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Where to Stay in Santa Barbara: Best Areas & Hotels, 2019

Written by Karen Hastings

Santa Barbara has been a favorite vacation destination since the late 19th century, and today it's still known for its stylish hotels and resorts. Whether you want a glamorous weekend getaway, a romantic escape, or a family beach vacation, you'll have plenty of appealing choices.

The best area to stay depends on what you want to do during your visit. If you're seeking a sun, sand, and sea vacation, you'll find popular family-friendly Santa Barbara beach resorts along Cabrillo Boulevard, near Stearns Wharf. These hotels and resorts are also near the hip restaurants and entertainment venues of the Funk Zone.

For luxury accommodation near the beach, consider the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in posh Montecito. For fabulous shopping and restaurants, downtown makes a great base. And if you're looking for a property with wonderful views over the city, a stay at the Belmond El Encanto, nestled in the hills above the city with ocean views, will show you why this beautiful town is known as the "American Riviera."

Where to Stay for Luxury

View from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Clock Tower

View from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Clock Tower | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Across the street from Butterfly Beach in Montecito, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is a top choice for Hollywood celebrities thanks to its top-notch service and spectacular setting. Tropical gardens surround the resort, backed by pink-hued peaks, and the Pacific Ocean is just steps away.

The plush guest rooms at "The Biltmore" (as it's known by locals) occupy Spanish Colonial-style buildings or secluded bungalows framed by brightly-colored bougainvillea and palms. Favorite things to do include relaxing at the sea-view spa, swimming in the resort pool, and playing golf with privileges at local courses. Depending on the room type, guests also have access to the chic Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club across the street.

If you're looking for a peaceful hilltop hideaway with spectacular views over the city and the sea, Belmond El Encanto is a wonderful choice on Santa Barbara's "Riviera." The resort lies in a quiet residential neighborhood about a five-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara and minutes from the magnificent Mission Santa Barbara. Typical features of the resort's light and airy bungalows include marble bathrooms with heated floors, comfy beds dressed in crisp linens, and deep soaking tubs. Some of the suites add fireplaces to snuggle beside on cool nights.

Slightly more affordable than Santa Barbara's other five-star luxury hotels, the Hotel Californian opened in 2017 in a fantastic location a short stroll from downtown shops and restaurants and the beach. Modern Moorish decor mixes with Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture here, and some rooms have beautiful ocean views. Guests can bask around the rooftop pool or enjoy a treatment at the Turkish-inspired spa. When it comes to dining, the hotel's Goat Tree cafe has a lovely sun-splashed patio, while the excellent Blackbird restaurant is a Mediterranean-influenced fine-dining affair, and you'll also find plenty of other restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues nearby.

Where to Stay: Mid-Range Hotels

Ocean view from Santa Barbra's beachfront bike path

Ocean view from Santa Barbra's beachfront bike path | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Across the road from East Beach, the Spanish-style, family-owned Santa Barbara Inn offers excellent value in a superb location. From here, you can walk to top attractions like the Santa Barbara Zoo, Stearns Wharf, and Funk Zone restaurants. Adding to the value here is the free continental breakfast; an inviting outdoor swimming pool; and spacious rooms, where two children can stay free with their parents (as long as no extra bedding is required).

In the heart of downtown shopping and restaurants, the pet-friendly Kimpton Canary Hotel is perfect for travelers who want to stay near all the action. The rooms and common areas feature elegant Spanish Mission-style decor, and the rooftop pool is a peaceful spot to relax with beautiful mountain views. Foodies will love the Finch & Fork restaurant here, which is also popular with the locals, and if you feel like a dip in the ocean, you can access the beach via a five-minute shuttle ride for a small fee.

Homey and affordable, the boutique, family-owned Harbor House Inn sits in a quiet residential area a block back from West Beach and the beachfront bike path. As the name suggests, it's also a short hop from the Santa Barbara Harbor, where you'll find excellent seafood restaurants and the departure point for whale watching trips. The bright, spacious studios come with kitchenettes and super comfy beds, making this an excellent option for longer stays. Other perks include welcome baskets packed with home-baked goodies (for stays of two nights or more), expanded cable TV options with Netflix and Hulu, and free use of bikes and beach equipment.

Where to Stay on a Budget

Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf

Despite Santa Barbara's reputation for high-priced hotels, affordable accommodation options are still available close to downtown. For bright, cheerful rooms at a price that won't break the bank, the boutique, motel-style Agave Inn is a great choice with a retro vibe. It sits on Santa Barbara's main drag, State Street, about a five-minute drive from downtown but steps from popular shops and restaurants. Friendly staff, free continental breakfast; and features like iPod docks, microwaves, and mini-fridges in the rooms add to the value here. Select rooms come with kitchenettes.

For a reliable chain option, the Holiday Inn Express Santa Barbara is in a convenient downtown location, about five blocks from Stearns Wharf and the beachfront bike path. The Historic Landmark building and Spanish Revival decor make a stay here more atmospheric than typical budget chain hotels, and the free breakfast and choice of pillows are wonderful perks.

Where to Stay for Families

Kayaking at the Santa Barbara Harbor

Kayaking at the Santa Barbara Harbor | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

From Marina Beach Inn, you can walk to Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Harbor or hop on one of the free bikes with the kids and pedal your way into town. This family-owned hotel sits on a residential street and is known for its warm hospitality and friendly service. Perfect for families are the rooms with two queen beds, a twin sleeper sofa, and kitchenettes. Complimentary continental breakfast, tea and coffee, and afternoon cookies, are other high points here, and the hotel also offers free parking.

A short stroll from the volleyball courts on East Beach, Pacific Crest Hotel is a great choice for active families. The Santa Barbara Zoo is a five-minute walk away, and the hotel is also within walking distance of Stearns Wharf and the whimsical water-themed children's playground at Chase Palm Park. The rooms have a bright, beachy feel, and the double-queen rooms can accommodate two adults and two kids. When you're not basking on East Beach, or riding one of the hotel's complimentary bikes along the beachfront path, you can splash around with the kids in the sparkling clean pool. Rates include a continental breakfast with fresh-baked goodies.

Where to Stay for Couples

Mission Santa Barbara rose garden

Mission Santa Barbara rose garden | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Snuggled amid an acre of English gardens in a residential neighborhood close to downtown, the boutique Simpson House Inn is a perfect choice for a luxurious couples getaway. The elegant, individually-styled guest rooms occupy an 1874 Victorian house, a restored barn, and four cute cottages. Typical features include antique furnishings, sumptuous linens, and cozy sitting areas, and select rooms come with romantic four-poster beds, fireplaces, and whirlpool tubs for two.

Another romantic boutique hotel within walking distance of downtown, the Spanish Garden Inn is a Santa Barbara gem. The Spanish-styled rooms come with features like gas fireplaces, deep soaking tubs, soft Italian linens, French press coffee makers, and balconies or private garden patios. Breakfast is included and comes with made-to-order smoothies, quiche, and fresh fruit. When you're not exploring Santa Barbara, you can relax in the secluded courtyard, swim in the heated lap pool, or enjoy a special in-room spa treatment for couples.

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