Santa Barbara on a Budget

Visiting Santa Barbara on a budget? It’s much easier than you think. In fact, you’re likely to find your favorite Santa Barbara moments in this three-day guide—and they won’t break the bank. It’s a little-known fact that many of Santa Barbara’s most coveted bucket list to-dos are free.

To get you started, you’ll need a place to stay. If you’re looking to kick back in Santa Barbara proper on your next getaway, Inn at East Beach, Avania Inn of Santa Barbara, Best Western Plus Pepper Tree Inn and Best Western Plus Santa Barbara are all conveniently located in the heart of the town. If you would rather venture off the beaten path, Montecito’s Coast Village Inn or Goleta’s Hampton Inn, Ramada by Wyndham Santa Barbara and Best Western Plus South Coast Inn are affordable options to choose from when planning your stay in The American Riviera®.

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Day 1: State Street

Swing into the Dune Coffee Roasters for an affordable—and notably wonderful—cup of coffee and baked goods. You won’t be out-of-pocket much, but you will be happy and caffeinated as you set off on your day. Linger on the patio, or take your order to go along State Street. This bustling, palm tree-lined thoroughfare is the beating heart of downtown Santa Barbara, so take your time exploring. You won’t be so inclined to window shop as you will to duck under the nearest portico or wander into a nearby gallery for a free glance at world-class art at studios such as Santa Barbara Fine Art and Maune Contemporary.

One can never go wrong with a scoop (or two) of McConnell's Fine Ice Cream.
One can never go wrong with a scoop (or two) of McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream. Photo Credit: JessyLynn Perkins

If State Street keeps you busy through the morning, there are plenty of places to stop for an affordable bite, none of which skimp on flavor. If you’re in the mood for good health and good taste, check out Natural Café. Or perhaps a sandwich and a side of pickles is more your style. Venture to Three Pickles, just a few blocks off State Street. No matter where you choose to go for lunch in Santa Barbara, a stop for ice cream at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams is a must.

As you wander further, State Street will lead you straight to Stearns Wharf. Duck under Highway 101 and walk onto California’s oldest working wharf. A stroll along this famous boardwalk will take you past a variety of souvenir shops and restaurants. If you favor wine, this is a great time to stop in at Deep Sea Tasting Room—a cozy tasting room that overlooks the Pacific and offers great pours at budget-friendly prices.

As you head into the evening, you’ll want to walk or ride along East Beach on the Cabrillo Blvd. bike path with BCycle. This is where you’re sure to find a moment of zen as you make your way down the palm tree-lined stretch of coastline.

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Day 2: Santa Barbara Landmarks

Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Santa Barbara County Courthouse Photo Credit: Thomas Dawson

Start your day at the famed Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Even if you’re not an architecture buff, this is a must. This Santa Barbara cornerstone was built in 1850 and features beautiful sunken gardens, long mosaic-lined hallways and the famous observation tower, which offers 360 degree views of the area. Admission is free, though donations are accepted to help support Courthouse conservation projects.

For breakfast, start your day with a drip coffee from Handlebar Coffee (2720 De La Vina St.). After discovering Santa Barbara while riding in Amgen’s Tour of California, owners Aaron and Kim created a coffee shop that is now a haven for cyclists and coffee enthusiasts. While you sip, take in the visual sights of El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park.

Fueled by cycling inspiration, consider a bike ride up to Old Mission Santa Barbara—another architectural icon. This “Queen of the Missions” overlooks the city. While admission to go inside for self-guided tours is required ($10-$15), there is no cost to wander the grounds. Gaze at this Spanish Colonial architectural sensation, or stop and smell the roses in the rose garden.

If you want to continue exploring that feeling of zen the Old Mission Santa Barbara is bound to impart, consider a stop at Alice Keck Memorial Park Gardens. This free public park is the perfect place to set up shop for an afternoon picnic. Pick up picnic provisions from the Santa Barbara Public Market as you watch turtles dip into their ponds and ducks wander from one small island to the next. Simply sit back and enjoy the abundance of natural wild space that has come to define Santa Barbara’s eco-conscious perspective.

Next up on this (nearly) free tour of Santa Barbara is the Red Tile Walking Tour. This self-guided tour of historic downtown Santa Barbara highlights the grand architecture and historical attractions that set this city apart from the rest in its class.

Cheers to day two—you deserve it!—with a cold beverage and delicious bites at an area happy hour. Sandbar (Mondays through Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) and Santa Barbara FisHouse (Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to close and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.) are just two of the many places in town for a happy hour at can’t-be-beat prices.

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Day 3: Get Wild

Santa Barbara’s wild spaces are everywhere. Home to the first Earth Day, this city doesn’t shy away from embracing its natural roots, and neither should you during your trip.

Start your day with a hike—there are many to be found in the nearby hills. One worth noting is Inspiration Point for its stunning views of the Santa Barbara South Coast.

la-super-rica-ohpeteleeAfter a long hike, mouth-watering tacos are in store. Santa Barbara is known for its Mexican food and no trip here would be complete without a visit to La Super-Rica Taqueria, Julia Child’s favorite Santa Barbara restaurant, Tacos Pipeye or Mony’s Mexican Food, where tacos are always affordable and delicious. Trust us—you’ll be talking about these tacos for years to come.

Once you’ve had a chance to digest lunch, a quick dip in the wild, blue Pacific is in order. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, consider renting a sea kayak or stand-up paddleboard for an hour or two to cruise the harbor. The Santa Barbara Sailing Center and Paddle Sports Center are among a few businesses that offer rentals at an affordable price (starting at $12 per hour). Watch for starfish, sea lions, harbor seals and even dolphins as you paddle your way around.

Okay, now it’s time to treat yourself (to more wine!). But don’t worry, the Urban Wine Trail is the perfect path to affordable, fun, satisfying wine tasting. This series of nearly 20 tasting rooms brings Santa Barbara’s famous wine country to you, all within walking distance of downtown and each other. Sip your way through the Funk Zone at a variety of different tasting rooms, such as Pali Wine Co. and Santa Barbara Winery (starting at $15), and enjoy award-winning wines in one of California’s most fun and eclectic tasting locales.

And this is just the beginning. This is a town that is easy to get to, easy to get around and can be incredibly affordable. Don’t shy away based on price, because the best things Santa Barbara has to offer are often free of charge.