If you’re a regular podcast listener, you know the story: I was raised in beautiful Santa Barbara, left at 18 for college in the midwest and an early-twenties stint in Chicago, lived my early married and motherhood life in the Phoenix area, spent six years in Orange County, and then moved back to my hometown in the summer of 2020. It was a pandemic-inspired move and not one we thought was possible before the whole world changed how it did work, school, and life.
Since moving back, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for the town where I grew up. I feel both like a total native AND like a newcomer (22 years away is a long time!), often in the same day or even the same moment. I’m also fiercely proud of the local culture in Santa Barbara, which continues to evolve but has always celebrated family-owned businesses, the arts, and – of course – the natural beauty, wine, and surf culture that the area is known for.
Santa Barbara is a great place for families, but it’s also a really popular getaway for couples and girls weekends, so I’ve tried to put together recommendations that work for whatever brings you to town. If you visit and try any of these recommendations, please let me know!
Know Before You Go
Here are a few things I’d want any visitor to Santa Barbara to know – some of which may clear up some weather misconceptions!
- Our weather is cooler than you think. Probably. Coastal California is cool for much of the year, and Santa Barbara is even cooler than San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties to our south (it’s not quite as cool as the Bay Area, though). If you’re not from California and associate beach days with hot weather, it’s helpful to know that very often we’re wearing hoodies at the beach!
- Microclimates are real. That said, anywhere along the coast the rule applies: the farther inland you go, the warmer it gets. So if you’re planning on hikes in the foothills or wine tasting in Ojai or the Santa Ynez valley, check the forecast for those areas. It can be 20+ degrees warmer just a few miles inland.
- May Gray, June Gloom, No-Sky-July, and Fogust: Want full sunshine? Avoid May and June altogether because it’s delightfully foggy and gray here. July often has some fog too, and August-November are likely to be the sunniest, warmest months to visit Santa Barbara.
- Why are there mountains in the ocean? And what are those other things? The land you see off the coast are the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, and those man-made structures are oil derricks. Now you know!
- You’ll likely hear about “the funk zone” when researching places to eat and shop downtown. This is an area that didn’t exist when I was growing up here, and that is now full of hip shopping, food, and wine/beer tasting rooms. It’s fun to experience, but probably less so with kids in tow.
- Listed from North to South, the greater Santa Barbara metro area includes the cities (or unincorporated communities) of Goleta (including adjacent UC Santa Barbara and Isla Vista), Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria. It’s about 25 minutes drive on the 101 from one end of this area to the other, and that’s where my recommendations will focus in this post. Day trips to wine country and other areas in the region come with my stamp of approval – just not as much of my firsthand knowledge.
Where To Stay & How To Get Around
I get asked where to stay in Santa Barbara all the time, but as someone who has either lived here or visited family here my entire life, I don’t have many hotel stays to draw experience from. My best tip is not to assume you must be close to the beach to enjoy your stay. We’re a coastal community that has a TON to offer besides beach days (including gorgeous mountains, vibrant city stuff, and rural charm), and you’ll pay a premium for beachfront accommodations. If that’s your non-negotiable, that’s fine; but if you’re open to hunting around, you may save on costs.
Santa Barbara is fairly drive-able, and parking is much less of a headache than in larger cities. You should be able to park near where you want to go – a short list of high-attendance festival events/weekends notwithstanding – and if you run into traffic on the 101 going from one end of town to the other, fire up your favorite maps app and let it reroute you. The city streets and windy backroads are my favorite for getting around town!
Where To See SB & Let Your Kids Run Wild
One of my favorite things about this town is that you don’t have to go looking for natural beauty – it’s just sort of everywhere. Here are a few ideas for taking in the sights of Santa Barbara while letting your kids run and play at the same time:
Worth The Fee:
- Santa Barbara Zoo: If you visit and can honestly say you’ve ever been to a prettier, more walkable, shady/cool, and generally enjoyable zoo, please email me.
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History: The museum’s exhibits are kid-friendly and fun, but the place to explore is behind the museum along the creek. (Note: There’s a small sea center on the wharf that is managed by the same museum, but that’s a different experience altogether. The “run free by the creek” location is the main museum campus.)
- Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: Kids can run free on paths and climb natural play structures while you ogle the beauty of California. Highly recommend!
- Ganna Walska Lotusland: Lotusland is uniquely Santa Barbara: a historic estate with acres of exotic gardens to explore, friendly docents, wide walking paths, and tons to see. Reservations book out in advance and the ticket price is steep, but it’s worth a visit.
Free Of Charge:
Here are a few more (free!) ideas for letting kids run while taking in gorgeous scenery – these are some of my personal favorite things to do!
- Bring a picnic and a frisbee or some bubbles to the rose garden across from the Old Mission (local tip: there’s very little shade, so great for cloudy days or pack your sunscreen!)
