Though there are many California beach towns, each one has its own attitude and vibe. At this point, our family has explored many of them from cliffs of NorCal to the laidback shores near the Mexican border.
But there’s something about Santa Barbara, located in right in the Central Coast, that is on a level all its own. With the mountains, the gardens, the ocean and a beautifully serene city, Santa Barbara is quiet class. But don’t mistake its peacefulness for boring–there’s SO much to do.
In the past, we visited Santa Barbara as newlyweds, wedding go-ers, wine drinkers and babymooners. This time we were visiting in a really unique moment in our lives and in the world: as parents, as second time babymooners and as the pandemic travel freeze was lifting.
Santa Barbara felt like the clear choice for us looking for a place checked these boxes:
- A fun trip for our almost three year old
- An easy trip for a 8 month pregnant mama
- A safe trip to celebrate the return of “normal” life post pandemic crisis
Just 2 hours North on the Pacific Coast Highway, the scenic drive definitely added to the appeal and weather in April was just perfect for a spring weekend getaway.
As always, I feel where we stay is the most important detail. In the past, we’ve stayed at Santa Barbara properties that ranged from boutique to standard to super luxury. This time our needs were focused around our little girl. We needed something that was comfortable, convenient and it HAD to have a big pool (as mandated by her). Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find the idyll spot.
Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
If you’ve been to Santa Barbara, you’ve driven passed the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. It’s located right across the street from the main East Beach area, along a grassy, palm tree studded path. This prime location put us in walking distance to restaurants, to parks, to the beach and a few minutes from the Zoo, a must on our itinerary.
Traveling with a toddler means we will be in the room A LOT. Naps, early bed times and toddler meals all require that we are in the room frequently so having a well equipped, good sized room is very important to us parents. As it turns out, the Hilton’s rooms were perfectly designed for us. Clean and concise, the decor was minimal and modern without those extra flourishes that can sometimes make a room feel dated. The focal point was the space, which I felt was quite large for a standard hotel room. A couch area, rugs like those turkish rugs, and desk, as well as balcony, were well spaced out and away from the king bed.
We brought a Pack n’ Play for Aurora and during naps, made a cozy area for her. The room’s blackout curtains were very effective (and so appreciated) which made her her naps great.
The bathroom was again simple, but has some modern touches giving it a spa feel.
The balcony faced the lush interior of the resort and we could see the ocean in the distance.
Since we are still in the time of COVID, I did appreciate the labels on the door stating that the room had been sanitized.
The main event for us was the pool. We had warm and sunny weather, so us (and everyone else at the resort) wanted to dive into their central oval pool. Due to restricted capacity during the pandemic, we couldn’t just waltz in. We had to put our name on a list and wait to be called for our turn as capacity lessened. Initially we were told it was going to be 3 hours, but luckily we were called after only an hour and managed to entertain our toddler until then. The resort even went the extra mile to offer us free access to beach chairs for use at the beach across the street while we waited.
The pool was worth the wait. It was very wide, with easy access via steps on one end. Our daughter was delighted to be floating in this large pool and all three of us were in the water the whole time. The nearby hot tub was a lovely retreat when we needed to warm up as I’m a wimp and felt it was a little cold, but it was actually very nice having a limited capacity as it was a very relaxing experience.
Drinks are served from the pool bar and though they looked good, this pregnant mama and busy dad didn’t have time to grab one. Next time!
If you aren’t in the main building, the rooms are located in free standing buildings throughout the grounds. Landscaping and giant chess and checker boards, as well as several seating areas made it feel very comfortable yet secluded.
We only had one breakfast here and it was decent but we felt a bit overpriced for the quality. It felt understaffed which led to some delays, but I’d have to blame that on the pandemic. However, with so many outstanding food options in Santa Barbara, there is tough competition.
Make sure you stop here, even if it’s just for a pastry and coffee. All their treats, including bread, are made on the premises and just so, so good.I am very glad we had a full sit down breakfast because every single dish was great. It was clear that the locals love this spot as there was a line for the pastries when we left. I highly recommend their cappuccino as well–reminded me of Italy.
