Santa Barbara is my favorite vacation town along California’s Central Coast. It’s right along a gorgeous stretch of the Pacific coastline, with the Santa Ynez Mountains framing the town’s landscape vista. Obviously, hiking the Santa Ynez trails and splashing around in the water don’t cost a cent, but in other ways Santa Barbara typifies luxury travel. From the 5-star Four Seasons and Bacara resorts to the Simpson House Inn B&B (the only bed and breakfast in North America that’s part of the 5-star Alliance), it’s easy to drop a wad of cash on a vacation here. But you don’t have to break your bank to enjoy what Santa Barbara, California has to offer; I’ve vacationed here on a budget, and so can you. Here’s how to have a budget vacation in Santa Barbara:
One: Get a little culture. For a town of its size, Santa Barbara has some really impressive museums, and touring them is an inexpensive way to enrich yourself. My favorite museums there are the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum and the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum. The Museum of Natural History also runs the Ty Warner Sea Center on Santa Barbara’s Stear’s Wharf pier. Before you go, check out the Santa Barbara Visual Artists website. It’s a monthly calendar of scheduled art events, mostly hosted by he high end art galleries in town – but admission is free, and you might even get to meet the featured artist.
Two: Sure, Santa Barbara’s got some extremely luxurious resorts and hotels, but my favorite budget inns here are clean, conveniently located, and much more affordable than the Four Seasons. The Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel is just two blocks from the beach, and one block from the train station.* The owner of this hostel, Brent Smith, told me he wants “budget travelers to be able to stay in Santa Barbara without paying an arm and a leg.” I couldn’t agree more. Mason Beach Inn is a lovely little budget hotel, just a few yards from the harbor. It’s the most expensive of my favorite Santa Barbara budget hotels, but the price includes free Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast. It’s also the quietest of the bunch. Next, the Orange Tree Inn is the loudest of these hotels – this inn is right on State Street, the main thoroughfare of Santa Barbara, and it can be very lively (especially during Spring Break and the summer). My last pick for budget hotels here is the Days Inn Santa Barbara. It’s more generic-looking that the other three, but it’s also the only one with an on-site restaurant. I didn’t eat at the Day’s Inn: There are plenty of nearby dining options.
*2016 Update: The Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel is temporarily closed as it is undergoing an extensive remodel.
Three: Because Santa Barbara has so much to offer luxury travel fans, some truly upscale restaurants have been established there as well. But this is also a hikers’ town, a beach lovers’ town and, of course, a college town. Trade fine dining for cheap eats, and you won’t have to only go to greasy spoons and suspicious-looking dives. State Street runs up, perpendicular to the ocean, and is filled with an array of dining options. I love Uncle Rocco’s NY Pizza (as a former New Yorker, I must say that while this is great pizza, it is different form the typical slice of NYC ‘za) for lunch or dinner. Also for around 10 bucks, budget travelers can get giant sandwiches at Ye Olde Butcher Shop. It’s the best in its class on State Street. Another inexpensive restaurant on State Street is Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro, open only for breakfast and lunch. For pretty cheap Mexican food on State, try El Rincon Bohemio. It’s open for lunch and dinner, and has basically the Hit Parade of Mexican food (burritos, nachos, you know; the crowd pleasers). Last, I like Kai Sushi Shabu-Shabu. It’s cheaper if you stick with the shabu-shabu; sushi is a luxury food item, and it can quickly shift the tab up higher than you might like. Now, there are so many good restaurants that won’t bust your travel budget, but I couldn’t eat at them all. What about you? Any other recommendations?
A vacation in a luxury town doesn’t have to be out of reach for inveterate budget travelers. If you have any other tips for a cheap Santa Barbara getaway, please leave a message below.
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