SD › Best Places Santa Barbara
Updated: November 3, 2020
Best Areas to Stay in Santa Barbara
Nestled in central California on a long stretch of open coastline, Santa Barbara is everything you could want from a California beach getaway. About 100 miles north of Los Angeles, it feels much more like a town than a city. This is where Southern California ends and Central California begins.
Santa Barbara is best known for its broad, sandy beaches, high-end luxury hotels, and status as a celebrity hotspot. Coined as the American Riviera because of the similarities to Mediterranean seaside towns, it’s a haven for boating, wine enthusiasts, luxury travelers, artists, and beachgoers.
What makes this beach town unique is that it is also a mountain town. The Santa Ynez Mountains offer beautiful hiking trails and a dramatic backdrop to the city.
Santa Barbara was settled by Spaniards over 400 years ago and this history can be seen at the 18th-century Mission Santa Barbara — the only California mission with twin bell towers — and in the distinctive downtown historic Spanish architecture.
Santa Barbara averages more than 283 days a year of sunshine and is a great vacation destination any time of year. The best time to visit Santa Barbara is from March to May or from September to November. Temperatures are fairly mild year-round, hovering in the 60s and 70s, but traveling in early spring or fall ensures you won’t be fighting crowds and hotel rates will be less expensive. In general, it’s smart to dress in layers when visiting Santa Barbara. Mornings and evenings can get a bit chilly, especially if there is fog, but if the sun peeks out in the afternoon, you’ll be quite comfortable in shorts or summer clothes.
Santa Barbara is an upscale beach town as well as a college town and there are many options for hotels in this sprawling beach city. However, these options are also a bit pricey in general. Even motels and budget hotels can easily cost over $200 per night.
The most popular place to stay in Santa Barbara is the neighborhood of West Beach, with its many ocean view restaurants, shops, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. West Beach also has a beautiful wide stretch of beach with a great bike and walking path.
Heading inland from West Beach, you’ll find the Funk Zone. It’s an industrial area that has been taken over by artists who have turned the abandoned warehouses into studios and is home to the city’s urban wine trail. It’s a 10-block area between State Street, Garden Street, Montecito Street, and Cabrillo Boulevard.
As you head further up State Street, you’ll find yourself in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Downtown is filled with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings, upscale boutiques, and a wide variety of restaurants. You’ll find the famous Santa Barbara Public Market here as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (with a large collection of Monet paintings), and the Santa Barbara Courthouse where you can climb the clock tower for a spectacular view of the city. This section of town, while charming, offers the best rates on hotels since it’s not beach adjacent.
East Beach and West Beach are separated by Stearns Wharf. East Beach is more laid-back, quieter, and less touristy than West Beach. You’ll find a beautiful beach with more than a dozen volleyball courts as well as picnic tables. There are a few big resorts in the East Beach area that cater specifically to families as well as a few budget-friendly hotel options.
Montecito is where the celebrities have their homes and it is the ultimate in luxury in Santa Barbara county. This chic enclave is located about five miles from downtown. Hotels are pricey, luxurious, and exclusive here. Montecito is also a great place to stay for outdoor enthusiasts as well as anyone looking for quiet luxury.
There is also the neighboring town of Goleta, located about 10 miles north of Santa Barbara. Goleta is home to the University of California at Santa Barbara and has a much more local vibe. Carpenteria is about 12 miles south of Santa Barbara. Both are great options for a more budget-friendly beach vacation, but away from the heart of Santa Barbara.
