Some might be under the impression that Santa Barbara’s nickname, “The American Riviera”, is the product of marketing. That will change when you see the city firsthand. It’s built upon rolling foothills and bluffs, squeezed in between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains that hug California’s central coast. Littered with dream houses, the west-facing slope of Santa Barbara, or the “Riviera” as it is called by locals, looms above the downtown streets and looks out over the Pacific at the outline of the Channel Islands.
With a population of just under 100,000, Santa Barbara has a split personality that combines a rambunctious student population and a large Hispanic presence, crossing it with a wealthy, traditional upper class. The result is a best-of-both-worlds situation: A high-end, meticulously groomed city peppered with pockets of culture and young energy. The beauty of the former is overwhelming, but don’t stare too long. There’s plenty of food and drink to be had, and that ocean and those mountains double as playgrounds for active travelers.
The El Encanto, Fess Parker, Biltmore, and Bacara Resort are the main uber-luxury, corporate-run properties in Santa Barbara. All sport great reputations and are beautiful properties, the latter three being beachfront. (Check their locations carefully. For example, the Bacara is in Goleta and the Biltmore is in Montecito). Kimpton’s Canary Hotel, located downtown, is known for its rooftop lounge and is the closest chain hotel to the bars, restaurants and shops of State Street. But it is the smaller 3- and 4-star inns that run the show in Santa Barbara. The amenities may not be as plush, but the feel of the small properties without question bring out the best of the city’s relaxed, quaint nature. There are literally dozens of them, so take your time and scope them out. A piece of guidance would be to choose one within walking distance of State Street. So target the downtown area, like the Spanish Garden Inn, or one across from the harbor on the West Beach side of Cabrillo Boulevard, such as the Hotel Milo, Harbor View Inn, or the West Beach Inn. If you want to get out of the city and into the country for a night or two, try out the 10,000-acre working cattle ranch, Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, in wine country.Where to Eat
Downtown Santa Barbara’s main drag, State Street, is split into Upper and Lower State Street. The business district of the latter runs approximately from the intersection of Mission Street all the way south until you reach the ocean. This is a lovely place to walk and window shop, the street impeccably groomed with tall, towering palm trees and old Spanish-Moorish architecture that features red-tiled roofs and dramatic arches. You will find a wide range of restaurants and bars up and down Lower State Street (and on its side streets), from hot dog shops and sticky-floored clubs that cater to nearby UCSB students to the wine bars and white-clothed tables of French, Mexican, Italian and Japanese restaurants that draw in Santa Barbara’s well off. If you’re treating yourself, try Arigato for sushi, Bouchon for wine country farm-to-table cuisine, Olio e Limone for Sicilian Italian, or Ca Dairo for traditional Italian. Hit Lilly’s Tacos or Backyard Bowls for a cheap snack. Otherwise, try Brophy Bro’s for a beer and a bowl of clam chowder; The Palace Grill for Cajun cooking and one of the city’s most festive atmospheres (the entire restaurant raises their glasses for a cheers once an hour… seriously); Woody’s is slightly out of town, but its down-to-earth barbecue is worth the short drive; Cuernavaca for casual Mexican; have a German beer and brat at Hoffman Brat Haus. If you’re thirsty, the garage-door Telegraph Brewery or the Funkzone’s Fig Mountain Brewery are good places to stop for a local pint on the way home (or any time). Once cleaned up, check out Finch and Fork during happy hour for small bites and cocktails; kick off your night at Joe’s Café around 9 p.m. with a heavy-handed mixed drink; catch a soccer game and an English pint at The Press Room; play a round of bocce ball at the uber-local Arnoldi’s Café, and dance at Eos Lounge.What to Do
Going to the top of the Courthouse downtown, where a lookout gives you 360-degree views of the city, ocean, mountains and riviera, is a great way to start your trip, lending perspective on how the town is laid out and a simple appreciation of the low-rise, Spanish-Moorish architecture from above. Next, head to the city’s two best neighborhoods, the Funkzone and the Mesa. The Funkzone is Santa Barbara’s newest neighborhood, once known as “grungy” and “funky” and currently going through gentrification. This is the main hub of the urban wine trail and home to small restaurants and art galleries. The Mesa is less about exploring the neighborhood and more about appreciating the dramatic landscape atop the bluff on the west side of town. Walk or bike through Shoreline Park to see its ridiculous coastal views. Head toward downtown for the best perspective, and take a breather at Ledbetter Beach — the first one you come to as you leave the Mesa and descend down the hill to the Waterfront. Getting out on the water is highly recommended, if only to see Santa Barbara and its riviera from another perspective. The harbor is the place to rent kayaks, paddleboards and sailboats. Consider checking out Hendry’s Beach for the sunset, Goleta Beach or Ledbetter Beach for a barbecue, and East Beach for pickup volleyball. Several hiking trails are just a short drive from downtown. If you only have time to do one, it should be Inspiration Point. The steep, two-mile climb ends at a lookout with views of the entire coastline and all of downtown Santa Barbara. Other good day hikes on the coast include 7 Falls and San Ysidro. If you like rock hopping, check out Lizard’s Mouth or the Playgrounds, which combine boulder fields with panoramic coastal views. Those craving a longer and more challenging day should drive north to Gaviota and hike Gaviota Peak.Venture Out
Just up and over the mountains is the Santa Ynez wine country, about an hour by car. (You might remember it as the setting for the book and movie Sideways.) Exploring this under-appreciated wine region is a must. Pick up a picnic of meats and cheese from The Met before leaving Santa Barbara to enjoy on the grounds of wineries such as Fess Parker, Bridlewood, or Gainey. To get there, take the 101 North to Buellton, but when you return, take the 154, which will take you past Lake Cachuma and then down the front range of the mountains with full coastal views.