These tips on exploring Santa Barbara, California were originally posted on ThorpeTravelSite.com and includes special content added for Traveling Nine to Fiver’s readers.
While at my high school reunion over Thanksgiving weekend, one of the things I was repeatedly reminded to be thankful for is that I get to call Santa Barbara home. Some of my classmates had attended college in Santa Barbara and others had visited on vacation, but they all sang the chorus: “I wish I could live there.”
Aside from being very thankful that I do live in Santa Barbara, I’ve always had a passion for sharing my city with others. Here are my eight tips for doing Santa Barbara like a local:
1. Take Advantage of the Weather
With monthly average temperatures hovering between 65-75 degrees, Santa Barbara has some of the most consistently exceptional weather in the country. Not only does this make sartorial decisions less complicated, Santa Barbara’s weather allows its residents to take part in a number of outdoor activities year-round.
2. Exercise Outdoors
Santa Barbara is known for its East Beach volleyball scene, its bustling tennis clubs full of hall-of-fame and D1 talent, and for its ability to attract professional cyclists for winter training camps (and the AMGEN Tour of California). It’s also an excellent place to hike (be prepared for elevation gain though!), surf, and even catch a polo game.
Santa Barbarians like to get their exercise outside. Even for those less active, a stroll down State Street or along one of the many tranquil beaches offers the opportunity to be healthy in the great outdoors.
3. Hit the Beach, However, You Like It
Speaking of beaches, the Santa Barbara area is chock-full of them and there’s one for every type of beachgoer. Here they are from north to south:
Goleta Beach for cook-outs and horseshoes; Thousand Steps for seclusion and cliffside vistas; West Beach for kayaking/sup and downtown access; East Beach for volleyball; Butterfly Beach for mingling with the jet-set; Hammond’s Beach to hang with the locals; Padaro Lane for family-friendly waters and the Padaro Beach Grill; and Rincon Beach for the surf scene.
4. Be Pampered and Get Loose
If active sports and beach-time don’t fit your definition of relaxation, certainly a trip to the spa and some yoga must ring a bell? Santa Barbara is full of men and women who look much younger than they are and taking care of their bodies is a big part of their success in resisting aging.
There are loads of massage and spa treatment options, and while Santa Barbara tends to have up-market pricing, a visit to Groupon or LivingSocial will often yield a coupon to make prices more palatable. For yoga classes suited to a variety of practitioners, try CorePower Yoga downtown. Into yoga but your spouse just doesn’t get it? Send him next door to Armada Wine & Beer Merchant, an example of another way to live the Santa Barbara lifestyle.
5. Wine and Beer Culture
Santa Barbara is surrounded by some of the better wine appellations in California and a brewery that has won “mid-size craft brewery of the year” four times.
Oenophiles will appreciate the variety of quality wines available in the Santa Barbara area, not least of which are the incredible Pinot Noirs (one of the hardest wines to produce well) that come out of the Santa Rita Hills. For those who balked at the word oenophile one sentence back or simply lack any pretense about drinking wine, there’s plenty to offer, too. Santa Barbara has more than two-dozen wine-tasting rooms and the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail makes enjoying them a cinch!
Firestone Brewing Company (ye of craft brewery award-winning fame) flows freely from the taps of most local bars, but there are also has a number of smaller local brewing operations making an impact on the beer world. In particular, Figueroa Mountain Brewery’s tasting room has become a staple of “The Funk Zone,” the trendy new district in lower-downtown where most of the local social drinking has flocked in recent years. “Fig,” as most call it, is known for its internationally acclaimed double-imperial ipa called Lizard’s Mouth. At 9% alcohol, you’ve got to be careful not to let the Lizard getcha, but Figueroa Mountain offers many other less-potent options as well.
6. The Two Best Streets for Dining in Santa Barbara
Food is definitely one of the highlights of living in Santa Barbara, particularly the sheer volume of delicious Mexican and Italian cuisine. To make the tough choice of where to go out for food and drinks just a little bit easier, however, there are two streets to which you can direct your focus.
Victoria Street is towards the upper portion of downtown on State Street. Within just a block there are at least a dozen restaurants worth visiting. Picking an Italian restaurant is particularly difficult since there are five and they’re all good. For my absolute top pick around Victoria, though, you have to try Bouchon. Make sure to call ahead for a reservation, as this French-California fusion establishment serves its farm-to-fork fare to a full house more often than not. If you’re priced out of Bouchon, Brasil Arts Cafe offers a great happy hour just around the corner and there is usually live music.
