Santa Barbara with Kids: 13 Top Things to Do

Written by Karen Hastings
Updated May 3, 2023

Author Karen Hastings and her husband raised their two children in sunny Santa Barbara. They return often, most recently in March 2023.

Soaked in year-round sunshine, Santa Barbara is a wonderland for wiggly kids. Nature scores top billing here, and children of all ages will find a range of exhilarating things to do outdoors, from whale-watching cruises and harbor seal sanctuaries to action-packed playgrounds, calm beaches, surf breaks, and beachfront bike paths.

Family enjoying the bike path along the beach in Santa Barbara
Family enjoying the Cabrillo Bike Path in Santa Barbara | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

The city is also home to a fantastic zoo, where kids can hand-feed giraffes, come face to face with western lowland gorillas, and take a walkabout through the Australian outback. Santa Barbara also features an impressive medley of museums, including an excellent natural history museum, a maritime museum, and a sea center.

Children will also enjoy some of Santa Barbara's fun parades and festivals. Favorites are the Summer Solstice Parade in June and the week-long August Fiesta celebrations when kids love to dress up in colorful Spanish costumes and crack confetti-filled eggs.

Plan your Santa Barbara family vacation with our list of the top things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.

1. Walk on the Wild Side at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Scarlet macaw at the Santa Barbara Zoo
Scarlet macaw at the Santa Barbara Zoo

In a beautiful location on a hilltop overlooking the sea, Santa Barbara Zoo is hands down the area's top kid-friendly attraction. For such a small city, the zoo boasts an impressive collection of critters, representing around 146 species, and the exhibits feature low barriers and expansive windows, so little ones can get up close to the animals.

Kids can feed giraffes, get up close to western lowland gorillas, and giggle at the playful otters. Other favorite exhibits include the California condors, penguins, meerkats, and lions. At the zoo's newest exhibit, the Australian Walkabout, kids can wander through a 15,000-square-foot outback landscape and spot kangaroos, wallabies, and emus.

Hop aboard the little train to tour the beautiful palm-studded grounds and see the exhibits from a different perspective.

Half a day is plenty of time to tour the zoo, and after visiting all the animals, many visitors like to pack a picnic lunch and relax amid the lush gardens.

Fun programs designed especially for kids include animal encounters, behind-the-scenes tours, and live stage shows. Check out the zoo's seasonal events, too, like the Snow Leopard Festival and Princess and Pirate Weekend.

After touring all the exhibits, little ones can run wild at the playground. Strollers and wagons are available for rent at the gift store near the entrance.

Address: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, California

2. Soak up the Fun at Stearns Wharf and the Sea Center

Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Santa Barbara is also one of the most fun for families with kids. When the weather is fine, which is most of the time, you can stroll in the salt-tinged fresh air along Stearns Wharf, look for sea lions in the water, watch the blue herons and pelicans perched along the edge of the pier, and feast on fresh seafood at one of the ocean-view restaurants.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is one of the top things to do here for kids up to about 12 years of age. With engaging interactive exhibits, the center offers a window into life below the surrounding blue sea.

A favorite is the intertidal touch tank, where you can feel the texture of a sea anemone tentacle and the tickle of a hermit crab. The surge tank tunnel offers a glimpse into the workings of a tide pool, and the mezzanine level hosts exhibits on marine mammals, with stunning views of the Pacific.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center

After exploring the exhibits, many families love to wander around the shops with an ice cream and read the informative plaques about the local sea life. Budding anglers can also visit the bait and tackle shop here and cast a fishing line from the end of the pier.

Parking and Access: Parking is limited on the wharf and includes valet parking, but you can usually find a space in one of the lots along Cabrillo Boulevard and wander the half-mile to the end of the wharf. Along the way, notice the dolphin fountain at the entrance to the wharf; a replica appears in all of Santa Barbara's sister cities around the world.

Insider Tips: Bring your camera to this fantastic sightseeing spot. The views of the ocean and mountains are spectacular — especially at sunset. A fun way to arrive here is to catch the Lil' Toot water taxi from the Santa Barbara Harbor.

