Santa Barbara, California
Visit Santa Barbara – best hotels, restaurants & attractions in 2020
Though I typically write about places I’ve traveled to, I figured that perhaps I should also write about a place that I know well—a place I’ve lived for many years. Though my husband and I moved to Ventura in the summer of 2016, I spent four years of college living in Santa Barbara and then moved back for several years after law school. In total, my husband and I have each had the pleasure of living in beautiful Santa Barbara for more than ten years. So the point is… I think I know what I’m talking about.
Santa Barbara, California, is often known as the American Riviera because of its Mediterranean climate, stunning beaches, and upscale lifestyle. This city's cosmopolitan culture is composed of an abundance of theaters, museums, world-class restaurants, and a laid-back coastal lifestyle. No wonder it is one of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the United States.
When to Travel
The best time of the year to visit Santa Barbara is mid to late summer and fall. June brings the infamous “June Gloom”, where most days are cloudy and socked in with marine-layer fog. Don’t even think about traveling here Father’s Day weekend (usually the second or third weekend in June) because—coupled with the holiday—it’s also usually when University of California Santa Barbara holds their graduation ceremonies, which means that the families of thousands of students are all looking for places to stay. You will find that most hotels and restaurants are completely booked up. Those that aren’t will gouge you with high prices to make up for demand. So unless you are intentionally in town to celebrate Father’s Day or attend a friend or relative’s graduation ceremony, just avoid Santa Barbara like the plague.
Another time of year to be mindful of is Fiesta. Each year, typically the first week in August, all of Santa Barbara basically throws a gigantic party—called Old Spanish Days, or “Fiesta”. I mention Fiesta because, depending on what you’re looking for, it’s either a time of year to avoid or perhaps even seek out. If you are into the fun and excitement that comes along with Fiesta (think Spanish dancers, a parade, a rodeo, confetti eggs, lots of food, lots of parties, and cultural events held throughout the city), well then I think coming to Santa Barbara during Fiesta is a great idea. However, do plan ahead because like Father’s Day weekend, most hotels will be completely booked well in advance.
If you are looking for something more quiet, or just want to see Santa Barbara without all the chaos (trust me, it’s chaos), then avoid traveling to Santa Barbara during the last weekend in July and the first week in August. Unless you are really mentally and physically prepared, Fiesta can be a logistical nightmare and can sometimes mean that you won’t be able to experience “normal” Santa Barbara.
Though you aren’t guaranteed sunny, warm weather, visitors from the colder parts of the country (or the world) may find travel to Santa Barbara in the winter and spring to be pleasant as well. The temperatures are mild year round and on average range between 60 and 80 degrees. It is not uncommon to get beautiful, sunny 70 degree days even in the wintertime. Traveling to Santa Barbara during the off-season will mean less tourists, no cruise ships, and lower hotel prices.
Where to Stay
When it comes to choosing a place to stay in Santa Barbara, the options are seemingly endless. Whether you are looking for an upscale beachfront resort or an inviting boutique hotel tucked in the hills, Santa Barbara has it all to spoil you silly.
For upscale options, choose the picturesque Mediterranean-styled Ritz Carlton Resort (formerly known as the Bacara for many years), the ultra-luxurious Four Seasons Biltmore, Rosewood Miramar Beach or my personal favorite: the San Ysidro Ranch.*
*Note: some of these properties are technically in nearby Montecito, but I group the two towns together since they are so close to one another. A stay in Montecito is still a short cab or uber ride away from all that Santa Barbara has to offer.
If money wasn’t an option and I could only choose one place to stay in Santa Barbara, I would hands-down pick the San Ysidro Ranch. Rates, however, start at about $1,000 night and go as high as $10,000 a night for their premier cottages. If you have the ability to use travel points, use them here. And even if you aren’t able to get a “deal” and have to pay full price, trust me—it’s going to be 100% worth it.
Though the San Ysidro Ranch was mostly demolished during the January 2018 Montecito mudslide, their restaurants are now open for business once again and they report that they are anticipating welcoming guests again in June of 2019. San Ysidro Ranch (SYR), once managed by the elite hotel chain, Rosewood Resorts, is now owned by Beanie Baby owner and real estate mogul, Ty Warner. Among its many accolades, SYR has been named the Number 1 Hotel in America by Forbes Traveler. SYR is more famously known for the fact that John and Jackie Kennedy spent their honeymoon there—and so they aptly have one of their best cottages named “The Kennedy Cottage.” Rich in history, SYR is also known for being a haven for old Hollywood celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby.