Cota Street is a particularly trendy block of mid-downtown, well-suited to those looking for food that comes served with high-quality drinks. All-in-a-row, Cota’s restaurants offer four different types of food and an array of beverage options to match. For the best burger in town, go straight to American Ale and wash it down with a unique selection of craft beers. Head to the Palace Grill for some jazz and a taste of New Orleans (make a reservation!). Globe is an excellent spot to spend a while chatting with friends amongst its mix-match blend of decorative style and Nectar features a sizable selection of tequilas and small plates to share.
7. Go to A World-Class Show
It’s clear that for a city its size, Santa Barbara outperforms in many ways (that’s why we live here) and that continues very literally into the performing arts. The Santa Barbara Bowl is a venue of only about 6,000 seats, yet it attracts some of the biggest names in the music industry, such as Jack Johnson, Radiohead, Steely Dan, Janet Jackson, and Jimmy Buffett, just to name a few from the last year.
For other forms of performing arts, such as international dance companies, theatrical performances, and classical musicians, the Granada Theatre garners the very best. In addition to its world-class performance draw, the Granada also happens to be an absolutely stunning historical building. It’s worth going to a show there just to see its grandeur. If you can’t make it to a show, you can still get an up-close look at the Granada by visiting The Good Lion, the swanky speakeasy that takes up some of the street-front portion of the building.
8. Staying in Santa Barbara without Paying a Fortune
The first seven tips offer local knowledge into what makes Santa Barbara so great and how to access the best of it. It is evident that Santa Barbara has a lot to offer and that typically comes with very high accommodations price-tag. It’s true, you will spend a significant sum on hotels in this city, but that’s why you should follow my blog as well to learn how to get award stays for free, right? Well, if you’re new to Thorpe Travel, here are some other ideas:
The Lemon Tree Inn is a recently remodeled and relatively inexpensive hotel that keeps you close to the downtown area. Another option is to check out vacation rentals, such as those found on Airbnb. I have found that for the same price as many hotels in the area, one can rent a small bungalow in a downtown neighborhood and with this promotion still going, renting a house could be downright affordable!
For more information about Santa Barbara check out these great books on Amazon including Insiders’ Guide to Santa Barbara, Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast, and Explorer’s Guide Santa Barbara & California’s Central Coast.
Bonus Local Tip – Fly Direct To Santa Barbara
One of the best ways to access Santa Barbara, and one that “Traveling Nine to Fivers” will certainly appreciate, is Santa Barbara Airport. This local airport is newly remodeled and is an absolute breeze to get in and out of for short trips. I typically go from arrival at the airport entrance to sitting at the gate in ten minutes flat (though I still recommend leaving extra time for the unexpected).
Santa Barbara Airport has flights to and from Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and Los Angeles. All are short, direct flights and even though Los Angeles is faster to access by car, that flight allows for many connections from most other parts of the country.
SBA is served by United, American, and Alaska Airlines, which provides a number of opportunities for frequent flyers and miles and points collectors to fly to Santa Barbara for free. You can even leverage a few frequent flyer tricks to reduce the number of miles it costs to fly.
For example, American Airlines charges 12,500 miles each way for travel from their hub in Phoenix, but by using miles from their partner British Airways’ award program instead, the cost can be reduced to 7,500 each way. That’s a savings of 10,000 miles per person on the trip while flying on the same exact American flights.
United Airlines, which flies the SFO, DEN, and LAX routes, usually charge the same 12,500 miles each way for flights in the continental US. However, several months of the year, United has been offering 20% miles discounts for economy-level award redemptions to SBA. Since Santa Barbara is never truly out-of-season, planning around these discounts are a great way to reduce the cost of your visit without compromise.
Those flying from Seattle or Portland probably already know that Alaska Air is just an excellent company. They charge 12,500 each way and their award-space availability is very good. You can earn enough Alaska miles for a round-trip just by signing up for and putting a single purchase on the Bank of America Alaska Air credit card.
If you don’t yet have airline miles for the flight, my general advice for getting a good price on a paid ticket is to book domestic flights about 3-5 months in advance and a bit farther out on holidays or other busy times.
If you’d like to know more about how to get the flights for free with miles and points, I would love to help you accomplish that goal. Thorpe Travel provides advice for earning and using airline miles as well as trip reports and other travel insights. There’s even a guide specifically designed for people interested in learning miles and points basics that will allow Traveling Nine to Fivers to get out and do more!