Ever wonder what it’s like to live in paradise? Life in Santa Barbara comes pretty darn close. Just ask anyone who has already made the move. Stunning cliffside views, pristine beaches, a gorgeous Mediterranean climate, historic architecture, and a sense of community — Santa Barbara offers all of that and more.
It’s easy to see why the area is often referred to as the “American Riviera.” The breathtaking views extend from the Pacific Coast, through the city, and up into the trails of the Santa Ynez Mountains (and, some would argue, even out to the nearby wine country). Within the city limits, you’ll find top-notch schools, rich history and local culture, and excellent options for when you want to wine and dine. We could go on and on.
But is life in Santa Barbara beauty and breezes all the time? And would it feel like living in paradise to you? Before making the move, here are 10 things we think you should know about living in Santa Barbara.
SANTA BARBARA AT A GLANCE
- Santa Barbara is located along the Pacific Coast, just 97 miles (or two hours) northwest of Los Angeles.
- In 2020, nearly 450,000 people called the Santa Barbara metro area home, while the city of Santa Barbara’s population reached roughly 92,000.
- Santa Barbara gets big love for such a small town; the city encompasses only a little more than 21 square miles of land.
- Even though Santa Barbara is a college town, it’s also popular with retirees, leaving the median age hovering around 39 years old.
1. LIVING IN PARADISE AIN’T CHEAP
Okay, real talk: Santa Barbara is expensive. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive cities in Central California. According to Payscale, the cost of living in Santa Barbara is 100% higher than the national average — ouch!
- Santa Barbara ranks #4 out of 150 for the Most Expensive Places to Live, according to U.S. News and World Report. (It should be noted that it also ranked #7 for Best Places to Live for Quality of Life, though.)
- An average salary in Santa Barbara comes in at around $77,000 a year, about $4,000 less than the California average of $81,000.
- As reported by Best Places, the income tax rate in Santa Barbara is 9.3%, over double the national average. This small number can make a big difference when it comes to residents’ net income.
2. HOUSING COSTS IN SANTA BARBARA REFLECT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING
One of the biggest factors toward cost of living in Santa Barbara is housing costs. The median price for homes selling in Santa Barbara is a staggering $1.3 million, while the average rent runs around $2,200 a month (with an average apartment size of just above 650 square feet). According to Niche, most residents are renters, so you should be prepared for a hearty rental market (and a little competitive pricing).
Part of the reasoning behind high square-footage costs here is that there are tight restrictions on development — plus, as mentioned earlier, this is a small city that’s in high demand. It’s said that only about 1% of people who live in Santa Barbara could actually afford to buy a home here on their own. A lot of the wealth here is inherited, and that includes property.
3. THE TOP 3 BEST NEIGHBORHOODS TO LIVE IN SANTA BARBARA ARE VASTLY DIFFERENT
1. Downtown Santa Barbara: While Santa Barbara isn’t a sprawling city, the heart of its action can still be found pumping downtown. Stretching less than ten blocks, you’ll be walking distance from oodles of good restaurants, activities, culture, and events, all while being surrounded by gorgeous Spanish colonial buildings.
2. Isla Vista: Coming to Santa Barbara for school? This is where you want to be. Located next to the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus, Isla Vista is pretty much exclusively for college cohorts. With that in mind, expect budget-conscious businesses and a very social vibe — oh, and it’s close to the beach, of course!
3. Mission Canyon: This neighborhood swaps the Pacific beachfront for dramatic canyons in the Santa Ynez Mountains. If you want easy access to hiking trails, hope to frequent the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, or just love historic districts, this might be your “X marks the spot.” Bonus? It’s still just a 15-minute ride to the beach.
Other suburbs worth considering:
4. THE CENTRAL COAST WEATHER IS DELIGHTFUL
One of the best attributes of the area? The stellar weather in Santa Barbara. Temperatures typically range from the mid-40s to the mid-70s. Boasting 300 days of sunshine a year, you have ample opportunity to take advantage of all the outdoor activities and events throughout the city. Add to that a mild Mediterranean climate — warm and dry in the summer, hot and wet in the winter — that’s typical in Central California coast cities and less oppressive than some of the dry, desert areas found nearby in Southern California cities like Los Angeles. That said, though, “June gloom” is a real thing here, and you can expect hot, foggy days to linger for the month.
