Smart kids pose unique challenges at home and on the road. I have traversed much of the globe with two outspoken smart kids in tow. The guidebook industry is generally pitched at childless travelers and the few kid-focused guidebooks out there are at worst focused on getting you from Legoland to Disneyland and back and at best, well – I haven’t found one yet that was best. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of both Legoland (been there) and Disneyland (done that) – but many interesting world cities have far more to offer a family with smart kids than just a big amusement park or two. Over the coming weeks I’m going to post lists of places to go with smart kids in tow for cities as diverse as Santa Barbara, California and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Santa Barbara, California
This is a perfect city for families with smart kids. There are so many interesting things to do, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you think I’ve left something important off of the list, let me know.
Lotusland: 37-acres of gardens that are beautiful and strange and curiously compelling, even to kids who might not immediately gravitate to a garden tour. Families with kids under the age of 10 will get their own docent and the women (I’ve yet to have a male docent) who tour families are spot on. They are bright, engaged and come with a sense of humor at no extra charge. It’s a two-hour tour (stop humming the Gilligan’s Island theme song – you’re dating yourself) so wear comfortable shoes and bring a bottle of water and protein bar if your young ones need liquid refreshment or a calorie boost to make it through. Ganna Walska, the eccentric woman who built the gardens was adventurous, seriously cooky, and managed to marry well 8 times, which is seven times more than most – go Ganna. Reservations necessary – usually three weeks in advance is the right timing. Tours at 10 and 1:30, Weds thru Sat, Mid-Feb to Mid-November.
The Natural History Museum: Much of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum is lost in a time warp about 40 years ago. The delightful dioramas were painted even longer ago than that, but despite its slightly musty feel – the place pulls and tugs at visitors young and old. We’ve been a hundred times and we still see something new every time we get there. I’m partial to the room full of birds, hundreds of them, of every shape and size. The old rattlesnake exhibit by the entrance with a rattler that rattles when you push the button has been sucking me in since I was knee high to a grasshopper (and they’ve got those too). In the summer time there is a fabulous butterfly exhibit with hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous butterflies. I love that the place draws senior citizens without their grandchildren just as often as it draws young families. Make sure you cross the bridge and wander through the park area along Mission Creek. The Gladwin Planetarium has presentations on the weekends and one or two times mid-week. Open daily 10-5 except major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, buy the “SB Nature Pass” and you’ll have unlimited admission to both the Natural History Museum and the Ty Warner Sea Center for 2 days. No restaurant but they’ll let you eat your picnic lunch in the great outdoors.
Ty Warner Sea Center at Stearns Wharf: The Sea Center was built as an adjunct to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The admission fee feels a bit steep if you only go here and don’t get to the partner museum. It’s really just a three-room show. The first exhibition space has touch tanks and fish tanks and usually at least one good volunteer on hand to answer questions (often a bright, well-meaning teenager). The next room has a square opening down to the sea and has equipment that allows kids to drop a collection container down to the seabed to bring up sand and usually some cool microscopic sea creatures. Microscopes are handy to peruse your finds. Upstairs is a continuous reel movie on the sea and a small number of other exhibits. The whole place takes an hour to see, at most. Just say NO to the food options on Stearns Wharf, other than the ice cream shop. The two major restaurants are tourist traps and I don’t have a single good culinary thing to say about either of them. It is certainly worth walking out to the end of the wharf, as long as you promise me you won’t eat there. There are usually a few fisherman and 2-3 pelicans hanging out so close you can practically touch them. If you’re hungry use your feet and march yourself along the beach path up to the Harbor and eat at Brophy Brothers instead (long lines, no reservations taken but worth the wait). Ty Warner Center is open daily 10-5, closed major holidays.
The Santa Barbara Zoo: The Santa Barbara Zoo sits on 30 of the most glorious acres this side of the Himalayas. With views out to the Channel Islands and back to the Coastal Range, it is worth a visit just to consume a picnic lunch and breathe the ocean air even if you don’t give two hoots about zoo animals. The Zoo opened in 1963, just in time for my family to spend countless days wandering happily through its environs. In recent years they’ve put considerable resources into upgrading the facilities. What was once a small charming zoo set in a glorious park is now a small charming zoo boasting recently upgraded housing for many of the two and four legged residents. The kid-sized train is entertaining for kids under 8 – much older than that and it’s a bit of a snooze. The lines for the train get l-o-n-g in the summertime and brace yourselves for the not-at-all adult friendly seating. Arrive when the zoo opens on summer days or expect to struggle landing a parking space. We find the “arrive at 10, leave just after lunch” – schedule makes parking easy and avoids the crowds. None of the onsite food options are worth the money, though I’ve tasted worse. Bring a picnic, there are lots of lovely areas to sit, most with ocean views (for nearby picnic food try the Trader Joe’s on Milpas just off the 101 – it’s not more than 4 minutes away). Open daily 10-5, closed Christmas.
