Eat, stay and play like a local or a tourist. There’s no wrong way to enjoy this cozy and refined beach town.
I lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years and will forever think of that tony beach town as “the girl that got away.” I’m the one who left, to be fair, eight months pregnant with my first baby and seeking the refuge of lower housing costs and retired parents who were eager to baby-sit. It was an honest “It’s not you, it’s me” scenario, but as I hoisted my pregnant body into the passenger seat of the Sacramento-bound U-Haul, tears streaked my cheeks before we made it onto the 101.
The first time we returned to visit, I wondered if maybe it wouldn’t seem so great after all. Maybe my love affair with Santa Barbara had been a trick of the mind to justify the astronomical mortgage payment and the limited job opportunities, and seeing it with fresh eyes would reveal that it was just a hyped-up tourist town overrun with college kids and surf bums.
The second I stepped off the plane at SBA, though, I fell in love all over again. I swear the air is sweeter there, pleasantly humid, slightly salty and just warm enough that you can wear the sweater or not—whichever you like.
The city sits nestled between the foothills of Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean on a strip of south-facing coast that looks out to the Channel Islands, which serve as the optometrist’s eye chart for how clear of a day it is. During “June Gloom,” when the marine layer sits heavy and gray, the tourists have no idea the islands are even out there. In the fall, though, when the tourists and fog have mostly left, and the college kids are mostly relegated to the northern suburb of Goleta, the locals still stop to study the islands’ silhouettes on the horizon, and they still stop to marvel with each other at what a beautiful day it, even though it’s almost always a beautiful day in Santa Barbara.
I am a tourist myself when I visit now, and I make the best of this post-love-affair title by allowing myself indulgences I was too cool for when I considered myself a local. You’ll still never catch me in one of those cheesy T-shirt shops on State Street, but I’ll buy the overpriced ice cream cone from the charmingly weathered spot on the end of Stearns Wharf now; sue me. It turns out there’s a reason the tourist spots are so popular, but there’s also a reason the locals want to keep some of the city’s lesser-known gems to themselves. The good news is that you can tour Santa Barbara any way you like, and here’s how.
Eat Like a Tourist
State Street is the main drag that divides Santa Barbara into East and West, running right into the beach as it turns into Stearns Wharf. Any respectable tourist can definitely consume a year’s worth of calories on this street alone, then pretend to be a college kid at the countless bars peppered along the way.
Start the day at Dawn Patrol (324 State St.), an order-at-the-counter spot with lots of patio seating and a hip surfer chic vibe. Find generous portions of all your breakfast favorites for $10 to $15, including house-cured lox and a build-your-own hash that will keep you full for a busy morning of touristing. If you prefer a lighter start to the day, head to Cajé Coffee Roasters (416 E. Haley St.), where you can pair $7 coffee drinks resembling craft cocktails with bites like mango ricotta toast, because: vacation.
For lunch, take a 50-cent ride on the Downtown Waterfront Shuttle, an electric trolley that runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to Longboard’s Grill (210 Stearns Wharf) and start the party early with a Wipeout, a tropical cocktail served with multiple straws for sharing. Pair it with any of the classic American fare menu items like a civilized person, or skip straight to dessert with a slice of mud pie as big as your smiling, tourist face.
Enjoy the afternoon walking off some of those delicious calories along the beach, eventually making your way just about a mile down the coast to Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant (119 Harbor Way), where you can drool over the harbor full of gleaming yachts, the way the sunset lights up the foothills, or the classic beachfront seafood.
Eat Like a Local
While the shops of State Street and the views of the beach have rightfully earned their spot as Santa Barbara’s top tourist attractions, the locals know that the food is worth the trip alone. Start the day with a custom superfood smoothie bowl at Backyard Bowls (331 Motor Way) if you’re eating with your bathing suit in mind, or sip on a bloody mary while you attempt to make the impossible choice between savory and sweet from Scarlett Begonia’s (11 W. Victoria St.) refined breakfast classics.
Plan ahead for a day on the move by picking up sandwiches to go from Panino (834 Santa Barbara St.), where upscale condiments like goat cheese and pesto dress up many of the meat and veggie offerings. If your day calls for a more relaxed sit-down lunch, pop on over to the Public Market (38 W. Victoria St.), where you can choose from a number of local food purveyors ranging from Mexican to pizza to barbecue, any of which can be paired with a beverage from either Wine + Beer or The Garden.
Give a nod to Santa Barbara’s Mediterranean vibe with a late dinner in the Spanish tradition, making your way to Loquita (202 State St.) and requesting a table on the patio. Indulge your indecision with a sampling of hot and cold tapas, or commit to the seasonal paella—all of it is sourced locally, prepared in the authentic Spanish style and offered alongside a wine list comprised nearly entirely of Spanish varietals.