5. BEWARE OF WILDFIRES AND EARTHQUAKES
Unfortunately, thanks to the dry summer heat, like in much of California in general, fires in Santa Barbara are a yearly problem. Whereas many cities have hurricane seasons, California has fire seasons. And in Santa Barbara, the high fire season starts as the weather and winds rise, usually around mid- to late-May, and lasts until around September or October. Fires can cause the normally clear and beautiful air here to be filled with smoke, though being on the coast does help.
Another natural disaster that affects Santa Barbara? Earthquakes. Although the city itself is not directly on a fault line, northern areas of Santa Barbara County rest near two fault lines that are related to the infamous San Andreas fault line. Earthquake preparedness is essential if you’re a resident of the city, as is bolting large furniture to the floor or walls.
6. LIFE’S A BEACH! HERE ARE THE TOP 5 SANTA BARBARA BEACHES
Pristine beaches are a trademark of Santa Barbara life, and passing time on the beaches here is a favorite pastime of locals and tourists alike. The city has a handful of beaches, each with its own specific draw, though all sport a beautiful beach breeze. (Just don’t forget your sandals. The Santa Barbara Channel tar seep is no joke and it’ll leave its mark on the bottoms of your feet and shoes.)
1. Butterfly Beach. This gorgeous stretch of beach makes for perfectly envious Instagram shots and quite often sports a backdrop of equally beautiful beachgoers — even the occasional celebrity. It’s also a top spot for grabbing a cocktail as you watch the sun sink into the horizon.
2. Arroyo Burro Beach. Known as Hendry’s Beach to the locals, this is Santa Barbara’s premier dog-friendly beach. There’s even a DIY dog-washing station set up in the parking lot, so you can get all the sand and salt water off your pooch before heading home.
3. East Beach. Active beachgoers and families flock to East Beach for its active amenities, like bike rentals to ride up the coastal trail, plenty of beach volleyball courts for a little friendly competition, ample parking, picnic areas, restaurants, and restrooms. Plus, its two-block proximity to the zoo makes it easy to have a surf ‘n’ turf experience in one day.
4. Mesa Beach. Tucked away at the bottom of numerous stairs behind More Mesa Park, this natural beach is a local favorite (and secret — shhh!). It’s split between an unofficial clothing-optional section (yep!) on the right and a regular, suited section to the left. Just bare(!) in mind that there are no facilities here; it’s just straight-up beautiful beachfront.
5. Leadbetter Beach. Grab your friends and a couple of burger patties and head down to the always-popping Leadbetter Beach, where you’re sure to find a college-aged crowd (it’s across from Santa Barbara City College, after all), BBQ grills, lots of activity, and sun worshippers and surfers alike. It’s also a popular spot for windsurfing and beach walks.
|Good to know: While Santa Barbara’s beaches are popular for surfing, the magic disappears in the summer months when the Channel Islands block all the swells. However, dedicated surfers accept they’ll just have to drive a half-hour to an hour to get around it and back on the waves.|
7. TO WINE + DINE IS A BONAFIDE PASTIME HERE
Napa may take the crown when it comes to California wine country, but Santa Barbara can hold its own bling in the ring, too. There are over 100 wineries in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valley, many within a 30-minute drive of the city. Want a sneak peak? The 2004 Paul Giamatti film Sideways put Santa Barbara’s wine country on the map, at least on a wider scale. While no one is going to force you to drink any Merlot (inside movie joke), be sure to try wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc — all grapes that thrive in the climate and soil here.
If you’re not up for a winery getaway, Santa Barbara has several tasting rooms where you can get your fix, too. In fact, it’s a great way to preview what you’ll find outside the city so you can plan your next outing itinerary. And while you’re out, don’t forget to check out a taste of some of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants. Here are a few staples to get you started:
- Cold Spring Tavern
- Brophy Bros.
8. SCHOOLS IN SANTA BARBARA ARE TOP-TIER
The University of California at Santa Barbara ranks 30th in the U.S. News and World Report 2021 Best National Universities (it was a three-way tie with NYU and Tufts University). It’s a wonder anyone can get any good studying done, though, with an obscenely stunning cliffside campus, complete with its own beach and lagoon. Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) isn’t something to shake a stick at either. The SBCC campus boasts equally distracting cliff-top ocean views and ranks as the second best community college in the country.
