Santa Barbara is an enchanting city with the distinct laid back vibes of a classic SoCal beach town. Alysha went to college in Santa Barbara, and we constantly joke about the fact that she has lived in two places with perfect climates – the Bay Area, and Santa Barbara – which set her expectations very, very high for where we end up settling down. Santa Barbara’s position between the mountains and the water keeps it from sprawling too wide and is a super unique landscape.
The mountains and ocean also make it so that Santa Barbara can’t sprawl out TOO far, which means the city is compact enough to explore in a weekend. However, with a fantastic foodie scene, beautiful golden sand beaches, and more shopping than your wallet can handle, it will keep you coming back for more. This guide will help you decide where to stay in Santa Barbara, and some of the best things to try during your stay.
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The Best Areas to Stay in Santa Barbara
While Santa Barbara is a relatively compact city, there are some nuances to choosing a place to stay. It’s also worth noting here that Santa Barbara, in general, is an expensive city to visit. Hotels and Airbnb are both going to be more expensive than most other West Coast cities.
If you’re on a shoestring budget, which we were on our last visit, stay at the Agave Inn. We stayed there and got a room for right around $120 a night, which is a STEAL in Santa Barbara. The rooms are small, but nicely decorated. Plus, you won’t be spending too much time in your room anyway, you’ll be out exploring Santa Barbara! It’s a little further out, about 2 miles from the beach on State Street, but it’s totally doable. We walked down to the Funk Zone through leafy neighborhoods and it was very pleasant. You could always drive or take a Lyft instead if a two mile walk doesn’t sound appealing to you.
Usually, we opt for staying in an Airbnb over hotels when the price is roughly equal. In this case, since we were booking kind of late, we found that there weren’t a whole lot of choices available for our dates. So we opted for a hotel. But when I went back to look, I realized that there are plenty of great Airbnb options in Santa Barbara – they were just all booked up when we were looking.
If we were to do it again, we’d opt for an Airbnb. Like this cozy & bright apartment just off of State Street.
There is one gorgeous hotel that is in Goleta – a 10 minute drive from downtown – but is worth looking at: The Kimpton Goodland. It’s styled as an ultimate beach retreat (even though it’s not actually on the beach). It has a restaurant and bar (with poolside service), a fitness center, free bikes to use to cruise around town, and record players and yoga mats in every room. If that sounds like paradise to you, it’s worth the tradeoff of being a few minutes outside of town.
Downtown – Best Location for First Timers
Downtown Santa Barbara, along the State Street Corridor north of the freeway, is the best place to stay in Santa Barbara for first-time visitors. It is close to the beach, a shopping hub, and has a wealth of places to eat and drink. The restaurants are a mix of everything from food trucks to upscale fine dining places. There are a number of museums, art galleries, and theatres to give you a culture fix.
The central location means that you’ll be paying a bit more to stay here, but Santa Barbara is an expensive city already, so it’s not super noticeable.
Here are some of the best things to do in Downtown Santa Barbara.
- Drink the best coffee in Santa Barbara at Dune Coffee Roasters and Handlebar Coffee Roasters. These are my two favorite places to get coffee when in Santa Barbara. They are small, locally-owned cafes which focus on delicious and sustainably produced coffee.
- Sample the best completely gluten-free baked goods in Santa Barbara at Lilac Patisserie. Offering breakfast, lunch, and desserts, I would recommend stopping here at least once during a stay in Santa Barbara. Their brunch menu is to die for, but I enjoy stopping by for one of their delicious cheesecakes after a day of exploring.
- Find the freshest produce at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. If you are staying in a place with a kitchen, stop by the Santa Barbara Farmers Market on a Saturday morning or Wednesday evening to shop the abundance of locally grown produce. Even if you are not, stop by to soak up the atmosphere, find some fresh fruit, and listen to the sounds of the bustling market. The surrounding restaurants and bars are often busy on Saturdays due to the market.
- Grab an ice cream at a local institution. McConnell’s Ice Cream has been in Santa Barbara for 70 years. It is a family run business committed to using quality local ingredients with amazing flavor combinations. It is one of Santa Barbara’s worst kept secrets, but well worth the wait.
- Learn about the history of Santa Barbara at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. This museum details the history of Santa Barbara from the Native American civilization through to the 19th Century. It details the Spanish settlement, Mexican rule, and the Arts Movement. The museum also has temporary exhibitions that rotate through it.
Best Places to Stay in Downtown Santa Barbara
The area along State Street is where you’ll find the majority of places to stay, and it’s a perfect location for being central to everything to do and see in Santa Barbara.
