Those looking to save money, or who try to book at the last minute, often end up at the far end of State Street. The area has more of a strip-mall character but cheaper accommodations than downtown or at the beach. I've stayed at all of the "three trees" -- the Best Western Pepper Tree, The Orange Tree and The Lemon Tree. The Pepper Tree is the nicest and priciest, the Lemon Tree has had some intriguing modernist touches, while the Orange Tree is an older motel for those not looking to spend a lot of time in their room.
Wherever you stay, you will likely be disappointed by what you get for what you pay. But that is the price of Santa Barbara.
It's easy to spend more than $100 per person at dinner in Santa Barbara, but finding enjoyable inexpensive spots isn't hard. Just think tacos. Santa Barbara has great, inexpensive Mexican food, though the best spots are over on Milpas Street, away from the tourist areas.
Start with La Super Rica, the much-heralded Mexican restaurant that was a favorite of Julia Child, who lived nearby, and has been hailed in The New York Times and British newspapers. It's famous for its small tacos filled with fresh meat and melted cheese -- asada and carnitas are here, but chorizo is the real star. Sit out on the covered patio (if you can find a seat). If the lines are too long or you want something more conventional, try Los Agaves, a Mexican place nearby.
If it's hard to get out of downtown, then my trifecta of Mexican spots ends with Lily's Tacos, a decidedly down-market joint just north of the 101 and a short walk from lower State Street. It has great, cheap street tacos. With all the money you save, consider a splurge visit to Brophy Bros. for seafood. I'm partial to fried calamari with a beer. It's always jammed, so bring your patience.
Coffee is the most important part of my breakfast, so I keep things cheap by eating at coffeehouses like the Coffee Cat or bakeries like Renaud's or Jeannine's. All serve a great espresso -- the most basic coffee drink, but also one whose quality cannot be masked by milk, sweetener or foam.
My favorite Santa Barbara stroll is the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour, which covers a 12-block area encompassed by Victoria, Chapala, Ortega and Santa Barbara streets. The best stop is the over-the-top design of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its wrought iron, its tile floors that echo every footstep, a spiral staircase, painted scenes of Old California and courthouse designations spelled out in calligraphy on the walls. Finished in 1929, just as the stock market was about to crash, it's an exuberant symbol of city pride. In the summer, it's always cool inside. The walking tour also passes historic adobe homes and the El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, which includes the original military outpost built by the Spanish in 1782.
For more than two centuries, the center of Santa Barbara's identity has been the Old Mission, the 10th built in California. It was founded on the Feast of Santa Barbara, Dec. 4, 1786. Unlike some of the other sites along the El Camino Real taken by Franciscan friars, the "Queen of the Missions," is well-preserved. The gorgeous setting, with the brown-gray Santa Ynez Mountains behind it and the Pacific Ocean in the distance, is popular with wedding photographers.
You can finish your Spanish-themed architectural wanderings with a few evening hours at the Arlington Theatre, a genuine picture palace whose walls are lined with Mission scenes backlit to give a wonderful golden glow, as if in perpetual sunset. It holds more than 2,000 people and is often used for concerts, ballet, comedy and other live events in addition to films.
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