Visiting Santa Barbara on a Smart Budget

by  Laura Powell | Updated on May 24, 2019

At 70 degrees and sunny nearly every day of the year, Santa Barbara is known as California’s playground for the rich and famous. Oprah, Ellen, and other A-listers have weekend homes here to get away from the bustle and smog of Los Angeles. Those facts alone may leave the Average Joe or Josephine to wonder whether a jaunt to this idyllic getaway 100 miles north of L.A. is possible for the budget-minded. We insist it is.

Let’s start with things to do.

First, go to the beach. The Santa Barbara area has more than a half-dozen distinct beaches perfect for strollers, sunset seekers, and dog walkers (Hendry’s Beach is largely off-leash). It’s a little trickier to find good surfing near town, but there can be decent waves at Campus Point, located near the University of Santa Barbara.

Other options on the water include sea kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. Several shops offer rentals at affordable prices. But for those wanting to take a dip, be warned: The waters near Santa Barbara are cold. Generally, only the brave or those outfitted with wetsuits go for long-distance Pacific swims.

Take a free one-hour docent-led tour of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, the impressive chamber is filled with murals depicting California history and beautiful mosaics. If you are not up for a tour, wander through the Sunken Gardens or shimmy on up to the observation tower for a 360-degree view of the red tile roofs below.

Next, explore those roofs at ground level. Get the Red Tile Walking Tour map and take a self-guided constitutional by the city’s public gardens and architectural highlights. One stop is the Santa Barbara Mission, established in 1786. There’s a nominal fee to get inside, although it is free to stop and smell the roses in the pristine gardens.

Before doing more sightseeing, you might need a touch of caffeine. Grab your java from a local merchant like Handlebar Coffee or The Santa Barbara Roasting Company. Once energized, it’s time for more walking. One hidden natural spot known mostly to locals is the Douglas Family Preserve. It’s tucked away on the bluffs above Arroyo Burro Beach in the Mesa neighborhood. Three miles of trails crisscross the property, through woodland, grassland and coastal live oaks, Monterey pines and cypress.

Beachside, along Cabrillo Avenue, Chase Palm Park is home to many evening concerts. By day, the park is a playground, complete with skateboard ramp, recreation center, a playground, and an antique carousel.

Legs tired from all of this activity? An electric trolley whisks visitors between the beach and downtown for just 50 cents a ride. The trolley will take you close to a number of cheap lunchtime spots, including Natural Cafe or Shoreline Cafe, where you can nibble on fish tacos while wiggling your toes in the sand. Everything at Natural Cafe is uber-healthy, so you’ll feel like a native sipping a smoothie, slurping soup, or sampling a salad. And all the food is decent and reasonably priced, unlike some other Santa Barbara beachside eateries.

Speaking of cheap eats, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the city’s Mexican favorites. Head to Milpas Street for mouth-watering tacos. The most famous taqueria on the strip is La Super-Rica Taqueria, where you’ll likely encounter long lines due to its notoriety. If you don’t have the patience, don’t worry. Other stellar choices for South of the Border cuisine include Taqueria El Bajio, Taqueria La Colmena, or Los Agaves, a cozy restaurant featuring seafood and authentic Mexican dishes.

If you are looking for an inexpensive place to stay, be aware that many of the budget hotels advertised are in Goleta and Carpenteria. Both places are perfectly fine, but not that close to the action. The best and most convenient budget digs are those located near East or West Beach in Santa Barbara proper. Older motels like the Cabrillo Inn at the Beach, the Eagle Inn, and the Mason Beach Inn have been updated, and offer decent prices along with a central location. 

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