Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara, California, is all about the outdoors. The weather is comfortable year-round, and visitors as well as residents can ride bikes, walk along the beach or take lazy drives into the hills or through the outlying vineyards.
Located north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has been a celebrity hideaway since the early 1900s, with the carefree attitude and architecture of a Mediterranean village and the sunny, relaxed disposition of a California beach town. As you bicycle along the Santa Barbara waterfront, you'll see why this seaside city is a special place. With the exception of recurrent morning fog, clear, blue skies shine over golden beaches, and the arid Santa Ynez Mountains loom over the city's signature white-stucco buildings with red-tile roofs. Joggers smile, beach volleyball players wave, and brown pelicans flap their wings methodically as they fly overhead.
In addition to its picturesque waterfront and abundant attractions, including the well-known Santa Barbara mission, the city offers museums, trendy restaurants and boutiques. But there's plenty more to see and do in the area. Montecito to the east is the place for exclusive shopping—it's often compared to LA's Rodeo Drive. To the west are Isla Vista and the lively campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. To the north are Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley, where you'll find dozens of wineries as well as the old-time Danish town of Solvang.
Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara boasts a stunning setting. Sandy beaches and rocky coves stretch along one side, and the vineyard-draped peaks of the mountains rise less than an hour's drive away. Because of the shape of the coastline, the beaches actually face south, and the mountains rise to the north. This sometimes makes directions a bit confusing for visitors, who expect the coast to be due west, as it it in most of the state.
The city of Santa Barbara is laid out in a grid, with nearly all north and south streets dead-ending into Cabrillo Boulevard, the main thoroughfare flanking the waterfront promenade. State Street, the main north-south street, begins at Cabrillo across from Stearns Wharf, bisecting the city into the east and west sides. Most of the city's main attractions, as well as numerous shops and restaurants, are within a few blocks of State Street.
The central part of the city can easily be explored on foot or by hopping on and off the trolleys that run along the beach and State Street. You will need transportation or a tour to visit Montecito and to go wine tasting in the hills.
Highway 101 and the Pacific Highway connect the city to Los Angeles, which is about 90 mi/145 km south, and San Francisco, which is 330 mi/530 km north of Santa Barbara.
The Chumash Indians made their homes along the Santa Barbara coast (and the Channel Islands) for about 13,000 years before the Portuguese explorer Joao Cabriho (Spanish name: Juan Cabrillo) claimed the area for Spain in 1542. The oldest human skeleton found in North America was discovered on Santa Rosa Island, about 30 mi/48 km from downtown Santa Barbara. After Cabriho's landing, a group seeking shelter there on the feast day of St. Barbara named the area after her when they survived a fierce storm. European settlement began in earnest when Father Junipero Serra, traveling with the Spanish army, established a royal presidio in 1782. The mission was founded four years later, although a large earthquake in 1812 destroyed it and most of the town. A larger mission was built in 1820 with its bell tower completed in 1833.
Spanish rule ended in 1822, when Mexico took over briefly until Col. John C. Fremont claimed the region for the U.S. in 1846.
By the late 1800s, the area's reputation as a pleasant place to live had spread among California's rich and famous, and Victorian homes began to outnumber Spanish Colonials. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought even more people, and the area saw a surge in population. After an earthquake leveled buildings in 1925, city leaders decreed the town would be rebuilt in the Spanish-Mediterranean style of whitewashed adobe structures with red-tile roofs that continues today. Stearns Wharf was built in the late 1800s, making it easy for steamboats to dock in Santa Barbara. The railroad to Los Angeles was completed in 1887, and the railroad connecting the city to San Francisco was completed in 1901. It was also around that time that city leaders decided to make the beaches public; therefore, you won't see any hotels or motels built on Santa Barbara's sands. The first electric street car line was opened in 1896.
The oil industry further changed the town. Oil had been seeping out of the ground for centuries, but its value was only discovered in the late 19th century. Summerland Oil Field, the world’s first offshore oil well was built in the 1890s. It was mostly depleted by 1910, but the derricks remained until the 1920s, and the field remained partially in production until 1940. However, larger offshore oil derricks were built throughout the 1950s and '60s. A huge oil spill in 1969 at the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field created one of the first modern environmental oil hazards, created a backlash against offshore drilling in the area, and led to national and state laws limiting drilling.
