Santa Barbara Travel Guide: Smart Ways To Spend Money and Time

The Southern California beach town offers laid-back vibes with plenty to do beyond the beach.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Dawnielle Robinson-Walker

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Santa Barbara encapsulates much of California’s best tourist offerings. Sometimes called the American Riviera, it's got idyllic weather year-round, a beach town vibe and plenty of outdoor adventures. Whether you’re into rock climbing, horseback riding or shopping and wineries, Santa Barbara can be the perfect vacation spot. It's a popular destination amongst Hollywood A-listers and honeymooning celebs, but it doesn't necessarily have to be expensive — and there are plenty of ways to travel through Santa Barbara on a budget.

Find out why Santa Barbara is so popular in NerdWallet’s Santa Barbara travel guide, which includes tips on where to stay, how to use your hotel points and activities that won’t break your bank account.

The best things to do in Santa Barbara

When you travel to Santa Barbara, you’ll find a classic beach town with surfing, a bike path running parallel to the shore and a famous boardwalk. But that’s not all. Adventurers might head inland for outdoor activities like rock climbing, horseback riding and hiking, while folks looking to relax might visit working wineries.

Here’s a list of activities, including many free things to do in Santa Barbara:

Santa Barbara beaches: East Beach and Leadbetter Beach are among the most popular Santa Barbara beach choices. Head over to Sands Beach to spot the snowy plovers. If you intend to swim, bring a wetsuit (or thick skin), as the water temperature in Santa Barbara averages in the 50s in winter, 60s in the summer and occasionally rises to the 70s in the fall.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse. (Photo by Sally French)

Santa Barbara County Courthouse: The beautiful Santa Barbara Courthouse is designed in a Spanish-Colonial style with a tower, red tile roofs and gardens. Tours — both self-guided and guided — are free. Head up the tower for views of the city, coastline and mountains.

It’s a spot for special events, like free outdoor movie nights, and it’s likely you’ll encounter a Santa Barbara courthouse wedding (or a few).

State Street: State Street is Santa Barbara's main thoroughfare, starting at the coast and cutting into the city’s heart. 10 blocks are especially pedestrian-friendly, with parts cut off to cars, allowing for outdoor dining and street markets. Get lost in the midcentury modern Urban Flea Market, and try authentic Argentinian empanadas at Buena Onda.

The Funk Zone: Located off State Street, the Funk Zone is a former manufacturing hub turned arts district. Now, the vibrant, walkable neighborhood is known for its eclectic art scene, wine tasting rooms, brewerie and trendy restaurants.

Stearns Wharf. (Photo by Sally French)

Stearns Wharf: It’s free to stroll down the Santa Barbara pier, but you might buy a scoop of handmade ice cream, book a boat tour or pop into the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, where adult tickets start at $14. Stearns Wharf is tough to miss given its central location between East Beach and West Beach.

Santa Barbara Harbor: About a half mile up the coast from Stearns Wharf is Santa Barbara Harbor, which exudes maritime charm. Try the seafood from any waterfront restaurant, and walk it off with a stroll to Point Castillo. One of the most relaxing spots is the Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center, featuring a roof deck with couches overlooking the harbor.

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB): Whether you visit as a prospective college student or are just meandering the grounds, the beachside campus offers free tours, (though registration is required).

Santa Barbara Zoo: The Santa Barbara Zoo houses about 150 species of animals and is among the best and cheapest things to do in Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Zoo tickets start at $15).

Old Mission Santa Barbara. (Photo by Sally French)

Santa Barbara Mission: Founded in 1786, Old Mission Santa Barbara is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. The grounds include gardens, a museum and a historic cemetery. You’ll need a ticket ($15 for adults) to go inside, but much of the exterior can be explored for free.

Santa Barbara wine tasting: Head inland for Santa Barbara wineries. From downtown, it’s about a 45-minute scenic drive through rolling vineyards of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys. Most wineries are free to visit, though you’ll usually pay per tasting (wine flight fees usually cost between $15 and $30, depending on the winery). Sometimes fees are waived with purchase.

Another option is a Santa Barbara wine tour. These can cost a few hundred dollars per person, but typically include lunch, wine tastings, a guide and driver.

Solvang: Also in the Santa Ynez Valley sits Solvang, a charming Danish-inspired village known for its unique thatched roofs and windmills. It’s an ideal day trip for shopping (there are about 150 retail shops, including Elna’s Dress shop, which sells Danish costumes) and dining (try the Aebleskiver, a puffy Danish pancake).

How many days is enough for Santa Barbara?

If you’ve got just one day, stick around downtown (including Stearns Wharf, the harbor, beaches and State Street).

For two-days, explore the museums, Old Mission Santa Barbara and the Funk Zone. And for longer trips, add on adventures past the city center, like the zoo, university, wine country or Solvang.