To hear all about what to do on your trip to Santa Barbara, listen to the We Travel There podcast, by Lee Huffman. I had the pleasure of being a guest on Lee's show back in September of 2019. During the interview, Lee and I discussed my favorite spots in Santa Barbara, which include the Mission Rose Garden, the Zoo, the Funk Zone and some of my favorite restaurants in town.
To read the show notes, visit http://WeTravelThere.com/santabarbara
Click the link to the right to listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, or just CLICK HERE.
The newly acquired Ritz Carlton—formerly known as the Bacara—is Santa Barbara’s newest Marriott Bonvoy property. Set a few miles north of Goleta (approximately 10 miles outside of Santa Barbara), the Ritz Carlton is a beautiful, yet slightly isolated property. If you’re looking to relax by the pool, walk on the beach (where there are guaranteed to be a lot less people than at those in downtown Santa Barbara), get spa treatments, golf at nearby Sandpiper Golf Course, or dine at one of their several incredible restaurants—not ever really needing to leave the property—then the Ritz Carlton is a great option. The rooms are extremely well-appointed and the property is absolutely stunning. However, if you are wanting to spend time enjoying the nightlife in downtown Santa Barbara or just plan to spend most of your time in Santa Barbara proper, then perhaps a closer hotel would be your better bet. Options like the Canary Hotel (see below) or the DoubleTree by Fess Parker would be better options.
The Four Seasons Biltmore is another upscale option that’s in Montecito but right at the beach. Again, it’s another insanely beautiful property (Santa Barbara and its surrounding areas is chock full of great places to stay) with exquisite service and a price tag to match. It sits right across from the famous Coral Casino, which is a private members-only club where guests of the Biltmore are granted temporary access. Sip cocktails by the retro inspired pool that is a nod to the way the rich and famous of Montecito and LA enjoyed the club in the 1950s. The Four Seasons Biltmore has an excellent fine dining restaurant with views of the ocean, a lively cocktail bar and one of the best spas in town.
Santa Barbara recently celebrated the reopening of an iconic hotel: the Miramar. Now owned and operated by Rosewood, the Miramar was once known as "Miramar by the Sea". The 16-acre beachfront club and hotel first opened to the public in the 1800s and was a Santa Barbara/Montecito staple for decades, before finally closing in 1998. The property changed hands several times but sat vacant and decaying until developer Rick Caruso purchased the property in 2007. Between 2007 and 2019 the property underwent significant renovations, finally "reopening" in April of 2019.
The property is stunning--it's like you've been transported from an East Coast palatial estate, right onto the beach in sunny Santa Barbara. Located directly on the sand, the Miramar sits on what is arguably one of the most coveted properties in the world. Beautiful guest rooms, suites and private bungalows sit just steps from the sand. This too comes at a price though: rooms start at about $800 and climb pretty high during peak season.
Although Santa Barbara is most famous for its grand retreats, a cute, quaint and unique option is the Agave Inn. This small, boutique hotel is furnished in a very tastefully unique design. It has a Palm Springs-like vibe that is cool and trendy. Lemon yellow doors, teal accent walls, Mexican movie posters, painted tiles and lots of cacti are some of the quirky details that add to its unparalleled aesthetic appeal – which I am in love with.
Another great mid-priced option is the Kimpton Canary Hotel. This charming, Spanish-styled hotel is located in the downtown Santa Barbara and affords astounding panoramic views of the sea and mountains from its magnificent rooftop terrace. It is in probably the most convenient location of all the hotels and resorts in Santa Barbara, located just one block off of State Street, right in the middle, so you are within walking distance of all the great shops and restaurants and only a short bike ride to the beach.
Other hotels and resorts in Santa Barbara that I love are the serenely secluded hilltop hideaway of El Encanto Hotel and the youthful Hotel Milo. If you’re looking for a “cheap” hotel in Santa Barbara, good luck—compared to most places just about every hotel in Santa Barbara will set you back at least a few hundred dollars a night, particularly in the high season.
Where to Eat
There are so many great restaurant options in Santa Barbara, which for me is one of the highlights. There is good food just about everywhere you go. Newbies should aim to hit up a combination of the traditional favorites alongside a handful of new, exciting spots. There are certainly plenty to choose from.
First, I'll start with some "oldies, but goodies". These are restaurants that have been around for ages, but for good reason: they're just plain good. These Santa Barbara staples are well known, and most have been around for ages.
