8 family friendly things to do in Santa Barbara

With the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, all eyes are on Santa Barbara.

The city’s long had a royal connection, though. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge went to a polo match here. And the Queen rode with Ronald Reagan at his ranch, Rancho del Cielo.

Santa Barbara isn’t just for royalty (or ex-royalty) your family, too, can explore Santa Barbara. And who knows, you might even run into little Archie.

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Sure there is the Mission, the architecturally stunning Courthouse, and plenty of cool museums, including the Natural History Museum featuring a 90-foot blue whale skeleton named Chad. But this is Santa Barbara, and getting outdoors is a must be that surfing, kayaking or stand up paddle boards.

Here are eight family-friendly places to discover in Santa Barbara.

Explore the islands

Just 45km off the Santa Barbara coast are the Channel Islands, a place where you’ll feel like you’ve discovered it first. Actually, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillio was there first in 1542, but Native Americans lived there 13,000 years ago.

There are three islands which are easily accessible as day trips: Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. You can kayak, snorkel, dive and hike to your heart’s content. There are camping facilities on Santa Cruz, but your cell phones won’t work (hint, hint). The islands are fairly pristine with vegetation that grows nowhere else on earth. It’s like stepping back in time. Plus you’ll always see other families on the way out and back – lots of pods of dolphins.

Look into Lizard’s Mouth

Well, not literally. Lizard’s Mouth is the name of some outlandish rock formations located on the crest of the mountains. It’s a 20-minute drive from downtown, off W. Camino Cielo Road. It looks almost like a movie set, with giant sandstone boulders dotting the landscape. Some you walk under, through and around with cave-like entrances and huge holes and some you can stand on top of. The Pacific Ocean stretches out before you. This is not strenuous and is great for younger kids to explore.

Do the zoo

Sure, every city has a zoo, but there’s the old joke that Santa Barbara is the only zoo where the lions have a view of beach volleyball. True enough. And since this was formerly a lavish private estate, the official name of Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens makes sense. The zoo is small enough that you can get super close to the animals, including the adorable tiny Channel Island fox (seriously, my cat is bigger). There’s even a wee train for the little ones to ride around on.

Hike up Rattlesnake Canyon

Santa Barbara is great hiking country and Rattlesnake Canyon is one of the best for its diverse terrain and views. And no, it’s not populated with rattlesnakes – it’s so named for its serpentine, curvy paths. It’s a fairly moderate hike (just 6km round trip, but you can hike further up the mountain if you like), and takes you through pools and streams, under heavy tree growth where Spanish moss hangs down like a bad toupee. All of this leads to Tin Can Meadow, a large grassy area with stunning views of the ocean. The trailhead is off Las Canoas Road.

Bike the waterfront

Along Santa Barbara’s waterfront is a 5km bike path that takes you from the zoo to the harbour. It’s an easy, flat ride and you can rent a surrey bike for families of four to six, or rent individual bikes, rollerblades or e-bikes. Along the way, you can stop for ice cream on the wharf, visit the skate park, and get sushi and clam chowder at the harbour. If your family is more adventurous, the flat path gives way to a hilly climb, through the elite and beautiful Hope Ranch neighbourhood, down through an estuary and all the way to UCSB.

Oogle Ostrichland

As you drive past a large desert-like field, you notice what seems to be something out of Jurassic Park – giant birds running through the brush. Not to worry, they are ostrich, and as the world’s largest bird, you can’t miss them. But you can feed them. A stop at Ostrichland, near the Danish town of Solvang, gets you up close and very personal with these birds, especially if you choose to feed them pellets you hold in a pan. And you should. It’s an experience, trust me. You can also get ostrich jerky, emu feathers and the like.

Horsing around

Horses have long been associated with Santa Barbara. We have one of the oldest Polo Clubs in the US and Hope Ranch was designed as a riding community (you can still run, walk and takes horses on the bridle paths). But who doesn’t want to go horseback riding on the beach, the splash of the surf landing on your tanned shoulders? Well you can. Children must be 12 or older, but they will consider kids down to age 6. Rides are 90-minutes, and they offer coastal bluff rides as well. If you want to explore the mountain areas, try Circle Bar B Stables.

Natural History Sea Center

Located on Stern’s Wharf (the most visited place in Santa Barbara), the Natural History Sea Center is aquarium-lite. There are all things seaworthy, but the best is the small petting area where docents let you touch sharks, stingrays and sea urchins (oh my). This stop is better for younger kids as it’s more hands-on and interactive but limited. If your nautical leanings are more adult, including plenty of stories about shipwrecks, head to the Maritime Museum at the harbour.

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