Santa Barbara. So serene. So sexy. So expensive.
So out of reach?
My assignment was to figure out how to do a long weekend getaway for two people — three days, two nights — for less than$1,000. And that price tag is all-inclusive: gas, parking, activities, food, taxes, tips. No surprise resort fees here.
Yes, we’re aware that $1,000 does sound like a lot. Consider this, though: Santa Barbara is pricey, even for California. The median sale in August for a Santa Barbara home: $1.9 million, according to Realtor.com. And the average hotel room costs $386 a night on weekends, according to Kayak.com.
We have found, we think, the middle ground most of us are looking for. If your budget is a little tighter, I’ve included some less expensive options. If you have a little more, I’ve also included some upgrades.
That $386-a-weekend-night hotel room would mean I’d spend more than half my budget for two nights, so I aimed for $200 a night for this trip. After a review of just about every hotel booking site on the internet, I did find one I was excited about: Cabrillo Inn at the Beach.
Getting around: $39
Grand total, including tax, tips, and fees: $996
My husband, Joe, and I stayed in a partial ocean-view king room that had a flat-screen TV, free parking, free and functional Wi-Fi and a mini fridge. It was more spacious than the average hotel room — spacious enough to fit a small table and chairs. The wallpaper and decor were a tad outdated but well maintained.
I would describe the overall vibe as “retro California beach motel chic.” The website called my ocean view “partial,” but I could easily spot the Pacific right across the street. A three-minute walk got you to the beach.
The room was $219 for Friday night and $239 for Saturday night. I stayed in August, which is, well, Santa Barbara doesn’t have a “low season” and “high season” as much as it has a “popular season” and a “very popular season.” The summer months fall into “very popular.” When I checked prices again for September and October, the merely “popular” season, weekends ran about $20 to $40 less per night.
Total for two nights: $533
Info: Cabrillo Inn at the Beach, 931 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 966-1641
Do it for less: You can find Airbnb accommodations in the area, but look closely before you book: One listing was for a tent. Another was for a camper van. Many were for rooms in a shared space, not an entire dwelling. Most of the apartments and guesthouses I saw listed for less than my hotel room would have ended up costing as much or more after cleaning and fees.
Upgrade: More upscale inns usually are cheaper Sundays through Thursdays.
Los Agaves is one of Santa Barbara’s best-reviewed restaurants on Yelp, and for good reason. It offers traditional Mexican restaurant fare, including tacos, fajitas, enchiladas and burritos. I tried the steak picado, and Joe had the chicken with the excellent house-made mole poblano.
Total: $50 (All meal prices in this itinerary assume two people are eating and include tax and tip.)
Info: Los Agaves, 600 N. Milpas St.; (805) 564-2626. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
There’s no shame in orienting travel around Instagram-worthy spots, and here, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse fills that bill. The courthouse is free to visit, and parking is free, if you’re willing to walk a little. Downtown Santa Barbara offers public parking lots, where you get 75 minutes free and pay $1.50 an hour after that.
The courthouse, a Spanish Colonial Revival giant that towers over nearby buildings feels more like a castle or fortress than the active courthouse it is. Inside is no less impressive. We were weaving around people taking photos of the intricate architecture and hand-painted murals and realized we were looking at the spot where people line up for jury duty. Free docent tours start in the mural room at 10:30 a.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. every day, although with so much to take in, we enjoyed exploring it at our own pace.
We took the stairs to the top of El Mirador clock tower. (There’s also an elevator.) It’s the ultimate Santa Barbara selfie spot, with a 360-degree view of mountains and ocean and red tile roofs. The only challenge up here is ducking out of the way of wedding photo shoots.
Info: Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 1100 Anacapa St.; Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Free.
After touring the courthouse, we strolled around downtown. The area is full of surprises: Wandering through La Arcada Courtyard, I heard splashing and found turtles living in the fountain.