Santa Barbara hotels you can book on points

While Santa Barbara offers a range of lodging including vacation rentals, RV parks and cozy inns, you might stay overnight for free using hotel points, which can be acquired through frequent stays and credit card spending on branded hotel credit cards or travel credit cards.

Here are some of the best hotels in Santa Barbara to book on points:

Hilton Santa Barbara hotels

A guest room inside the Hotel Virginia Santa Barbara. (Photo by Sally French)

For stays in Santa Barbara’s city center, Hilton offers the Hotel Virginia Santa Barbara, Tapestry Collection by Hilton and the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

The boutique-style Hotel Virginia is better for folks wanting to be in the center of Santa Barbara’s action, given its central location just off Santa Barbara’s State Street Promenade. It’s about a 15-minute walk in any direction to the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara Amtrak station, Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Courthouse. Amenities are pretty limited (there’s neither a pool nor a gym), but there are no resort fees.

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People seeking a resort experience should pick the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. Amenities including tennis courts, pool and spa. It’s also one of the few truly dog-friendly hotels in Santa Barbara, offering tennis balls, treats and dedicated dog water fountains (though there’s a $75 pet fee).

Hilton Honors members can redeem Hilton Honors points at both properties. While points rates vary per night, redemptions are usually more valuable on nights when cash rates are high. Points tend to not inflate as much as cash rates do around peak travel dates. NerdWallet values one Hilton point at 0.5 cent each, so run your own calculations before booking on points versus cash if you’re seeking to maximize redemptions.

Both properties accept Hilton free night certificates, which can be earned via the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (given annually to cardholders) or through meeting spending thresholds on other Hilton-branded credit cards.

There are more than a half-dozen other Hilton hotels in Santa Barbara County, ideal for travelers seeking budget-friendly Hilton brands or who want to stay near the airport, Solvang or wine country.

Hyatt Santa Barbara hotels

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Hyatt runs two Santa Barbara hotels. The Mar Monte Hotel ranks among the best Santa Barbara hotels on the beach for the money.

When it comes to Santa Barbara beach hotels, other hotel brands tout fancy amenities and sprawling resort grounds. The Mar Monte Hotel is humbler —and generally the cheapest of the city’s beachfront hotels. Built in 1931, the boutique hotel still feels elegant with its Spanish Colonial architecture and luxurious touches including a pool, Peloton bikes in the fitness center and private, ocean-view balconies in some rooms.

There’s also the Hyatt Place Santa Barbara, which isn’t walkable to much of anything tourist-friendly, but might make sense for travelers avoiding downtown or who seek amenities like free breakfast and large rooms (each room is at least 400 square feet and most have separate seating areas with sofa-sleepers). The hotel is also pet-friendly and is located in the Upper State Area with quick an easy access to both the downtown area and the road leading up to mountains for those who want to mix in some outdoor activities.

Hyatt Place Santa Barbara

Both Hyatt Santa Barbara hotels sit in Category 6 of the World of Hyatt loyalty program, meaning you can redeem as few as 21,000 Hyatt points per night for standard rooms on off-peak nights (or 29,000 on peak nights).

Hyatt Place Santa Barbara

Marriott Santa Barbara hotels

Marriott has two hotels in downtown Santa Barbara, plus three more nearby— including an ultra-swanky option: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara. All participate in the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program, making it possible to earn Bonvoy points (or spend Bonvoy points on a free stay).

As far as Marriott’s downtown Santa Barbara hotels go, two are located just off State Street. The Waterman is a relatively affordable boutique hotel under Marriot’s Moxy brand. Rooms are tiny, most under 200 square feet, and feature a twin-size Murphy bed. The hotel itself has cozy vibes, including a full-size communal kitchen, library and lounge.

The Courtyard Santa Barbara Downtown. (Photo by Sally French)

Traditionalists might prefer the Courtyard Santa Barbara Downtown, which opened in 2022 after undergoing a chic transformation. Public areas — including a lush pool, firepit and rooftop decks — exude retro-modern vibes.

The churro pancakes at Saint Remy. (Photo by Sally French)

The hotel restaurant — Saint Remy — offers one of the best breakfasts in Santa Barbara. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t skip the churro pancakes.

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As far as Santa Barbara luxury hotels, don’t ignore The Ritz-Carlton Santa Barbara, which features three pools, six restaurants, a 42,000-square-foot spa and tennis courts. Rooms in the 78-acre resort are perched on cliffs over the beach, though the property is about 15 miles from downtown.

Rates easily top $1,000 on peak nights, so it might make sense to charge it to a Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card, which earns 6 points per $1 spent at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels and also offers a $100 property credit for qualifying charges at Ritz-Carlton properties on stays of two nights or more booked directly with Marriott.

Cheap hotels in Santa Barbara

Sure there are ritzy hotels, but there are plenty of charming (and cheap) hotels in the city too.