Stay Like a Tourist
Although you probably won’t be able to book a room for $27 a night like John F. Kennedy and Jackie O. did when they honeymooned there in 1953, you can feel just as chic with a stay at the boutique San Ysidro Ranch (900 San Ysidro Lane), which offers 17 miles of hiking trails and in-room spa services for a true vacation feel.
If you prefer the chic feel without the ranch vibe, the Four Seasons Resort Biltmore (1260 Channel Drive) located in the southern Santa Barbara enclave of Montecito, or The Ritz-Carlton Bacara (8301 Hollister Ave.), located in the northern suburb of Goleta, both check all the right boxes: traditional Mediterranean architecture, beachfront locales, on-site fine dining, full service spas, and accommodations ranging from traditional single rooms to private villas.
Traveling on a more modest budget? Find plenty of options for under $200 a night just a block or two from the beach in the West Beach neighborhood just west of Stearns Wharf. Casa Del Mar Inn B&B (18 Bath St.) is a modern take on a traditional bed and breakfast (no floral comforters in sight), while many of the more traditionally decorated rooms at Castillo Inn at the Beach (22 Castillo St.) offer private patios where you can soak up that signature salty air.
Stay Like a Local
Living in Santa Barbara full time means that easy beach access and beautiful Spanish architecture are everyday occurrences, which is why you’ll find locals flocking to The Goodland by Kimpton (5650 Calle Real) in Goleta, where hip bohemian details, a lively atmosphere and a complimentary evening wine reception are the main attractions. Of course if you truly want to stay like a local, you’ll want to skip the hotels altogether and search for an Airbnb where your tourist status can go undetected. Try narrowing your search to the neighborhood known as The Mesa, where you can find options ranging from a 10-bedroom mansion with a rooftop deck ($935 a night) to a tasteful two-bedroom apartment ($165 a night), and several options in between, all of which are close to casual eateries and markets that cater to the residential area.
Play Like a Tourist
The south-facing coast is a well-deserved main attraction, but Santa Barbara has way more than just the beach to provide the full tourist experience. Combine culture, history and breathtaking views with a free docent-led tour of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, which includes a trip to the top of the clock tower where you’ll have a 360-degree bird’s-eye view from the ocean to the mountains.
To see the miles of the city’s coastline while burning off some of the delicious vacation treats you’re likely to indulge, rent a beach cruiser bicycle from Wheel Fun Rentals (24 E. Mason St.) and take the two-hour self-guided tour for $30 per person, or splurge on the $179 half-day rental of one of their open-air Moke Electric Vehicles, which top out at 25 mph for a truly scenic drive.
While the 2004 movie “Sideways” popularized Santa Barbara’s nearby wine region, there’s no need to leave the city limits to get a complete wine-tasting experience, thanks to the Urban Wine Trail, which is comprised of five neighborhoods that each offer multiple tasting rooms you can easily enjoy on foot. Print out a helpful map from the website and see how many you can hit, but maybe plan to attend Jamie Sloan Wines’ 60-minute “wine education experience,” offered every Saturday at 11 a.m., before you visit too many.
Play Like a Local
If you lean toward educational experiences, take a cue from any parent in town and check out both the indoor and outdoor exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where you can get within inches of a blue whale skeleton, get interactive in the Curiosity Lab or take in one of the scheduled planetarium shows. If the planetarium isn’t your thing, you can study the cosmos at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art instead, where The Observable Universe, on display through Jan. 12, 2020, “explores a diverse range of artistic representations of the cosmos roughly coinciding with the Space Age of the last 60 years.”
If you need to relax a bit after confronting the idea of an infinite universe, a relaxing 45-minute session in the Santa Barbara Salt Cave is just the ticket. Make yourself at home in one of the cave’s recliners for $25, or plan ahead and book a yoga or sound healing session, or truly treat yourself with a private massage.
Since locals can soak up the bountiful attractions within Santa Barbara’s city limits all year long, a favorite day-off activity is a trip to the Santa Ynez Valley, where sweeping vineyard views and endless varietals of wine will make you momentarily forget about the beach altogether. Take the guesswork out of deciding which of the 120 wineries to visit and let Santa Barbara Wine Country Tours do the heavy lifting. For $139 per person, enjoy tastings at three wineries, a catered lunch, door-to-door shuttle service from your hotel and a knowledgeable guide for the day.
When a city is home to a beautiful coastline, sun-drenched mountains, a world-famous wine region and dining options for every possible craving, any day can feel like a vacation.