- Sit on the wall at Butterfly Beach at sunset and let kids dig in the sand below
- Take in breathtaking views while letting kids play on the playground at Lookout Park in Summerland or Shoreline Park in Santa Barbara – both playgrounds are in view of the beach, but you don’t have to actually GO down to the shore if that’s not in your plans for the day
- Watch the ducks and turtles, float sticks down the creek, and run in the grass at Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens (it’s also right across the street from the Kids World playground at Alameda Park, which is very popular)
- Take in a free self-guided tour of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and get amazing photos from the top of the clock tower – then let kids run on the expansive grassy sunken garden outside
Food With A View (My Favorite Eats + Sights Pairings)
Having lived, traveled and dined in quite a few cities, I’ll say this: Santa Barbara probably won’t top your favorite foodie big city in terms of traditionally upscale sit-down cuisine. What I love about our restaurants, coffee shops, and eateries is how specific and local they are to SB – and in making the list below I realized that the places I most want to tell you about offer coffee, pastries, breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Who needs dinner, I guess?
Here are some of my favorite eats PLUS what I love about the specific view, neighborhood, or location. I’ve separated them out by general part of town:
Carpinteria / Summerland
- Padaro Beach Grill Order at the counter and then sit at picnic tables outside in a giant open area with a huge sandbox where kids can play. You’re beach-adjacent but don’t have to deal with safety issues or sand – and kids love when the train goes by!
- Rincon Brewery / Lucky Llama / The Good Plow As a local, I love the intersection of Carpinteria Avenue (“Carp Ave”) and Linden. We like to eat lunch at Rincon Brewery or The Good Plow, get coffee at Lucky Llama (and shop at the adorable Heritage Goods & Supply next door), and then walk around the corner and head toward the beach. On Linden you can stop for ice cream at Rori’s and pop into antique stores and boutiques.
- Red Kettle The most adorable coffee shop in a teeny seaside town. Summerland is not my favorite for walking around with kids (unless you’re headed to Lookout Park, mentioned earlier!), but highly recommend for antiquing and boutique-ing or for a quick coffee stop.
- Bettina + Rori’s at Montecito Country Mart What used to be an unimpressive grocery store shopping center now is a whole chic vibe. Bettina is everybody local’s hands-down favorite for “fancy pizza”, and it’s easy to grab it to go and head to Butterfly Beach (mentioned earlier) or for a picnic. Rori’s is my kids’ favorite for ice cream, although I prefer McConnel’s. Kids can run around or head into the toy store, you can wonder at the price tags in the boutiques, and if you’re low on sunscreen or diapers you can pop into Vons for “normal people supplies” with a possible celebrity sighting on the side.
- Jeannine’s A local’s favorite that tourists always find their way to as well, Jeannine’s is great for breakfast, lunch, or coffee and bakery treats in between. I love the quaintness and people watching of the Montecito location, but any of their locations will give you the same delicious food and great service. (I order: Huevos rancheros or a raspberry scone.)
- Coast Village Road The stretch of Coast Village Road between Olive Mill Road and Butterfly Lane is fun to explore and has a ton of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, this is an extremely high-end part of town (keep your eyes peeled for celebs!), but it’s also kid-friendly because, turns out, the über-wealthy have kids, too! We like Los Arroyos and Oliver’s for sit-down meals, but what you’ll find generally is that most of the upscale restaurants are pretty used to serving families.
- Hook & Press Donuts I am obsessed with the new location and LOVE the vibe in the pretty La Arcada shops (kids love to watch the turtles in the fountain and play on the bronze statues!). Please go here. (I order: Browned Butter donut)
- Alessia Patisserie I am also obsessed. Please go here and if you don’t, write to me and tell me why. I love this corner of downtown, too. So much history but also regular city life going on. (I order: Avocado toast)
- Mission Street Ice Cream & Yogurt In my family we’re split on local ice cream places between Rori’s and McConnell’s. I’m team McC. As an old-school local I like to get my McConnell’s at this Mission and De La Vina location, which you can combine with The Daily Grind (see next) and a romp at the Mission rose gardens (mentioned earlier). (I order: Salted Caramel Chip)
- The Daily Grind Being a teenager in the 90s means I spent a lot of time in coffee shops. Most of the ones I frequented have closed, been sold, or changed too much to spark nostalgia, but not The Daily Grind. It opened when I was a freshman in high school and hasn’t changed since. I’ll see you on the patio probably. (I order: Americano with oat milk for coffee; Locals’ Favorite sandwich for lunch)
- Shoreline Beach Cafe If you want your toes in the sand and you have early risers OR early-bird diners, head to Shoreline Cafe for breakfast or happy hour. It can get crowded during the more traditional mealtimes, but if you go early morning or early evening, you can get a table literally ON the sand. (I order: chicken nachos)
Where To Get More Santa Barbara Travel Tips
Here are some of my personal go-to sources for what’s happening around town. Don’t forget: I’m recently new-again to the area, too!
- The Independent (great free weekly paper with local events and a solid online presence)
- The Bets Life (a blogger friend of mine with gorgeous photos and local tips)
- Santa Barbara Families (Instagramming moms with young kids and lots of tips)
- SB Good Eats (all local foodie stuff)
- Siteline SB (good up-to-date info on local restaurants, hotels, and real estate)