A Travel Price Comparison for California Santa Barbara vs. South Lake Tahoe for Nightlife, Hiking, Families, and Couples

Should you visit Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Which is cheaper to visit? Which is more expensive for vacation?

Should I visit Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe? This is a common question asked by many travelers. By figuring out which city has activities that align with your interests along with knowing which is more affordable, you'll understand where you can get more bang for your buck. So, let's dive into the details and the data, which all comes from actual travelers.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a scenic, stunning, and wealthy coastal town. It's a large city, so you'll find plenty of things to do around town. You'll find world class beauty here as well. This destination also has one of those special and quaint feelings. And you can't forget about the shopping, museums, and nightlife.

South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe is a idyllic, scenic, and breathtaking town. You'll find world class beauty here as well. Other popular activities here include food, hiking, and shopping.

Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe: Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Popular museums and historical sights
  • Good scuba and snorkeling destination
  • Popular beach
  • Scenic old town
  • Good for hiking
  • Fun shopping
  • Family-friendly
  • Good for couples and romance
  • Good for students
  • Impressive beauty
Things to Consider
  • Less popular for nightlife
  • Less popular with backpackers
Pros
  • Popular for skiing
  • Active nightlife
  • Good for hiking
  • Family-friendly
  • Good for couples and romance
  • Good for backpackers and budget travelers
  • Impressive beauty
Things to Consider
  • Less museums and historical sights
  • Less popular for shopping


Is there more to do in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Tourists will generally find more to do in Santa Barbara. Although Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe are both popular with visitors, Santa Barbara has more sights, activities, and attractions for travelers. Santa Barbara is more popular for its museums, food, scuba diving & snorkeling, beaches, historical sights, shopping, big city activities, and quaint atmosphere, while South Lake Tahoe is known for its skiing and nightlife. Santa Barbara is popular for its historic missions, pristine beaches, world-class surfing, and scenic hikes that are full of coastal views. It is also home to The Old Mission Santa Barbara. South Lake Tahoe is popular for its casino resorts, ski resorts, and beautiful setting.

How is Santa Barbara different from South Lake Tahoe?

Which is Better for a Holiday?

Let's take a look at the differences and similarities between South Lake Tahoe and Santa Barbara. Then, you can decide for yourself which place is better for your next trip.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Skiing?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe is a well-known place for snow skiing. However, Santa Barbara is not a skiing destination.

South Lake Tahoe is a well-known ski destination which attracts visitors from far and wide. There are three ski resorts in the area. Heavenly Mountain Resort is the largest, but if you're looking for something smaller, head to Kirkwood, which is tucked away and less well known. There's also Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, which is popular with groups and families because it caters to a range of skill levels.

Santa Barbara is not a skiing destination.


Are the Museums and Historical Sights Better in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a well-known place for its sights and museums. However, South Lake Tahoe is not a good town for its museums and history.

With a variety of museums, monuments, and historical sights, a trip to Santa Barbara can be an interesting and educational experience. The city is famous for its missions, with Mission Santa Barbara being the most iconic. Also visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Sea Center.

While most people don't head to South Lake Tahoe specifically for the museums and attractions, it does offer a few options. Most people spend their time exploring the area's nature, but you can also stop by Tallac Historic Site or the Lake Tahoe Historical Society Museum.

Is the Food Better in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe? Which Destination has the Best Restaurants?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a well-known place for its local cuisine and restaurants. Also, South Lake Tahoe is not as famous, but is still a good town to visit for its restaurants.

Eating is part of the travel experience when you visit Santa Barbara. The city is best known for its fine dining, particularly if you enjoy seafood. The scallops, oysters, clam chowder, and sea urchin (when available) are all world class. Head for a waterfront setting for the best views and some of the freshest seafood.

South Lake Tahoe is becoming an appealing option for foodies. While most resorts have their own restaurants, there are a number of options around town that specialize in "alpine comfort cuisine", which is worth sampling. You'll also find plenty of cafes that serve up a hearty breakfast - the perfect way to start an active day.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Nightlife?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe is renowned for its evening party scene. Also, Santa Barbara is not as famous, but is still a good coastal town to visit for nightlife.

