Bargain guide to Santa Barbara’s hotels, restaurants and attractions

Cyclists ride on Stearns Wharf at sunset in Santa Barbara.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

I pulled aside the curtain and peered out the motel window. Palm trees swayed gently in the breeze. A cyclist pedaled along the oceanfront. Beyond him, the Pacific stretched out calm and blue as far as the eye could see.

Nice view, I thought, given that my room rate was $79. Especially considering that I was in Santa Barbara, where hotel tariffs usually fetch a king’s ransom. And my overnight stay even included a hearty free breakfast.

Impossible, you say? Not with our travel-secret guide to Santa Barbara. Our penny-pinching tips for a winter’s respite include five great little motels where you can stay for $100 or less, 10 awesome cheap-eats restaurants where you can dine for $10 or less and 15 free or low-cost things to do to keep you and the family deliriously happy.

Now you can spend a few days in Santa Barbara pretending you’re part of the platinum-credit card crowd. Just don’t let anyone know how little of your hard-earned cash you’re actually spending. (All locations are in Santa Barbara unless noted otherwise.)

5 hotels under $100

(Rates will increase in the spring)

1. Agave Inn

If you’re looking for a cool and casual vibe, the Agave should be at the top of your list, along with its nearby sister property, the Presidio. Both Midcentury Modern motels have been redone as boutique hipster haunts and offer a breath of fresh air in this sleepy city. The Agave, about a mile north of downtown Santa Barbara, features Mexican pop colors and décor. Its 13 rooms are small but stylish, with comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, free use of bicycles and continental breakfast.

3222 State St.; (805) 687-6009,

Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $99

2. Blue Sands Motel

This 11-room motel a half a block from the beach will roll out the grass carpet if you’re traveling with a canine companion, and it’s one of only a few dog-friendly places we found in the super-budget category. Small pool, tidy rooms, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Some rooms have been nicely upgraded with gas fireplaces and tile baths, but you’ll pay extra.

421 S. Milpas St.; (805) 965-1624,

Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $129

3. Cabrillo Inn at the Beach

Location, location, location. We had to blink twice when we found this deal. The Cabrillo, which has been in the same family since 1976, is oceanfront, offers a free continental breakfast and has prices that start as low as $79. The 40 rooms are plain-Jane but clean and efficient, and there’s a heated pool and landscaped patio.

931 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (800) 648-6708,

Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $119

4. Presidio Motel

The 16-room Presidio, more than a half-century old, was transformed by the team of Chris Sewell and Kenny Osehan, who sought out art students to add playful murals to the walls of each room. Like its sister property, the Agave, rooms are small but clean and chic with comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, free use of bicycles and continental breakfast. Close to downtown.

1620 State St.; (805) 963-1355,

Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $110

5. The Sandman Inn

This 112-room motel in uptown Santa Barbara advertises “a tradition of value for over 50 years,” and few would argue. It has the most attractive grounds of any of the hotels in our budget category, with 41/2 acres of trees, vines and lovely landscaped pool areas. Rooms are efficient and clean; continental breakfast, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi are included.

Weekday rates from $85; weekend rates from $100

3714 State St.; (805) 687-2468,

10 restaurants for $10 or less

1. Breakwater Restaurant

You’ll find lots of tropical-paradise ambiance at this patio restaurant overlooking the Santa Barbara yacht harbor. Try the Breakwater for breakfast (or later in the day) and watch power boats and sailboats bobbing in the water just beyond your table. Nice atmosphere on the patio, booth seating indoors. Omelets, egg dishes, salads and sandwiches available for less than $10.

107 Harbor Way; (805) 965-1557, Tab: $4.95-$12.95.

2. East Beach Grill

This laid-back coastal winner sits right on the sand in a converted historic building, the Cabrillo Bath House. It’s basically a beach café with a walk-up counter and a forever-and-a-day view that encompasses the Channel Islands. Extremely popular at breakfast; ride a bike or walk to avoid parking problems. Sandwiches, burgers, omelets.

1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 965-8805. Tab: $4-$11

3. Gelson’s Market

Not much atmosphere here, but the deli, the Wolfgang Puck Express, has great picnic potential. Choose from pizzas, oven-baked sandwiches, breakfast items, pastas (we like the Pennette Bolognese and Caesar salad side for $7.99), as well as grab-and-go sandwiches. Then visit a beautiful beach or park.

3305 State St.; (805) 687-5810, Tab: $4.50 and up

4. Mac’s Fish & Chips

We get hungry just thinking about this Santa Barbara newcomer, which opened downtown about six months ago. British chef Grant MacNaughton, the owner, thought Santa Barbara needed “proper fish & chips.” So he cooks up large crusty pieces of Alaskan cod with thin and crispy batter instead of what he characterizes as “the Americanized version” with thin strips of fish and heavy batter. We love his version and his “mushy peas,” another savory British fave ($1.50) that he serves as a side.

503 State St.; (805) 897-1160, Tab: $5.50-$18

5. Mesa Café

Splurge on a Bloody Mary or a martini at the Mesa Café, a popular Santa Barbara restaurant that has a full bar and an extensive menu. This strip mall restaurant, not far from west end beaches, is a Santa Barbara institution, with great breakfasts, table service and a cheerful wait staff.

