A Visit to Santa Barbara that Won’t Break the Bank

This week, as part of Hipmunk.com’s #HipmunkCityLove campaign, I’m paying homage to Santa Barbara and my beloved college days. 

college roommates

My senior year roommates

Being a college student implies Top Ramen and student loans. However, being a college student in Santa Barbara, one of the more expensive cities in the United States, meant paying $750 a month to share a room in an apartment with black mold growing on the ceiling. Naturally, our hearts and our wallets bled, even as we raised our plastic cups to toast attending such an amazing school.

Luckily, college not only made us book smart, but street savvy as well. We beat Santa Barbara at its own game, and sought out all the best deals of the Central Coast to keep us occupied on a student budget. Here were our favorite free or cheap things to do in Santa Barbara and vicinities:

Nature and General Frolicking

The Ocean

I lived 20 feet from the ocean my senior year. Anywhere you are in Santa Barbara, you’re close to sand and waves. Surf, boogie board, swim, or tan; the best things in life really are free.


Turn around 180 degrees and you’ll see the Santa Ynez mountains. Hiking was another favorite pastime; particularly the short and sweet climb to Inspiration Point, or a longer eight-miler to Montecito Peak.

Goleta Butterflies

From November to February, thousands of Monarch butterflies come to hang out in a eucalyptus grove behind the UCSB bluffs, presumably to mate or fatten up. Watch the masses flutter around for free!

Blueberry Picking

Restoration Oaks Ranch, a short drive up the coast from Santa Barbara, offers seasonal U-Pick blueberry picking. Eat as many as you want while you’re gathering (you may never want another blueberry again). A huge bucket costs a fraction of the supermarket price.

Food and Drink

I’m assuming you didn’t come to Santa Barbara to eat free Costco samples, so I’ll leave that weekly ritual out. However, there are still some great deals and cheap ways to fill up, if you know where to look.

Happy Hours

Happy Hour before age 21 was known as Boxed Wine at Our Place. However, once the government let us, we discovered the best places for cheap drinks downtown:

Figueroa Mountain Brewing: $5 pints of craft beer, which come with a side of free pretzels and mustard. (We’d take what we could get.) Plus, live music on the weekends.

Enterprise Fish Co.: This place is normally on the expensive side, but food prices drop to college-approved during happy hour. It’s no wonder they’ve won Best Happy Hour in Santa Barbara for five years running.

The Brewhouse: Everyday, happy hour is from 4-6, with $3.50 pints.

La Super Rica

Julia Childs’ favorite Mexican food (and the reason for the immense line), La Super Rica is a hole-in-the-wall taqueria serving up simple and authentic tacos. Morever, how expensive can a taco be? Only a bit more than a box of Mac n’ Cheese, so we indulged.

Natural Cafe

Natty Caf,” as we affectionately called it, because we were just that creative. It had delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches for decent prices.

Alternatively …

Picnicking by the rose garden at the Santa Barbara Mission. You can’t beat the setting, and it’s either legal to drink wine outside here, or the cops just don’t care. No one really knew, but we weren’t complaining.

Barbecuing at Goleta Beach. Right off the UCSB campus, this is a perfect beach and grassy park with picnic tables and grill pits. Pits are first-come first-serve, so get there early.

Art, Entertainment and Festivals

Cold Spring Tavern

As an awesome biker-bar, mountainside-cave type place in the Santa Ynez Mountains, they have barbecue, a great lunch menu, and live music on Sundays.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Free admission on Sundays. If only I wasn’t so uncultured, I may have ventured in during my four years there …


There are many free festivals throughout the year celebrating local and ethnic foods, complete with dancing and music.

Check out the Greek Festival for your gyro fix; the French Festival, which coincides with Bastille Day; Fiesta, honoring the Hispanic community and Santa Barbara’s Spanish roots; the Lemon Festival, celebrating the local crop; and the SOL Food Festival, highlighting organic and local products.

For tickets and discounts to local events, concerts, and festivals, you can also score some great deals at TiqIQ. And for budget places to stay in Santa Barbara, this article can help.

The above list sustained us throughout four college years, so it’s bound to keep you busy for a vacation to Santa Barbara. You can thank me when you end your trip with more than a few dimes in your pocket!

friends in SB

Previously: A perfect way to spend a Saturday in Santa Barbara

Have you ever been to Santa Barbara? Any other fun budget activities to add to the list? 

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  • lindsaypunk

    Oh man, definitely plan on spending some time in SB when I eventually move to California. I think living in Bondi may sell me on the whole *living on a beach* thing. Can I just pitch a tent or hammock somewhere and pay someone cheap rent for a teeny-tiny plot of land? :P

    • Lol I actually knew people in college who pitched tents on other people’s lawns to save on rent….I still think they paid something crazy like $350 a month or something!!!

  • $750 to share a room with 4 other people? Oy vey! I thought NY was expensive! I look forward to seeing more of California :)

  • Anne

    Yes!! I love this article, and as a former SB resident I can echo each of the above tips. SB and its festivals…haha. Ridiculous. Now I just want to go back there with my twin!

    • It would be so much fun to go back there together sometime…..if only we coincided when we were actually living there!!!