South Lake Tahoe is a destination that you simply have to visit at least once for nightlife. The resort town has plenty of nightclubs, bars, and music venues. There are outdoor options when the weather is warm as well as indoor settings for cooler weather. You'll also find casinos and live shows.

With a handful of venues, visitors can find a fairly lively vibe in Santa Barbara. For the best nightlife in the city, head downtown to State Street. This is where you'll find the most active bars and biggest crowds. There's a large student population in town, so you'll find much of the nightlife scene is focused on the younger population.


Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Resorts?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe offer a relatively similar set of very good luxury resort options.

Santa Barbara is known as a popular and fun resort destination. Many people enjoy the luxurious vacation rentals around Santa Barbara, but there are also a number of high end resorts including the Rosewood Miramar Beach Resort, The Ritz-Carlton, and Hotel Californian.

Vacationers can choose from a number of terrific resorts in South Lake Tahoe. It's a resort town, so there are plenty of options to choose from, many with pools, spas, or casinos.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Scuba Diving and Snorkeling?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a moderate coastal town for its diving and snorkeling. However, South Lake Tahoe is not a scuba or snorkeling destination.

Snorkeling is an option in Santa Barbara. Snorkeling areas not far from town include Refugio State Beach and Tajiguas. You'll see a few fish, beautiful rocks, and anemones that are unique and impressive.

South Lake Tahoe is not a scuba or snorkeling destination.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Beaches?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is an amazing coastal town to visit for the beache. However, South Lake Tahoe is not a beach destination.

The beaches in Santa Barbara are among the best in the world. The city is famous for its pristine, sandy beaches. Whether you want to enjoy world class surfing or enjoy a gentle ocean setting, Santa Barbara has many options.

South Lake Tahoe is not a beach destination.


Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for its Old Town?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a nice place to visit for its old town. However, South Lake Tahoe does not have a historic old town.

Many people head to Santa Barbara to see the old town. The city's downtown "Old Town" is a high end, pedestrian-friendly area with plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options.

South Lake Tahoe does not have a historic old town.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Hiking?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

If you're looking to go hiking, Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe both have fantastic trails.

People visit Santa Barbara specifically for its hiking, as the natural beauty is well-known. Just outside of town are countless hiking opportunities that offer spectacular ocean views. Popular hikes include Inspiration Point, San Ysidro Trail, and Cold Spring East Fork.

Many people visit South Lake Tahoe specifically for its hiking. There are miles of beautiful hikes in the area that follow the lake's shore or explore the diverse terrain. Skyline Trail Hike is a favorite. It is accessible by lift and offers spectacular views. For a relaxing stroll check out Fallen Leaf Lake Hike.

Is the Shopping Better in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is an amazing coastal town to visit for its shopping opportunities. Also, South Lake Tahoe is not as famous, but is still a good town to visit for its shopping areas.

The abundance of shops in Santa Barbara make it a world-class shopping destination. The city is famous as a high end shopping destination. Head to State Street for a palm tree lined street with local boutiques.

South Lake Tahoe has a variety of shopping areas worth visiting. Most of the shopping involves retailers selling ski gear or outdoor equipment. There are also clothing shops, gift stores, and some art galleries.


Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Families?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe is renowned for its family-friendly activities. Also, Santa Barbara is not as famous, but is still a good coastal town to visit for its kid-friendly activities.

As it has a large number of activities for kids, South Lake Tahoe is a very family-friendly destination. Kids will love the outdoor adventures that the area is filled with. There are gondolas, lakefront beaches, adventure parks, and tubing. There are also miles of hiking trails and a beautiful setting that even the young ones will appreciate.

Santa Barbara is a very family-friendly destination. The city has some nice family-friendly activities including a zoo, some cool museums, and even whale watching. There are also many beautiful beaches where everyone can run around and play, as well as parks and other outdoor settings. For animal-lovers, there are wildlife centers and sea life opportunities.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Couples?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

With fun activities for couples, both Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe make for a fantastic place to visit.

