California Road Trip: Santa Barbara

With a pleasant temperature year-round, Santa Barbara is an all-around top destination for many types of travelers. Fall is for many the best time to visit, even the Monarch butterflies agree, as November marks the beginning of their migration.  Foodies, better plan a week to hit all the hot spots and world-class wineries; couples, choose from many romantic lodging options, long beach walks and shopping; families, count on beaches and parks abound. Oh and there is a walk-through butterfly garden. And did I mention the mission? It’s not the usual hot and dusty adobe complex; it’s considered the Queen of the Missions.

I like to think of Santa Barbara as the pretty sister of California cities. She doesn’t try to be, but she’s just got that “wow” factor, and it just comes so easy. Her white sand beaches, surrounded by the Santa Ynez mountain range freckled with bright, white Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, colorful tile roofs and brilliant splashes of bougainvillea have earned her the trademarked moniker, The American Riviera. 

It’s possible that I’m biased since my family’s roots run deep in this coastal town and my daughter just graduated from UCSB. It would be accurate to label me a SB frequent flyer. And as far as seasons go, fall is one of my favorite times to visit (when the summer crowds have subsided as has the coastal fog). If you’ve been thinking of heading to Santa Barbara, we’ve done a bit of research for you. 

Featured Photo: Mar Monte Hotel
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Photo: Santa Barbara Mission courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

According to Wikipedia, the Santa Barbara South Coast region is the northernmost part of Southern California, and according to my car, it’s about one-and-half tanks of gas from the Bay Area. No matter how you slice it, or measure it, it feels like Santa Barbara is in middle of California and attracts about seven million visitors a year — the pandemic has not slowed it down.

Lodging options range from camping to roadside inns, short-term rentals, super opulent hotels and homes fit for royalty. High-end properties like The Ritz-Carlton Bacara and the now-shuttered Four Seasons Biltmore reinforce the town’s uber-luxe reputation, however, value can be found throughout the county. We’ve done ample “value” exploring on upper State Street and can highly recommend the Lemon Tree Inn and the Pepper Tree. Note: these are the only lodging options with a “tree” in the name we recommend. We like upper State Street because of the local vibe — you’ll find lots of great restaurants and shops not serving the flocks of tourists. An even more residential vibe is the area between Goleta and the city of Santa Barbara — locals call it “Noleta” — which is also full of plenty of under-the-radar places to seek out good rates. Mid-week stays, as well as fall through early spring visits, offer the very best deals. Visit Santa Barbara is offering a 3rd night free with select properties through the end of the year. 

Speaking of good rates, here’s a fun fact: The original Motel 6 was founded just steps away from the East Beach, back in 1962 by inspiring entrepreneur, Bill Becker. The motel, which charged just $6 per night for a stay, aimed to make travel accessible, and it worked. And it’s still going strong. This original location across the street from East Beach was just remodeled and is still a deal with rates starting just above $100.

However, if you want to just dive into the full visitor experience, here are a couple of our favorite options.

Photo: Mar Monte Hotel

Offering a taste of that old-timey elegance, Mar Monte Hotel has recently reopened as a reincarnation of the historic 1930s Vista Mar Monte, which went through many iterations and eventually was simply known as, “The Hyatt” for decades. The property is still under the Hyatt umbrella in the Unbound Collection. The 200-room Spanish-style property ambles over three oceanfront acres with a pool, comfortable lobby areas and two ballrooms for celebrations or company meetings. Another great feature of this property is the proximity to the Cabrillo Pavilion, which has also undergone a sizable renovation, and is a popular spot used for big family parties and weddings and large group functions (once those happen again). 

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Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Milo

Another one of our favorite spots is the Hotel Milo, also across the street from the beach, named for the prolific historical hotelier Milo Potter, whose popular Potter Hotel helped to put Santa Barbara on the tourism map back in 1903. Today, all that is left of this grand dame is a park lined with palm trees, which is now a convenient courtyard in the center of the 2.5 acre property with a bounty of fire pits and seating areas scattered throughout.