The M Lounge (1 Bedroom Airbnb)
This modern apartment boasts a private terrace and extra touches of luxury such as a rainfall shower and bathrobes. Guests have the spacious lower floor to themselves with a bright living and dining room and separate bedroom.
Cozy Boho Nook with Mountain View (1 Bedroom Airbnb)
This light-filled apartment is one of four located in a refurbished Victorian house. It is decorated in a charming manner with a large kitchen and dining room. It is located 10 to 15 minutes from Downtown Santa Barbara on foot and has plenty of restaurants and bars around.
Private Tiny Studio Close To State St, Beach, & Funk Zone (Studio Airbnb)
This tiny house is located right in the center of Santa Barbara. It is only a few minutes from State Street on foot and all the restaurants, bars, and cafes there. While the place is small, it is amazing value, and offers a kitchenette with an induction cooktop in case you want to cook a few meals for yourself. The TV has Netflix, Starz, and HBO and there is street parking.
Downtown charmer in the heart of Santa Barbara (2 Bedroom Airbnb)
You will have full reign of this spacious and gorgeously decorated house. It has two bedrooms and a sofa bed, plus a large backyard with patio furniture. The kitchen is a state of the art chef’s kitchen with a 2 door fridge, 6 burner stove, and double oven with a warming drawer. Guests can use the washing machine and dryer.
Brand New Boutique Stay – Casa Castillo (2 Bedroom Airbnb)
This minimalist space is one of five units in a cross between a boutique hotel and an apartment complex. It provides a spacious kitchen and dining room and 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The whole property was renovated in May 2020 and furnished with Keurig kitchen appliances and California King beds in each of the bedrooms.
Canary by Kimpton (Downtown)
While the Canary by Kimpton is a masterpiece with its combination of sleek style and unbeatable location, its best feature is the rooftop pool with a 360 degree view of the mountains and sea, perfect for sunset swims. There is also an outdoor fireplace to cuddle up and gaze at the stars in the evening. The hotel offers perks like complimentary bikes and hosted wine hours to allow guests to sample the local wines. The rooms in this boutique hotel are works of art with hand-painted tiles, four poster beds, and hardwood floors. You’ll pay a little extra for the amenities and the location.
Agave Inn – Great Value Hotel
This is where we stayed on our last trip, and we think it’s a great budget option for visiting Santa Barbara. The Agave Inn is decorated in a modern Mexican theme with bright colored walls and bedspreads, Mexican movie posters, and cacti. All of the rooms have a microwave and the family rooms have kitchenettes. The heart of downtown is about a mile and a half away, which is the tradeoff for the reasonable prices here.
The Funk Zone – The Best Part of Santa Barbara
We love the Funk Zone, and find ourselves coming here every single time we find ourselves in Santa Barbara. The Funk Zone is basically ten blocks of industrial buildings which have become a paradise for the city’s creatives. Unfortunately, because it is so small and filled with warehouses, there really aren’t that many places to stay here.
But if you you plan to spend much of your time wine tasting and perusing the racks of the many vintage stores, this is your best bet. It is home to some of the best restaurants in the area, offering good value food from all over the world. There is always something to do in the Funk Zone, with all sorts of wine tasting rooms, restaurants, fun street art, and boutique shops, just waiting for you to stumble upon them.
It also happens to be a few blocks from the beach and Stearns Wharf, and a short walk to the heart of State Street and Downtown Santa Barbara.
Here are some of the best things to do while staying in the Funk Zone:
- Taste the delicious local wines. Santa Barbara has the Urban Wine Trail, with countless wines being produced in and around the Funk Zone. I have tried many wines on my trips here, and my favorite by far is the Valley Project. It serves a number of locally grown wines.
- Gorge on authentic gluten-free tacos at Lily’s Taqueria. This taco shack serves only soft tacos, yet it is so popular that it always has a line snaking around the block at lunch. The line moves quickly, and the tacos are delicious, so there is nothing wrong with a bit of a wait.
- Experience the Mediterranean at Loquita. Loquita is an authentic Spanish restaurant where you will find tapas, meat, seafood, and paella, all made from local ingredients. They have plenty of gluten-free options and a delicious wine list.
- Indulge your sweet tooth at Chocolate Maya. Not that there ever needs to be an excuse to eat chocolate, but Chocolate Maya hand selects their ingredients to be the best quality and sustainable. Try their many truffles and confections guilt free!
- Create art at Funk Factory. Make your own souvenir in the paint splatter chamber at the Funk Factory. Either create a beautiful canvas as a gift, or create a wearable work of art. Bring your own t-shirt, sweater, jacket, or even shoes.
