Visiting Santa Barbara, CA: Things to Do as a Family in The American Riviera
Santa Barbar-AH – one of our favourite stops during our Southern California family getaway, perhaps leaving the best for last and worthy of a post all its own. Located about 90 miles from Los Angeles, you instantly understand why its known as “The American Riviera” when you arrive. Spanish Colonial influences and beauty throughout, stunning natural surroundings from sea-to-sky, a world-renowned gastronomic scene, and heritage-rich opportunities to immerse in can all be enjoyed while roaming with ideal, Mediterranean-like weather.
One day in Santa Barbara was certainly not enough, but if you are looking for ways to enjoy a glorious day in SoCal’s northernmost city, here’s a suggested list of things to enjoy as a family on a day trip to Santa Barbara as first-timers:
**This article has been published on AllWays Traveller**
**Disclaimer: this post is not sponsored and this visit very intentionally not a “workcation”. However, Santa Barbara is a spectacular city we felt compelled to share with our family travel readers. This itinerary was all thanks to our relative and long-time resident of Santa Barbara and entirely based off of our authentic family experience. Some images provided courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara and respective travel photographers**
Things to Do as a Family in Santa Barbara
Roam State Street
Our day trip to Santa Barbara was heavily centered around the city’s downtown core and most famous avenue – State Street. If you’re lucky, you’ll find free parking a few blocks adjacent to it to get on with your exploring the pedestrian-friendly promenade. State Street runs through Santa Barbara’s downtown core for about 10 blocks, which will lead you to the harbour.
Shops, boutiques, art galleries, theatres and restaurants dot the avenue, offering families loads of cultural, leisure and dining opportunities. The addition of the State Street Promenade means families can peruse, shop & dine without worrying about local traffic.
Visit Stearns Warf
Conveniently accessed by State Street, Stearns Warf offers families opportunities to immerse in the edu-tainment of marine life learnings at the Sea Centre and learn about an important piece of Santa Barbara’s history (*the Warf was built in 1872!*).
You can also dine seaside with unbeatable views (check out Moby Dick Restaurant if craving a seafood feast), grab ice cream or candy hauls at the parlours dotting the pier (Mother Sterns & Great Pacific Co.) and shop Santa Barbara adorned souvenirs & apparel (*like hoodies for the teens 😉*) at Old Wharf Trading Co.
Open-air Shopping at Paseo Nuevo & La Arcada
My favourite areas to roam were Paseo Nuevo & La Arcada, not just because they offer families open-air shopping, lots of dining options, cultural and leisure opportunities, but because of the alluring old world meets new world vibe and stunning architectural surroundings (think pristine white buildings with red tile roof tops – a mecca of Spanish Colonial charm and beauty).
Both Paseo Nuevo and La Arcada are located in Santa Barbara’s downtown district and accessible from State Street. If you aren’t big shoppers, plan a family movie night at Paseo Nuevo’s cinema, and/or visit the Turtle Fountain and statues of prominent historic figures at La Arcada – one of our favourite spots for great family pictures.
Dive into the Internationally-inspired Cuisine Scene
Foodie families will have no trouble finding fabulous spots to refuel in Santa Barbara, which offers a world-renowned food scene and enticing place for well-known and up-and-coming chefs to showcase their culinary talents with locally-sourced ingredients (*Neat fact: Santa Barbara was home to the late celebrity chef Julia Child in her final years of life*).
As we were only in Santa Barbara for the day, picking one place to dine wasn’t easy, but Sandbar Cocina y Tequila on State Street was an excellent choice with an open-air SoCal vibe meets authentic Mexican flair ambiance.
What we tried & loved: Blazin’ Chipotle Chicken Fajitas, El Supreme Burrito, and Tacos de Pollo Asada (*street tacos on homemade corn tortillas*). Grown-ups looking to enjoy a bevvy, Sandbar has an enticing cocktail menu with an array of options infused with Tequila.
Soak in the Best Panoramic Views of Santa Barbara Atop the Courthouse
We nearly missed this opportunity as we left it to the last part of our day, but if you want to soak in the most stunning 360-degree views of the city, visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and head up the Clock Tower (accessible by elevator or staircase). This was definitely one of our family’s most favourite parts of our day trip, and a ‘must-do’ we’re so glad our relative and long-time SB local personal tour guide pushed us to see despite our sore feet from a full day of walking.
Equally stunning is the inside & outside of the Courthouse itself, known as one of the most beautiful National Historic Sites in all of the USA, from the intricate artistic details hand-painted wall-to-ceiling, grand wrought-iron chandeliers, to the Spanish-Colonial building design, and gorgeous sunken gardens.
If you visit on a Friday in the Summer and have time to linger til’ after dark, bring a blanket and stay for their free cinema under the stars experience on the outdoor Courthouse grounds.
Know Before You Go: Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a fully operational courthouse. Expect to go through security and leave the selfie-sticks in the car (*they’re prohibited*). Self-guided visitor tours are available – note the varying hours HERE. The Clock Tower closes earlier than the rest of the building (about 4:45 p.m.), so make sure you plan your visit accordingly. There is free 75-minute parking across from the courthouse in City Lot #7 off Anacapa Street.
Family-friendly Festival Fun
If you plan to visit Santa Barbara in the summertime as we did, please make it fall during the Old Spanish Days Fiesta – pure magic and incredible way to connect Todos Juntos en Familia (all together as family)!
The city was draped in technicolour Spanish décor, the sounds of mariachi uplifted a bustling, energetic crowd at every turn, and the parade saw visitors of all ages dancing in the streets or seats, the tradition of smashing hollowed eggs filled with confetti & decorated by local artisans on fiesta-goers heads while shouting “Viva la Fiesta” a high-spirited and mischievous family experience.
The Old Spanish Days Fiesta falls the first week in August and is an exuberant celebration honouring Santa Barbara’s rich history, culture, heritage and traditions of the Native American, Spanish, Mexican and early American settlers that began in 1924, and way of preserving and reviving the spirit of old Santa Barbara again and again.
The Children’s Fiesta Parade was one of the best parts for families – held on the Saturday morning, usually along Cabrillo Boulevard near the harbour & Stearns Wharf. Artisans selling fiesta eggs filled with confetti for smashing family fun can be found all around the downtown core and along the parade route.
If you can’t make it during the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, Santa Barbara has many other festival-type events worth planning for enjoyed by visitors of all ages. See the Spring/Summer Events Listing HERE.
When to Visit Santa Barbara with Your Family
The “near-perfect” year-round weather of Santa Barbara is a big draw for visitors, as is the near 300 days of sunshine it typically gets annually. Santa Barbara could be enjoyed any time of year, but if you’re looking to immerse in more events, festivals and such, visiting in the Spring-Summer months would be ideal, and as already mentioned, we highly recommend visiting during the Old Spanish Days Fiesta the first week in August!
We hope you found these suggestions on ways to enjoy Santa Barbara as a family helpful. Among all our stops along our SoCal getaway, Santa Barbara was in our top 3 picks for the most enjoyable family experiences (San Diego & Manhattan Beach area round out the others).
We definitely want to return – a single day wasn’t enough – so if you’ve been to The American Riviera before and have some ideas on ways to enjoy it even more, do share in comments.
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Keep well, travel safely,