Santa Barbara makes for a terrific place to visit as a couple. The town is a stunningly beautiful destination with beautiful beaches, excellent shopping, and nice resorts that make for a great honeymoon or romantic trip.

For those traveling as a couple, South Lake Tahoe has plenty to offer. It's beautiful setting and wide variety of adventurous activities make this the perfect destination for a romantic getaway. The lake has hidden coves and nearby hiking trails. There are also hot springs, gondolas, and carriage rides. You can go hiking when the weather is warm or skiing when the weather is cold.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Backpackers and Budget Travelers?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe is a popular place for backpackers. However, Santa Barbara is not a good coastal town for backpackers and budget travelers.

Plenty of budget travelers visit South Lake Tahoe. There are a couple of hostels in the area and the skiing and hiking attracts the backpacker crowd.

Santa Barbara is a challenging destination for budget travelers and backpackers due to the higher prices. The city isn't really known as a budget friendly destination, but there are a couple of hostels in the area. There's also a large student population with a fun nightlife scene.


Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Students?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a well-known place for students. However, South Lake Tahoe is not popular with students.

Santa Barbara is a great coastal town to visit as a student. With a major university right in town, there's plenty of student life that international students or locals can enjoy.

South Lake Tahoe is not popular with students.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe Better for Public Transit? Which Is Easier to Get Around Without a Car?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara is a nice place to visit for its public transit. However, South Lake Tahoe is not a good town for times when you don't have a car.

Santa Barbara has a few public transit options. Transit options include buses, trolleys and water taxis.

Public transit is mostly limited in South Lake Tahoe. While there are some shuttles and buses, if you really want to explore the area, you'll need your own car.

Is Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe a more walkable city?

Santa Barbara
South Lake Tahoe

Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe both are very good when exploring on foot.

Santa Barbara is a very walkable destination. The downtown area is very pedestrian-friendly and best explored on foot.

South Lake Tahoe is very walkable. Once you get to town, the area is very walkable.


For even more information, also check out Is Santa Barbara Worth Visiting? and Is South Lake Tahoe Worth Visiting?.

Should I spend more time in South Lake Tahoe or Santa Barbara?

How long in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

In either Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe, you'll find plenty of activities to fill your time. Most visitors tend to spend more time in South Lake Tahoe than Santa Barbara because of the overall number of sights and activities. Usually, 2-3 days is a good amount of time for Santa Barbara, and 3-5 days is enough time in South Lake Tahoe.

Couples should spend more time in Santa Barbara than South Lake Tahoe. You'll find plenty of romantic sights and fun activities in Santa Barbara that are great for a weekend getaway or a longer couple's trip.

Backpackers and budget travelers should spend more time in Santa Barbara than South Lake Tahoe if your budget allows for it. With a larger number of budget-friendly sights, good nightlife, and active things to do, anyone traveling on a budget would have a good time in Santa Barbara.


  • How many days in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe? Ideal Length of Stay
    Santa Barbara 2-3 
    South Lake Tahoe 3-5

One day in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

You'll find food and shopping around the wealthy destination of Santa Barbara. Hikers are also drawn to this area. With so much to do, one day is probably not enough time to see everything. This coastal town offers a variety of activities to choose from.

Many travelers enjoy the food and shopping when visiting the breathtaking destination of South Lake Tahoe. It's also a relaxing resort destination. Your budget might influence how long you stay. Since there is so much to do in the area, one day is probably not enough for all of it.

A weekend in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

You'll find shopping and museums around the wealthy coastal town of Santa Barbara. If you have a weekend, this coastal town makes for a great vacation. It's also a relaxing resort destination. The length of your ideal trip is an individual decision. This would be the perfect place to spend a weekend, as it has just the right amount of activities.

