Coming in at an impressive number three on The New York Times’ recently published list of the “52 Places to Go in 2019,” Santa Barbara, California has been stealing the limelight from Los Angeles these days — and no, it’s not just because of the incognito celebrities determined to sunbathe peacefully afar from the leering lens of pursuant paparazzi. A trip to the calm, coastal city is more like a walk on the beach than a parade down Hollywood Boulevard — complete with the same California sunsets you crave. Santa Barbara is scenic with Spanish-style stucco buildings with tiled roofs that blaze a burnt red from the beating hot sun, but it’s also embracing its quirkier, newfound identity. Street art and exotic, flavorful haunts for foodies abound and there are too many wineries to choose from. We know you can fly to LA on a dime from Denver, but why not check out Santa Barbara instead? Here’s how to visit and not break the bank.
Airfare and Transporation
You don’t need a layover at LAX to get to Santa Barbara anymore. Direct flights from Denver to Santa Barbara launched on Frontier Airlines on August 21 of last year, which means round-trip flights can be as low as $78 ($39 there and back — are you kidding?). The low prices make for the perfect long weekend retreat. When you arrive in Santa Barbara, you also don’t need to rent a car. The city has a new Downtown and Waterfront Shuttle that takes you up and down State Street and along Cabrillo Boulevard near the harborfront, which sells one-day passes with unlimited rides for only $1, and a Systemwide Day Pass at only $6 for unlimited bus rides all over the city (including the airport on Bus Line 11). For more info, visit the Santa Barbara MTD website. If you’re feeling adventurous, Wheel Fun Rentals downtown offers hourly bike rentals for as low as $10.95 — the perfect mode of transportation when you only feel like cruising.
Where: 12 East Montecito St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Dorm rooms start at $53 per night
The Lowdown: Although Santa Barbara doesn’t have its fair share of hostel accommodations, you can still get a resort-style experience at The Wayfarer. Catering to all budgets with private guest rooms for couples and families and male and female-only dorm rooms, this hip hotel is right beside the beach and has a heated pool and patio area, complimentary breakfast and fun, quirky décor. You can even attend an organized bar crawl during your stay.
Cost: Starting at $55 per night
The Lowdown: Only three blocks from downtown State Street, this clean and spacious Airbnb listing has all the amenities you need for getting a good night’s rest. Convenient and cozy, your stay at this home in Santa Barbara is a cheap traveler’s paradise.
Cost: Starting at $54 per night
The Lowdown: Experience the bohemian vibe of California a short distance away from downtown Santa Barbara at this sunny home in Oak View. This artistic Airbnb listing is simple yet refreshing and is definitely the most bang for your buck.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Where: 2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $9 per adult admission
The Lowdown: Santa Barbara is considered a Mission City, so don’t forget to actually see the Mission. The Old Mission in Santa Barbara is still home to Franciscan Friars today, and you can wander the stunning, scenic grounds of this historic religious site, which was founded on the Feast of Saint Barbara in 1786.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Where: 1212 Mission Canyon Rd., Santa Barbara
Cost: $14 per adult
The Lowdown: The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is not your average botanic garden. For one, you can hike in it? Weird, right? But it makes sense when you see that it’s actually 78 acres and filled with more than 1,000 plants, trees, cacti, flowers and other greenery native to California. The Botanic Garden features a Japanese Teahouse with authentic tea ceremonies performed daily, and even marks the Gardens by the landscape — you can travel to the Redwoods, desert, canyon and meadow for a variety of plant specimens.
Rancho La Patera & Stow House
Where: 304 North Carneros Rd., Goleta
Cost: Suggested $5 admission
The Lowdown: The city of Goleta, California lies north of Santa Barbara, but make sure you stop in on your trip to see this beautiful, historic attraction. Rancho La Patera is where the first commercial lemon trees were planted in California, and you can attend the Goleta Lemon Festival in September. This beautiful land and estate was once home to William Whitney Stow, who founded the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Santa Barbara Trolley Tour
Where: 1 Garden St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $25 per adult
The Lowdown: California loves its trolleys and we can’t blame them. It really is the best way to experience a city, and Santa Barbara’s got them too. Take a ride with the Santa Barbara Trolley Co. on an open-air, historical trolley that includes a 90-minute narrated tour as you stop past all the main attractions, but also get a look at some Santa Barbara gems like billion-dollar Butterfly Beach (where the celebs live and vacation), the Montecito Inn (built by Charlie Chaplin) and Motel 6 (the first-ever motel resurrected in 1962).