Best Places to Stay in Santa Barbara
- Best Luxury Hotels in Santa Barbara
Belmond El Encanto • Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore • The Ritz-Carlton Bacara
- Best Romantic Hotels in Santa Barbara
Kimpton Canary Hotel • The Upham Hotel • Rosewood Miramar Beach • Belmond El Encanto
- Best Beach Hotels in Santa Barbara
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore • The Ritz-Carlton Bacara • Harbor View Inn • Castillo Inn at the Beach • Hotel Milo • Cabrillo Inn at the Beach
- Best Boutique Hotels in Santa Barbara
The Simpson House Inn • Montecito Inn • The Hotel Californian
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels in Santa Barbara
Hotel Milo • Cabrillo Inn at the Beach • Inn at East Beach • Oasis Inn and Suites • The Waterman
- Best Hotels for Families in Santa Barbara
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore (luxury) • Hotel Milo (moderate)
Best Neighborhoods in Santa Barbara for…
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara to Stay for First Timers: East Beach
East Beach offers easy access to the beach, zoo, and downtown. Even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town, you’re never more than 10 minutes from anywhere in the city. This section of beach offers a quieter, more laid-back option and is perfect for a first-time visit.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara for Sightseeing: West Beach or Downtown
When it comes to sightseeing, there are two main interests, the pier and the Spanish architecture. If you want to be close to the beach and the wharf area, then West Beach is the best option. If you’re interested in visiting the 1786 Mission Santa Barbara, known as “the Queen of the Missions,” and Santa Barbara Courthouse, then staying downtown is an excellent choice.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara for Nightlife: Downtown, West Beach, or Funk Zone
There are nightlife options downtown, in West Beach, as well as in the Funk Zone. That being said, Santa Barbara is not a metropolis like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and you won’t find extensive nightlife options here. State Street, the main street in town, runs from West Beach through the Funk Zone and into the heart of downtown. The street is full of bars and restaurants the entire way. Known for its converted warehouses and graffiti murals, the Funk Zone is the home of some of Santa Barbara’s best bars and happy hours as well as great wine-tasting venues.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara for Food and Restaurants: All over
Santa Barbara doesn’t have a quintessential part of town that is predominantly best for food and foodies. There are more than 450 restaurants in Santa Barbara to choose from that are scattered throughout the city and its outskirts. You’ll find great beachside dining at restaurants such as the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, Convivo, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, and everybody’s favorite, Brophy Bros., the waterfront restaurant famous for its oysters and incredible views. Santa Barbara has four restaurants included in the latest Michelin guidebook: Lark, Barbareño, Belmond El Encanto, and La Super-Rica Taqueria. In fact, La Super-Rica Taqueria is Santa Barbara’s most famous restaurant, in good part because of Julia Child. This was her favorite spot for tacos and her review of this restaurant brought the California taco its notoriety and fame.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara for Families: East or West Beach
There is an abundance of things to keep the whole family happy in Santa Barbara. Based in East or West Beach, you’ll find beautiful beaches and options for biking, surfing, sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and beachcombing. Historic Stearns Wharf is an easy walk from both beaches and where you’ll find the family-friendly Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. The museum is an interactive marine facility where kids can get up close with marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel.
- Most Romantic Neighborhood in Santa Barbara: Montecito
Santa Barbara is an extremely popular wedding destination and known as a romantic seaside town. It offers many options for a romantic getaway but there is no denying that Montecito is the ultimate choice for romance. Another great romantic getaway tucked into the hills above downtown is Belmond El Encanto. They offer private bungalows with numerous personalized touches like a pillow monogrammed with your initials. Other romantic options include heading to Butterfly Beach for sunset or visiting a nearby winery.
- Best Neighborhood in Santa Barbara for Walking: Montecito and East or West Beach
The beach is very popular with visitors for walking and biking. Head to the strand where you’ll find a bike path parallel to the beach. You can also stroll on the pier and visit the many restaurants and shops and take in the “vacation vibe” of the town. The Montecito area is also home to more serious walking and hiking options. For a strenuous hike with spectacular views of the coastal area, head up Cold Spring Trail. For an easy hike, try Hot Spring Canyon Trailhead.
- Safest Areas of Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s safest neighborhood tends to be the most affluent one, Montecito. In general, Santa Barbara as a whole is a safe town and the crime rate is below the national average. While it is considered very safe, standard precautions apply at night. It’s also worth noting that like most beach cities, you can find some interesting characters out and about, especially near the beach.
- Unsafe Areas of Santa Barbara
As a whole, Santa Barbara is a safe city. In fact, it’s about as safe a community as you can get for a California beach city. In the tourist districts (around State Street and Stearns Wharf) you might see some occasional panhandling. There is a small area on the East side at the base of the Riviera and another small area on the west side near the base of the Mesa that might be considered less safe. Truthfully, you are quite unlikely to end up in these out-of-the-way residential areas. Similar to elsewhere in the world, don’t put yourself in unsafe situations like walking alone at night and you should be fine.
