Santa Barbara: Cultural, Recreational and Historical Paradise for Families
A Santa Barbara skate park
Seals taking a rest and offering a photo-op!
Santa Barbara Landshark
Sculpture in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Condors Exhibit

Just about anything your family can do outdoors can be relished in Santa Barbara, California’s flawless Mediterranean climate. In this wonderful seaside sanctuary known as “America’s Riviera,” kids can play, parents can relax, or all can enjoy land-based recreation and marine activities together.

The affluent city sits on a prime Pacific perch overlooking sweeping vistas of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the glistening surf. The blue ocean invites sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling. Hiking in the golden Santa Ynez foothills is an option for the more adventurous. Santa Barbara is also a sightseeing heaven for all ages, with beautiful parks, unique museums, historic buildings and a rich array of natural attractions.

Santa Barbara is a Cultural & Historic Paradise

The Santa Barbara Courthouse, completed in 1929, resembles a Spanish palace with its red-tile roof. It is surrounded with landscaped lawns, swaying palms, and a tropical garden. The elegant interior — handpainted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, giant murals, carved doors and exquisite tiles — makes a great conversation piece for the whole family. You can climb the 85-foot tower for a spectacular panoramic view of the city, ocean, and Channel Islands.

Mission Santa Barbara, the “Queen of the Missions” founded in 1786, is the tenth of 21 Franciscan missions in the State. After an earthquake in 1812 destroyed the church, the present church was planned and finally completed in 1820. Still an active place of worship, it is one of the best preserved missions, with a Moorish fountain from 1808 gracing the front and beautiful courtyard gardens for children to enjoy. Thanks to extensive restoration by the Travel Conservation Foundation and Globus Tours In December 2004, the 200-year-old Statue of St. Barbara, the mission’s best known icon, was returned to public view after . All 20 of our family members took the docent tour, which we had planned in advance by calling 805/682-4713.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (805/682-4711) especially delighted the younger grandchildren. Tatum, Cassidy, and Baylee loved the interactive hands-on learning, and all were fascinated with the Chumash Hall that included a diorama of prehistoric Indian life in the Santa Barbara area.

In contrast, the fascinating Santa Barbara Museum of Art (805/963-4364) had the family branching out in different directions. The adults and teenagers were fascinated with the limited-time exhibit “Noble Tombs at Mawangdui: Art and Life in the Changsha Kingdom.”  In the Children’s Gallery, the younger ones were kept busy creating their own works of art with Sundae Sculpting, an interactive sculpture with an illustion of a chocolate sundae.  The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum (805/962-5322) doesn’t have facilities for young children, but its extensive collection of monumental documents and manuscripts, including books, treaties, letters and maps, many dating back several centuries, completely captured the attention of our family’s teens and adults.

Santa Barbara is a Civic & Shopping Paradise

Enchanting Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens (schedules and information at (805/962-6310) is for everyone.  A $6 million California Trails exhibit is the new home of California condors. The condors soared when wooly mammals and saber-toothed tigers roamed the earth, but nearly went extinct within the last few decades. Down to only 22 birds in 1982, the California condor, with over half of the remaining 400 flying free, is one of the great conservation successes. You can get close up looks at the birds both from above and below, catching sight of them perched on tree snags, bathing in streams, waterfalls and pools, roosting in a rockwork cave, or spreading their huge wings and gliding in their enclosure.

Other threatened or endangered California natives – the tiny Channel Island foxes found only off the Santa Barbara coast, bald eagles, California desert tortoises, and threatened reptile and amphibians native to nearby Los Padres National Forest are also featured.

The Zoo has over 80 exhibits and displays more than 700 animals from around the world in naturalistic habitats. Elephants, primates and big cats all live in a compact garden-like environment. The landscaped grounds also include a beautiful botanical collection, a train ride around the Zoo and a kid-sized playground.

Every Sunday, the Arts and Crafts Show highlights the work of local artists in a beautiful beachfront setting, under the palms shading Cabrillo Boulevard. Fun and unique jewelry, art, and gifts are among the treasures that would appeal to every age and taste. For those seeking more action, a bikeway for cyclists or riders in four-wheel surreys parallels the boulevard.

