Point Skatepark is the Santa Barbara Visitor’s Center from which Santa Barbara Trolley Company operates their 90-minute hop-on-hop-off tours of the city. This is an easy way to get around town and learn about Santa Barbara history without having to fight for parking. If your kids need to run around, or you want to stay longer at a location to get a closer look, you can get off anytime and hop back on whenever you desire during operating hours.
Our guide, Rob, regaled us with interesting Santa Barbara history and trivia like that Santa Barbara street names are named after the location that they point toward, such as, Olive Street faces in the direction of the olive gardens. Anacapa Street is aimed at Anacapa Island. Also, it appears that most of Hollywood’s A-Listers have homes here.
There is a rest stop of about 20 minutes at Old Mission Santa Barbara. We got off the bus and walked around the enormous grounds and the boys (literally) jumped off some walls. We discussed missions with Knox who was in fourth grade and had just written an essay on the topic of missions, where he was asked to take a position on whether missions were good or bad for the natives that lived in the area when the Spanish Franciscan friars had arrived. The mission is still in operation with regular church services and friars who live on the premises.
Then we hopped back on the Santa Barbara Trolley and it whisked us around the Santa Barbara Zoo and through neighborhoods to learn more about Santa Barbara. Typically not ones for tours, the funny tour guide, open-air bus, and the fact that there was no walking involved, won the boys over and they came back knowing a bit more about the city.
Tickets are $25 for adults and kids under 12 are free with a paying adult, otherwise, they’re $8. Plus, your ticket is good for the entire next day and gains discounts around the city.
Santa Barbara Zoo
We used to come to the Santa Barbara Zoo a lot when the boys were still in strollers because it’s small enough to walk around in a couple of hours. There’s a giraffe you can pay to feed and a choo-choo train in which you can ride through animal enclosures. It’s a nice, clean zoo and you can learn a lot from the informative posters placed around the animal habitats. If you really want an immersive wildlife experience though, you could invite your friends and family to enjoy an Animal Encounter with a trained zookeeper who will take you inside some of the glass or wire cages to learn more about the animals. There is also a private tour of the entire Santa Barbara Zoo. Prices vary by experience.
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Regular admission for zoo members is free but non-members pay $14.95 to $19.95 depending on the day.
We wanted to visit museums but it was so lovely outside, we couldn’t force ourselves into one until the weather forecasters promised rain one morning. We went into MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Innovation and Exploration. MOXI is three floors of kids learning about science and technology through hands-on, interactive exhibits. Guides, called Sparks, walk around to answer questions. The rain never happened so we didn’t stay that long because it also seemed geared toward younger kids, maybe the 8 and under set. We ended up back at the skatepark.
Admission is $16 for those 13 years and older, $12 for kids and those under 2 are free.
Rent Bikes or a Surrey
We rented a double surrey from Wheel Fun Rentals on our last day and pedaled our way across the boardwalk. The boys pretended they were driving, then we actually let them drive and we didn’t tip over or run down any pedestrians. It was a gorgeous day and we ended it back at the skatepark.
Wheel Fun Rentals rents regular and electric bikes too in a variety of combos. They offer self-guided city tours for both also.
Visit Wineries or the Funk Zone
The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara is a collection of cool restaurants, eclectic wineries, and hip boutiques. It’s one of the six neighborhoods featured on the Urban Wine Trail. Though there was no way we could spend hours visiting tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail with the kids, we did make a stop to buy some bottles of wine at one of our favorite Santa Barbara tasting rooms, Jamie Slone Winery where they do a chocolate and wine pairing. The boys sampled a flight of rich chocolate and we got to pick a new favorite wine.
If you have a bit more time, don’t miss fun wineries with windmills in Solvang, an easy day trip from Santa Barbara.
Best Places to Stay: Hotel Santa Barbara
On this visit, we stayed in the boutique Hotel Santa Barbara. They kindly hosted us so we got to discover what it felt like to be in the middle of everything. Usually, I gravitate toward beach hotels, but Hotel Santa Barbara is centrally located in downtown Santa Barbara, making it really easy to get to most everything without having to drive. If you’ve been to Santa Barbara you know finding parking downtown is a pain so if you could walk or take a trolley, that’s your best bet and staying downtown allowed us to do that.
We walked to restaurants, shops, and our activities. Plus, inside the lobby is an old-fashioned elevator. The boys loved that we manually had to push the door and then slide a cage open to get inside. It sparked conversations about olden days and elevator operators.
Our double room, with queen-sized beds, was decorated in soothing cream colors, and, like the rest of the hotel, presented a coastal turn-of-the-century feel. Vintage chairs and an art deco dresser completed the theme.
Hotel Santa Barbara History
The Hotel Santa Barbara hadn’t only captivated our family. Back when elevator operators actually did transport guests, Hollywood celebrities such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard rode them to their rooms. Today, the Hotel Santa Barbara still hosts movie stars and filmmakers during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Other Santa Barbara Hotel Options
For an affordable beach hotel, try the Hyatt Place Santa Barbara which includes breakfast. It’s within walking distance of many attractions and restaurants. We stayed here for a romantic weekend and loved it. Our room had a spacious balcony with an ocean view and looked over the pool.
For an even greater budget option, stay at the Super 8 by Wyndham Santa Barbara/Goleta. You’ll have to drive to the fun places but it’s under $200 for a family of four and includes breakfast.
Bonus: Great Places to Eat in Santa Barbara with Kids
Right next door to our Hotel Santa Barbara, Baja Sharkeez offered surprisingly fresh and tasty fish tacos. We discovered the casual sports bar when we first arrived, starving and running late for the sunset cruise! They were speedy and delicious!
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Across the street from the Hotel Santa Barbara is Joe’s Cafe, a laid-back steakhouse diner that serves weekend brunch. We went for breakfast because it looked so fun and kid-friendly. They have the standard favs, generous portions of eggs, waffles, and pancakes shmeared in everything tasty. Apparently, at night it turns into a bar and local hangout. We didn’t see this side of it.
Another favorite among locals in Santa Barbara, and one where your kids don’t have to sit still, is Brophy Bros., located on Harbor Way next to Stearns Wharf. It’s super casual and has a great second-story view of the boats bobbing in slips. Fresh seafood, pasta, and kid favs are here and everything is super fresh! Adult beverages are available.
Don’t miss dinner at California Michelin Guide recommended restaurant, The Lark, which was busy, crowded, and fun. The service was casual but super attentive. Our waitress flirted with the boys and they loved it. The food was creatively crafted and delicious and came with fancy restaurant prices. The Lark won the 2019 “Official Drink of Santa Barbara” cocktail contest with mixologist, Nick Priedite’s creation, Sticky Fingers, which was like a walk through wildflowers tinged with the spice of mezcal.
Lastly, if you are thinking about taking a trip without your kids, check out things to do in Santa Barbara for some great ideas!
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Getting To Santa Barbara From LA
Santa Barbara is only about 100 miles from Downtown LA. The trip should take less than two hours to complete. But it all depends on how you wrangle the traffic gods. If you go during the times when everyone wants to use the freeway, you will get stuck in the jam that always seems to happen just above Ventura on the I-101 N and lasts all the way until you hit Santa Barbara. And if you’re leaving during those gridlock times to go back to Los Angeles, you could be stuck all the way until you pass Camarillo to go up the grade into Newbury Park. That is super annoying, as you know. So, I’d suggest leaving around 10 am and definitely before 2 pm. Have an early lunch and skedaddle!
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