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Photo: Patio at Lark restaurant by Ali Beck

Where to Eat in Santa Barbara

Those aforementioned foodies might want to plan to stay for a week, considering there are thirteen eateries here with a Michelin nod. We had our own guide to follow. Having a college student in any town usually results in a list of, “now that you’re in town” places to visit. My daughter’s list included Arigato for sushi, and Secret Bao for modern Chinese dining — both are located on State Street. East Beach Tacos at 226 S Milpas Street is the best take-out for a beach picnic, while Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodles is ideal for a picnic at the mission. Be sure to also check out Toma on Cabrillo for delicious Italian food with abundant parklet seating. Margerum Wine Bar was our stop for researching the Urban Wine Trail, since they have expanded outdoor seating to stay in business.

Breakfast

Scarlet Begonia — Waffles and cinnamon buns worth writing home about.
The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach — Classic brunch spot near the UCSB campus.
Jeannine’s — Local favorite for years, with a new beach location.
Backyard Bowls — Tasty açai bowls, good anytime of the day.

Lunch

East Beach Tacos — Family favorite for innovative tacos, located next to a batting range.
Backyard Bowls — Tasty açai bowls, good anytime of the day.
Empty Bowl Noodles — Creative (and tasty) noodles, dim sum from all over Asia.
Savoy Cafe and Deli — Voted best salad bar for years, they also offer the traditional deli fare, as in, there is something for everyone.

Dinner

The Lark — Great vibe, innovated menu equals an unforgettable meal under the stars in the Funk Zone.
Secret Bao — Just off State Street, this all-star culinary team offers creative Asian cuisine.
Toma — Authentically delicious Italian cuisine right across from the beach.

*This list has been compiled by foodie friends and family and will be updated often.

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Walk through a beautiful garden while nearly 1,000 live butterflies flutter free at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Photo: Jessy Lynn Perkins

What to Do in Santa Barbara

Luckily Santa Barbara has as many healthy activities as noteworthy restaurants. From surfing, stand-up paddling, to running and hiking, my time in Santa Barbara always feels like a balance of calories in, calories out.

Outdoors

Hiking— A list of eleven of the top hikes in Santa Barbara.
Surfing— This established surf school knows how to help you catch a wave.
Kayaking— Choose from harbor, ocean and sunset tours.
Coronado Butterfly Preserve— Explore the property and learn how to protect Monarch butterflies that migrate here November through February.

Culture

Museums— Especially the butterfly garden at the Natural History Museum.
Santa Barbara Mission— Plan a few hours here and bring a snack for a picnic in the rose garden.
The Funk Zone— a.k.a. the “drunk zone,” this eclectic area just off the beach offers great shopping, art and lots of great tasting rooms.

Annual events such as Fiesta or the Santa Barbara Film Festival are great reasons to visit. However, traveling mid-week and in the shoulder season (fall-winter) to Santa Barbara are also good ideas for those who are seeking maximum social distance.

Upcoming Events

Santa Barbara Bowl

October 14-17

The Santa Barbara Bowl is a beloved outdoor amphitheater nestled in a eucalyptus grove. LA residents often spend the night so they can watch shows from major touring performers. They’ve been posting new concerts for the summer, fall and beyond to their website, including My Morning Jacket (Sept. 23), Lord Huron (Sept. 28), Glass Animals (Oct. 27-28) and more.

Pianos on State Street

October 5-24

A program featuring pianos painted by artists temporarily set up throughout downtown, is returning in October 2021. Anyone can play these pianos, and they often have guest musicians come and play, such as Zach Gill (from Animal Liberation Orchestra a.k.a. ALO, who often tours with Jack Johnson).

Montecito Motor Classic

October 10

The Montecito Motor Classic features a diverse selection of rare and unique vehicles. The annual car show draws car enthusiasts and families for an opportunity to interact with the cars and their caretakers, free of charge.

Willie Nelson and Family

October 21

With a seven-decade career, Willie Nelson has earned every conceivable award as a musician and amassed reputable credentials as an author, actor, and activist. He continues to thrive as a relevant and progressive musical and cultural force.

Want more travel inspiration and tips from locals?
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Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle

View more of Mimi's reviews here.

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