The 6 Best Neighborhoods in Santa Barbara for Tourists
1. West Beach
The most popular place to stay in Santa Barbara is the neighborhood of West Beach. This is where you’ll find Stearns Wharf with its many ocean view restaurants, shops, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. The upscale Castillo Inn located here offers great value and is just half a block from West Beach. There are several boat tours and whale-watching excursions that leave from this section of the beach. Of course, West Beach also has a beautiful wide stretch of beach with a great bike and walking path. There are also a lot of great dining options such as Brophy Bros., famous for its oysters and incredible views, as well as Toma Restaurant & Bar and Santa Barbara Shellfish Co., to name just a few.
Best Hotels: Harbor View Inn • Castillo Inn at the Beach • Inn by the Harbour • Hotel Milo Best Cheap/Moderate Hotel: Avania Inn of Santa Barbara
2. East Beach
East Beach is a great choice for first-time visitors, families, and those who prefer peace and quiet. It is one of the first beaches you’ll find as you enter Santa Barabara heading north from Los Angeles. The area offers easy access to the beach, zoo, and downtown. While it is a bit further from the center of town, you are never more than 5 or 10 minutes from anywhere. This section of beach offers a more laid-back and quieter stay option and is perfect for a first-time visit.
Best Hotels: Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort • Santa Barbara House Best Moderate Hotels: Motel 6 Santa Barbara • Inn at East Beach
3. Funk Zone
Home to the city’s burgeoning art scene, the Funk Zone has a bohemian vibe. It sits between the Downtown and West Beach and is an easy walk to both. The area is brimming with a variety of artisan shops, hip eateries, 20+ wine tasting rooms, and award-winning microbreweries. This 10-block area is a great option for anyone looking for art, nightlife, and close access to the beach. Mony’s Mexican Food is a must if you are staying in the Funk Zone. The barbacoa combo and the chicken burrito are their claims to fame.
Best Hotels: The Hotel Californian • The Waterman
Premier upscale shopping and dining opportunities at Paseo Nuevo are a highlight when staying in downtown Santa Barbara. By choosing a hotel in the heart of downtown, you’ll be close to the Santa Barbara Public Market, Santa Barbara Museum of Art (with its large collection of Monet paintings), and Santa Barbara Courthouse where you can climb the clock tower for a spectacular view of the city. One of the highlights of Santa Barbara is the food scene and you’ll find four restaurants included in the latest Michelin guidebook: Lark, Barbareño, Belmond El Encanto, and La Super-Rica Taqueria. One of the most famous restaurants in the heart of downtown is the upscale Mexican restaurant and celebrity hotspot, El Paseo, known for hosting parties for Ginger Rogers, Salvador Dali, Quentin Tarantino, and Jennifer Lopez.
Best Hotels: Kimpton Canary Hotel • The Upham Hotel • The Simpson House Inn • Montecito Inn • The Spanish Garden Inn Best Exclusive Hotel: Belmond El Encanto (in the hills above downtown) Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Orange Tree Inn • The Presidio
For a real splurge, Montecito is the place to stay. It is the ultimate choice for a romantic luxury getaway. The Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore sits on 22 acres of oceanfront with lush gardens and when you stay at the hotel, you have access to the exclusive Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club and the members-only Montecito Country Club. A hotel with a Hollywood history is the Spanish-style Montecito Inn built in 1928 by Charlie Chaplin. The Montecito area is also home to the best walking and hiking options with spectacular views of the coastline. Head to Coast Village Road for a see-and-be-seen experience. The top dining options here are Caruso, Honor Bar, and Bettina.
Best Hotels: Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore • Montecito Inn • Rosewood Miramar Beach Best Cheap/Moderate Hotels: Coast Village Inn • Historic Mansion in Montecito
Goleta is a great choice for travelers interested in tranquility, beautiful scenery, and being oceanside. It’s also a great option if you’re looking for an authentic, locals-only experience. Located about 10 miles north of Santa Barbara, Goleta is the home to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Beyond the decadent Ritz-Carlton, which offers views of coastal bluffs along 2 miles of natural beach as well as 3 zero-edge swimming pools and a full-service spa, hotels tend to be much more reasonably priced than Santa Barbara.
Best Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara Best Cheap/Moderate Hotel: Kimpton Goodland • Hilton Garden Inn • Courtyard by Marriott Santa Barbara Goleta
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