Address: 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California

3. Hop aboard a Whale Watching Cruise

Whale breaching off Santa Barbara
Whale breaching off Santa Barbara

For pint-sized animal lovers, nothing beats seeing wildlife in its natural habitat — especially the world's largest marine mammals. From May through November, humpback and blue whales feed in the Santa Barbara Channel, and gray whales migrate along the Santa Barbara coast on both their northern and southern migration.

Hop aboard a whale-watching cruise for a front-row seat to all the action. These majestic creatures often breach, launching themselves into the air — a breathtaking spectacle that will wow even the most jaded teens.

Condor Express, Channel Islands Expeditions, and Celebration Cruises all offer whale-watching cruises, and some operators offer a whale-watch guarantee, so if you don't spot any on your first trip, you can try again for free on another day.

Even if you don't spot whales, you can usually see dolphins, sea lions, porpoises, or even orcas. Most cruises last around 4.5 hours and include narration from expert guides.

If you prefer a shorter whale-watching tour aboard a sailboat, opt for a cruise on the Double Dolphin. These 2.5-hour tours skim the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in a 50-foot catamaran.

In total, more than 27 different species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) swim in the Santa Barbara Channel, making it a fun and fertile teaching ground for aspiring marine biologists.

Insider's Tip: If any of your kids are prone to seasickness, try to plan your trip for a calm day — or consider bringing sea sickness bands.

4. Bike along the Cabrillo Bike Path

Cabrillo Bike Path
Cabrillo Bike Path | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

For a family-friendly, quintessential California experience, you can't beat biking along the beautiful Cabrillo bike path on the Santa Barbara waterfront.

Most of the bike rental shops lie along the stretch of Cabrillo Boulevard opposite Stearns Wharf. Here, you can rent virtually any kind of bicycle you can imagine, including beach cruisers, mountain bikes, Taga bikes, push buggies, Deuce Coupes, pedal go-karts, scooters, and even a family-size Surrey with a fringe on top.

Once you hit the bike path, you can cruise for miles in either direction. From Stearns Wharf, pedal east, and you'll eventually end up in posh Montecito. Pedal west, and you can make a pit stop at the Santa Barbara Harbor for a fresh seafood lunch.

The terrain is flat, and you'll bike under the iconic colonnades of palm trees lining some of Santa Barbara's best beaches. At the end of your adventure, you can top off your fun with an ice cream on Stearns Wharf, which just celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2022.

5. Go Mad at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation

Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration
Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Curious kids can go crazy at Moxi. Housed in a beautiful Spanish-style building, this engaging museum is perfect for the budding scientists in your family. Here, they can conjure, create, and test their own inventions at intriguing hands-on exhibits.

In the innovation lab, kids can explore how 3D printers create products. In Fantastic Forces, they can explore propulsion, gravity, and magnetism; launch an air rocket; and conduct a test flight in the Wind Column Workshop. At the Speed Track, they can build their own race car and test it on the tracks.

Do you have a music lover in your family? They can step inside a giant guitar, or create their own sound effects for film clips.

After exploring all the indoor exhibits, head up to the Sky Garden. This sun-splashed rooftop deck is home to the Whitewater interactive water feature. Best of all, both parents and kids can soak up spectacular views over Santa Barbara from the observation deck by peeking through five different scopes.

This is one of the best places to visit in Santa Barbara with kids on a rare rainy day.

Address: 125 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

6. Surf and Swim at Santa Barbara's Beaches

Arroyo Burro Beach
Arroyo Burro Beach (aka Hendry's Beach) | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Better known as "Hendry's Beach" by the locals, Arroyo Burro Beach is a family favorite. Hanging out on this beach on a beautiful day is one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.

Gentle swells make this a great spot for beginner surfers to practice their skills, and pet owners love this dog-friendly stretch; the south side of the beach is an off-leash area and the north side is for leashed dogs.

At low tide, kids love to tinker around in the tide pools here and hunt for small sea critters. You can also look for dolphins and whales offshore.

After a fun day of sun, sand, and sea, grab a bite to eat at the Boathouse at Hendry's Beach, steps from the sand.