Upgrade: I stopped by Savoy Wines ,18 W. Anapamu St., where the man behind the counter pointed me to the best screw-top bottle of local white wine for less than $20. (Our room, for its many amenities, lacked a corkscrew.) I left with a bottle of Brander Sauvignon Blanc, made in Santa Ynez. Sipping this on the patio of our room while watching the sun set — well, you could do worse.
When we felt ready for a late-afternoon pick-me-up, we swung by Handlebar Coffee Roasters. I had a cold brew and a strawberry pistachio muffin that required two hands and a lot of napkins. Beans are roasted in-house, and the pastries are made here or locally sourced. The line usually winds out the door, even on a weekday afternoon, but it is worth the wait.
Info: Handlebar Coffee Roasters, 128 E. Canon Perdido St.; (719) 201-3931. Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
For dinner, we motored up to the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, which turned out to be my favorite food place on this trip. (I’m not the only fan, so reserve a table well in advance.) The waves crashed onto the shore just yards from our inside table. Ideally, reserve a table for one hour before sunset for maximum Instagramability. The menu offers plenty of delicious entrees such as seafood pasta, which is what I had, for less than $25.
The cocktail menu is creative and the concoctions tasty — I tried the Última Palabra, made with mezcal, maraschino cherry liqueur, green chartreuse and lime, for $13 — but it’s tough to beat the value of a $7.25 house Central Coast Cabernet or Chardonnay.
Info: Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, 2981 Cliff Drive; (805) 898-2628. Open 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
The free hotel breakfast was one of our money-saving weapons. The spread at Cabrillo Inn included coffee, juice, fresh fruit, yogurt, a dozen kinds of pastries, two quiches and a waffle bar. We had the option of enjoying breakfast in the lounge overlooking the pool or taking it to our patio table.
The first tourist stop on Day 2 was the Old Mission Santa Barbara, called “Queen of the Missions” for its beauty and historical significance.
California’s missions have a rich and complicated history; Santa Barbara’s was at one time the headquarters of all the missions and the home of the state’s first bishop. It has been continuously operated since its founding in 1786 and is still an active parish, which means if you go during Mass (4 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30, 9 and 11 a.m. Sundays), the church will be off-limits.
The self-guided tour included in the ticket price offers extensive information about the buildings and the Spanish Franciscan missionaries and Chumash people who lived and worked here. If you grew up in California, you probably learned all about the missions, but it’s more illuminating to see one up close.
Across the street is the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden in Mission Historical Park. It has more than 1,500 plants, including many award winners named by the All-American Rose Selections committee. Sit on one of the benches and take a few minutes to breathe deeply.
Info: Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St. Pick-up tours 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. daily. $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older and active military with ID, $7 for kids 5-17, free for children 4 and younger. The rose garden is free.
Upgrade: If you’re in Santa Barbara from February to November, book a tour to see Lotusland in nearby Montecito. Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish opera singer at the turn of the last century who was not particularly good at singing but was quite good at finding wealthy men to marry. Her sixth husband recommended she buy the Cuesta Linda estate, which she did in 1941. She spent the rest of her life pouring her heart, soul and fortune into it.
More than a dozen gardens span 37 acres, including a recently renovated traditional Japanese garden, a lotus pond, a succulent garden, an olive grove, a copse of dragon’s blood trees, an otherworldly cactus garden and a bromeliad rainforest.
True to her opera roots, Madame Walska wanted each to have a dramatic entrance and exit. It’s like stepping into a different alien planet on every stop of the tour. The docent-led, two-hour tour is pricey at $50 a person, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Info: Lotusland, 695 Ashley Road, Montecito; lotusland.org. Tours are 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays from February through November. Reserve in well in advance, especially for weekends.
Do it for less: You’d be forgiven for skipping tourist spots and spending a few hours at the beach or lying in lounge chairs by the pool or in the courtyard of your hotel.
Less than half a mile from the hotel is today’s lunch destination: East Beach Tacos , 226 S. Milpas St., an outdoor casual eatery next to batting cages. We ordered the Triple Play and for $9 got a choice of three tacos. The options are Latin- and Asian-inspired and include carne asada, banh mi, carnitas and the Gangnam style (Korean-style marinated short rib with pickled daikon and spicy chili vinegar).
