Sun-kissed and relaxed, Santa Barbara is a perennial family favorite, whether you have toddlers, school-age children or teens in tow. This coastal city, with a population of 91,000, feels more like a small town and nudges everyone along until they match its breezy temperament. It’s not called the American Riviera for nothing.
Choose a secluded resort complete with pool and spa or stay in the center of it all in downtown, near the beach, Santa Barbara Zoo and restaurants. You can’t go wrong either way. Few destinations can practically guarantee a great visit, but Santa Barbara delivers on that promise in spades. From hotels to activities to restaurants, here’s our guide for a taste of this year-round crowd pleaser.
Spanning 37 acres, Lotusland is named for the legendary Polish opera singer who purchased the estate in 1941 and spent decades nurturing the diverse and beautiful gardens we see today. From the namesake lotuses and whimsical animal topiaries to cactus and bromeliad gardens (pineapples are a type of bromeliad!), the plant collection here is extensive and includes several rare specimens. Bring some colored pencils and a notebook along for an impromptu sketching session with little ones.
Close to the beach and Stearns Wharf, this bike rental shop offers cruisers, electric bikes and golf cart-like surreys for groups, or with grandparents. Follow the coastal bike path for a leisurely family ride along the beach.
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Along with halls dedicated to mammals and the Chumash people, one of the most creative exhibits at this small museum includes animatronic dinosaurs, including Stegosaurus, Parasaurolophus and, of course, T-Rex, positioned by the creek along the property (an ongoing outdoor exhibit possible in sunny SoCal). The Santa Barbara Audubon Society also runs a fantastic raptor education program with the museum allowing visitors to meet rescued birds. We saw and learned about Ivan the red-tailed hawk and Athena the barn owl during our visit.
Close to the beach and Funk Zone, MOXI, or the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation, opened just a few years ago. Creative indoor and outdoor spaces explore science concepts such as speed, through a car track where kids can test out race cars they build; light and color, with a mesmerizing life-size Lite Brite; and sound, by letting visitors make and add their own sound effects to popular movie clips.
Some 146 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects, including snow leopards, California condors and gorillas, call the Santa Barbara Zoo home. Though it’s set on 30 acres between the sea and mountains, the scale of the zoo makes it easy to cover with younger children, who can, understandably, lose steam walking from enclosure to enclosure after a while. Take advantage of daily and weekly feeding opportunities, from giraffes to capybaras to tortoises — an exciting and memorable way to interact and learn more about individual animals. And if you need a break, there’s even a small play area with grassy slope for sliding down on cardboard.
As Angelenos, our family has been fortunate to make repeat visits to Santa Barbara over the years. We’ve stayed at resorts tucked in the hills as well as charming hotels in the heart of town, a short walk from several attractions. If visiting for an extended period, consider combining the two for a bit of activity in town along with swimming at the resort pool.
Among the family-favorite resorts in the area is the 358-room Ritz-Carlton Bacara, which is perched atop a bluff north of downtown Santa Barbara. With saline pools, multiple eateries (ranging from the pool bar to fine dining), tennis courts and beach access, the property is its own paradise. Parents will enjoy the onsite wine tasting room too, which draws from some of the county’s top vineyards. The hotel also partners with local companies for excursions to the Channel Islands as well as surf lessons and more.
Set on 16 acres in nearby Montecito, the beachfront Rosewood Miramar Beach is the new kid on the block and as luxe as it gets (the hotel is considered the only 5-star resort on the beach in SoCal). Though rates are definitely steeper here, the 160-room property goes above and beyond for families, offering everything from changing tables and baby bathtubs to in-room babyproofing for little ones.
Belmond’s gorgeous El Encanto, which combines elements of Spanish Colonial and California Craftsman architecture, is tucked into the hills. The 92-room hotel offers special experiences from an alfresco movie night to sailing charters complete with a four-course lunch or dinner from the chef. Our daughter, who ate her weight in morels when we stayed many years ago, can still attest to the high-quality food on property, not always the case at larger resorts.
Closer to downtown are Hotel Californian and Hideaway Santa Barbara. The former sits near the beach in the lively Funk Zone, once a neglected area of warehouse buildings that have been converted into wine tasting rooms, cafes, galleries and shops. Rooms at the Hotel Californian, 121 in total, are bright and airy with plenty of lovely tiles and Moroccan-inspired decor. The cozy and stunning Hideaway, meanwhile, is a nine-room bed and breakfast-style boutique hotel. Beautifully renovated two years ago, the property is tucked away in a residential pocket, but still very close to downtown and the beach. Parents will love the 560-square-foot family suite, which includes a king bed, two twins and sitting area as well as two desks. During a recent stay, our delicious breakfast included Coastal Peaks coffee, blueberry muffins, shakshuka and fruit, all prepared onsite.
A few favorites worth seeking out include Bettina for Neapolitan-style pizzas, Oliver’s for a veritable plant-based feast, and Tondi Gelato or Rori’s Artisanal Creamery for a sweet treat.
Editor’s note: Photos by Tanvi Chheda except where noted.
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