Leadbetter Beach
Leadbetter Beach | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Located near the Santa Barbara Harbor, Leadbetter Beach is another great family-friendly beach. It offers plenty of shallow water for little ones to paddle in, as well as a playground and picnic area.

On the other side of the harbor, West Beach is known for its many free volleyball courts — perfect for the kids to bump, set, and spike.

Insider's Tip: Bring old shoes or flip-flops, as tar deposits can mar the shoreline of these beaches. But if you do find some splotches on the soles of your feet, baby oil works wonders.

7. Explore the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

At the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, on 17 oak-studded acres, you can gaze up at a 72-foot blue whale skeleton, gawk at a grizzly bear, and learn all about the Chumash Indians who once thrived in this region.

Exhibits here feature everything from the birds, reptiles, marine life, and mammals of the region to geology and paleontology, with plenty of interactive exhibits to keep little hands busy. The mineral and gem gallery is a favorite.

At the Gladwin Planetarium, astronomy enthusiasts can enjoy live multimedia shows on all things space-related. Zoom through the Milky Way galaxy, see the surface of the moon, and explore the constellations.

After touring all the exhibits, kids love to wander along the museum's tree-shaded nature trail by Mission Creek and hunt for lizards and birds. Before you go, check the website for special exhibitions.

If you're visiting the museum in the summer, you're in luck. Take the kids to see the popular Butterflies Alive! exhibit, where clouds of these winged beauties flutter freely around the enclosure, providing fantastic photo opportunities. The exhibit usually runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Address: 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, California

8. Play at Chase Palm Park Shipwreck Playground

Chase Palm Park Shipwreck Playground
Chase Palm Park Shipwreck Playground | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

In a beautiful location across from the Santa Barbara beachfront, Chase Palm Park Shipwreck Playground is a haven for active kids. Targeting toddlers up to 12-year-olds, this imaginatively designed playground represents the geographical features of Santa Barbara, from the mountains to the sea.

Kids can clamber over bridges, explore islands and a cityscape, climb a shipwreck, and cool off near water-spouting whales. Beachy kids also love digging in the sand here, so it's a good idea to bring a bucket and shovel.

During July on Thursday nights, Chase Palm Park hosts free Concerts in the Park, when Mom and Dad can relax on the lawn with a picnic, listening to music spanning all genres, while the kids run wild in the playground.

Across the road on the beachfront, Skater's Point skate park is the hot hangout for skateboarders, with 14,600 square feet of riding area, including a half-pipe, fun boxes, and rails. Young skateboarders and beginners should try to arrive before noon on the weekends when it tends to be a little quieter.

Address: Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara, California

9. Climb a Magic Castle at Kid's World, Alameda Park

Climb a Magic Castle at Kid's World, Alameda Park
Climb a Magic Castle at Kid's World, Alameda Park | Damian Gadal / photo modified

At Kid's World in Alameda Park, children can climb a magic castle; crawl through bridges, tunnels, and towers; swing from ropes; and ride sharks and whales in 8,000 square feet of outdoor fun.

The Santa Barbara community helped design this popular playground, which caters to kids from ages two to 12 years, and you can tell by the crowds that it's a huge hit. Younger kids can hang out in the toddler area with slides, swings, and smaller climbing equipment.

Insider's Tips: Note that it's a good idea to dress your children in bright colors at this playground, so you can spot them easily among all the other kids in the labyrinthine play equipment.

After the frenetic fun of Kid's World, you can enjoy a picnic at the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden across the street. Kids love the tranquil goldfish pond, turtles, and sensory gardens.

Address: Corner of Micheltorena and Garden Streets, Santa Barbara, California

10. Discover Seafaring History at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

At the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum on the harborfront, children can learn all about the region's rich maritime history through fun hands-on exhibits.

Favorites include the deep sea fishing simulator, dress-up corner, antique diving suits, and oil rig models. Other exhibits unveil the fascinating local history of the Channel Islands, as well as abalone diving, surfing, shipwrecks, and the Chumash Indians. Best of all, kids can follow a treasure hunt with a map that takes them through the museum.