The Best Western Plus Santa Barbara is ideal if you want proximity to Old Mission Santa Barbara (it’s about a 20-minute walk). Room rates start at less than $200 or can be paid for with Best Western Rewards points.

Santa Barbara is home to the first Motel 6, which was founded in 1962 and originally offered rooms at just $6. Motel 6 Santa Barbara - Beach is that original property, and it’s also one of the fancier in the Motel 6 portfolio, with a retro 1960s vibe that offers ocean views from some rooms. But the elevated style also means it’s among the pricier Motel 6 properties. While you can find room rates under $200, they can also exceed $400 on peak nights.

There’s also Motel 6 Santa Barbara - State, but that Santa Barbara hotel isn’t quite as charming. Motel 6 doesn’t have a program that lets you earn hotel points, though its free-to-join loyalty program called My6 does offer discounts.

Santa Barbara restaurants

When it comes to the best restaurants in Santa Barbara, there’s something for every budget.

Cheap eats in Santa Barbara

The number of options for taco fillings at Tacos Pipeye is unlike what you'd find at most other restaurants. (Photo by Sally French)

Tacos Pipeye: The best spot for cheap, authentic Mexican food is Tacos Pipeye. Taco fillings like lengua (tongue), tripa (tripe) and borrego (lamb) vary by day.

Lucky Penny: Over at the Funk Zone, most eateries are pricey, but the counter-service style Lucky Penny is one exception. Order a pizza or Frosé to consume on the patio, which is adorned with a wall tiled with more than 150,000 real copper pennies. Two people can split a pizza for under $20, and there are plenty of alcoholic drink options under $10 (though the Frosé is a bit more).

Santa Barbara Public Market: Budget-conscious travelers who appreciate locally sourced food and creative dishes have options at Santa Barbara Public Market. The food hall, located near State Street, is ideal for groups given its plentiful indoor and expanded outdoor seating options.

On The Alley: Tourists seeking seafood often head to Brophy Bros. But tucked just around the corner is a more affordable, local favorite called On The Alley, which is actually owned by the same team behind Brophy Bros. Not only does On The Alley offer up an all day breakfast with all options under $12, but you can order many similar seafood dishes, such as the New England Clam Chowder or Shrimp Tacos.

The interior of La Super Rica.

La Super Rica: La Super Rica is among the most famous in the cheap eats group. It's considered one of Julia Child’s favorite spots for tacos, and it's been forever documented in musical form via Katy Perry’s song "This Is How We Do."

Waiter-service dining in Santa Barbara

Bluewater Grill is a good pick if you want to eat seafood near the beach. (Photo by Sally French)

Bluewater Grill sits on the coast, just off of State Street. Menus change to reflect in-season seafood. Beyond protein, the sides are tasty too, often including coconut ginger rice or goat cheese grits. Ask for a table on the second floor for beach views.

The best tables at Zaytoon are those with fire pits, which are allocated to groups of four or more. (Photo by Sally French)

If it’s not raining, try the Lebanese fare at Zaytoon. Most of the seating is under the stars, and many tables double as fire pits.

A cheese sambosik at Zaytoon. (Photo by Sally French)

The sambosik (a fried puff pastry stuffed with cheese or beef) is a hit, as is the batata harra (spicy potatoes sauteed with garlic).

How to get to Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. (Photo by Sally French)

Air travelers will likely fly into Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. The Santa Barbara airport is delightfully charming but small. It’s served by just four airlines (Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, so flight availability is limited.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) provides more options, though the drive from LAX to Santa Barbara is about 100 miles and can easily take more than two hours.

The Santa Barbara Amtrak train is also convenient. One of the top Amtrak Santa Barbara routes in America is the Pacific Surfliner, which spans a 351-mile route through San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, much of which is a scenic journey along Southern California’s coastline.

If you’re driving to Santa Barbara but staying downtown, understand that free parking is hard to find. Most hotels charge $30 to $40 for daily parking, and city-owned parking lots charge around $15 per day.

You don't need a car if you're staying in downtown Santa Barbara, but you may want one if you're venturing beyond that. (Photo by Sally French)

You don’t need a car to get around Santa Barbara, especially if you’re sticking to beaches and Santa Barbara downtown. Spots that aren’t walkable, such as the botanical gardens, can be accessed via a rideshare or taxi.

The best time to visit Santa Barbara

Weather in Santa Barbara is idyllic almost year-round. Average daytime temperatures range from the mid-60s to mid-70s. Rain is uncommon, especially in spring and summer (February is historically the rainiest month in Santa Barbara). The best months to go to Santa Barbara are any of them, given the variety of activities.

Whether you’re passing through on a California road trip, looking for a second city to visit near Los Angeles (it’s a roughly two-hour drive from downtown Santa Barbara), or vacationing there specifically, Santa Barbara is worth the trip.

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