1972 Cliff Drive; (805) 966-5303, Tab: $5.45 -$14.95.

6. Panino

Sandwich lovers will rejoice at the creative fare available at Panino, a family-owned business that has five locations in the Santa Barbara area ( Goleta, Solvang, Los Olivos, in addition to the two listed below). Take your pick from 30 selections such as English Stilton with Asian pear ($8.95), goat cheese with roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes ($8.50), or roast turkey with Genoa salami combo ($8.95). There are also nine salads.

1014 Coast Village Road, Montecito, (805) 565-0137 or 834 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara; (805) 963-3700, Tab: $8.50-$9.95.

7. Presto Pasta

Order at the counter and — presto! — it appears at your table. Albert Baltieri’s restaurant looks more like a fast-food eatery than a dining room, but the food is plentiful and tasty. We can’t imagine a place where you could feed a family so well for the price. Pick your favorite pasta, sauce and extras (i.e. meatballs, vegetables, chicken, etc.) and you’ll get garlic bread, a large salad and bottomless beverage served with it for as little as $7.98. Pizzas (8-inch) start at $4.89.

827 E. Montecito St.; (805) 568-1678, Tab: $4.89-$8.99

8. Renaud’s Patisserie

You’ll think you’re in Paris while dining at this chic sidewalk bistro and pastry shop in the Loreto Plaza mall. Great sandwiches, salads and breakfast items prepared and served with a touch of class; the café is so good that chef Renaud Gonthier’s small restaurant wins our Best of the 10 Award. Don’t forget to try the beautiful pastries, which a fellow diner described as “to die for.”

3315 State St.; (805) 569-2400, Tab: $4 -$13

9. Rose Café

This Santa Barbara institution has been voted “Best Mexican Restaurant” 14 times in local newspaper surveys (Santa Barbara Independent and the News Press). A bonus: You get table service, south-of-the-border ambiance and free chips when you buy a budget meal here.

1816 Cliff Drive; (805) 965-5513, Tab: $4.25-$12.50.

10. Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant

If you’re biking, running or rollerblading your way across town, stop for lunch at Rudy’s, where you can carbo-load for a pittance. This local fast-food chain (Goleta, Carpinteria, Buellton, besides the three Santa Barbara locations listed here) offers super-sized portions of Mexican favorites such as burritos ($4.75 to $6.75); most plates include beans and rice.

305 W. Montecito St., (805) 899-3152; 3613½ State St., (805) 563-2232; Paseo Nuevo Mall, (805) 564-8677; Tab: $4.25-$7.50

15 free (or low-cost) things to do

1. Hit the beaches: East Beach is at the heart of it all and is best for volleyball; Leadbetter Beach wins the prize for being family-friendly; Butterfly Beach offers great people watching.

2. Get crafty: Stroll Cabrillo Boulevard along the waterfront on Sundays for the all-day Arts & Crafts Show, where you’ll find items that include pottery, watercolors, funky hats and more.

Cabrillo Boulevard at State Street; (805) 962-8956,

3. Put on your walking shoes: Red Tile Walking Tour of downtown Santa Barbara covers 12 blocks, has 17 stops and introduces you to 22 historic and architecturally interesting buildings.

4. Brush up on art: Explore the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which is free on Sundays (donations suggested). More than 27,000 works of art make up the collection.

1130 State St.; (805) 963-4364,

5. Walk on water: Explore the pier at Stearns Wharf, one of California’s oldest working wharves, where fishermen unload their catch and tourists line up for seafood.

6. Check your watch: Catch a great view of the city from the courthouse clock tower at the Santa Barbara County courthouse. You can tour the building, called “America’s most beautiful government building,” on a free docent-led tour (2 p.m. daily), or explore it on your own.

1100 Anacapa St.; (805) 882-4520,

7. Join the party: Explore State Street, where you can shop, eat and soak up local culture.

8. Eat your fruits and veggies: Visit the Saturday farmers market downtown, where you’ll find lots of variety, plus a few musicians performing for tips.

Santa Barbara and Cota streets, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.;

9. Have oceans of fun: Visit Shoreline Park, a bluff-top recreation area that’s one of Santa Barbara’s most popular places. Scout for gray whales from January through March and blue whales from June through August.

Shoreline Drive at La Marina;

10. Take a cheap ride: Pay 25 cents for a trip on the Downtown-Waterfront Electric Shuttle, which runs 10:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

11. Get a pass to the past: Relive California’s Spanish heritage at El Presidio, a Spanish-built fort founded in 1782. Admission $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, children 16 and younger are admitted free.

123 E. Canon Perdido St.; (805) 965-0093,

12. Coast along the coast: Rent a bike at Wheel Fun Rentals and take a spin along the waterfront for great views. Beach cruisers, $8 an hour.

633 E. Cabrillo Blvd. and 22 State St.; (805) 966-2282,

13. Wine a little. Tackle Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail on foot and avoid the hassle of driving to the vineyards. Tastings $5-$10.

14. Say a prayer: Founded more than 200 years ago, Old Mission Santa Barbara is one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Self-guided tours, $1-$5.

2201 Laguna St.; (805) 682-4713,

15. Smell the flowers: More than five miles of meandering trails crisscross 73-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which contains more than 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants. It’s a tranquil spot for a picnic or a stroll. Admission $4-$8.

1212 Mission Canyon Road; (805) 682-4726;

To learn more about Santa Barbara, the walk-in Visitor Center at 1 Garden St. (at Cabrillo Boulevard) can provide tour maps and other details. Visitors also can get information, maps and more on Santa Barbara’s Conference & Visitors Bureau website, or by calling (800) 676-1266.