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Santa Barbara City Trip

The enchanting Santa Barbara shoreline at dusk
The "American Riviera"

72 Hours in Santa Barbara

by Matt Katz


Santa Barbara is the poster child for the California good life, a coastal catwalk where top-shelf wines flow and the weather is laughably ideal. At its core, the city is a whitewashed, red-tiled fantasy of Spanish-style architecture. Crisp ocean breezes mingle with warm inland air as it filters through the canyons connecting wine country and coast. Flowers bloom year-round. Even the traffic, unlike L.A.'s smog-choked study in chaos, can be taken as a low-speed cruise through paradise: the Pacific Ocean with dreamy silhouettes of the Channel Islands on one side of the freeway, downtown and a sprinkling of hillside homes tucked into the lee of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other.

Founded by the Spanish in the late eighteenth century, the city was rebuilt in 1925, following an earthquake. Home to a major university, high-tech businesses and the cultural offerings of a major metropolis, Santa Barbara, with only 92,000 inhabitants, is the rare place that actually deserves its moniker: "The American Riviera."

Lodging is plentiful, with more than 170 choices. For small hotels, two of the best are the Simpson House Inn and the Upham Hotel, lovingly decorated with pretty antiques and New England charm. The Upham has the added benefit of Louie's, an elegant California bistro that's among the city's finest restaurants. In the heart of downtown you'll find the Spanish Garden Inn, a 23-room luxury boutique hotel located on a quiet side street in the Historic Presidio District. With its classic Spanish-Mediterranean style, the Inn evokes an idealized old Santa Barbara of dashing dons and dark-eyed señoritas. Hipsters flock to Hotel Indigo, while the mod-stylish Agave Inn is another cool option.

In nearby Montecito, luxurious accommodations come in the form of the Four Seasons Resort, the Biltmore Santa Barbara and San Ysidro Ranch, both owned by Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner. "The Ranch" (as locals refer to San Ysidro Ranch), is where John and Jackie Kennedy spent part of their honeymoon. A stay at the Biltmore entitles guests to dine at the adjacent Tydes Restaurant & Bar, which is otherwise open exclusively to members of the private Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club. Up the coast, movie stars may be spotted from time to time at the Bacara Resort & Spa. The resort contains 78 beachfront acres and a two-mile white sand beach, three pools, and offers yacht and catamaran excursions.

SANTA BARBARA DAY 1: Downtown, El Presidio, State Street, Mission Santa Barbara

Start the day with breakfast downtown. At D'Angelo, a German baker turns out hearty and delicious breads, and Tupelo Junction Café is popular for its pumpkin-oatmeal waffles and brioche French toast. Thoughtfully prepared dishes like locally sourced eggs with housemade sausage make newcomer Scarlett Begonia another one of your best bets for breakfast.

El Presidio is a historic Spanish fortress located in the heart of Downtown Santa Barbara
El Presidio

Whatever your choice, be well fueled before exploring downtown and taking in some of the many architectural landmarks. Santa Barbara Walking Tours unveil "everyday art" hidden in the urban landscape: down winding paseos and in busy shopping plazas. Tired of walking? Catch a ride with Santa Barbara Pedicab for a scenic rickshaw ride or a tour of downtown's so-called "Funk Zone" with its myriad wine tasting rooms.

For an overview of the city's history, stop in at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, housed in a handsome adobe building with a picturesque courtyard. Nearby are two of the oldest landmarks: Casa de la Guerra, the original home of Santa Barbara's early founders, and El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. Founded in 1782, the Royal Presidio was the last in a chain of four military fortresses built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California to protect settlers from Indian attacks and foreign invasion.

Mission Santa Barbara is still used by the Franciscan order that founded it in 1786
Mission Santa Barbara

Within walking distance are many architectural gems built after the 1925 earthquake. One of the most famous architects was George Washington Smith, who popularized the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the signature look of this red-tile-roofed town. Three of his buildings are noteworthy: the Lobero Theatre, the Santa Barbara News-Press building in De la Guerra Plaza and the charming Meridien Studios on De la Guerra Street.

Architecturally, the city's most famous downtown draw is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse — a Spanish-Moorish concoction of turrets, tiles and spiral staircases. Built in 1929, it's framed by lush, tropical gardens featuring flora from over 25 countries. Be sure to climb to the top of the 85-foot clock tower for spectacular views of the town and coastline.

Downtown State Street and its environs is a great place to have lunch. Arts & Letters Café is located across the street from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Opal Restaurant & Bar adjoins the delightful Arlington Theater. For Italian food and first-rate people watching, grab a table at Bucatini.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art houses a sizable collection and often features special traveling exhibitions
Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Walk off your lunch with a stroll on State Street, and visit the open-air Paseo Nuevo mall where you'll find all the usual suspects, including Nordstrom, Victoria's Secret and chain movie theaters. Be sure to visit El Paseo — a charming, store-lined pedestrian passage from the 1920s that may well have been California's first shopping mall. Its gurgling fountains and wrought iron gates evoke the Old World, but everything from urban contemporary clothing to haute couture can be found here.

A perfect way to end the day is to take a short drive to one of the city's most photographed sites: Mission Santa Barbara. Known as the "Queen of the Missions," it was founded in 1786 by Spanish Franciscan friars who aimed to Christianize the Chumash Indians. The striking twin-towered structure is still used by the Franciscan order that founded it.

The Roosterfish Room at Seagrass Restaurant in Santa Barbara
Roosterfish Room at Seagrass Restaurant

To really experience Santa Barbara's "Riviera" ambience, drive along winding, scenic Alameda Padre Serra Road near the mission. The area's cultural highlight is the Riviera Theater, which screens foreign language and art films and has a devoted band of regulars. Just steps away, Belmond El Encanto Hotel is a great place to have a drink and take in jaw-dropping city and ocean views.

Santa Barbara offers a multitude of restaurant choices for dinner. One of the most interesting eateries is Julienne, where chef-owner Justin West puts a creative spin on the locavore movement. For a contemporary approach to seafood, don't miss The Hungry Cat. Seagrass Restaurant offers topnotch seafood in a more elegant setting. Our top picks for Italian food include Olio e Limone and Ca'Dario, both of which now offer an affixed pizzeria with a more casual atmosphere. On the waterfront, Toma offers fine Italian and Mediterranean fare as well. Great choices for California Wine Country cuisine include bouchon and Wine Cask. For excellent regional cuisine in a more subdued setting, try the Stonehouse, located at the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito.

Continue to Day 2


Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Hotels

Santa Barbara Restaurants
Santa Barbara Attractions
Travel Guide California
Visit Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission


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