The Stearns Wharf Dolphin Fountain welcomes visitors to the oldest working West Coast pier (built in 1872) at the foot of State Street.

Enjoy quaint courtyards, chic boutiques, and modern malls that merge together, creating a shopper’s paradise. Our family enjoyed rambling down the terra cotta sidewalks of bustling State Street, Santa Barbara’s shopping district and promenade of Mission-style buildings and stroll-able malls, both inside and out. Historic El Paseo was built in the 20’s as Santa Barbara’s first shopping center, and features unique gift shops, galleries, and restaurants. The best known is the Wine Cask, nestled among romantic gardens and Spanish Courtyards. Paseo Nueva is a sprawling Mediterranean-style structure reminiscent of Old Spain with large, airy courtyards festooned with colorful tiles, red-tile roofing and lush landscaping in the heart of Santa Barbara’s cultural district.

Santa Barbara: Favorite Places for Sleeping & Eating

Santa Barbara hotels range from historic B&Bs to the deluxe. Brisas Del Mar Inn at the Beach (800/468-1988) is a wonderful and affordable homebase for families. Our spacious suite had a king size bed, living room with sleeper couch (for 2) a kitchen with stove, fridge, dishwasher and dining area. The Inn has a heated pool, whirlpool, exercise room and scenic sundecks. All 31 guest rooms, suites and penthouses are decorated with Mediterranean flair and comfy beds. Complimentary hotel amenities include a deluxe continental breakfast, (there are highchairs), lemonade and fruit are yours to enjoy throughout the day, an afternoon wine and cheese reception and evening milk and cookies. There is also high-speed wireless internet, HBO and DVD players with a movie library at the Front Desk.

The Four Seasons Biltmore  (805/969-2261), a luminous adobe and terracotta hacienda, is one of the premier resort of the West Coast. Flanked by secluded guest cottages, the Biltmore is set on 20 acres of tropical paradise overlooking the Pacific. All rooms are decorated in light furnishings to blend with the original Spanish architecture from 1927. Adjoining rooms are available, but children under 18 can share the same room with parents at no additional charge. There are welcome amenities for younger children, and, awaiting older children are fanny packs replete with soft drinks and chips.  For the adults, the Four Seasons provides fruit, wine, cheese and crackers. Facilities include two pools (the prime family hangout); three lighted tennis courts; two health clubs with spa services; and a sweeping lawn for a game of croquet or shuffleboard. The Biltmore is a great weekend getaway, with endless activities, as well as the availability of an outstanding children’s program, that includes face-painting, puppet shows, hiking, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, nature walks and watersports.

Restaurants that love families can be found in the historic Waterfront Center at the Santa Barbara Marina. This fascinating working harbor, with over 1,000 pleasure crafts, has the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (805/962-8404) at its core. The museum offers interactive exhibits, and children’s discovery section dedicated to the area’s rich maritime history. The Waterfront Grill (805/564-1200) and the Endless Summer Cafe (805/564-4666) feature delicious food with fabulous Pacific Ocean views.

Around town, the Pierre LaFondWine Bistro at 516 State Street (805/962-1455) serves up yummy lunch choices with many options for the kids. Tucked away in a fabulous Victorian home turned restaurant, Stella Mare’s at 50 Los Patos Way (805/969-6705) loves families. For a romantic “date night” the Seagrass Restaurant at 30 East Ortega (805/963-1012) offers a fresh Santa Barbara Coastal Cuisine fine dining experience, with an extensive wine menu with many choices from Santa Barbara wine country. Top off your sumptuous dinner with amazing desserts.

Details, Details in Paradise

Santa Barbara is on the southern California coast, about 92 miles/148km north of Los Angeles or 332 miles/535km south of San Francisco. For more information on other hotel selections, seasonal events, and attractions, contact the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau at 805/966-9222 or 800/676-1266, or visit their website.

Photos by Mel Greenberg

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.