It's hard to know how much time to spend in South Lake Tahoe. Make sure you spend some time hiking while you're in the area. It has many unique tourist attractions and fascinating things to do. A weekend is usually not enough time for a trip here as there is plenty to do.

Five days in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Santa Barbara is a popular choice for travelers. Make sure you spend some time hiking while you're in the area. It will give you the chance to have new experiences. Five days may feel like too much time unless you plan to do a lot of relaxing.

Many travelers enjoy the skiing and nightlife when visiting the breathtaking destination of South Lake Tahoe. Travelers enjoy the resorts in the area as well. This town offers a variety of activities to choose from. If you have five days, this is a great place to go. Five days is usually enough time to experience most activities.


A week in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Santa Barbara is a great place to explore. Many travelers plan to spend time hiking while in the area. Take your pick from the many activities offered here. Most people find that one week is more than enough time to see everything.

You'll find nightlife and food around the beautiful town of South Lake Tahoe. People often spend their time relaxing at one of the resorts. One week is more than enough time to enjoy everything. Take some day trips to nearby places to fill the extra days. The length of your ideal trip is an individual decision.


For some great organized tour ideas, see The Best One-Week (7-Day) Tours from Anchorage, The Best One-Week (7-Day) Tours from Los Angeles, The Best One-Week (7-Day) Tours from New York City, and The Best 2-Week Tours from New York City.


Which place is cheaper, South Lake Tahoe or Santa Barbara?

These are the overall average travel costs for the two destinations.

The average daily cost (per person) in Santa Barbara is $162, while the average daily cost in South Lake Tahoe is $118. These costs include accommodation (assuming double occupancy, so the traveler is sharing the room), food, transportation, and entertainment. While every person is different, these costs are an average of past travelers in each destination. What follows is a categorical breakdown of travel costs for Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe in more detail.



Accommodation
  • Accommodation Hotel or hostel for one person
    Santa Barbara $88
    South Lake Tahoe $54
  • Accommodation Typical double-occupancy room
    Santa Barbara $176
    South Lake Tahoe $108
Compare Hotels in Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe

Looking for a hotel in Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe? Prices vary by location, date, season, and the level of luxury. See below for options and compare which is best for your budget and travel style.

Hotels in Santa Barbara


Hotels in South Lake Tahoe


Kayak helps you find the best prices for hotels, flights, and rental cars for destinations around the world. Compare prices for multiple destinations when planning your next trip.


Our Analysis
We've analyzed the average and typical hotel prices based on guest reviews, star ratings, and hotel amenities here: Santa Barbara Hotel Prices and South Lake Tahoe Hotel Prices.

Local Transportation
  • Local Transportation Taxis, local buses, subway, etc.
    Santa Barbara $42
    South Lake Tahoe $24

Is it cheaper to fly into Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Prices for flights to both South Lake Tahoe and Santa Barbara change regularly based on dates and travel demand. We suggest you find the best prices for your next trip on Kayak, because you can compare the cost of flights across multiple airlines for your prefered dates.





Food
  • Food Meals for one day
    Santa Barbara $46
    South Lake Tahoe $38

Entertainment
  • Entertainment Entrance tickets, shows, etc.
    Santa Barbara $27
    South Lake Tahoe $56

Tours and Activities in Santa Barbara

Some specific costs of activities, tours, and entrance tickets for Santa Barbara are as follows:

  • Murder Mystery Detective Experience Santa Barbara, CA: $15
  • Solvang City Self Guided Audio Tour: $20
  • Santa Barbara Scavenger Hunt Walking Tour and Game: $25
  • Santa Barbara Trolley Tour: $30
  • Santa Barbara Amazing Scavenger Hunt Adventure: $44
  • Guided Kayak Wildlife Tour in the Santa Barbara Harbor: $55
  • The Haunt: Solvang Ghost Hunting Tour: $55
  • Santa Barbara Ghost Tour "The Veil is Lifted" History & Mystery Walk: $55
  • Santa Barbara Ghost History and Mystery Walking Tour "Invisible Becomes Visible": $55
  • Kayak Tour of Santa Barbara with Experienced Guide: $55
  • 1.5-Hour Harbor Kayak Tour: $60
  • Catamaran Coastal Cruise: $62

