GoletatrainCollege towns for kids? You bet! You may not expect it but many California college towns are ideal for family travel. Beyond the campus, the following college towns have vibrant downtown districts, historical sites and beaches. But while there, take a free campus tour (it’s never too early for college chats), catch a college sports game and get students’ tips for local attractions.

Santa Barbara is the coastal stomping grounds for the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Santa Barbara City College (UCSB’s original campus) and Westmont colleges. Save 50 percent on hotels and attractions with the Santa Barbara Car Free program.

Activities
Near UCSB is the South Coast Railroad Museum (www.goletadepot.org), where you can hop aboard a miniature train operating year-round. Downtown, catch ocean breezes at Stearns Wharf, a lively California pier with restaurants, shops and Ty Warner Sea Center, then walk or bike on beachside paths. Stroll or ride an electric trolley (50 cents one way) along State Street, the main drag for beach gear, shops and a smorgasbord of restaurants. Got a fourth grader studying California Missions? The trolley stops by Mission Santa Barbara (www.sbmission.org). Hop aboard Emmet the train for a spin around the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens (www.sbzoo.org), home to 500-plus animals living in natural habitats.

Local grub
Backyard Bowls’ healthy acai smoothies make hearty meals. Isla Vista, a popular student community near UCSB, has numerous casual eateries: try Woodstock’s Pizza. Longboard’s Grill on the wharf has stunning ocean views and easy-on-the-wallet burgers and salads.

Lodging
Cheshire Inn, an Alice in Wonderland-themed B&B with family suites, situated by State Street and one mile from the beach.

SLOcreeksideFrom Santa Barbara, it’s about a 90-minute scenic drive to San Luis Obispo and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). Worth a visit: the campus’ scenic, five-acre Leaning Pine Arboretum), free.

Activities

Stroll along the pretty boardwalk filled with cafes and ice cream stands, and swim at Avila Beach. Nearby Avila Valley Barn is the place for fresh fruit and pressed apple cider. Hike the easy Laguna Lake Park trail that surrounds a lake (trail head across from the Madonna Plaza Shopping Center). 
Explore Downtown SLO’s shops, cozy creek-side restaurants, galleries and museums (including the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum). Free tours at Mission San Luis Obispo across from Mission Plaza, where there’s a community park and San Luis Creek. Ride the Old SLO Trolley (50 cents) about town.

Local grub

Firestone Grill serves finger-licking good tri-tip sandwiches (chicken and pork too); Blue Sky Café is popular for fresh market meals.

Lodging
Rose Garden Inn of San Luis Obispo amenities include free WiFi, free movie library, heated pool. Worth a drive are nearby Morro Rock, Morro Bay and Hearst Castle.

It’s about 164 miles from SLO to www.santacruzcounty.travelSanta Cruz, a funky beach town famous for surfing and rural campus, University of California, Santa Cruz. The university’s public attractions include an arboretum and an off-campus working marine laboratory at the Seymour Center Long Marine Lab (www.seymourcenter.ucsc.edu). 

Activities
The festive Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (www.beachboardwalk.com) has numerous rides including a Ferris Wheel and an historic Looff Carousel. Watch a surfing competition or learn to catch a wave at Cowells Beach. Peddle bikes along West Cliff Drive, a winding, paved coastal path. Along the way you’ll see Seal Rock (notice the seals and sea lions), a bronze surfer statue and the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (www.santacruzsurfingmuseum.org). Free admission.

Local grub
Jumpstart your day with breakfast at Kelly’s French Bakery or buy gourmet sandwiches for a picnic, (try the ham and gruyere grilled cheese or roasted eggplant sandwich).

Lodging
Dream Inn, a beachfront hotel or the value priced Seaway Inn

It’s a 90- minute drive from Santa Cruz to quirky Berkeley (http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/), located about 10 miles east of San Francisco. Get a history lesson about California’s first UC – Berkeley (www.ucberkeley.edu), built in 1868, on daily tours offered by the UC Berkeley Visitor Center. Discover global plants at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, which also offers stroller-friendly children’s tours (including a butterfly walk). Many tours free with paid admission: $10 adults, $5 ages 13 – 17, $2 ages 5 – 12.

Activities
Just steps from campus are an eclectic mix of shops, sidewalk vendors and eateries. Nearby Berkeley Marina has a walking path and grassy areas ideal for kite-flying. At the innovative Adventure Playground (http://adventureplaygrounds.hampshire.edu/), featuring kid-designed and built forts, boats and towers, ages 7 and older can saw, hammer and paint. Located in Berkeley Hills is Tilden Regional Park). Sprawled over 2,079 acres are a variety of attractions, including a lake with swimming facilities, botanical garden, miniature steam train, a merry-go-round, an 18 hole golf course and a nature preserve.

Local grub
Satisfy hunger at Picante Mexican restaurant, Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers and CREAM (cookies rule everything about me). There’s usually a line out the door for CREAM’s $2 delicious ice cream cookies.

Lodging
The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Berkeley Marina (www.hilton.com), Hotel Durant) and Rose Garden, which offers complimentary breakfast and parking.