Kids who are ‘loco’ for locomotives will go off the rails for this unforgettable train journey to Santa Barbara. The great walkability of this coastal town makes leaving the car at home a total breeze. From trolley rides and whale watching to museums and marine life, explore the sights via the Santa Barbara Car Free ‘Take the Train’ promotion which includes discounts on hotels, restaurants and activities. Read on for the best places to eat, stay and play on your trip to Santa Barbara, a.k.a. the “American Riviera.”

Traffic Free From SoCal to Santa Barbara:

Train-loving kids will be over-the-moon to get out of the car and onto the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner or Coast Starlight. With multiple trains per day departing from many Southern California locations, taking the train sets the mood for untethered travel. Instead of being locked into car seats, timing traffic and stopping for bathroom breaks, the train allows your family to engage face-to-face, relax and hit the snack bar or bathroom anytime. This scenic route gets even better as the Amtrak Surfliner and Coast Starlight hug the California coast, giving a front-row seat to spectacular sunsets and ocean views. The Santa Barbara Car Free ‘Take the Train’ promotion includes deals all over town, like half-off admission to the Santa Barbara Zoo for kids 12 and under when they show their train tickets.

Online: amtrak.com

Museums, Zoos and Aquariums, Oh My! 

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation: The innovative MOXI has been getting rave reviews since it opened in 2017 and for good reason. Thoughtful exhibits ignite curiosity and creativity through interactive play on three beautifully-designed floors. Build and race Automoblox race cars, create movie soundtracks and engage in tons of STEAM fun for all ages. Check out the rooftop Sky Garden for breathtaking views of Santa Barbara. We give this brilliant and bright children’s museum an A+.

Car-free component: The Museum is conveniently located on State Street, next door to the Santa Barbara Amtrak train station and easy walking distance from many hotels.

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
125 State St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-770-5000
Online: moxi.org

Santa Barbara Zoo: Even the animals have an ocean-view in Santa Barbara. Enjoy peek-a-boo views of the Pacific Ocean while you admire the giraffes feeding and watch the palm trees sway over the pink flamingos. The Santa Barbara Zoo has an impressive array of 500 animals on 30 beautifully-landscaped acres. From penguins and foxes to leopards and lions, this laid-back zoo is a must for animal-loving families.

Tips on getting there car free: The Santa Barbara Zoo is just under 2 miles from Stearns Wharf. The Waterfront MTD bus and Santa Barbara Trolley Company both have a stop directly in front of the zoo––or do a half-day bike rental and enjoy the scenic 2-mile ride along the boardwalk.

Santa Barbara Zoo
500 Ninos Dr.
Santa Barbara, CA 93102
805-962-5339
Online: sbzoo.org

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center: Small but mighty, the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf includes interactive touch tanks with a beautiful array of sea stars, sea urchins and sharks. Take a turn with the oceanographic tools, including a bucket that kids can lower down into the ocean and come back with a scoop full of marine life to look at under the microscope. A super-cool hands-on experience for future marine explorers.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Sea Center
211 Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-962-2526
Online: sbnature.org  

Family Fun on the Water:

Santa Barbara Adventure Company Fun Paddle: For families with kids ages five and up, Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers a kayaking Harbor Fun Paddle around the Santa Barbara shoreline. This 2-hour guided tour loops through the harbor and near Stearns Wharf. Kids sit in the front of the double-kayak with a pint-sized paddle and a parent in the back, as you look for sea stars, seals and sea lions to the narrative of a knowledgeable guide. Gentle waters make this mellow paddle perfect for parents and kids.

Santa Barbara Adventure Company
Departs from the Sea Landing dock
Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-884-9283
Online: sbadventureco.com

Condor Express Whale Watching Tour: Climb aboard the Condor Express for a memorable 2.5 hour cruise in search of whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions. This high-speed jet-powered catamaran cruises from Sea Landing to the Santa Barbara Channel looking for Humpback whales and pods of dolphins to the delight of passengers of all ages. Large viewing decks outside, onboard bathrooms, snack bar and indoor seating options, make this whale-watching trip a great choice for families. On our Condor Express tour, not only did we see two Humpback whales, but hundreds of dolphins swam right next to the propellerless boat! Don’t forget Santa Barbara Car Free offers a 20% discount for weekday adult tickets.

Condor Express
Departs from the Sea Landing dock
Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
888-779-4253
Online: condorexpress.com

Where to Stay:

Hotel Santa Barbara: Hotel Santa Barbara is full of historic charm in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, a short 8-minute walk up State Street from the train station. A hotel has been on the site since 1876 and its traditional style is complemented by modern comforts, including oh-so-comfy pillow-top beds, plush robes and newly renovated, modern bathrooms. Gourmet coffee, waffles and locally-baked pastries are free to guests during the complimentary continental breakfast, including decadent almond and dark chocolate croissants from Renaud’s Patisserie. The super-convenient State Street location makes it a great middle point between the beach and downtown Santa Barbara. Don’t forget to mention Santa Barbara Car Free for hotel discounts and free Santa Barbara Trolley Tour tickets.