Tours and Activities in South Lake Tahoe

Some specific costs of activities, tours, and entrance tickets for South Lake Tahoe are as follows:

  • Driving Lake Tahoe: A Self-Guided Audio Tour From Tahoe City to Incline Village: $9.99
  • Driving Lake Tahoe: A Self-Guided Tour From Incline Village to South Lake Tahoe: $12
  • Driving Lake Tahoe: A Self-Guided Tour from South Lake Tahoe to Tahoe City: $12
  • Lake Tahoe: Self-Guided Audio Driving Tour: $15
  • Tallac Historic Site Pope House Tour: $16
  • Ultimate Lake Tahoe Self-Guided Driving Audio Tour: $17
  • Tallac Historic Site Grand Estates Tour: $20
  • Lake Tahoe: Self-Guided Driving Tour: $25
  • Full Day Self-Guided Bike Tour of Lake Tahoe: $69
  • Guided Tour of Historic Virginia City and Carson City from South Lake Tahoe: $70
  • Introductory Snowshoe Shared Experience: $75
  • Full-Day Lake Tahoe Circle Tour including Squaw Valley: $80

Alcohol
  • Alcohol Drinks for one day
    Santa Barbara $12
    South Lake Tahoe $34
Typical Alcohol Prices in Santa Barbara

Below are a few samples from actual travelers for alcohol and nightlife costs in Santa Barbara:


  • Camping
    $20

Sample the Local Flavors in Santa Barbara

Here are a few nightlife and alcohol tours and activities from local tour providers in Santa Barbara:

  • Paranormal Pairing: Wine Tasting Walk with Ghost Storytelling: $105
  • Solvang Valley Small Group All-Inclusive Wine Tour : $185
  • Santa Ynez Valley Biking and Wine Tasting Tour: $194
  • All-Inclusive Full-Day Wine Tasting Tour from Santa Ynez Valley: $199
  • 6 hour Private Wine Tour of Santa Barbara County : $199
  • Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tour: $215
  • ‚ÄčAll-Inclusive Full-Day Wine Tasting Tour from Santa Barbara: $219
  • Small-Group Wine Tasting Tour of Santa Barbara Wine Country: $235
  • Santa Barbara Small-Group Wine Tour to Private Estates & Wineries: $235
  • Small-Group Wine Tour to Private Locations in Santa Barbara : $235
  • Taco Tour & Wine Tasting Funk Zone Santa Barbara: $245
  • Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Wine Tour (We Drive Your Vehicle): $300

Sample the Local Flavors in South Lake Tahoe

Also in South Lake Tahoe, these are the prices for nightlife and alcohol related activities from various tour providers:

  • Lake Tahoe: Emerald Bay Sunset Wine Tasting Yacht Cruise: $150


When we compare the travel costs of actual travelers between Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe, we can see that Santa Barbara is more expensive. And not only is South Lake Tahoe much less expensive, but it is actually a significantly cheaper destination. So, traveling to South Lake Tahoe would let you spend less money overall. Or, you could decide to spend more money in South Lake Tahoe and be able to afford a more luxurious travel style by staying in nicer hotels, eating at more expensive restaurants, taking tours, and experiencing more activities. The same level of travel in Santa Barbara would naturally cost you much more money, so you would probably want to keep your budget a little tighter in Santa Barbara than you might in South Lake Tahoe.

If you're trying to decide if either of these two destinations are within your price range, also see Is Santa Barbara Expensive? and Is South Lake Tahoe Expensive?.


Which is Bigger, Santa Barbara or South Lake Tahoe?

Santa Barbara has a larger population, and is about 4 times larger than the population of South Lake Tahoe. When comparing the sizes of Santa Barbara and South Lake Tahoe, keep in mind that a larger population does not always imply the destination has more attractions or better activities. So, always research the type of place that you want to visit along with the activities and attractions that interest you.