Once you visit Santa Barbara, you never want to leave. As a native of Texas, I found this out the hard way. Acknowledged as “the trap” by locals, it’s not difficult to understand why this utopia of natural beauty and year-round sunshine lures people in to stay. The truth is, Santa Barbara contradicts itself in the best ways possible. It’s luxurious without being pompous; it’s relaxed, yet elegant. Taking a stroll in downtown Santa Barbara, you can feel the vibrancy of a big city, but also a certain small town charm. Beauty aside, this balance is what makes Santa Barbara so unique. It’s not just another quaint coastal town that’s nice to look at—it’s a genuine, friendly city with a lot to offer.
Red tile roofs, palm trees, and Spanish colonial architecture make up the iconic Santa Barbara style and create a scenic downtown area with a peaceful atmosphere. Downtown consists of the lower half of State Street, a seven-mile stretch of fine dining and shopping that is the vein of the city around which everything is clustered. In fact, State Street eventually runs all the way out into the ocean via Stearns Wharf—a pier featuring seafood restaurants, shops, and the Ty Warner Sea Center, where touch tanks allow the rare opportunity to pet actual sharks.
If you’d rather eat seafood than mingle with live sea predators, luckily there are plenty of delicious options mere steps away. Brophy Bros provides an unbeatable view of the Harbor and Santa Ynez mountains coupled with savory local fish and a lively ambience. Seagrass is another upscale contender, serious about using fresh and sustainable products, whether its Farmers Market produce or Santa Barbara seafood. For a romantic night out, sit outside on the candlelit patio and choose a local wine from the lengthy list.
Those seeking red meat that isn’t tuna should venture down to Coast Village Road in Montecito for dinner at Lucky’s, a classic steakhouse in a sophisticated yet comfortable setting. Vintage black and white photographs of celebrities and sports stars from the 40s and 50s adorn the walls and help set the timeless tone. Signature cocktails, steaks cooked to perfection, and the occasional celebrity sighting should make for an exciting evening.
For French flair, Bouchon is an intimate downtown pick that won’t disappoint. A short but calculated seasonal menu ensures only the highest quality ingredients make the cut. Although the menu tends to shift around, French classics such as duck confit and onion soup are welcomed mainstays.
It’s easy to be overfed in Santa Barbara, but surprisingly there are as many activities as there are delicious restaurants. Golf aficionados should not miss playing a round at Santa Barbara’s own Pebble Beach—also known as Sandpiper Golf Club. It might be hard to focus on alignment, however, as deer gracefully bob in and out of trees, waves crash into bluffs below, and you are perpetually tempted to observe the unobstructed view of the glistening Pacific ahead. As the sun begins to set a fiery orange and royal purple hue, good luck tearing your eyes away.
After an afternoon of sightseeing and activities, visiting such places as the beautiful Santa Barbara Mission, the SB County Courthouse, the Zoo, or renting a bike and riding along an oceanside trail—a glass of wine might be in the cards. Santa Barbara wine country may have first gained notoriety in the film Sideways, but it continues to succeed today as a bountiful winemaking region. Take a tour of one of the many vineyards just outside Santa Barbara proper, and experience the breathtaking scenery that is golden, rolling hills of microclimates—each vineyard fostering a myriad of grapes to grow to their full potential under the Central Coast sunshine. If time is limited, there is no need to sacrifice wine tasting from a tight schedule. The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail offers just what the name suggests: tasting rooms downtown. Twenty-seven tasting rooms to be exact, all within a three block radius and only a stone’s throw away from the beach.
For a perfect combination of luxury and the outdoors, make a trip to San Ysidro Ranch to stay, dine, or both. From the moment you drive up the cobblestone driveway lined with olive trees, you are struck with a sense of bewilderment at the beauty of this enchanting property hidden among the foothills of Montecito.
An interesting history precedes the land—first owned by the King of Spain and inhabited by Franciscan monks in the late 1700s, then converted into a working citrus farm in the 1800s, and now a smattering of private cottages that have accommodated such guests as Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, and honeymooners JFK and Jackie O. The luscious gardens, ocean and mountainside panoramas, and world-class dining under a starlit sky will transport you back to a simpler time and provide a welcome escape.
An old Hollywood hangout built in 1937, the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club located at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is a historic landmark worth seeing. Intended as an exclusive social club, resort guests and members of the private club can enjoy a pool larger than Olympic size—purposely sized this way so that it never has to host regulated events. The pool and Jacuzzi provide 180 degree ocean views, as do the lower and upper level decks lined with chaise lounges and cabanas. All furniture and décor sticks to the color scheme of coral and white, resulting in a visually pleasing club deck that contrasts with the blue swimming pool and ocean.
For another dose of history, the Upham Hotel and Country House near downtown SB has been offering cozy and colonial digs since 1861, earning the title of the oldest continuously operative Southern Californian hotel. The Country House offers a more authentic bed and breakfast experience, while the Hotel across the street is a more modern take comprised of 50 rooms and suites. Both respect British heritage with Victorian style buildings and well-manicured gardens. Cheese and wine happy hour is an added bonus.
And who knows, maybe after staying in the midst of downtown you’ll want to move into your own Santa Barbara Victorian…or at least extend your vacation. I know I’m not leaving any time soon. +