Hotel Santa Barbara
533 State St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
800-549-9869
Online: hotelsantabarbara.com

The Wayfarer: Across the street from the train station and directly in the urban Funk Zone, is the hip Wayfarer Hotel. The hotel has a modern vibe mixed with a European hostel state-of-mind, welcoming travelers of all types, from families with kids of all ages to global backpackers, retirees and wine-trail revelers. Enjoy hotel downtime playing a super-sized game of Jenga and Connect Four in the lobby or swim in the heated pool. Bring your own groceries to utilize the hotel’s full-size community kitchen or just enjoy the complimentary continental breakfast. The hotel has 27 modern rooms with ensuite bathrooms and a few shared bunk-bed rooms typically for single travelers, but parents have been known to rent them out for a kid’s bunk-bed room! Insider tip: We loved the Queen room with a kid-approved Murphy loft bed!

The Wayfarer
12 E. Montecito St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-845-1000
Online: wayfarersb.com

Where to Eat:

Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen: Located conveniently near the beach and MOXI, Finney’s Crafthouse is a great spot to take a break from the day’s activities and refuel. With a kids menu and coloring page for the little ones (try the pizza with a side of berries!) and salads, gourmet flatbreads, burgers and craft-brew list for the adults, it’s a win-win for the whole family. Grab a spot on the patio and soak in the sunny views.

Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen
35 State St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-845-3100
Online: finneyscrafthouse.com

Helena Avenue Bakery: With refined industrial decor and a welcoming, family-friendly vibe, Helena Avenue Bakery wows guests with made-from-scratch breads, gourmet sandwiches and delectable pastries. Located in the Funk Zone, Helena Avenue Bakery offers seat-yourself communal tables and take-away breakfast and lunch in a modern, yet casual industrial space. Watch the working bakery in action as you savor artisan sandwiches like the California Turkey on fresh-baked baguette, the Cuban on toasted sourdough and save room for a decadent chocolate chip cookie.

Insider tip: My seven-year-old said the H.A.B Burger was one of the best he’s ever had!

Helena Avenue Bakery
131 Anacapa St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-880-3383
Online: helenaavenuebakery.com

FisHouse: After a day taking in Santa Barbara’s many seaside activities, take a break at local-favorite FisHouse. With a sunny patio overlooking the ocean and Stearns Wharf, enjoy seafood specialities like Crab Cakes and a Seared Ahi Tuna Club for you and the kids-menu fish and chips and strawberry lemonade for the little ones. Mention ‘Take the Train for a free appetizer (up to $10), when you purchase two entrees.

FisHouse
101 E. Cabrillo Ave.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-966-2112
Online: fishousesb.com

Monkeyshine: If you’re looking for a little sweet treat, check out Funk Zone newcomer Monkeyshine. Soft-serve ice cream comes in unique flavors (plus standards like vanilla and chocolate), served in their signature waffle cones plus loads of color-happy toppings like Pocky and Fruity Pebbles.

Monkeyshine
121 E. Yanonali St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-880-4228
Online: monkeyshines.com

Tips For Getting Around Car Free:

From the train station, many hotels are within a short walking distance. The Wayfarer hotel is just across the street and Hotel Santa Barbara is a short 8-minute walk up State Street. Bring a stroller if you have little ones who tire easily and make sure you can effortlessly manage the luggage you’re bringing. A mixture of backpacks and rolling suitcases work best.

Bonus points: Let your little one bring their own pint-sized rolling suitcase. They’ll love feeling grown-up and you’ll appreciate the extra hands-on help. Once you’re checked in to your hotel and you’ve dropped off your luggage, getting around is easy. Most activities are within a 10-minute walk, but there’s also the Santa Barbara Trolley Tours, MTD bus service and bikes at Wheel Fun Rentals.

Santa Barbara Trolley Company: Hop on and off the Santa Barbara Trolley for a fun way to travel around town. A knowledgeable driver takes you past the Santa Barbara Zoo, Sea Landing, the Santa Barbara Mission and many stops in-between. Stay on board for the whole 90-minute narrated tour or jump on and off at select stops. If you arrive at the Visitors Center with some extra time before your Trolley Tour departs, walk across the street to Chase Palm Park with a playground and pond with turtles and ducks.

Santa Barbara Trolley Company
Visitor Center
1 Garden St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-965-0353
Online: sbtrolley.com

Wheel Fun Rentals: Who needs a car when you have pedal power? Rent a family-sized surrey at Wheel Fun Rentals and pedal the boardwalk for a scenic view of the Santa Barbara shoreline. They also rent an assortment of kids bikes and adult bikes with baby seats and trailers by the hour up to the day––great for getting around car free!

Wheel Fun Rentals
24 East Mason St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
805-966-2282
Online: wheelfunrentals.com

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Plan your trip via Santa Barbara Car Free.

––photos and story by Kerry Cushman

This trip was paid for by Santa Barbara Car Free partners but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.

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