Santa Barbara by Train

Santa Barbara Train Station, courtesy of

Until recently, my impression of Santa Barbara, Calif., was entirely formed by the soap opera Santa Barbara, which always seemed to be playing on the TV in my family’s living room when I was home sick as a grade-schooler. My understanding was that the city had lots of Spanish architecture and every resident was a murder suspect. My knowledge might have stayed that limited had it not been for a nifty promotional program with an intriguing approach to selling Santa Barbara as a destination.

I’d been thinking about taking a train trip, but a day’s journey from the Bay Area still left a lot of destination options. Then I came across Santa Barbara Car Free, a project of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. The website is designed to encourage people to visit the city but to leave their automobiles back home in their driveways. The program has developed partnerships with dozens of local hotels, which offer discounts for guests who can show an Amtrak ticket, a bus pass or their bicycle at check-in. That was enough to convince me to book my ticket as far as the Santa Barbara depot, which is conveniently located in the center of town.

While the hotel deals are geared toward leisure travelers as opposed to groups, the website is also full of information for how to navigate the city and see its sights by foot, bicycle, kayak or public transit, which makes it a great resource for meeting attendees who might not want to rent a car. It helped me plan a fun-filled weekend in the city that included dining at Mediterranean restaurant Cadiz (try the Moroccan chicken breast with almonds, cannellini bean puree, braised beet greens, sweet and sour compote, natural jus and chickpea fries) and viewing the weekly beachfront art show.

Santa Barbara isn’t the only California city to hit on the idea of combining green, carbon-reducing initiatives with tourism. Napa, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and San Diego all have similar websites devoted to car-free promotions. If you ask me, more destination-marketing organizations ought to think about hopping aboard this trend.

—Bill Chapin