Santa Barbara, California
I'm not sure if I've ever heard someone say anything bad about Santa Barbara. It's one of those beautiful places that you see, are struck by the stunning landscape, the friendly people, and the casual, coastal vibe. Then you start wondering how to permanently move there. While the cost of living there makes relocating to this gorgeous coastal city fairly impossible, it's one of my absolute favorite places in California to visit (and one that I was fortunate enough to live in while in college).
Time of Year
I avoid the summer months, when it seems half of Los Angeles escapes north to Santa Barbara, particularly the first week of August for Fiesta Days, a giant festival. Also, avoid graduation weekend (typically mid-June) as most hotels sell out a year in advance.
Santa Barbara is sunny and beautiful with a fairly temperate Mediterranean-esque coastal climate. June can be foggy, with the typical California coastal June gloom and August can be quite warm. Other than that, there really isn't a bad time of year to visit.
What I Like
The gorgeous weather, beautiful climate, sandy beaches, laid-back atmosphere and affordable places to eat, despite the otherwise pricey nature of the city..
What I Don't Like
The pricey hotels and real estate that make it impossible to permanently move here.
There is very little reason to stay indoors. With beautiful beaches stretching through Santa Barbara, Goleta, Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria, it's hard to find a bad stretch of coastline and the temperate Mediterranean climate makes it an ideal outdoor spot nearly all year around.
Butterfly Beach: One of my favorite Santa Barbara spots, located across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel in Montecito. I recommend checking the tidal schedule before you go as high tide can make this relatively narrow stretch of sand virtually impassable. You'll be able to catch a lovely view of downtown Santa Barbara and the harbor because of the way the coast curves. There's a decent amount of street parking although it can become crowded on weekends in the summer.
Leadbetter Beach: Conveniently located near downtown Santa Barbara and within walking distance of Brophy Brothers (a favorite seafood spot). This beach is both wide and long, making it a great spot to take our toddler because he can run like crazy without bothering anyone else in the process. You'll often see people walking their dogs on this stretch of sand although the city's listing for the beach says dogs are not allowed.
Shoreline Park: While not a beach, this is a truly beautiful park and walking trail that stretches on a cliff above the water. Gorgeous views of the ocean and Channel Islands, a playground for children, lots of grass, plus the all important benches and bathrooms. It's a great place to take a sunset stroll or let your kids run around.
Lodging in Santa Barbara fills up quickly during the peak tourist season and can be very pricey. Be prepared that a bargain in Santa Barbara wouldn't be considered a bargain elsewhere. Here are a few of my favorite splurges.
Bacara Resort & Spa: While I've seen families with kids here, this is the ultimate splurge in my book for a lovely romantic getaway. While technically located on the edge of Goleta (a car is a must if you're planning to go anywhere else in the area), the resort has a beautiful stretch of coastline and beach, hiking trails, spa, gym, fitness classes, three saltwater pools, tennis courts, and several restaurants so you could easily never leave.
Montecito Inn: The most charming hotel with an elegant 1920's vibe and luxurious details in the rooms, it was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1928. It's retained it's original character and you'll see movie posters from his movies around the hotel in tribute to him. The pool is small but charming, the staff friendly and attentive, and the location is ideal, just a five minute walk from Butterfly Beach and right on Coast Village Road, the main street in Montecito with tons of shops and restaurants at your fingertips.
Courtyard Marriott: Yes it’s a chain and located on a busy street in Goleta but I’ve stayed here many times and it’s always reliably clean, quiet, affordable (for the area), and the staff is friendly and helpful.
Sunset Jazz Cruise with Santa Barbara Sailing: Offered on Friday nights from Memorial Day to Labor Day, I highly recommend this if you’re in town over the summer. On a recent girl’s weekend at Santa Barbara, we paid $45 per ticket for a two hour sail boat cruise that headed out of the harbor, down the coast and looped around just in time to see the sun set. While I don’t tend to be a huge jazz fan, the music was a lovely addition. Be prepared that the cash bar is pricey and I recommend buying tickets online in advance and still getting there early so you’ll be at the front of the line to get on the boat as seating is first come first serve.
Saturday Farmer’s Market: There’s a farmer’s market in one corner of the area or another basically every day of the week but I highly recommend heading downtown on a Saturday morning to wander around the Saturday market. Filling a large parking lot, it’s a great place to pick up snacks, picnic supplies, or just wander around and ogle the plump red strawberries and perfect piles of orange carrots.
Santa Barbara Courthouse & Sunken Gardens: The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a beautiful old Spanish style building boasting thoughtful details (requisite fire extinguishers are tucked behind beautiful stained-glass panels). Take a trip to the observation tower for 360 degree views of Santa Barbara and then venture outside to wander the gardens.
Wine Tasting in the Funk Zone: A few blocks off of State Street (Santa Barbara’s main street), is what’s been newly dubbed the Funk Zone. A once industrial part of town, it’s been revitalized with a few restaurants but primarily tasting rooms and bars where you can sample a variety of microbrews. My personal favorite is the local Santa Barbara Winery.
