If ever a destination deserved more than 24 hours to visit, Santa Barbara, California would be that place.
This seaside town, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is a masterpiece of painted tiles and whitewashed walls. Picturesque doesn’t begin to describe the self-proclaimed “American Riviera.”
This city is so much more than just a pretty place to look at, though. The perfect weather, walkability, abundance of sidewalk cafés and both cultural and kid-friendly activities make it the ideal destinations for families in need of a quick getaway.
While I would highly recommend staying in Santa Barbara for at least 3 days to experience all it has to offer, sometimes all you have is a 24-hour window to soak in as much as you can. Here’s what to prioritize during your short visit.
Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara Harbor offers some pretty iconic views of sailboats docked in the harbor set against the Santa Ynez Mountains. Take your kids for a morning stroll along the harbor and I guarantee they’ll stop every few feet to admire the vessels and the vista.
Stop for coffee and breakfast at On The Alley, where kids can choose from French Toast Sticks or Waffle “Fries” to dip in cups of syrup. My vanilla latte was perfect for enjoying as we meandered the harbor surrounded by early morning runners and bikers.
Santa Barbara Trolley Tour
Guided tours are one of my favorite ways to see a new city with kids, especially if your time is limited. You can knock out some must-see stops during this 90-minute jaunt around the city, including the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Courthouse and even some highlights in nearby Montecito.
You can use the trolley as hop-on hop-off transportation to get to all of the sightseeing on your list, or you can settle in for an hour and a half and listen to the delightful conductor share stories and fun facts about the city.
Enjoyable for both children and adults, the tours start at 10 and returns to the Visitor’s Center for the last time at 4:40 p.m.
MOXI Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation
I hesitate to call this place a museum since the word calls to mind stiff and quiet environments. The MOXI is quite the opposite, encouraging both parents and children to ask questions, get involved and learn through play.
This was easily one of the biggest highlights of the trip for my kids and I’ve never heard so many shrieks of delight from them as they raced from one exhibit to the next. It’s honestly fun for all ages. There are three floors to explore, including the rooftop Sky Garden.
Set aside at least 2 hours for your visit and look forward to playing with the gigantic Speed Track, learning about gravity and centripetal forces in the Fantastic Forces Courtyard and creating your own sounds and rhythms at the Sound Track.
Trek down historic State Street to discover local shopping and eateries. The sidewalks give a wide berth for pedestrians to explore and there is so much within walking distance. Duck into boutiques and specialty shops, or enjoy the city’s best ice cream at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams.
Just off of State Street you’ll find plazas and courtyards for more shopping and restaurant options. Paseo Nuevo Plaza has a beautiful outdoor mall and plenty of space to let the kids run around. Look for the painted tile steps behind California Pizza Kitchen for a perfect Instagram photo opp.
Stearns Wharf is one of the top tourist destinations in Santa Barbara, and with good reason. The view of the city from the wharf is stunning and it’s incredibly peaceful to watch the boats sail lazily by.
Take the kids out for some fresh seafood or an ice cream on the wharf, or look for some postcards and souvenirs to remember your trip.
About a block away from Stearns Wharf is Wheel Fun Rentals, where you can take out a surrey for an hour or two and ride it along the bike path parallel to the shoreline.
I’m always a fan of free and cheap things to do with kids, so I would highly recommend Kid’s World at Alameda Park right in downtown Santa Barbara. It’s a massive playground with a wooden castle, whale statues kids can climb and plenty of picnic tables. Afterward, check out nearby Alice Keck Memorial Garden for some lovely walking paths.
Even if you’re only staying for a night, Hotel Milo is the perfect spot to call your home away from home. This beachside property is family-friendly and within walking distance of Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara Harbor, State Street and the Visitor’s Center.
We loved the two pools and the beautiful courtyard where the kids could roam while the adults enjoyed the daily complimentary wine tasting. Hotel Milo also offers beach cruiser bikes for guest to borrow to ride around town, which is a fun outing for families with older kids.
Of course, the beach is a popular spot for families in Santa Barbara. If you can fit it into your itinerary, spend an hour or two soaking up the perfect Southern California weather. If it’s a clear day, you’ll have a view of the Channel Islands.
After just 24 hours in this seaside paradise, your entire family will never want to leave.
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