Santa Barbara with Teens: A Perfect Family Day

Santa Barbara with Teens: A Family Vacation


I attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and now I live in another college town, San Luis Obispo, roughly 100 miles north. My husband is a sailing instructor and captain for the Santa Barbara Sailing Center, so we take our teenage daughter Sarah to the beautiful seaside city quite often. We've even ridden the Amtrak train there; its depot is located a convenient walk from the beach. Santa Barbara has so many fun activities that your teen can do.


We do most of our playing in and around the marina. So start your day in Santa Barbara by giving your teens a hearty breakfast at Sambo's, located at 216 West Cabrillo Blvd., directly across from the big beautiful beach. It's the original Sambo's of a once-nationwide chain, and now the only one left. They leave a basket of tasty muffins and carafe of coffee on your table and serve terrific pancakes.

Cross the street and walk towards Stearns Wharf, California's oldest working wharf, dating back to 1872. Joggers, skaters, bikers, plus the beach volleyball players animate your journey. On the beach near the dolphin fountain, see if the guy that makes lovely mermaids and other sand sculptures is there. His art is cool.

If you are there on a Sunday, any Sunday, prepare to be humbled at the sight of what is known as Arlington West. Since 2003, volunteers have precisely placed white wooden crosses about 2 feet tall in the sand representing every fallen U.S. soldier in the present Iraq conflict. One Memorial Day I helped to place candles around the perimeter of the crosses at dusk. It is a tribute that will make you stop and appreciate those who have given their lives for our country and a poignant reminder of their sacrifice, as the rest of us frolic at the beach.

Visit the Stearns Wharf restaurants and souvenir shops, including a candy store, ice cream shop, a wine bar with live music and several knick-knack shops. We've visited them all. What we have not done is try our hand at fishing from the end of the pier. There is a bait and tackle shop for all your teens' fishing needs in Santa Barbara. The view is spectacular and the ocean is active with seals, pelicans, kids sailing, tourists in boats – the harbor at work and play.

On the wharf is also the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History's Ty Warner Sea Center, an interactive marine education center. It is nicely done, and has some engaging exhibits, but if you are expecting the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the Long Beach Aquarium, it's nothing like those, as it is on a much smaller scale. Open daily 10AM to 5PM PT (closed some holidays), the sea center costs $8 for adults, $7 for teens.

For us it's "been there, done that" with the wharf, so we like to check out the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. It has been held every Sunday and special holidays since 1966 (weather permitting) and the white coverings of over 200 artists' booths go on for probably half a mile or more. Everyone's friendly and the art covers every range of media, style and creativity imaginable. I've purchased oil-scented crystals, jewelry, wind chimes and a handmade kaleidoscope in the past.

Beyond the art exhibits, walk to the Santa Barbara Zoo, at 500 Ninos Drive. It's the best "big" little zoo I've ever been to. They have lions, elephants, tigers, monkeys, seals and birds aplenty, with views of the beach and back bay. Sarah has been there many times and enjoys feeding the giraffes, although she's outgrown the little train ride. Open daily 10AM to 5PM PT, and charges $12 for adults and teens, $10 for kids and those under 2 are free.


Back at the base of the wharf you can hop on the electric trolley, which costs 25 cents one way, runs every 10 minutes and stops at every block at marked blue and black sailboat symbols. We learned the hard way that they stop running at 6PM PT, so don't make that mistake. Trolley up State Street to shop or browse. Stores run the gamut from kitschy thrift shops to Macy's, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. Sarah loves shopping in the upscale marble-fronted department stores. There are also lots of art galleries, furniture stores with the latest trends and plenty of eateries nestled in courtyards. Downtown Santa Barbara is gorgeous with its Spanish and Mediterranean flair and abundant palm trees.

Sarah enjoys Something's Fishy, 500 State Street, for Japanese tempura, sushi and the entertaining hibachi grills where a chef prepares your meal before you. There is an affordable lunch special with a little of everything.

Wheel Fun Rentals on State Street has cute 4-wheel surrey bikes with striped fringe covers that rent for $35 an hour. One holds two adults and three kids. I know for a fact that within one hour you can bike west past the municipal pool all the way down the bike lane to another of our favorite restaurants, Shoreline Beach Cafe, eat lunch, and get the surrey back in time. There are tables right on the sand, where you can bury your feet as you dive into great fish tacos or burgers and yummy blended tropical drinks. It's a popular spot for watching windsurfers jump the waves.

This is another place in Santa Barbara that teens might enjoy. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum at 113 Harbor Way is better than I imagined it would be. It covers exhibits on surfing, deep-sea diving apparatus, and the indigenous Chumash Indians, and shows various films such as the one we saw about working on a tall ship. Best of all, there is an actual submarine periscope that was very fun to use. Open daily, except Wednesdays, 10AM to 6PM PT, admissions range from $4 to $7.


You've had plenty of walking and biking, so now it's time for some gentle sailing. I mentioned my husband is a captain. He's often running the Double Dolphin, a 50-foot catamaran the sails out of the marina where your adventure began. Your choice of a Coastal, Sunset, or Jazz Cruise will glide you about the harbor for two hours, giving you and the kids an up-close view of the abundant marine life. You can sign up at the Sailing Center, $25 per person; or try the Dinner cruise, $55 per person.

This full day is all in within roughly the areas of the marina and State Street. Santa Barbara has so much more to offer, but you'll have to plan the Natural History Museum with the Robot Zoo exhibit, the Santa Barbara Mission and many of our favorite things for another day.

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