Family Destinations Around Santa Barbara, CA

I’m on horseback, riding through the foothills of Santa Barbara, CA. The sparkling blue Pacific lies below. The ocean breeze flutters. Our trail guide stops. “That’s Brad Pitt’s house, right over there,” he says.

That’s not a dream. (Let’s face it: my dream would feature Brad, not his house.) It’s just a description of another beautiful day with my family on our Santa Barbara vacation. The rolling green hills, the ocean blue, Brad Pitt so close and yet so far … it’s just this combination of natural beauty, glamour and intrigue that makes Santa Barbara one of my favorite vacation destinations.

For Los Angelenos like me, the 90-minute trip up the coast to Santa Barbara offers a welcome change from the hum of big city life. For more than a decade, our family has enjoyed the short trip from the city to Santa Barbara. A famous mission, a zoo, beautiful parks, hiking trails and bike paths have given us endless options for family enjoyment.

Where To Stay

El Capitan Canyon

Santa Barbara’s hotel choices are endless, with high-end resorts and more reasonably priced properties all close to the beach. Websites like SniqueAway and Jetsetter offer frequent deals at resorts in the area. But staying at El Capitan Canyon always gives our trip a twist. Check this place out if you’re not much of a camper but would like to give your kids a camping experience. Located 20 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara, this is “glam”-ping at its best: a former campsite-turned upscale mini resort offers guests the choice of fancy tents or cabins with comfy beds and furniture.

A tadpole-rich creek runs through the canyon, the stunning El Capitan State Beach is across the street, there is a swimming pool on the property and hiking trails are steps away. You can cook on your fire pit (cabins have kitchenettes with refrigerator and microwave, too) or head to the general store for gourmet breakfasts and lunches. It’s all about family here, with group cookouts and kids running to the creek and riding bikes. If you prefer more calm and quiet, ask for a cabin toward the back of the property.

We have celebrated several Thanksgivings and one Easter vacation here, when the kids enjoyed a group Easter egg hunt on the front lawn. Although it is not close to central Santa Barbara, El Capitan Canyon makes a great base for day trips in and around Santa Barbara and the nearby Santa Ynez wine country. Keep your eyes open, hikers and horseback riders: El Capitan is in the vicinity of the rumored “Pitt pad.”

What To See:

Mission Santa Barbara

You won’t want to miss this city’s best-known tourist attraction, positioned regally in the foothills overlooking Santa Barbara. Its 200-year-old, pink domed towers are visible from points throughout the city. Self-guided tours of this tenth of the California missions and its beautiful gardens take place daily, while docent-led tours are offered several times a week. Admission prices are $5 for adults and $1 for children.

Santa Barbara Zoo

Regularly ranked as one of the nation’s best small zoos, this is a wonderful place for young children and a pleasant surprise for adults. Its idyllic seaside and mountain views, trains that run around the zoo’s perimeter, and famous, crooked-necked giraffe are just a few of the zoo’s charms. Admission prices are $12 for adults and $10 for children 2-12.

Stearns Wharf

This pier in the harbor at Santa Barbara is an important part of the city’s culture and history. Today it is California’s oldest working wharf, where you can watch fishing boats unload their morning catch. Hitch a ride on a tour boat, or grab a bite to eat at the wharf’s seafood restaurants and visit the kitschy shops. We like to make a stop at Stearns Wharf part of a longer bike ride through the beach area.

Cabrillo Bike Lane

The Cabrillo Bikewayis a section of three-mile bike path and boardwalk that fronts Santa Barbara’s beaches and Cabrillo Blvd. in the downtown area. It’s a picturesque stretch, with tall palm trees and beach-hugging views. Walkers, joggers, bike riders and surrey riders share the path. The Santa Barbara Art Show takes place every Sunday in this same area along Cabrillo Blvd. It’s a great place to buy souvenirs.


When you first glimpse Santa Barbara’s physical layout, nestled like a diamond between the Pacific Ocean and the lush Santa Ynez Mountains, you’ll understand why it is often called the “American Riviera.” It’s an irresistible place to take one of many easy, family-friendly day hikes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Check out for details.

Horseback Riding

Many stables, equestrian centers and tour companies offer guided horseback rides. Trail rides in the backcountry offer views over the ocean and out to the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast. Visit for a list of stables and tour guides. You never know whose celebrity pad might be out near the trail.

Where To Eat

La Super-Rica Taqueria
622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara

Be prepared for lines around the corner at this inexpensive, unassuming Mexican food stand that’s been all the rave forever. It all started after chef Julia Child gave this place her blessing years ago. This is authentic Mexican food; unlike anything you’ll taste at your local Mexican hang out. Portions are small so order several items and be sure to try one of the daily specials. Cash only.

The Palace Grill

Whether you like Cajun food or just like to have fun, you’ll have a good time at the upbeat Palace Grill. This is one of my husband’s favorite restaurants, with friendly service and great Cajun and creole cuisine, steaks and seafood in Santa Barbara’s Old Town district. You’ll love the muffins served with dinner and a special performance by the wait staff. Check the website for reservation information.