Best Places to Stay in the Funk Zone
2 Blocks to Beach, Downtown, Funk Zone (2 Bedroom Airbnb)
This modern chic beach pad was featured in Conde Nast as one of the best Airbnbs in California. It was inspired by the owner’s travels and the surrounding area. The Spanish-style house is outfitted with high end appliances and fluffy down bedding. There are luxurious touches like heated bathroom tiles, an Apple TV with Netflix, and a fully stocked gourmet kitchen, and even a washer and dryer.
The Wayfarer, which is a little bit of a cross between a hotel and a hostel, offers a wealth of communal spaces for guests to mingle and share their travel experiences. The hostel encourages guests to interact with a communal kitchen, an outdoor heated pool, and a lounge with guitars, board games, and a small lending library. The pool also has a pool lift to ensure it is accessible for all guests. They have four same-sex hostel rooms and 27 private hotel-style rooms.
Hotel Indigo is one of my favorite mid-range hotel brands, and the Funk Zone location is a modern hotel, perfect for travelers of all kinds. It offers two-hour bike rentals and car-free packages to encourage guests to travel in a more environmentally friendly manner. There are also a few outdoor lounges, perfect for enjoying a cool drink after a day of exploring.
The Waterfront- Best combination of Beach and City
The waterfront includes East Beach and West Beach, where the city meets the palm tree-lined, golden sands of the coast. The coast line is one and a half miles long with a small park linking the two beaches.
West Beach is alive with tourists and a busy nightlife scene. It is the best place to stay in Santa Barbara if you are only there for a short amount of time. It also has a large number of restaurants which boast romantic ocean views. East Beach is a lot more relaxed and allows visitors to experience local life. It’ll be quieter, with local restaurants and bars.
Here are some of the best things to do along the waterfront.
- Spend a day at the beach. Santa Barbara’s beaches are something else. You cannot stay in this area without visiting either East Beach or West Beach. East Beach is great for families, there is a park nearby. West Beach is a short walk from shopping and countless restaurants and bars, as well as the Funk Zone.
- Stroll along the boardwalk at Stearns Wharf. This 1872 structure is an iconic attraction of Santa Barbara. No matter the day of the week, it will always be alive with people enjoying the sea breeze and perusing the shops that line the boardwalk. If you’re craving a refreshment, stop in at one of the three seafood restaurants or the wine tasting room, which is a nice place to watch the sunset.
Best Places to Stay on the Waterfront
There are a couple of really solid hotel and Airbnb options that will have you a few blocks from the beach, and not too much further from the Funk Zone and Downtown.
Petite Retreat; Artist Studio
This character-filled artist studio, which is technically in Montecito but is within walking distance of Santa Barbara along the beach, is homey and inviting. It has a patio with a fireplace for long evenings outside and plenty of books for guests to read. Most importantly, it is only four blocks from Butterfly Beach, and the hosts provide beach towels, boogie boards, and kayaks for guests to use. The Airbnb also features an outdoor shower, perfect for rinsing off the sand after a beach trip, or for a bit of stargazing while enjoying a relaxing hot shower before bed.
Shoreline Retreat – Newly Renovated, Walk to Beach
The ultimate Santa Barbara getaway, this beautiful house is just 6 minutes away from the beach. Large bifold doors open from the living room to a large garden with a hot tub and fire pit. The house is decorated elegantly and features a gourmet kitchen with state of the art appliances.
Harbor House Inn: Beachfront Hotel
The Harbor House Inn is one of the few on this list that is owned and operated by a local family. Being small, it has few common areas but has free bikes for guests to use to explore the area. All rooms have tea and coffee, and SmartTVs with Hulu and Netflix, some of the rooms have kitchens. West Beach and all of its restaurants and bars are just a block away.
Hotel Milo: Hip & Stylish Hotel at the Beach
Located right on West Beach, Hotel Milo is absolute paradise. It is a Spanish Colonial building, in the typical style of Southern California with modern beach-chic blue and white interiors. The sprawling grounds include beautiful gardens with a choice of pools for guests to use. Most of the rooms overlook the gardens, but certain room types have ocean views.
Carpinteria – Best Quiet Beach Getaway
Okay, you caught us. Technically, it’s not actually in Santa Barbara. But it’s worth including here for a specific reason: it’s a perfect place for a quieter beach getaway where you’ll still be a short drive from the action in downtown Santa Barbara.
Carpinteria is just a 10 minute drive away from Santa Barbara, but offers a much more relaxed beach break for those looking for some peace and quiet. It is much more of a small beach town, but it’s legendary surf and proximity to Santa Barbara attract plenty of visitors. Spend your days wandering the streets of this charming little beach town, uncovering treasures in the antique stores, or visiting one of the beachside boutiques. In October, Carpinteria is home to the California Avocado Festival and boasts the world’s largest vat of guacamole for the event.