After viewing all the exhibits, pop up to the top deck for sweeping views of the harbor, and if you're looking for a fun lunch spot, one of Santa Barbara's most popular seafood restaurants, Brophy Bros., is nearby.

A fun way to access the maritime museum is aboard the Lil' Toot water taxi, which runs between Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Harbor.

After your museum visit, stroll around the docks, so the kids can watch all the boating action.

Address: 113 Harbor Way, Ste 190, Santa Barbara, California

11. Stroll to the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery

Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery
Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Wriggly wildlife lovers will love Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. Atop the soaring sea cliffs here, you can hike to a harbor seal rookery viewpoint along the scenic Coastal Vista Trail, one of the top hiking trails in Santa Barbara.

This flat one-mile trail accommodates off-road strollers and is an easy walk for older children, but be sure to take care along the cliff edge.

The best time to visit is from December through May, when the seals rest on the beach to give birth and nurse their pups. At this time of year, the beach below is closed so that the seals can birth without disturbances, but you can observe them from the clifftop viewpoint. Carpenteria Seal Watch docents are usually here to answer questions, and if you visit from February through April, you may be lucky enough to see a harbor seal give birth.

Look for dolphins and whales offshore, as well as ground squirrels and lizards along the path. From the seal rookery, follow the trail through the coastal salt marsh, where you can spot more than 200 species of birds. It's a good idea to bring binoculars, so little eyes can see the wildlife up close.

If you walk north along the trail, you'll end up at Carpinteria State Beach, a great place to visit for a cool dip.

Access: To access the trail, exit from US 101 south at Ballard Avenue in Carpinteria. Head towards the ocean to the bluffs parking lot. Note that dogs are not permitted near the seal colony.

Insider's Tip: If you're looking for a kid-friendly lunch spot after your wildlife-watching adventure, head to Padaro Beach Grill in a park-like seafront setting, about 3.4 miles north on US 101. Here, little ones can run around the fenced-in grounds while you eat in peace.

12. Frolic at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Meadow in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Meadow in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Home to over 85 acres of native California flora, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a beautiful and peaceful place to explore with your kids. Miles of paths guarantee a labyrinth of adventure for little ones and teens alike.

Kids can explore 11 distinct ecosystems. They can meander through flower-flecked meadows and a majestic redwood forest; see desert plants; and marvel at the giant Blaksley Boulder, thought to be from prehistoric times.

Intrepid kids can also venture off the beaten path — literally — with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's Backcountry play area. Opened in 2022, this self-directed nature experience encourages young ones to test their boundaries. In the rugged terrain, kids can look for critters, navigate a maze, go rock hopping, and more.

Keep an eye out for the scattered "casitas," or nature playhouses, which feature forts, things to climb, and even a reading nook and lending library. Backcountry Rangers are on-site to keep kids safe and answer questions.

When the kids are tired from all the adventuring, stop at the Garden Pantry inside the Garden Shop for snacks and drinks.

Insider's Tip: Make a reservation in advance, and bring a notebook, camera, or binoculars to make the visit even more educational for the kids.

13. Get Creative at the Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse

Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse
Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse | Photo Copyright: Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Wondering how to keep the little Picasso in your family entertained? Visit the new Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse. Opened in La Cumbre Plaza in March 2023, this inspiring new venue welcomes children of all abilities to create art and music in a safe, nurturing environment.

Grace Fisher is a local legend. Paralyzed from the neck down by a devastating virus in her senior year of high school, she used art and music as powerful healing therapies. Now she wants to help other children discover the wonders of artistic expression.

Kids can create a collage, color with pastels, sculpt a masterpiece, join a drum circle, and more. Best of all, the activities are always free.

If crafting is your preferred creative activity, stop by Art from Scrap Creative Reuse Store for all kinds of cheap crafting material donated by local businesses. You can also sign up for Crafternoons with Kids, a workshop for young artists aged five and older. It's held every Thursday from 3:30 to 5pm.

Grace Fisher Inclusive Arts Clubhouse

  • Address: 121 S Hope Ave Unit F118, Santa Barbara, California

Art from Scrap Creative Reuse Store

  • Address: 302 E Cota Street, Santa Barbara, California

Map of Santa Barbara with Kids: Top Things to Do