In the 1970s, the Santa Barbara city council passed a resolution limiting the city's population to 85,000 through zoning. This prevented new development and urban sprawl, but caused housing prices to soar. The unintended consequence of limiting growth in the city was a huge commuter population.
The area has been attracting Hollywood refugees since the early 1900s, when a film company opened a studio there. Since then, the area has been home to such legends as Charlie Chaplin (who built the Montecito Inn in 1928 largely for film casts and crews), as well as Kirk Douglas, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Costner, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey.
Santa Barbara's biggest attraction is the beach. If you're a sun worshipper, you may want to park your towel near Stearns Wharf and spend your first day there. Even if you prefer the shade, start your visit with a brief stroll along the waterfront.
Take time to walk or ride the trolley to the end of Stearns Wharf. Although the shops and restaurants on the wooden pier are touristy, the view from the end is one of the best in the city, with the purple Santa Ynez Mountains in the background and the ocean behind you. Also along the waterfront is a protected harbor sheltering commercial fishing vessels as well as luxury yachts and sailboats. Walk along the seawall, which is lined with international flags, and visit the city's intriguing Maritime Museum. If you're hungry, you can dine alfresco at one of several seafood restaurants while watching the boat parade.
State Street is the city's main street and where you'll find most of its other attractions, shops, restaurants and nightspots. You can walk up State Street from the waterfront, but it's easier to catch the electric shuttle to the middle of town and stroll around from there.
Don't miss the spectacular Spanish Revival-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse—be sure to go to the top of the clock tower to take in the views. Then wander through the lovely courtyard. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has a solid collection of American art, as well as works by European expressionists and impressionists. Also near State Street is El Presidio, the site of the city's fort and oldest adobe building. The best way to see the city's historic sites is on the Red Tile Tour, a self-guided walking tour. Pick up a map of the tour sites from the visitors bureau or download it online. http://www.santabarbaraca.com/visitor-info/maps/red-tile-walking-tour-map.
On the north side of town is the lovely, venerable Old Mission Santa Barbara. Its twin bell towers can be admired from the courtyard, but the tour of the mission is worth the price. The park surrounding the mission is home to the city's rose garden, which is in bloom in spring, summer and fall. Also stop by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
If possible, time your visit to include a Sunday, when you can take in the waterfront arts and crafts show. A tradition since the 1960s, the event draws artists, craftspeople and street performers to Chase Palm Park, which runs along Cabrillo Boulevard. The park is also where you'll find the city's antique carousel—you don't have to be a child to get a thrill out of this ride, which is only US$2 for a five-minute jaunt.
Santa Barbara's nightlife scene is rather sedate, but the city does have some lively bars in the downtown area. Along State Street, and within walking distance from each other, you will find a variety of sports bars (O'Malley's, for example), pubs (such as the James Joyce) and clubs (such as Eos Lounge). You will also find that the average patron age is younger than 30, as State Street draws the masses from local colleges.
Off State Street, but still within walking distance, you can find more sophisticated late-night hangouts. Wildcat Lounge is a good—though often crowded—place to dance with a youngish, eclectic crowd, and Blue Agave offers a lounge atmosphere and private, cozy booths.
Farther north on State, SOhO Restaurant & Music Club is popular with locals for its nightly live rock, jazz and blues acts. Farther still is Milk and Honey, a tapas bar and lounge that provides a hip vibe, interesting snacks and tasty cocktails. If you prefer the sounds of Spanish guitars, try Cava in Montecito.
"Adventurous" is an apt description of the cuisine served in many of Santa Barbara's award-winning restaurants. Santa Barbara chefs are known for using fresh ingredients, such as locally caught fish and organically grown produce, and preparing them with a twist.
Santa Barbara's restaurants may be risk-takers, but they're not stuffy or pretentious. Even the city's fanciest, most expensive restaurants are casual, comfortable places. But beware: Many area restaurants are casual about their hours, too. During winter months, some kitchens will close before their posted closing time if it's been a slow night.
Just about any cuisine your palate could desire is available. Fresh seafood is plentiful, from seafood platters served up at wharfside diners to artfully presented ahi tuna at the trendiest new eateries. The city also has several good steak houses, an assortment of Mexican restaurants and dozens of places serving good fusion fare.
Given the proximity of area vineyards, most of the better restaurants also are adept at pairing their food with an appropriate wine. Just ask for a recommendation—you won't be disappointed.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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