Santa Barbara is quintessential California; an almost impossibly perfect combination of beaches, Spanish architecture with red-tiled roofs, ideal climate and a thriving wine industry. The city of Santa Barbara is defined by its natural borders: the Los Padres Mountains form one boundary and the Pacific Ocean, the other. What is left is a reasonably small shelf of land kissed by the sun and blessed by its location. The sleepy town of Goleta is located up the coast from Santa Barbara proper, and Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria are a short drive down Highway 1. Its northern neighbor is wine country: Solvang, Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, Buellton, Los Olivos and Lompoc. The heart of Santa Barbara is State Street, a bustling main drag that runs through downtown before ending at Stearns Wharf. It dissects a 12-square block of historic sites, restaurants, bars and art galleries all wrapped up in a pretty Spanish package.
Founded by the Spanish in 1786 as a mission site and fort, the city was rebuilt and reimagined 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 95,000 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 — you can even reserve the Kennedy Suite. A stay at the Biltmore entitles guests to dine at the adjacent Tydes Restaurant & Bar. Usually open exclusively to members of the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club, the restaurant offers some of the best oceanfront dining in Santa Barbara. Up the coast, Bacara Resort & Spa boasts 78 beachfront acres and a two-mile white sand beach with three pools. Guests can also sign up for various excursions including helicopter tours, horseback rides and guided hikes.
Start the day with breakfast downtown at D'Angelo with its hearty and delicious breads, or head to State Street to Tupelo Junction Café, popular for its pumpkin-oatmeal waffles and brioche French toast. Locally sourced ingredients and favorites like eggs with house-made sausage make Scarlett Begonia another terrific idea for breakfast, and you can sit outside in their hidden courtyard.
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 hip and vibrant "Funk Zone" with its myriad wine tasting rooms just two blocks from the beach.
For an overview of the city's past, 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.
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 Meridian Studios on De La Guerra Street.
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.
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 outdoor shopping mall. Its gurgling fountains and wrought iron gates evoke the Old World, but everything from urban contemporary clothing to local chocolates and wine tasting rooms 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. 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, and local favorite Trattoria Vittoria. On the waterfront, Toma offers fine Italian and Mediterranean fare, as well. Great choices for California Wine Country cuisine include Bouchon, Wine Cask and Fork & Finch. For excellent regional cuisine in a more subdued setting, try the Stonehouse, located at the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito.