Santa Barbara is one of California’s oldest-established cities. Named by the Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602, the city proper was founded with the establishment of a military post (a presidio) in 1782 and the Franciscan Mission a few years later. Both are still there, as well as a wealth of old Spanish-Colonial architecture; its red tiles, stucco walls and cool colonnades, old palms and lush bougainvillea make this the most beguiling of cities. Then there’s the gentle climate, cooled by the Pacific, protected by the Santa Ynez mountains to the north.
Santa Barbara is – of course – an essentially cool city. It’s the home of surfing, for a start. It’s also loved by artists for the delicacy of the ocean light, and it’s full of musicians (you can catch a dozen different live bands in any bar any night of the week). There’s also theatre, some fine museums, and a thriving bar and restaurant scene. For the wine lover, no visit would be complete without a tour of Santa Barbara wine country, starting at that most delightful of old west towns, Los Olivos; you’re also within half an hour of the fascinating old Danish town of Solvang and its neighbours Buellton and Lompoc.
Things to see and do in Santa Barbara
This stretch of the Pacific Coast richly deserves the label ‘American Riviera’, and Santa Barbara is its jewel. The city itself is well-endowed with excellent restaurants and fine bars – and beautiful and renowned wine country is a mere spit away. You can get to Los Olivos, with its dozens of tasting rooms, in 40 minutes or so, likewise the wineries of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, and the Santa Rita Hills – check out the excellent Pinot Noirs of Foxen, or the Rhône blends of Zaca Mesa, one of the longest-established wineries in the county.
Back in town, take a red-tile walking tour to see famous old houses like the 1817 Covarrubias Adobe or the Casa del Herrero, regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish-Colonial architecture, and don’t miss Old Mission, founded by the Franciscans in 1786 and still an active church today. If you love pageantry, plan your trip to coincide with the Old Spanish Days fiesta, which has been running in August since 1924.
Lastly, Santa Barbara prides itself on having a beach for everyone, whether you want to run with your dog, surf, sunbathe, or let the children play. If you had to pick just one, Leadbetter Beach, the closest to downtown, is long, clean and very chill.
Where to eat and drink in Santa Barbara
To call Santa Barbara’s food-and-drink scene ‘vibrant’ is like suggesting the equator can get a bit warm in the middle of the day. Whether you want tacos or fine dining, local wines or cocktails at 2am, a craft beer in a music bar or a lunchtime aperitif while people-watching, the choice is yours. Start at the 10-block pedestrianised part of State Street and quench your thirst at any one of the dozens of bars and cafés along the way (you might drop into Figueroa Mountain on Anacapa St for some live music) then head into the Funk Zone, a dozen streets of boutique tasting rooms, art galleries, restaurants and cocktail bars.
For the best seasonal food and an excellent modern wine list, seated at a massive bar with a preppy/cool Silicon Valley vibe, try The Lark. For late-night cocktails? Shaker Mill at the Broad St Oyster Company or Test Pilot. Both have an atmosphere you can feel three streets away.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara
To get the full Santa Barbara experience stay at the southern end of State Street. There you’re within walking distance of the Funk Zone and the beaches; the Hotel Californian, with its retro décor and ocean views, is the ultimate in American Riviera luxury; at the top of State St, the Kimpton Canary Hotel is cool and comfortable with fine rooftop bars.
If you intend to visit wineries and just drop into Santa Barbara, then you might think of staying in the historic Danish town of Solvang. The wineries of Santa Ynez are on your doorstep, it has a small though thriving bar-and-restaurant scene, and it’s Danish vibe is singular, to say the least. Check out The Landsby hotel for old-world charm.
The ultimate drinking destination
Of the myriad wine destinations in and around Santa Barbara, it’s Los Olivos that leaves the most indelible impression. A couple of streets of wooden houses, old-growth palms, a gas station and a hotel – and more artisan tasting rooms than you can fit into a day. These range from Jessica’s Gasca’s Story of Soil (she sources from Bien Nacido among other great vineyards) or Larry Schaffer’s foot-stomped Tercero wines, to the artisan beers of the Figueroa Brewing Company.
There’s something precious and fragile about Los Olivos, especially now that the luxury Auberge group is about to open a new 67-casita resort in town. That will mean an upsurge in well-heeled visitors, more high-end restaurants and boutiques. Remember, Napa’s St Helena used to be a one-horse town.