Salt Cave Session
Where: 740 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $25 per adult
The Lowdown: Located in downtown Santa Barbara, Salt is home to the largest Himalayan salt cave in North America. With 45 tons of 250 million-year-old pink crystal salt, this relaxing spa center hosts yoga classes, therapy sessions where you lie in a zero-gravity lounge chair and other ways to unwind and receive salt treatment. You can also purchase a massage or salt scrub. This is the one-of-a-kind activity your friends probably haven’t done yet.
Explore the Funk Zone
Where: See map here.
The Lowdown: Your visit to Santa Barbara will pose the question “What is the Funk Zone?” and well, it’s exactly how it sounds. Filled with street art, wineries, microbreweries, farm-to-table eateries, taco joints and eclectic shops and boutiques, this former warehouse district (think RiNo) is now the number one place to go at night. Our favorite spots are the Blue Door for some unique thrifting and Mony’s Mexican Food for some amazing tacos.
Shop on State Street
Where: State Street, Santa Barbara
The Lowdown: State Street is the main drag in Santa Barbara, so you can’t experience the city without taking a walk through this famous shopping district. This retail hub has high-end boutiques, thrift stores with unique collectibles, tourist shops, restaurants and bars all within ten walkable blocks. Here you’ll also find the Arlington Theatre, a historic Mission-style theater that features music and comedy performances in addition to film screenings.
Harbor and Stearns Wharf
Where: 217 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara
The Lowdown: Nothing beats the beach, so make sure you walk down Cabrillo Boulevard and explore Stearns Wharf and the Harborfront. Dotted with palm trees, this sunny strip of sand leads to a pier with an array of shops and restaurants in addition to the harbor filled with fancy yachts, sailboats and boats of all shapes and sizes. Explore the touch tank at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center or learn about the foundation of Earth Day, which began after the massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. There’s even the Boat Launch Mini Mart, which advertises it serves the “World’s Best Hotdogs,” a tasty lunch that even Obama has tried.
View from the Courthouse Clock Tower
Where: 1100 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara
The Lowdown: The best view of the city is undoubtedly up the old clocktower at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. It’s absolutely free to ride the elevator up and see the spectacular scenery of the coastline and the 360-degree views of red-tile rooftops that make this city so beautiful.
Coastal Cruise on the Double Dolphin
Where: 302 West Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara
Cost: $40 for three-hour cruise
The Lowdown: There’s nothing quite like being on the water. The Coastal Cruise on the Double Dolphin through the Santa Barbara Sailing Center promises a relaxing escape from downtown. For a couple of hours, you can sunbathe on this beautiful white sailboat and search for sea lions, dolphins, whales, birds and other ocean life in the bay. There’s even a full bar.
Watch the Sunset
Where: Wherever you want
The Lowdown: California is nicknamed the Golden State for a reason. A trip to Santa Barbara wouldn’t be as beautiful without a moment to witness one of the spectacular sunsets at dusk. Those pink, orange and purple streaks in the sky are free too.
Food and Drinks
French Press (Coffee and Breakfast)
Where: 528 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Under $10
The Lowdown: With coffee from local Dune Coffee Roasters, the French Press has two locations in Santa Barbara, but we prefer the one on Anacapa Street with a pastel pink outdoor patio. The freshly brewed coffee is the perfect way to start your sunny morning in Santa Barbara, or if you need an afternoon pick-me-up they also make a mean iced matcha latté.
Dawn Patrol (Breakfast)
Where: 324 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $15 and under
The Lowdown: Get an early start on your day at Dawn Patrol, a California hippie haunt with granola, avocados and breakfast burritos galore. With an organic juice bar, house-made breads and muffins and much more, Dawn Patrol definitely makes sure that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Goat Tree (Brunch)
Where: 36 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $15 and under
The Lowdown: The Hotel Californian downtown is a fancy place to spend the night, but anyone can eat at Goat Tree, a charming gourmet café with brunch, happy hour and dinner menus. Goat Tree has a Mediterranean culinary influence and serves delicious baked pastries, cold-pressed juices and fresh, vegetable-laden frittatas. Their avocado toast or smoked salmon toast is so mouth-watering you will be back the next morning.