Niche gives the Pre-K, elementary, middle, and high schools in Santa Barbara an overall collective A grade and states that the public schools are highly rated. Cold Spring Elementary and Dos Pueblos Senior High School both received A+ grades from the site.
|Already planning on moving to Santa Barbara? Compare moving costs for rental trucks, full-service movers, and portable containers. To get a personalized moving quote on local moves, visit PODS, or call (877) 350-7637 for long-distance moving.|
9. YOU CAN’T MISS OUT ON THESE TOP THINGS TO DO IN SANTA BARBARA
Don’t be fooled by the city’s small size — there’s always a lot going on in Santa Barbara, and it’s usually outdoors. Folks here love anything that will help them break a sweat. They enjoy festivals and take advantage of the surrounding natural beauty as much as possible. Here are our top 10 things you must do in Santa Barbara:
- Take a hike. Hiking is a favorite pastime in Santa Barbara, where getting the blood pumping in your legs is rewarded with gorgeous views and fresh coastal air. Some top trails at different difficulty levels include the Arroyo Burro Beach Loop (easy), Inspiration Point (moderate), and Tangerine Falls Trail (hard).
- Shop a farmers’ market. Santa Barbara goes big when it comes to fresh produce with farmers’ markets six days a week in either Santa Barbara or nearby towns like Solveng, Goleta, and Montecito.
- Celebrate the Summer Solstice. What started out as a humble birthday event thrown by local artists has grown into a full-scale annual event that the whole town looks forward to. Ring in summer with a colorful parade, performances, and vibrant vibe that draws over 100,000 spectators a year.
- Peruse the shops on State Street. While admittedly a bit more of a tourist activity, Downtown Santa Barbara’s State Street La Arcada Plaza is still a popular way to spend a sunny afternoon — especially if you enjoy shopping at boutiques, people watching, or soaking in the bustling atmosphere.
- Screen films at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. This is another can’t-miss annual event held in Santa Barbara where you’ll get a first look at hundreds of films from all over the world. Held in January, this festival lasts a whopping 11 days and features awards, a red carpet, and interesting Q&A’s with actors, directors, and filmmakers.
- Join the historic Old Spanish Days party. For nearly 100 years, Santa Barbara has been throwing a huge party to honor its Mexican, Spanish, and Indigenous American history through educational events, performances, dances, and more. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Santa Barbara loves to celebrate!
- Flutter by the Coronado Butterfly Preserve. We’ve already established that Santa Barbara is beautiful, and having its very own butterfly preserve only ups the ante. As part of the Santa Barbara Land Trust, this attraction is a must for butterfly lovers who can visit between late-October and March. They’ll find themselves surrounded by hundreds of migrated monarchs hanging around until winter passes. Equally as beautiful? It’s free!
- Explore the Channel Islands National Park. Hop aboard the Island Packer to take a quick trip to the Channel Islands, a heavenly, rugged national park that feels miles away from California. Be sure to put on your hiking shoes, though, because once you’re here, these “Galapagos Islands of North America” are walking-access only.
- Have a whale of a time. Did you know you can go whale watching in Santa Barbara? Tack this onto the long list of nature-based experiences available in this coastal paradise. Depending on when you go, you can spot blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, and fin whales — you may even spot some dolphins, too.
- Come out for First Thursday. Joining the party in Downtown Santa Barbara for First Thursdays (on the first Thursday of every month) is a great way to get to meet fellow Santa Barbara residents, soak in some local art and music, and grub up on your (new) favorite eats.
10. SANTA BARBARA INTRODUCED AVOCADOS TO CALIFORNIA — AND CELEBRATES THEM EVERY YEAR
California is practically synonymous with avocados, and the state has Santa Barbara to thank for bringing the avocado up from Mexico back in 1871. The love for this green fruit has endured, and you can help celebrate it every year in Santa Barbara County at the California Avocado Festival (AVOFEST) held in Carpinteria, 11 miles south of Santa Barbara proper.
So is it paradise after all? If you’ve been persuaded to make the move to Santa Barbara, we can help you get there with our flexible moving and storage options. Starting from square one? No problem! Download our comprehensive moving checklist, learn how to vet moving companies and services, and learn the ins and outs of packing for a long-distance move.
Based in California, Katherine Alex Beaven is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the PODS blog. She has moved 20+ times because she loves to experience new places.