Chuck's of Hawaii has a very simple menu, but don't let it fool you--they serve up super consistent steakhouse food alongside traditional cocktails. Brophy Bros is another touristy favorite in Santa Barbara, but for good reason: with its unbeatable harbor views and a menu full of mouthwatering seafood, it's worth the wait. Brophy Bros serves some of the best fresh, grilled fish in the city – so, that should be on your “to-eat” list.
If you are craving more local specialties, head over to the Bouchon. Though Bouchon serves French cuisine, they've been a Santa Barbara staple for over 25 years, and their chef shops the local farmers market each week for locally-sourced, organic produce. Owners Mitchell and Amy Sjerven pride themselves on creating an intimate dining environment with an incredibly attentive staff and a knowledge of wine that will blow you away. Their roasted venison medallions, braised Kurobata pork shank, and pan-roasted salmon are absolutely amazing. Request to sit on the patio to have one of the best seats in the house.
Some other great restaurants include La Super-Rica, which gives you an authentic taste of Mexico, Via Maestra 42 for Italian cuisine, Empty Bowl Noodle Bar for casual Thai food, and the Indonesian-inspired Sama Sama kitchen. Old school staples include Chuck's of Hawaii, the Palace Grill, Boathouse at Hendry's, and Chase Restaurant.
If you’re looking for sushi, Arigato is hands-down Santa Barbara’s best sushi restaurant. Boasting a selection of high quality sushi and sashimi, the restaurant specializes in delivering high quality fish in unique, creative dishes. Some favorites include the ginger bluefin carpaccio and the magic mushroom roll. Also offering diverse wines by the glass and craft beers, the restaurant proudly offers big names like Hitachino and Dom Perignon. Whether you're a true foodie or just love fresh fish, this place is a must-go. You will not regret it!
For upscale dining, choose Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, The Lark in the Funk Zone, Barbareño downtown, Lucky's in Montecito, Bouchon (discussed above) Caruso's at Rosewood Miramar and Angel Oak at the Ritz Carlton.
For a unique experience, head up highway 154 to the Cold Spring Tavern. For dinner they serve steaks and game like venison and are known for their try-tip sandwiches that they serve for lunch on the weekends. The drive up there is beautiful and the restaurant is unique.
Some of my newer favorites include Lucky Penny, the Honor Bar, Corazon Cocina, Blackbird, Santo Mezcal, and Oliver's in Montecito. If you make it to Honor Bar, be sure to order my favorite salad: their emerald kale with rotisserie chicken salad. It's soooo good.
For stiff cocktails and a truly "Santa Barbara Downtown" experience, go to Joe's. Careful with the drinks though--they're deceptively strong.
What to Do
From museums and cultural affairs to well-known gardens and architecture, there is something to enjoy morning, noon and night in the wonderful city of Santa Barbara – whether you are here for a week or a weekend.
Kick off your day with a trip to the Santa Barbara harbor. Here, you will find the head office of the local yacht club and the Maritime Museum. What's more, there are several beaches within walking distance. You can grab lunch at either On the Alley (also known as “OTA”) or Brophy Brother’s, then walk along the harbor all the way to the pier for a nice stroll. Or another option is to take “Lil’ Toot”, which is a cute little yellow boat that transports people from the harbor to the pier every 30 minutes. The ride takes only 15 minutes and costs only $5 for adults and $1 for children.
On the pier, called Stearns Wharf, there are restaurants (my favorite is the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on the end), a marine museum/aquarium that’s great for kids, shops, candy stores and even wine tasting. From the pier, you can actually walk directly up State Street toward all the main shops and restaurants. State Street actually ends right at Stearns Wharf, so it’s a perfect place to start your walk through town.
Or you can spend your day taking your hat off to a special exhibit of the artistic feats of different cultures and periods in the Museum of Art. You can also head over to the Santa Barbara Zoo and marvel at the spectacular animal exhibits; though the gorillas, giraffes and lions are always a crowd favorite, the Santa Barbara Zoo also boasts a selection of endangered species that are native to California (and they serve beer at the zoo!).
If you’re in town for the first Thursday of the month, be sure to take a stroll through downtown for Santa Barbara’s local First Thursday event. This is a great opportunity to catch amazing live music, lectures, and wine-tasting.
Some other places to see include the Museum of Natural History, the County Courthouse (Fun Fact: my husband and I actually got married in the beautiful sunken gardens there), picturesque Botanic Garden and Lotusland.
Up for a hike? Drive up the 154 and hike to Knapp's Castle for insanely beautiful views of the Santa Ynez Valley. Only a mile round trip, this hike is even appropriate to allow the kiddos to tag along.
Whether you are taking a long family vacation, or just a weekend away with (or from) the family, Santa Barbara is a great place to travel to.
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