Info: East Beach Tacos, 226 S. Milpas St., No. 3608. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Upgrade: If you’re in the mood for baseball, it’s $11 to swing at 100 pitches.
Tasting and shopping
Now it’s time for the most essential Santa Barbara activity: wine tasting. The wine country bus tours I found ran about $120 to $150 per person, outside the budget for this trip, but in the past few years the Funk Zone has become the hot destination for wine enthusiasts who want to go tasting without leaving the city limits. It’s also walkable from the hotel.
Most tasting rooms offer glasses of wine for $8 to $12 and flights e for about $15. The wineries were doing a bustling business on a Saturday late afternoon but not so busy I couldn’t find a seat.
I bought a self-guided wine tasting tour online in hopes of streamlining the experience and saving some money. But it was tricky to set up and redeem the deals. I tracked what I would have spent out of pocket for what I ordered (a glass of wine at Corks n’ Crowns, a flight of five wines at Area 5.1 Winery and another glass at Oreana Winery), and it would have been about the same price as the tour ($37, not including tips), without the digital headache.
For a break between tastings, I stopped at the Shopkeepers at 137 Anacapa St., a funky store that sells things like brightly colored geometric jewelry, scented candles in upcycled whiskey glasses, a broad selection of crystals, and an amazing $300 lavender suede jacket I talked myself out of buying.
Total: This will depend on how long you spend and how much wine you’re prepared to enjoy. Budget about $40 per person.
Info: Funk Zone, Anacapa and Yanonali streets; winery and tasting room hours vary, though all are open between noon and 6 p.m.
Dinner was at Arnoldi’s Cafe, a classic red-checked-tablecloth Italian joint that’s one of Santa Barbara’s oldest restaurants. Nothing soaks up a long afternoon of wine drinking like a big plate of spaghetti Bolognese.
Info: Arnoldi’s Cafe, 600 Olive St., No.1627. Open 5 to 9 p.m. daily and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays for brunch.
We did the hotel breakfast again and then drove to Stearns Wharf, which offers tourist-oriented restaurants and gift shops. We grabbed an open outside table on the south side behind the shops and relaxed, watching boaters and kayakers float by.
Info: Stearns Wharf, 217 Stearns Wharf. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Free.
A bit farther north is Shoreline Park, 1237 Shoreline Drive, open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. You’ll find free 90-minute parking spots near the restaurants; parking at the nearby beach lot costs $2 an hour. We walked toward the harbor, then turned left to find Paddle Sports Center.
I had been kayaking only once but chose to try it here based on the glowing TripAdvisor reviews. My faith was rewarded: This was one of my favorite activities of the trip. For $15 an hour, you’ll paddle a one-mile, self-guided loop that takes you through the marina, under Stearns Wharf and past a buoy heaving under a raft of sea lions sunning themselves. (Though tempting, do not get close enough to pet the sea lions.)
The loop takes about an hour and is appropriate for first-timers. It’s a surprisingly vigorous workout: Be prepared for sore shoulders and triceps.
Total: $38 ($32 for two kayaks and a locker, $6 for parking)
Info: Paddle Sports Center, 117 Harbor Way. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
There are two excellent options nearby for lunch: On the Alley and Brophy Bros. On the Alley sells burgers, tacos and such SoCal brunch staples as burritos, bowls and a chorizo breakfast burger. It serves mimosas, canned wines and local beers, which taste even better after a workout on the water.
Brophy Bros. is a well-known seafood spot with a selection of draft beers. There’s a first-floor cafe that serves food at the bar and a second-floor restaurant with proper tables. Sample seafood like the fish and chips, fried calamari or New England clam chowder.
Total: $40 for lunch for two
After that, we spent some time relaxing on the beach nearby and walking around Shoreline Park. Then, sadly, it was time to head home.
Trip total: $998, including tax, tips and fees.
Think you could do this cheaper? Have ideas for where we should go next? Tweet me @jessica_roy or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.