The Santa Barbara Courthouse: History junkies and architecture hounds will get a kick out of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. It is truly beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because I got my marriage license there. I don’t think it will capture the interest of kids under the age of 8 – except for the fact that the gardens are fabulous and involve a number of elevation changes meaning there are lots of places to jump up and down – and the sunken garden is a glory to behold. The Mural Room is absolutely stunning. John Smeraldi, the Italian born painter who painted the intricate ceiling of the Mural Room is also credited with painting The Blue Room in the White House. If you or any of your charges need a little caffeine, the “Coffee Cat” which sits conveniently “kitty-corner” to the courthouse is a great local coffee shop. If you need more architecture hop across the street and peek into the Santa Barbara Public Library – also gorgeous and has a great kid’s section. Next to the library and a single block from the Courthouse is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (write up below). The two would make a good outing duo – followed by lunch at Tupelo Junction just up State Street.
Whale Watching: There are in fact whales to watch off of the coast of Santa Barbara. From February to May one can see the Pacific Grey Whales and from July to September the ones to watch are the Blue and Humpback Whales. There are a number of companies that go out daily from the Santa Barbara Harbor, including the Santa Barbara Sailing Center which own the Double Dolphin, a 50’ Catamaran that on a good day will get you up close and personal with a whale or two (or three or four). On a bad day you won’t see a single one, but the ride is still gorgeous. Seas can be challenging in February and even March. Make sure you bring a warm jacket and some Dramamine if you or your brood are prone to seasickness. Once in the Harbor, if you haven’t tired of ships – take Little Toot from the Harbor to Stearns Wharf. Much of the year you can see dolphins just by standing on the beach and looking out to sea (no charge).
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens: Badly damaged in the 2009 wildfires, today the Santa Barbara Botanic gardens are a testament to re-growth and rebirth and the overwhelming tenacity of plant life to survive and regenerate. It would be worth taking kids there in the next year or two just to get a firsthand lesson in the aftermath of fire. The various loop trails are easy to follow and can be traversed by surefooted children as well as older adults. My kids were particularly keen to learn about the methods used by the residents of the Santa Barbara Mission in the 1800s to move water from Mission Creek down to the Mission area – they had a functioning filtration system and everything. No food onsite other than a snack machine. Cold drinks can be found in the one vending machine near the restrooms. There’s an interesting gift shop. Open daily 9-5 in the winter/fall, 9-6 in the spring/summer – closed major holidays and for the occasional private event. I don’t think they encourage picnics, but I’m not sure they forbid them either. Rocky Nook Park is just down the road and would be a great place to picnic afterwards. You’re not far from the Natural History Museum – the two places could easily be done in the same day.
Santa Barbara Art Museum: Regional art museums, though not necessarily as glamorous as their big-city brethren, are often much more approachable for families with bright kids – who can still find big city museums overwhelming. The SB Museum of Art falls squarely in the “approachable and worthwhile” category. Its permanent holdings are first rate, the building is beautiful, and the whole collection can easily be seen in 90 relatively painless minutes. There is a not-so-big and depressingly windowless kid’s room that never holds my kids’ attention for longer than 10 minutes. The restaurant is good, though it keeps changing chefs, and the museum shop has lots of lovely things. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11-5. Can easily be combined with a stroll through the Santa Barbara Courthouse, and/or the Santa Barbara Downtown Public Library.
The Santa Barbara Mission: The Santa Barbara Mission graces every postcard aimed at advertising vacations in this fair city. It is truly beautiful to behold and can be toured between 9-5 daily (self-guided) or better yet, there are docent led tours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the morning. The rose garden just across the street is spectacular even when the roses aren’t in season and provides a great place for smart kids to RUN AROUND LIKE MAD – which they absolutely need to do at some point.
Ellwood Main Monarch Grove, Coronado Butterfly Preserve, Goleta: In November and December Monarch butterflies by the thousands hang out at the 9.3 acre Eucalyptus Grove preserve in Goleta just ten minutes north of Santa Barbara. There is relatively easy parking just outside the preserve in the suburban neighborhood that abuts the park. There is reasonably good signage about where to walk and the path is easy with very little change of grade. Grandparents and little kids and everyone in between can handle the outing. No restrooms, no restaurant – just the great outdoors and if you’re lucky, too many Monarchs to count.Print This Post