My husband and I love the mountains, the ocean, the outdoors and fresh air. Our kids are into roller coasters, ice cream, beaches and toys. If you want a vacation that ticks all those boxes, we recommend the Central California Coast.
Driving the coast of California with kids can be quite an adventure. You’ll see abundant wildlife and incredible ocean views. There’s beaches galore, outdoor activities, a laid-back vibe and oodles of delicious food, especially if you’re a seafood lover.
We flew into San Francisco and left out of L.A. While we would have loved to spend more time in the City by the Bay, we had a coastal itinerary and hit the road after a lovely evening at Aloft. They have games in the lobby and a quick, healthy breakfast — key for traveling families.
We rented a minivan from Enterprise (well worth it for the extra room) and hit the open road!
First stop: Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a hobo chic surfer town with organic cafes and a historic beach boardwalk about an hour and a half drive away from San Francisco.
Where to play
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, often called the best seaside amusement park in the world, is what drew us to Santa Cruz, and it didn’t disappoint. Operating since 1907, this park with free entry has two National Historic Landmark rides that are still running. And let me tell you, despite being almost 100 years old, the Giant Dipper still rocked me. Our daughter finally ate enough vegetables to be 48 inches tall and she felt like her opportunities for thrills were limitless here. Good old-fashioned family fun is the name of the game and everyone was enamored with the Undertow (twisty, turn-y and sure to get you giggling).
West Cliff Drive is TripAdvisor’s top ranked activity in Santa Cruz. There you can watch surfers catch waves in “Surf City” and check out the Surfing Museum in the lighthouse. Stroll the Santa Cruz Wharf for people watching, ice cream eating and souvenir shopping.
I always try to sneak some learning into every trip and it certainly wasn’t hard in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is hands-on, allowing children to touch marine life in an intertidal pool and inspect seashells from the area. Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for a chill, creative environment that ignites imagination and inspires engagement. Fiona MacLean, marketing and communications catalyst for the museum, says they want to demonstrate that anyone can create history. With word prompt walls, postcard coloring tables and hippie tents, it’s a place where you can feel at home to unleash your mind. Then walk outside to Abbott Square for music, food and art in the open air.
Where to stay
The kids loved our Hilton Santa Cruz stay because the outdoor pool and hot tub had plenty of other families to swim with. Only a ten-minute drive from the boardwalk, it’s located in a quiet redwood forest setting.
Where to eat
Get your caffeine and croissants at Cat.Cloud.Companion. This hip café/ bakery combination in Abbott Square is a quick place to enjoy locally roasted coffees and crispy pastries before you’re off and running. On the wharf, dine at Stagnaro Brothers Seafood for fresh seafood with a spectacular sunset view on the Upper Deck Lounge.
Hula’s Island Grill is the perfect place to get your dose of California casual dining in a throwback tiki environment with surfing on the TV and repurposed Spam containers filled with trivia cards on the bar. It gets busy, so expect to wait to for their eclectic menu featuring fresh fish, tacos, burgers, bowls and pupus, like the popular spicy edamame.
West End Tap was recommended to us. Not only did my husband get his fill of craft beer and burgers, but the kids also devoured their meals, which included the largest, greenest bowl of broccoli they’ve ever been served. It’s hard to get your greens on the road and I greatly appreciated how this pub provided fresh foods with a twist.
Next up: Monterey
Monterey is home to the uber-popular Monterey Bay Aquarium, Historic Cannery Row, incredible whale watching and sea otter, harbor seal and sea lion viewing.
On the way from Santa Cruz to Monterey
The drive on legendary Highway 1 is short and scenic to Monterey, but stop and stretch your legs at Seacliff State Beach. There’s an old ship at the end of the pier and the beach is a great place for a swim.
Then take your kids for their first cider tasting! Stop at Martinelli’s, where they’re celebrating 150 years of apple juice deliciousness. The friendly staff happily served our family tastings of almost two dozen different kinds of sparkling cider. We agree that they’re all tasty, but the classic was our favorite (followed by mango).
Where to play
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the top Monterey tourist attraction. Located on the glistening waters of the Monterey Bay, the colorful exhibits inspire conservation. Historic Cannery Row, right outside the aquarium, is a fun place to walk around, visit quirky shops, get a glimpse into life at the old Monterey Bay fisheries and see what John Steinbeck wrote about.
Kayaking for the first time as a family with Monterey Bay Kayaks was awesome. Not only was our guide outstanding (informative and oh-so patient), but within minutes of getting into our two-person kayaks, we were watching sea otters swim with their pups, getting up close and personal with sea stars and paddling around piles of sea lions lounging on a pier.
Whale watching in Monterey is phenomenal because of the deep submarine canyon. With Discovery Whale Watch you’re guaranteed to see whales every day of the year, from humpbacks to orcas, gray whales and blue whales. It is absolutely magical to see the spray of a whale spouting in the distance. Breaching, playful jumping out of the water and splashing down with a slap of the fin, is incredible to watch. Just make sure to dress warmly and take anti-nausea medication. They sell ginger drops for the kids.
MY Museum is an adorable, toddler-friendly children’s museum with a stage to put on your own production, mini golf, and locally-inspired exhibits with a tree and beach. My daughter couldn’t get enough of the suction tube wall with scarves. Carmel Honey Company is another interesting place to visit. The honey is fantastic, but the best part is the owner’s story. This business started as a fifth grade homework assignment propelled by a passion for bees. The owner, Jake, runs the business with his family and makes it a priority to give back through education and outreach.
