As a true vagabond, I’ve never lived anywhere longer than a year in my entire adult life – with one exception. I spent two and a half years in dreamy little cottage in Santa Barbara and if you ever get the chance to visit this beautiful, charming and totally relaxing sea-side town, you’ll understand why.
Often compared to the French Riviera because of it’s climate and high-end residents, Santa Barbara is far more relaxed and down to earth. Flip flops are literally the norm as is dining outside, meeting friends for a drink in the Funk Zone and surfing or Stand Up Boarding before breakfast.
My favourite jaunts happen to be in Summerland (the quaintest Victorian Sea Side spot and home to my favourite secret beach) and Montecito (where Oprah and her millionaire friends have the best estates). But Santa Barbara’s downtown is filled with walkable gems from the beach, to wineries, to coffee houses, to history, to the best food ever. Honestly, with the exception of a few European towns I’ve yet to live somewhere where the food is as good as it is in Santa Barbara.
And one of my favourite things about this city? How dog friendly it is! From beaches to restaurants to hotels, your canine BFF is welcomed almost everywhere you are.
Santa Barbara has a wide arrange of hotels from inexpensive inns to rehabbed cool retro motels to luxury hotels. Where you stay depends on budget, location and what you want out of your trip. I’ve stayed in a lot of Santa Barbara hotels for either staycations, celebrations or now going back as a traveller. Below are my top 3 picks.
Four Seasons Santa Barbara: One of my all-time favourite stays anywhere. Worth it for a night, a weekend or longer if you’re lucky. The rooms, the spa, the food, service and location are all perfection. See my full review and photos here.
San Ysidro Ranch: Not technically in Santa Barbara but close enough. I celebrated a birthday weekend here in one of the loveliest cottages I’ve ever stayed in. I’d say this is in my top 5 hotels and experiences – just like everyone else with a hotel list. It was destroyed by the Montecito mudslides and closed for a year but I’m happy to report that it reopened in the Spring of 2019. I highly recommend a visit not only because it’s beautiful, but it deserves the help to get back on its feet. Read my full review and see my photos here.
Bacara Resort and Spa: After a lengthy renovation, this hotel is a great resort with access to one of the best pools with a view and beach. Upgrade to a larger room with a fireplace for true comfort and cosiness.
Belmond Elencanto: This had been on my list of places to stay and finally in February 2019 I was able to cross it off my list. I had one of the deluxe rooms with a balcony and fireplace which did not disappoint. The views, the rooms, the grounds and the service were top notch. I’ve eaten here a lot and I have to be honest and say that’s been consistently disappointing (we had afternoon tea on which was a real let down and awkward, our room service had mix-ups and our breakfast came out cold). But I loved the room and the overall vibe so recommend it.
There’s a lot to do in Santa Barbara. As a local, I was never bored. From hikes, to bike trails, to shops to museums to the beach, there’s always something to do and always a reason to come back.
Santa Barbara Courthouse: Free with beautiful 360 views of the city if you climb the tower (or if you’re here in summer, catch an outdoor flick in the gardens). The Santa Barbara Bowl is the best place to catch a concert in the summer.
Butterfly Beach & Hammonds Beach: They’re connected with different ways to access them. Butterfly beach is always more crowded but can be easily accessed from across the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. Hammond’s Beach requires a little walk down a rail and parking is at the end of San Ysidro Road. (Updated to add that the new Rosewood Miramar Hotel is now on Hammond’s Beach so there’s easier access but it’s also more crowded).
Arroyo Burro State Beach (or Hendry’s as it’s known to locals) is an off-leash dog beach complete with dog-wash station to help get rid of all the sand before you get in your car. There’s a trail that goes from the beach up to Douglas State Preserve Park which is one of my favourites for walking the dog.
Horseback Riding on the beach: This was on my buck list and my two-hour ride did not disappoint. I went with Los Padres Outfitters and highly recommend them whether you’re a first-time rider or totally seasoned.
Old Mission Santa Barbara: One of the historic sites to see whilst in town. As a fan of the book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I was especially moved to see the plaque here dedicated to the heroine of the book. The rose garden right across is the perfect place for a picnic.
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens: Free and dog friendly. A cool and beautiful place that’s easy to walk around with also a little history thrown in.
One of the things I miss the most about Santa Barbara? The food. From the local hole in the wall joints to the cream of the crop restaurants, Santa Barbara has the best food around. Sometimes I’ll drive back up just for sushi – it’s that good.
Sushi: Sakana is a small Montecito Sushi spot was my regular go to and I never miss a chance to eat here when I’m in town. If you can’t make it to Montecito, Arigato Sushi on State Street is a close second (and caters to larger parties)
Mexican: Cava is always a good place for a treat or celebration. The food and service is the best and the menu truly exceptional. The atmosphere is charming – grab an outdoor seat if you can. If that’s not within your budget, Los Arroyos – both downtown and in Montecito – have the best budget Mexican food and it’s a true locally run, family owned business. My favourite? The ceviche!
Vegan: Olivers is a newcomer in Montecito that’s getting lots of buzz. The food is absolutely incredible regardless if you’re vegan or not. I ate here for the first time in February 2019 and can honestly say it was one of the best meals. But I don’t know if it was because it was a Sunday or they’re fairly new but we were seated at 8PM for our 7PM reservation. The food took over an hour to get so we ate around 9. And the decor inside is kind of weird/doesn’t make sense. But, if you have the time and you can sit outside, I’d totally go.
Family/Locals: Really great food, atmosphere and prices, these have been my staple restaurants to go to with family and friends. Arnoldi’s is a long-time classic local place with bocce courts out back. Opal’s menu and the atmosphere is fantastic and Trattoria Victoria is a classic local Italian restaurant that I’ve gone back to time and time again. For breakfast, Jeannines can’t be beaten. I love the Montecito location but their downtown one has the most seating and easy access. And if you have food allergies like gluten, Savoy has the best options from gluten free toast and sandwiches. It’s also a tea lovers paradise.
Backyard Bowls has several locations and is a great, cheap, healthy way to have breakfast with their different types of breakfast bowls and smoothies (with gluten free options). My favourite is the warm Quinoa bowl.
Coffee: My go-to for coffee is the French Press. With two locations in Santa Barbara (my favourite is on Anacapa) they’re able to keep you caffeinated whilst you walk around. For me, an additional benefit is that they have gluten-free food options. Another local favourite is the Handlebar Cafe – a favourite amongst cyclists and locals. With lots of shaded outdoor spots and right smack downtown, this is a good place to cool off with an Iced Latte.
Juice: There’s a lot of juice options in Santa Barbara but the best is the local Juice Ranch. It’s all organic, made in house, and really, really good. The Little Miss Sunshine is the perfect morning perk up if coffee isn’t your thing.
Drinking: The Lounge at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara is a classic and local favourite but if you need something hipper, closer to downtown or want a lot of options, The Funk Zone is where you want to be. Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company for beer and the Santa Barbara Wine Collective for, well, wine are my regular stops.
Shopping here is really good because there are a lot of local stores and not just the same ones you see in every city. My local favourites for home/gifts are Pierre La Fond Upstairs (Montecito), Botanik (Summerland), Porch (Carpenteria) and Heritage Goods (Carpenteria).
For clothing Wendy Foster, Jenni Kayne and the Montecito Country Mart which houses Calypso and James Pearse.