Summer has officially arrived along with the family vacation season. These trips require planning, and with kids often of wide varying ages, take creativity and loads of patience. Santa Barbara, while touted as the “American Riviera” with lavish hotels, dining, and shopping, can also be an affordable and fun trip for the family. The great thing about this sunny location for a family vacation is that it all can be done anytime of the year so if you are not looking to be amongst large crowds, pick a time in the off season to visit the area, saving a few dollars along the way.
There are daily nonstop flights into the Santa Barbara Airport from many surrounding cities including LA, San Francisco and Denver, and from there it’s just a short drive to downtown. I recommend that you stay at one of the many hotels located in the downtown Santa Barbara and beachfront areas. There is a hotel that fits almost every price range and need and it puts you within walking distance to almost all the activities. Renting a car will allow you to explore outside of that area (Montecito, Goleta, Solvang, etc). Another option is to bring or rent bikes. The weather is almost always bike friendly and easy on the wallet.
Start your day at Anderson’s Bakery for breakfast. This Danish restaurant and bakery has been at the heart of Santa Barbara for many years. They serve a wide variety of pastries and breakfast items to please everyone. If you’re lucky snag a spot on the patio.
Next stop is the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo, which is currently celebrating their 50th birthday, has a wonderful variety of animals and the grounds are beautifully landscaped. Make sure to visit the giraffes, there are several opportunities throughout the day to feed one of the giraffes and see the baby giraffes that were born this spring, something kids and parents will both love. The Wave, which serves a variety of tacos and quesadillas, is a great place to eat and with its central location within the zoo, offers spectacular views of the water and mountains. Another option is to bring a picnic lunch (you can pick up a picnic of your choice at Metropulos Fine Foods on the way to the zoo). The zoo has lots of things to do for all ages and you can easily spend the day visiting.
Dinner at the FisHouse is just a short walk from the zoo and offers land and sea items as well as a children’s menu and outdoor dining.
DAY TWO – SATURDAY
Saturday is the day to catch the Santa Barbara Farmers Market downtown. Start with a light breakfast at The French Press. They serve the best espresso in town, as well as a great selection of other drinks and some of the best pastries I have had in years (think croissants and strawberry basil balsamic “pop tarts”). Then head down the block to the market and plan to eat your way through. The market is filled with lots of produce, cheese, meats and seafood, plants, flowers, arts and crafts. Make sure to pick up a (free) copy of the Edible Santa Barbara magazine from the markets main tent, I have found the Edible series to be a excellent resource for all thing local food and wine.
There are lots of great lunch spots are all around the area and in walking distance, some of my favorites are Silvergreens, Eureka Burger, and Taqueria Cuernavaca (at the corner of Carrillo and De La Vina Streets). If you stop at Silvergreens get your lunch to go and have a picnic at the Rose Garden across from the Old Mission Santa Barbara which offers a large park like setting for kids to run off steam as well as an extensive collection of roses on display.
After lunch, head to the Old Mission Santa Barbara. This historic cultural and religious site will not only intrigue the history buff but also anyone interested in architecture. The self-guided tour takes about an hour. Make sure to check out the La Huerta Historic Gardens next to the mission, it’s filled with all sorts of plants and orchard trees thanks to the work of the missions horticultural staff and the Santa Barbara climate. Further up the hill you will find the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. This small and well curated museum is a great place for young children to explore. They boast a wide variety of exhibits, as well as a butterfly garden (although currently closed for renovations), and the “Big Backyard” where kids (and adults) “climb, listen, build, dig” their way through trails along the Mission Creek.
Head back down the hill for ice cream at McConnell’s Ice Cream shop. They have a wonderful variety of flavors and the all-important (IMO) waffle cone. For dinner check out several local spots depending on your budget and your kid’s age and table etiquette: Bouchon Santa Barbara for a four star dining experience with the casual feel of Santa Barbara, Arch Rock Fish if your kids are a bit older, and Olio Pizzeria for pizza.
DAY THREE – SUNDAY
On Sunday explore the beachfront area. Start with brunch on the beach at East Beach Grill. Located right on the beach, the grill is a great place for kids with an adjacent playground and water access. They serve everything from pancakes to breakfast burritos. Next head north a few blocks on Cabrillo Boulevard for the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. The show features local artwork, hand crafted toys, clothing, and jewelry.
On Stearns Wharf just off of Cabrillo Boulevard and State Street you will find a selection of restaurants from fish and chips served at picnic benches to casual dining with views of the harbor, perfect for lunch.
After lunch head over to the Ty Warner Sea Center. The center offers the opportunity for kids to learn about the ocean wildlife, many of which are living right off the Santa Barbara coast. This is a perfect place for young kids to explore and touch and older kids to learn about the ocean and the environmental impact.
Heading northwest off of Stearns Wharf up State Street you will find a bevy of shopping from Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom to American Apparel and Old Navy. One of my favorite places to stop is The Blue Jean Bar with hundreds of styles to choose from.
Sunday night dinner is just a short drive from downtown at Le Cafe Stella. Away from the crowds of downtown, Stella is the place to relax and enjoy dinner. The outdoor patio is delightful and also pet friendly.
For more information about the Santa Barbara area, check out my other posts.