Where to stay
Carmel-by-the-Sea is close to Monterey and well worth the stay. La Playa Carmel is a charming, restored mansion just a few short blocks from the beach, shops and restaurants. The amenities alone blew us away. Champagne breakfasts and milk and cookies in the evening are sure to delight any guest. Our kids loved the waffle bar with chocolate chips, blueberries and whipped cream. With a poolside casita, you get the opportunity for the kids to swim right outside your door.
Where to eat
Family-owned and super friendly, Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar provided a wonderful evening for the whole family. My husband and I dined on the largest oysters I’ve ever seen while the kids gobbled up pizza and drooled over the desserts. The service was smashing and there was a wonderful sense of community. Even the mayor was dining at Flaherty’s! Calamari steak is now one of my new favorites.
Italian food tends to be a good way to please most palates, especially tiny, picky diners. With sushi as my most savored food, I was surprised to find Italian fusion sushi on Vesuvio’s menu (think salmon with saffron rice and fried capers). I without a doubt would order that again! If Italian sushi is not for you, try cioppino (a tasty seafood stew with fresh tomatoes and wine sauce).
Last stop: Santa Barbara
Known as the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara lies between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and boasts a mild Mediterranean climate year-round. While “Sideways” made it famous for wine, Oprah Winfrey now lives nearby, the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin was born here and Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, opened an iconic resort here.
On the way from Monterey to Santa Barbara
Close to Monterey, you can’t miss spectacular Big Sur for some of the best views in the universe. My family visited Point Lobos State Reserve for a hike and a picnic in the sunshine. The photos don’t even do justice to the depth of the blues and richness of the scenery.
Due to an unfortunate landslide, Highway 1 is under repair between Monterey and San Luis Obispo County until September. If you’re looking to complete one of the most scenic drives in the country down the incredible coastline, Highway 1 reopens in the fall.
We drove four hours on Highway 101 to reach Santa Barbara. On the way, we stopped for a spectacular horse ride through the coastal trails of the Santa Ynez Mountains with Circle Bar B Guest Ranch. Our guide told stories of the land’s rich history and kept a fluid stream of conversation with my six-year-old (not always an easy feat). Clopping through canyons, crossing gentle creeks and peering out over an incredible vista made this experience one for the memory books. It was a wonderful reminder of how bold my little girl is.
Where to play
MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation was hands-down our kids’ favorite attraction in Santa Barbara. In fact, they kept asking to go back. There are hands-on instruments, water activities on the rooftop, and so many interactive and engaging exhibits, but for us the runaway hit was the Speed Track. Kids can build their own race cars, and then send them down the test track, with cameras recording and timing each race. The track can be moved up and down and kids test out various ways to increase their speed. We seriously had to tear our children away after hours of experimenting.
For the first time in our lives we rented a surrey, those big four-person bikes, to cruise the waterfront. Wheel Fun Rentals was very helpful in selecting the right bike for our crew, because honestly, neither of the kids was going to pedal. Our daughter sat shotgun in the basket on front and our son rode in the middle while my husband and I hit the pedals. We had a blast riding down Cabrillo Boulevard in our newest mode of transportation, but the most memorable part of our trip was when my husband decided to race another family on surrey. He took the challenge quite seriously and spun his legs faster than I’ve ever seen to endless squeals from the kids and me. That’s what vacation is for — those unexpected and now-cherished family memories.
Where to stay
Hotel Santa Barbara is a historic hotel in easy walking distance to shopping, dining, the beach and wharf. Built in 1925, Hollywood elite like Clark Gable used to hang out here. Now you slide the same Otis elevator door and savor fresh, local pastries in the lobby in the mornings.
Where to eat
If you’re looking for an outdoor eatery with great ambiance, then BENCHMARK eatery is the place to grab your grub. The sopes are piled so high with tender-crisp veggies that I could only eat one. Tri-tip is big in California, so try a tri-tip sandwich or tacos. Our kids got a kick out of the root beer floats.
Santa Barbara FisHouse has a lovely setting by the water with a patio and open fire pit. They’re known for happy hour and innovative cocktails, along with fresh fish. FishHouse serves some of the most gorgeously decorated dishes I’ve seen in a while with vibrant, fresh flowers.
The Funk Zone is a happening area. We hit up Lucky Penny for lunch. The wood-fired pizzas are to die for. If you can stop for some wine tastings, there are many tasting rooms in Santa Barbara. In fact, Oreana Winery even has a Pacman game to entertain the kids while you swirl a few glasses.
Heading for LAX
Before we knew it, our week was up and we were on the road to LAX. A 2.5-hour drive from Santa Barbara, we stopped for a hike along the way at Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. There you can see a teepee, Paradise Falls and Indian Cave. Then, poof, we were on a plane back to Chicago.
I love vacation because it gets us out of the chore churn and enjoying life undistracted together. The moments of my son and daughter walking down the streets of Santa Barbara hand-in-hand giggling to inside jokes and snuggling in the same bed are priceless. Go to California to soak in the laid-back, sunshine vibe. Explore the scenery and delight in the unique attractions. Take back home a deeper family bond and some beautiful memories.