There's no denying that Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful towns on California's central coast (and perhaps the entire United States), comes at a cost. But while you might not be able to stay in Montecito, or dine at San Ysidro Ranch, it's still possible to experience the charm of this Pacific Ocean coastal town without depleting your travel budget in a single day. Of course, beaches are always a good option to while away an afternoon, but here are five other cheap activities to help you stay in motion:
Hike to Inspiration Point: The trailhead is located just a 5-minute drive from downtown, which means there are no excuses for skipping out on this 3.5-mile roundtrip hike that puts you atop a scenic overlook and gives you a panoramic view of downtown all the way north to the airport and beyond. While short, the hike gains 800 feet in elevation rather quickly, so be sure to bring plenty of water. And don’t forget your camera – the hike didn’t get the name “Inspiration Point” by accident.
Paddle Board in the Harbor: Regardless of whether you’ve tried stand up paddle boarding before, it’s unlikely you’ve done it in a setting as epic as the Santa Barbara waterfront. Beautiful views of the boats, beaches, and palm trees are framed by the mountains that hug the coast, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot a seal or two. Boards and tours are available from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center and start at $15/hour.
Wine-Picnic in Santa Ynez Valley: Just a 45-minute drive over the mountains from downtown, the Santa Ynez Valley has maintained a modest image and remains littered with cheap tasting rooms ($5 to $10) and down-to-earth winemakers – a fortunate holdover from the pre-Sideways days. We suggest packing a blanket and a cooler of bread, cheese, and fruit to accompany a bottle of wine for a picnic in one of the vineyards. For those that don’t want to rent a car, the downtown urban wine trail is a solid secondary option.
Eat Like a Local: Great restaurants are a dime a dozen in Santa Barbara, but finding budget-friendly spots can be tricky. Here are a few tips to help get you some good grub at a reasonable price: Try out the pasta plates (from $16) at The Palace for flavorful food in a great Cajun atmosphere; the Hoffman Brat Haus specializes in sausages (think duck, rattlesnake, pheasant, rabbit, chicken, pork, and even vegetarian, from $6.95) as well as liters of Belgian and German beers (from $5); La Super-Rica gets all the love from tourists (and the lines and high prices that come along with that), but Cuernavaca Taqueria is all the rage with locals (tacos from $1.60). And finally, while the harbor area is expensive, go to Brophy Bros for a beer and a bowl of what this writer considers to be Santa Barbara’s best clam chowder ($4.50).
Camp along the Coast: What better way to take in the coast than to camp on the beach? There are many options for camping along the coast near Santa Barbara, with campgrounds stretching from Carpinteria State Park in the south all the way north to Gaviota State Park. While not on the coast, Lake Cachuma is located just outside of Santa Ynez wine country and is a great spot for those looking to do some fishing/camping on their way back to Santa Barbara after a day of tasting.