Here are some of the best things to do while staying in Carpinteria:
- Spend a day at Carpinteria State Beach. This stunning white sand beach is right in the heart of the town. Explore the tide pools at low tide to see what wildlife call this beach home.
- Explore the Carpinteria Nature Preserve. A great day out for the family, this nature preserve includes a cliff walk, tidepools, and a seal sanctuary. The rugged coastline is breathtakingly beautiful, and if you time the trip right, you might see baby seals.
- Grab a coffee and soak up the atmosphere at Lucky Llama Coffee. As amazing as the coffee is, (and it is really good!) this coffee shop is all about the atmosphere. It is a relaxing place parents, businesspeople, surfers, and tourists all congregate to enjoy a leisurely coffee and healthy food.
- Enjoy a beverage at Apiary Ciderworks and Meadery. This little taproom offers tastings of their hard cider, hard mead, and hard kombucha. Relaxing here with a cold drink after a day in the sun is pure bliss!
- Go whale watching from Carpinteria. Whales call this stretch of coast home all year round, making this area popular for whale and dolphin watching cruises. There are a number of companies you can book a tour with, offering different durations and packages depending on your needs. I’d go with Condor based on reading reviews and looking at the options they offer.
Best Places to Stay in Carpinteria
In Carpinteria, Airbnb is going to be your friend. There are tons of great beachfront getaways to choose from.
Charming Beachside Flat (Airbnb)
This cozy beachside flat is fully equipped with all the amenities needed for a beachside vacation. There is a table and chairs on the patio, a shower and tub combo in the bathroom, and a well-equipped kitchen with a large fridge. However, its main selling point is the direct access it has to the sandy beach. You can walk straight onto the sand from the patio.
Ocean View Tiny House, 1 Mile to the Beach (Airbnb)
Located in the middle of an avocado orchard, this tiny house with an ocean view has everything needed for a blissful holiday. While the inside may be small, the tiny home is connected to an outdoor deck of the same size with a propane BBQ and plenty of seating. Large windows in the kitchen open up to the patio where there is a breakfast bar and stools to create more space. If the weather is bad (spoiler: it probably won’t be), stools tucked under the kitchen counter can be brought out so you can look out the kitchen window while you eat.
Iconic 1974 Airstream on an Organic Ranch (Airbnb)
This Airbnb is one of a kind. The vintage Airstream offers an artistically decorated industrial interior. The metal of the Airstream is softened with wood, cowhide leather, and gorgeous green surroundings of the avocado orchard. Attached to the Airstream is a large patio with outdoor furniture and plants. It is covered to allow use in all weather. The owners have created a small rock and cactus garden around the Airstream with tables and chairs and benches to allow outdoor living. It’s in the hills above Carpinteria, not on the beach, but we couldn’t resist including it on this list.
Exquisite Carpinteria Beach Cottage (Airbnb)
This is the perfect beach cottage. Decorated in minimalistic white with wooden accents and touches of navy and seagreen, it is a visual delight. It has a large kitchen with a breakfast bar and 2 door fridge and everything you need to whip up a feast. While the cottage is cozy, it contains touches of luxury like a rainfall shower, a wide-screen TV, and a coffee maker.
Other Great Places to Stay Around Santa Barbara
These two places don’t fit into any of the four areas above that I wanted to make sure to include. Both are in nearby Goleta, which is about 10-15 minutes away from downtown. You’ll probably want a car, so if you don’t plan on renting one, you should plan to stay closer in.
Breathtaking Couple’s Getaway in SB w/ Fireplace (1 Bedroom Airbnb)
This cute one-bedroom apartment has everything you need for a stay in Santa Barbara. It has air conditioning for the summer, two fireplaces for the winter, and board games. It is a 10 minute drive from Downtown Santa Barbara and has space in the driveway for parking as well as plenty of street parking.
Goodland by Kimpton (Goleta)
The Goodland by Kimpton is located just outside of Santa Barbara, in nearby Goleta, but it is only 10 miles away from bustling downtown Santa Barbara. It is a quirky hotel with a vintage theme, decorated with memorabilia and collectables. There is even a vintage record store onsite. Each of the rooms have a record player and a selection of LPs handpicked by the hotel owner. The hotel runs yoga classes and runs fun events such as trivia nights for guests.
Whether you are there for a weekend, or a week-long beach vacation, Santa Barbara will probably capture your heart. There are so many things to see and do, and so many beaches to relax on. My advice is to give in to the relaxed lifestyle, try all the foods you have room for, and soak up the beautiful California sunshine.