Sweet spots for family fun in Santa Barbara, California

By: Melissa Savoie
February, 2022

When I became a parent, an unexpected challenge for me was to reconnect with the language of babies and children: play. We become so serious sometimes that we forget that essential part of ourselves that can flow in delight, discovery and creativity. I can admit now that I don’t like Legos, I dread mind -numbing sessions of make-believe and I am not a sports person. Yet, I have found my way to play. 

When my kids were toddlers, I took a parenting class with Austin treasure Carrie Contey, who asked us to consider how we enjoy play in our adult lives in order to find spaces for connection with our growing people. This advice has been crucial to me in the years since. I have learned to look for openings when we experience connection as a family where we can laugh more easily.

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My most deeply held, essential joy of being a parent is watching my kids see the world. The fresh surprise they bring to every situation cracks life open and makes everything new for me, too. I love to watch their expressions shift throughout the day like the sun moving across the sky. They remind me that the world is still filled with novelty, with new experiences, and with the constant opportunity for us to find ourselves new within it. When I take my kids to plays, to watch new movies, to create art, to bake, to go into nature, these are places where I can stop worrying about everything being right, efficient, or necessary. I can finally unfold myself to take their lead. We are brought together in those moments and they are the underpinnings of our bond to one another. My own play language is one of discovery, surprise, and slowing down. Any opportunity to travel brings out the play in our whole family.  

When in Santa Barbara, visit Stearns Wharf. Contributed by Melissa Savoie

Santa Barbara is a gem of a city, nestled against the Pacific Ocean with the Santa Ynez Mountains as the backdrop. We spent two days here walking and exploring both the natural and architectural beauty of this area. Our time was open and leisurely and seemed to resonate with the flow of the city family fun in Santa Barbara abounds. 

A color-mixing wheel at MOXI encourages young visitors to get creative. Contributed by Melissa Savoie

Our first morning in Santa Barbara, we walked to MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation. MOXI is a science and explorative play museum that looks a bit like a sandcastle from the outside. The adobe building rises in a white swirled tower, with flowing, liquid lines. Our kids climbed into a huge guitar, recorded their own musical clips, created art, assembled cars to race and mixed colors with the sunlight that shone through the giant rainbow wheel on the second floor. The star of MOXI was the rooftop play area, which featured an air cannon and elaborate water tables set against a 360-degree view of the city, the glittering ocean and the green mountains beyond.

MOXI is a fun, interactive museum that families will enjoy. Contributed by Melissa Savoie

After MOXI, we went for ice cream and were lucky to get the suggestion to visit the nearby Superior Court of California County of Santa Barbara from the person who helped us. We walked up State Street to the courthouse, which is stunning, surrounded by fantastic sunken gardens. A lovely example of Spanish architecture, the courthouse was completed in 1929 and is sometimes called one of the most beautiful buildings in the country. There are details to see everywhere you look. The stained-glass windows, arches and extensive murals detailing the history of the area make this worth a visit. We were especially charmed by the climb up into the clock tower, where we discovered a panoramic view of cloud-colored adobe topped with crimson tile roofs.

Santa Barbara, California, offers ample opportunities for family fun. Contributed by Melissa Savoie

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After wandering the courthouse, we walked one block over to see El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, where visitors can view the two remaining original adobo structures from a 1782 Spanish fortress. Across the street from the park, adults got a much-needed caffeine charge up at Handlebar Coffee, a super-cute bike-themed coffee shop. We also stumbled upon the Moreton Bay Fig Tree, an absolutely massive tree with an elegant arterial spread of above-ground roots so large that my kids were able to climb between them and sit.

As we headed back toward the coast, we lucked out by walking right into the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market. A veritable feast of colors, local fruits and vegetables, this was a true afternoon energy lift. We left the market with our arms filled with bags blossoming with a rainbow of fresh berries, citrus, homemade soaps, and flowers. Walking around the city and having open plans allowed us to have the spontaneous and fluid day that I love. 

At the bargain price of $5 per adult and $2 for kids, we took the adorable yellow Lil’ Toot Water Taxi between Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf. This was another local recommendation. Departure times are available throughout the day, but we chose the sunset cruise. The kids were able to take a turn steering and tooting the horn as the name suggests. We stopped after at Brophy Brothers for a relaxed atmosphere, a delicious basket of fried local seafood and a margarita.

Most of our second day was spent at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo is gorgeous in both landscaping as well as the intimacy between guests and animals. Mouth-dropping succulent displays and an incredible lush, green landscape stretch out over 30 acres of oceanside property. This is truly one of the most beautiful zoos I’ve ever been to. The habitats are naturalistic and open. We also felt good visiting this zoo due to its support of local conservation efforts, specifically for the California condor and Island foxes, which are native to nearby Channel Islands National Park.

My oldest child spent the entire time gazing in rapt wonder into the habitat of the white-handed gibbons, who are adorable tiny apes. We had to take turns waiting with her and taking our younger child to other exhibits. She was coaxed away only by the pull of watching the feeding of the lovely Masai giraffes. If you go in the next year, you may see some little ones, since two new babies are expected in 2022. 

We ended every evening by walking along the beach or exploring the wharf. At the end of our second night, I laid down in the cool sand and rested my head on my arm. I watched the two shadowy forms of my children in the lengthening, stretching light of evening. The flow of the waves echoed the breath in my lungs. I felt softened, relaxed, awake. Traveling with my kids with the framework of play in mind has made our trips more connected and more relaxed. The city of Santa Barbara is a delight for the senses and a sweet, charming city that we will one day return to visit again. 

If You Go

Links:

MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Innovation and Exploration, https://www.moxi.org

Superior Court of California County of Santa Barbara, https://santabarbaraca.com/ businesses/santa-barbara-county-courthouse/

El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, https://www.sbthp.org 

Handlebar Coffee, https://handlebarcoffee.com 

Moreton Bay Fig Tree, https://www.santabarbara.com/attractions/moreton-bay-fig-tree/ 

Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market, https://www.sbfarmersmarket.org 

Lil’ Toot Water Taxi, https://www.celebrationsantabarbara.com/lil-toot-water-taxi/ 

Santa Barbara Zoo, https://www.sbzoo.org

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