Santa Barbara, California, may be known as America’s Riviera, but that tagline doesn’t entirely cover this vibrant city. Yes, there are fabulous homes of the rich and famous, but the best reason to visit is to unwind and enjoy. Santa Barbara is blessed with nearly 300 days of sunshine a year and warm weather in winter, making it a year-round destination.
Lodging choices will fit almost any budget from rock star to dock worker. A recent look at rates for a one-night stay in November showed prices as low as 79 USD for two adults. Luxury lodging rates topped out at around 600 USD per night if you want to stay at the Four Seasons Resort. One of the biggest decisions in choosing lodging is whether to stay near the beach or uphill in the downtown core.
There are so many beach area hotels, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Many of these hotels offer complimentary bicycles for riding the bike paths and bike lanes of the area. Some hotels put you steps from all the shopping, dining, and cultural sites of Santa Barbara’s downtown. During my recent visits, I stayed at a downtown hotel -The Cheshire Cat Inn- and a beach hotel -The Eagle Inn- finding both to be excellent.
Where to dine
Once you’ve made a decision on where to stay, check out all these restaurants to chow down at. If you want a multi-choice dining destination, it would be hard to beat the Santa Barbara Public Market. The Public Market is a food hall with nine choices for your eating and drinking pleasure. Try the Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar for creative Thai cuisine or Fala Bar for falafel and Mediterranean fare. For dessert, there’s Rori’s Artisanal Creamery or Enjoy Cupcakes for your sweet tooth.
Seafood is found all over the Santa Barbara area. On the waterfront, Brophy Brothers Seafood is very popular, and with a no-reservations policy, you might have to wait a bit for a table. On Sterns’ Wharf, find Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, Moby Dick, and The Harbor Restaurant. Vegetarians can get a delicious meal at places like Satellite, or The Natural Café, both on State Street. Stop by Oat Bakery for delicious and creative baked goods or Lilac Patisserie for upscale gluten-free options.
I recommend buchon for fine dining highlighting regional seafood, produce, and wine. They have been pleasing diners for over 20 years with specialties like their bouchon French “Four Onion” Soup, Trio of Seared Sea Scallops, and Maple-Glazed California Duck Breast and Confit of Thigh.
There will be wine
Wine lovers will be amazed by the multitude of tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail. You’ll find excellent wines in the Funk Zone, Presidio, and other city locations. Tasting fees vary but count on spending around 15 USD per person at each winery. Most of the wineries waive the tasting fee if you buy three bottles or more.
Stop by Riverbench for sparkling wines, Melville for chardonnay, Happy Canyon for Bordeaux-style wines, and a good wine club, Grassini Family Vineyards for incredible red-blends, and Margerum for their Rhone blends.
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What's in the downtown area
Shoppers will love searching for regional mementos in the State Street/Downtown area. Find most of the shops in the El Paseo, State Street, and many of the side streets. Find chocolate shops, gift shops, clothing boutiques, and more in Santa Barbara’s retail zone.
Entertainment is in abundance in the downtown core. There are five movie theaters, the Arlington Theatre, the Metro, the Fiesta Five, The Riviera Theater, and Paseo Nuevo Cinemas. For other performing arts venues, check out The Granada Theater -the tallest building in town, Lobero Theater, and The New Vic.
Golfers will have three courses to choose from in the area. Sandpiper Golf Club adds mountain and ocean views to your golf experience. Rancho San Marcos is a Robert Trent Jones-designed course to test your skills. Glen Annie has a front nine with lakes and waterfall elements with Channel Island views.
The small towns of Goleta, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Buellton, and Solvang offer short day trips. Discover the charms of each town and visit wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. For an outstanding breakfast, stop in at Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos and grab a few baked treats to go.
For more great wine adventures, consider visiting wineries like Presqu’ile, located about an hour away in the Santa Maria wine region. This tasting room has been listed as one of America’s top ten for its design, views, and excellent wines. Wine tour operators can take you through the local wine regions, with prices ranging from 139-600 USD.
On or near the water
Santa Barbara is blessed with one of the most beautiful stretches of beaches in the country. Visit East Beach for a long stroll or wading, and Arroyo Burro Beach-aka Henry’s Beach if you are bringing Fido. There’s also Butterfly Beach for the best sunset viewing, and Leadbetter Beach for surfing, boogie boarding, and paddle-boarding.
The Channel Islands are famous for wildlife viewing and getting away from it all. These Islands are mostly devoid of manmade structures and offer camping for those who don’t mind roughing it. The Islands are only accessible by plane or boat, and visitors to the Channel Islands National Park should acquaint themselves with the challenges of visiting this pristine environment.
Kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving are excellent reasons to visit the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Channel Islands Adventure Company is an authorized outfitter if you want to take a guided kayak tour. Enjoy diverse wildlife and spectacular sea caves on their 2.5-hour tour.
Don’t miss a visit to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center where you can pet a small shark, touch sea anemones, and see baby sharks in their sacks. Located just at the end of State Street on Stern’s Wharf, this attraction is fun for all ages.
For the lucky ones with a private jet or yacht, getting to Santa Barbara won’t be a problem as you have someone to take care of that for you. For the rest of us visitors, we will most likely drive to Santa Barbara, but there are other ways to arrive. Amtrak train service on the Pacific Surfliner will drop you off near the center of Santa Barbara while avoiding typical California freeway traffic. If you’re flying into LAX-Los Angeles International Airport, consider taking the Santa Barbara Airbus for around 49 USD each way.
To find transportation info, a calendar of events, and occasional visitor specials, click on the link below to the Visit Santa Barbara website.
Whichever way you arrive, Santa Barbara will welcome you with open arms. It’s easy to see why the city is famous for sunshine, beaches, and tons of things to do. You don’t have to be a movie star to have a great time in this Pacific Coast hotspot.
Disclaimer: Although my stay was hosted by Visit Santa Barbara, my opinions are my own.
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