My family and I have so many favorites from our time living here that we often feel like we only eat whenever we come to visit and have a bad habit of sticking to old favorites and not trying any of the new, great places that are constantly popping up. We've recently made a resolution to try one new place on each visit. Here are a few favorites, both old and new.
Handlebar Coffee Roasters: One of my favorite spots to stop for coffee in downtown Santa Barbara, they have an open, airy space and a sizable outdoor patio, although both are usually packed. A great spot to stop for a coffee before wandering down to the Farmer’s Market.
The French Press: A favorite for great coffee and convenient with three locations, two in the downtown area and one in Goleta, my personal favorite, as it’s situated in an area not known for it’s coffee but just down the street from the Courtyard Marriott, where we often stay in Santa Barbara.
Cajun Kitchen: A longtime favorite for a classic big breakfast. While the name and some menu items reference the local chain’s cajun roots, it’s easy to find a classic omelette or stack of pancakes on the diverse menu. Multiple locations in the area but go early on the weekends as they get busy after 9am.
Jeannine’s: A popular spot to grab pastries or sit down for a full breakfast (they also serve lunch). Four locations but the Montecito spot is just down from the Montecito Inn and a great place to grab bacon and eggs before a day of exploring. It's also fun for people watching. Trust me and get the fresh-squeezed orange juice.
The Cantina: A complete hole-in-the-wall and a student favorite adjacent to UC Santa Barbara. While you may not be in college, a visit to the area isn’t complete without picking up one of their breakfast burritos. Not high on ambience, I suggest getting it to go and taking it a few blocks away to the beach.
Brophy Brothers: This local hotspot perpetually has a wait but I think the lively, crowded space makes the atmosphere and it just wouldn’t be the same if it were empty. Goes without saying but go early, whether for lunch or dinner. They have a full menu of freshly caught fish but their clam chowder is to die for. I get a bowl of it with the side salad and an Anchor Steam and aim to sit at one of the few outdoor tables overlooking the Marina. They also have a clam bar downstairs with the same menu and a take-out location that serves the clam chowder as well as other more casual options on the backside of the restaurant.
Santa Barbara Fish House: One of the few restaurants in Santa Barbara with an actual view of the water and a tasty menu of freshly caught fish to go with it. Nice ambience and friendly service. Request an outside table.
Freebirds: Another student favorite but a good stop for a quick lunch if you’re a fan of burritos. They use fresh, local ingredients where possible and also serve tacos, quesadillas, and nachos, my personal favorite. An order of those fully loaded is enough to feed my husband and I for a meal with some left over. No relation to the small chain by the same name, as far as I know.
Los Arroyos: Tasty, fresh Mexican food with two locations. The downtown Santa Barbara location is a bit more casual, where you order at the counter and then grab a table while the Montecito location is a bit more formal with a full waitstaff.
Palazzio: A great place for giant bowls of pasta and fresh garlic rolls. Everything is family-style so be prepared that a “full order” can easily feed probably four people. When I was last in town, the restaurant was closed for a kitchen reservation so be sure to check the status before going.
Lucky Penny SB: Adjacent to the popular restaurant The Lark (which is on my list to try), this is a great casual option to order yummy thin crust wood-fired pizza at the counter and eat in their outdoor patio. You’ll spot this place from the street by the walls covered in pennies.
McConnell’s Ice Cream: The best place for dessert in Santa Barbara. I swear by the strawberry but they have tons of flavors to suit every taste and if you like the ice cream, it can be found by the pint in many grocery stores.
Santa Barbara and the surrounding area have a mix of chain stores and local boutiques. When traveling, I’d rather explore new, interesting shops then head to stores I can go to anywhere.
Channel Islands Surfboards: While you can get fully outfitted with a board and wetsuit at this local surfboard maker, I go here for their branded t-shirts for my husband and the other brands of casual sportswear, like Quiksilver, that they sell.
Bikini Factory: Just down Highway 101 in Summerland, this shop stocks hundreds of bathing suits but will also custom make you a suit, just pick the design, fabric, and get measured.
Jenni Kayne: This Los Angeles designer has a store in Montecito that is a beautifully simple, breathtaking space. While her pieces aren’t cheap, I highly recommend wandering through for the inspiration.
Angel: My best friend said it best: "This store has everything I want to wear." Carrying brands like Joie, Equipment, and Paige, they have a beautifully edited selection of California casual clothes and accessories.
Dani Boy Kids: I stumbled across this adorable kids store on my last trip to the area. Nicely edited with fun and funky pieces for kids, it’s a fun place to seek out unique kids clothing.
Montecito Country Mart: Similar to its sister locations in Marin, Beverly Hills, and Malibu, this is a one stop shop for Pressed Juicery, Calypso, James Perse, and Space NK, among others. Stop into Kendall Conrad to check out beautiful leather bags, sandals, and her simple, clean space.
Tips for Visiting Santa Barbara:
Make sure to book your hotel well in advance for the best deals. Last-minute trips tend to be pricey and even when booking in advance, be prepared to splurge as even hotels in the "affordable" category are really not that affordable.
Bring a sweater for cool mornings and evenings, as is typical along the coast.