Scarlett Begonia (Brunch)
Where: 11 West Victoria St. #100, Santa Barbara
Cost: Under $20
The Lowdown: Our reader ate here and still daydreams about it constantly. Scarlett Begonia offers the brunch that your soul dreams of but never quite finds. This charming, hidden garden restaurant advertises that it only creates “local, organic, thoughtful” food, and we’d have to agree. This picturesque brunch spot boasts artful entrées you’ll have to take pictures of. The Strawberries & Cream French Toast features brioche French toast, vanilla-scented mascarpone, strawberry jam and toasted almonds. You get the idea.
Lucky Penny (Lunch)
Where: 127 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Under $20
The Lowdown: In the heart of the Funk Zone neighborhood, Lucky Penny is a lucky find for lunch or an afternoon drink. Serving artisanal, wood-fired pizzas, fresh salads, craft coffee, beer and wine, this quirky restaurant has a picnic patio where you can take pictures of the exterior, tiled with you guessed it — 164,456 copper pennies.
Santa Barbara Farmers Market (Lunch)
Where: Locations vary on day.
Cost: Free admission
The Lowdown: Snack on fresh produce grown by local California farmers at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. Six days a week, rain or shine, you’ll find the stands filled with delicious fruit and veggies for sale at various locations across town (depending on the day). Over 130 growers bring their best crops to town, so make sure you taste the harvest while it’s ripe.
Where: 101 East Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara
The Lowdown: Savor some of the best seafood in town at the Santa Barbara FisHouse. Located right across the street from the beach, FisHouse is a favorite place among tourists and locals to dine and watch the sunset. With a colorful menu of fresh catches decorated in vegetables, lobster mac and cheese, coconut shrimp and other delicacies, this seafood restaurant gives you the taste of the ocean with a true coastal atmosphere.
Benchmark eatery (Dinner)
Where: 1201 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Under $25
The Lowdown: Casual, cozy American fare is served at Benchmark eatery, a State Street staple with large proportions for the hungry tourist. Offering a healthy amount of vegetarian options, burgers and seafood dishes, there’s something for everyone on the menu. Make sure you try the fried chickpeas.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company (Snack)
Where: 230 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara
Cost: $7.95 for an Uni Shooter. Menu under $20.
The Lowdown: It doesn’t get fresher than this. The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is located right on Stearns Wharf and sells local seafood in sizable proportions. If you want something freshly caught and uniquely flavorful, try the local delicacy “uni” — sea urchin in Japanese. It’s considered a delicacy in Japan, but most uni is actually caught off the coast of Santa Barbara. Try it if you’re brave enough.
ParadICE Hawaiian Shave Ice (Dessert)
Where: 11 West De La Guerra St. Unit A, Santa Barbara
Cost: Under $10
The Lowdown: If you want a sweet treat that’s on the healthier side, Santa Barbara’s brand new ParadICE Hawaiian Shave Ice shop on State Street is a must-stop on your itinerary. Hawaiian shave ice is a bit like a snow cone, except it includes delicious house-made syrups made with only real fruit, purified water and organic cane sugar. Some of the flavors include guava, mango, coconut, blood orange and other tropical flavors. You can even add an ice cream base, island-inspired toppings, or mix and match flavors for a unique concoction. ParadICE is literally the paradise of frozen treats.
Urban Wine Trail (Drinks)
Where: See map here.
Cost: Prices vary on location.
The Lowdown: Whether you’re a red, white or rosé lover, there’s something for you on Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail. Founded in 2007, this map includes 28 different wineries to choose from in five neighborhoods across the city, each of which offers an official tasting of samples made with grapes from the county’s best local vineyards. Stick to one neighborhood or travel far and wide in search of California’s best pinot noir. No matter how you choose to the Wine Trail, we advise you don’t have an empty stomach.
Where: 116-120 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara
Cost: Prices vary on location.
The Lowdown: Located in the Funk Zone neighborhood, the Waterline is a collection of shops housed inside an industrial warehouse property that makes for a unique happy hour experience. Featuring Lama Dog Taproom + Bottleshop, Topa Topa Brewing Co., Fox Wine Co. and The Nook, which serves entrées and late-night bites, this collection of local businesses and artisan boutiques offers a casual vibe for nightlife.
For more information, deals and visitor guides to Santa Barbara, check out santabarbaraca.com.