Some say Santa Barbara is a state of mind. It’s also a county, a city and a fabulous stretch of California coastline so closely matching terrain and temperature of southern Europe’s Mediterranean coast that it has been dubbed the American Riviera.
Thanks to the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, this region of central California enjoys stunning scenery. White sand beaches, chic shopping districts, the harbor and Spanish Colonial architecture are perfect for post cards, but there’s more to Santa Barbara worth exploring.
Downtown Santa Barbara
Downtown Santa Barbara is filled with cute shopping boutiques that beckon to be checked out, but it’s also the city’s historic hub filled with museums (Santa Barbara Historical Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art) and old architecture (The Granada Theatre, Casa de la Guerra). Plus, State Street zips right through the middle, dividing the city into east and west and taking you straight to the famous Sterns Wharf. It’s also been said that the nightlife is more than a little upbeat.
So, you’re done with barefoot walks on the beach, for now. Head inland to explore the valleys, where locals make their homes and enjoy the privacy in short supply closer to the water. The Mission Canyon area offers the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the glorious Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens and a great entry to Mission Santa Barbara, the Spanish mission founded in the late 1700s by Franciscan monks and a huge tourist draw for the area.
In Oklahoma, carp is a big, Kevlar-scaled fish most people toss back when caught on the line. In Santa Barbara, it’s the laid-back bedroom community best known for its surf culture and a picturesque downtown of boutique shops and restaurants. Carp, short for Carpinteria, has a long history going back to early settlement by ancestors of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash and other American Indian tribes native to the area drawn to the coast or, perhaps, the perfect wave. If tube riding is on your agenda, Carp is a must.
The city of Goleta stands out in the region for several reasons. It is home to the University of California, Santa Barbara; the Goleta Butterfly Grove; Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and the county’s only bowling alley. Attractive to more than just students, league teams and migrating monarchs, Goleta is also home to the California Lemon Festival in October as well as a harbor of familiar box stores, homes and other signs of recognizable middle class life.
Santa Ynez Valley
On vacation, all you really want is to relax. If that involves a leisurely venture to wineries and vineyards, then the Santa Ynez Valley is on your schedule. Wine lovers who enjoyed the film Sideways about Paul Giamatti and pal on a California wine trail tour may recognize this Santa Barbara region as the backdrop of the 2004 flick – which significantly boosted the local wine industry’s pomp and visibility. There are wineries and vineyards aplenty to visit, but you’ll also find tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara and in the nearby Lompoc Wine Ghetto to the west. The town of Santa Ynez also displays its fondness for the Old West on the streets and in the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum & Carriage house.
Montecito Inn: Convenient without giving up luxury, the Montecito Inn is located close to much of what Santa Barbara has to offer. A favorite local backdrop for weddings, the inn has single rooms but also features an apartment and spacious suites that look more like decadent private residences. If the entrance, pool and public spaces look more like something out of old Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard, you’re right – the inn was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1928. www.montecitoinn.com
San Ysidro Ranch: A “romantic hideaway” in the truest since, San Ysidro Ranch has made industry magazine lists for top hotels in the world several times for its gorgeous views, grounds and uniquely lavish-yet-rustic interiors that are the very essence of Santa Barbara. Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier married there, and John and Jackie Kennedy stayed as honeymooners. www.sanysidroranch.com
El Capitan Canyon: In a resort town like Santa Barbara, even camping is elegant. El Capitan Canyon resort believes in minimalism and getting back to nature but without the deprivation. One night’s stay in the resort’s pretty, petite cabin or in one of the yurt-inspired canvas tents will set you to rights. If that doesn’t, you can watch the resort llamas munch grass on the hillside while you get your spa massage. www.elcapitancanyon.com
Access: Located on California’s central coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is accessed by land through U.S. 101 highway and Amtrak. Shuttle bus service Santa Barbara Airbus operates between Santa Barbara and LAX, but guests can directly connect by select commercial flights to the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.
Climate: Average temperature (degrees in Fahrenheit) is lower to mid-70s between June and October.
Main attractions: Beaches, Channel Islands, the Reagan Ranch, University of California, Santa Barbara
There are simply some things that cannot be missed while visiting Santa Barbara.
Sterns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor: The famous pier in Santa Barbara Harbor is a landmark attesting to the region’s economic history. These days, instead of heavy cargo ships coming to port, the wharf is a dock for fishing and sailing boats along with vessels carrying visitors out to sea for whale watching and panoramic shots of the coast from afar.
Beaches: You can’t go to Santa Barbara and not check out the numerous amazing beaches and parks. There are beaches for lounging, (Butterfly Beach in Montecito), beaches for nature lovers (Arroyo Burro Beach, aka, Hendry’s Beach), beaches for surfing and sport (West Beach) and beaches for families (East Beach).
Mission Santa Barbara: If you want to look at the foundation of today’s Santa Barbara, you’ll find it at this late 18th century marvel. The Franciscan mission transformed the lands and its original inhabitants with agriculture and Christianity, which altered the course of the region. Today, the mission continues to operate as a church, and its architecture is still exquisite.