Everything about this Italian restaurant is authentic elegance. The exterior under their ivy terrace lets you dine on the handmade pastas, perfectly wood fired pizzas and freshly plucked salads while watching the Santa Barbara sunset. Convivo is a Mediterranean heaven.
The service was excellent and menu is so mouthwatering, it’s going to be a challenge to choose what to order. Even their bread was outstanding. The quality here is evident in every delicious detail.
La Paloma Café
A bright and buzzy feel, La Paloma is a trendy, welcoming hotspot in the historic Presidio. Serving a combination of California meets Spanish meets Mexican, their menu is artfully indulgent intertwining fresh vegetables with rich meats.
That salty, crispy “fried air” table snack that they bring you is addictive, but I do often think about the all natural Pork Shoulder carnitas main course. And do get those crispy brussels as a side, you’ve never had crispy brussels like these. Given the pandemic, we enjoyed the outdoor seating, enclosed by wildflowers, which was lovely at sunset and I can only imagine equally atmospheric at brunch or lunch.
Calling it a garden feels like calling an Alp, a hill. This Botanic Garden is so expansive, you can easily get lost in the Redwoods, meander through meadows and find yourself alone at babbling streams. It’s basically like the prettiest of all the California landscapes in one setting.
Take a map as you wander through and pack a picnic if you are a planner, because you’ll want to spend time in this tranquil, fresh nature. I wasn’t sure it’d be fun for a toddler, but it surely was. Ponds, rocks to climb, so many settings and even wooden house/play structures definitely made it extra fun for the littles.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Definitely the most hyped activity of the weekend, we had HIGH hopes for this zoo. Aurora is loves animals and has been to 3 zoos prior, so I was hoping that she’d enjoy the SB Zoo experience. It did not disappoint.
We arrived early, just before opening on a Saturday, so we entered with only a handful of other visitors. The penguins and toucans were excited to see us, the Fennec fox was dancing by the glass window and the majestic lion family were enjoying a birthday treat as they watched us watching them. It’s not a large zoo but it feels very full, with so many enclosures that you can stumble upon within a few steps. The elusive amur leopard came out to see us and we caught glimpses of the gorillas.
However, the highlight had to be the giraffe feeding. We had tickets and got their 10 minutes early so we were first in line for the 10am feeding. They didn’t rush us, allowing us 5 whole minutes to place lettuce within tongue reach of the friendly Audrey, a female giraffe that beelined over to our platform as soon as she saw us. Aurora was delighted, we were enthralled and the whole experience was truly worth the visit alone.
Santa Barbara Sailing
With such a expansive coast line, Santa Barbara’s personality is centralized around its ocean. We had to get out on the water somehow and since I was pregnant, we thought a sailing excursion was just our speed.
Santa Barbara Sailing has a beautiful catamaran and a knowledgeable captain that took our group out for a 3 hour sail. Offering up drinks, snacks and an excellent playlist, we took in the sunshine and glittering sea views. I was curious if an almost three year old would get bored on the boat, and she didn’t, enjoying spotting sea lions as we sailed along.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
We raced from Aurora’s nap to make the final half hour of this museum because they had an outdoor exhibit we couldn’t miss: the Prehistoric Forest! We followed the walking path into their backyard forest to discover life-sized, animatronic dinosaurs bellowing, roaring and squawking as we approached.
This could have been cheesy. It wasn’t. The dinosaurs were so realistic in appearance and in movement, with no regular patterns or jolty movements that we expected. Aurora’s jaw was dropped, as were ours, as we walked past a T Rex, a Stegosaurus family and Rory’s favorite Parasaurolophus. The museum has a lot more to offer that we weren’t able to catch due to their 4pm closing, but the dinosaurs alone were certainly worth the stop at the SB Museum.
We passed this park in the car and had to pull over. The huge wooden structure resembled a storybook castle in the middle of a park, with wooden bridges, towers and secret passageways. We stopped on a busy Saturday afternoon while a birthday party was going on and needless to say it was high energy and tons of fun for all aged kids.
We managed to do all of the above in exactly 48 hours, even stopping for ice cream in Montecito on the way home. We had wanted to stroll the Downtown and check out the Santa Barbara Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, but the beauty of this destination is, we can always come back. And after this memorable family weekend, I have a feeling we will be back quite soon.