Less than a two-hour drive from Hancock Park via the 101 Freeway, Santa Barbara and the areas around it are a convenient one-day or weekend getaway that offers a mild Mediterranean climate, inviting beaches, a calendar-full agenda of festivals, historic sites and accommodation availabilities that range from luxurious to more reasonably priced bed and breakfast inns and hostels.
A city with considerable wealth, on its north side it includes the suburb Hope Ranch. On its south is Montecito, an unincorporated area of Santa Barbara County that is home to old wealth and is consistently rated as one of the wealthiest census tracts in America. Both Hope Ranch and Montecito are pleasant drive through areas – so long as you don’t have a strong jealous streak.
North of the city of Santa Barbara is Goleta and Isla Vista, home to the University of California at Santa Barbara. UCSB has a somewhat legitimate reputation as a “party school” yet it has ten Nobel laureates associated with it and six current faculty members who are Nobel laureates.
The region has been a significant resource for the petroleum industry for more than a hundred years. On the other hand, its 1969 oil spill was the largest of the time in the United States and inspired the creation of Earth Day.
For thousands of years the Santa Barbara region was home to the Chumash Native Americans, their rock art still viewable about 11 miles northwest of Santa Barbara at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. Their numbers decimated, some now live on a reservation in the Santa Ynez Valley where the Chumash Casino Resort seeks to provide the Chumash with an economic uplift.
Santa Barbara and vicinity have many excellent beaches. For me, they are one of the principal reasons for visiting. The following list is not close to exhaustive. They reflect the beaches I am personally most familiar with.
Commonly known as Hendry’s Beach, this is a dog friendly, less touristy beach north of the central district. Hendry’s transitions into several named beaches but regardless of the names the coastline is attractive for walking. In fact, when it isn’t high tide a somewhat long but interesting walk is all the way from Hendry’s to the Santa Barbara harbor. If you don’t feel like walking back, according to my app, Uber drivers are available. Hendry’s and Butterfly Beach/Miramar are my favorite Santa Barbara beaches.
Located across the street from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, this is a fabulous beach for walking and for viewing sunrises and especially, sunsets. The surf is respectable, higher in the winter. You will see some surfing and stand up paddle boarding.
If you begin your beach walk at the Four Seasons Biltmore and head south, Miramar Beach is where you will transition. A curved coastline with numerous beachfront cottages, this beach was the site of the famed Miramar Hotel. Currently what is left of the Miramar is an eyesore but fifteen years of litigation has apparently ended and rehabilitation has started. Miramar Beach is scenic and very family and kid friendly.
As you approach Stearns Wharf, East Beach is to your left, West Beach to your right. While these two beaches may be commonly associated with Santa Barbara because of their proximity to the wharf and to State Street, they are my least favorite beaches. East Beach has volleyball courts, nice facilities and relatively good views. However, it is also close to Cabrillo Boulevard and its string of hotels and resorts. West Beach has too many boats too close to shore along with the attendant pollution.
Sometimes incorrectly referred to as Santa Barbara Pier (there is none), Stearns Wharf is reportedly Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark. It offers panoramic views of the Santa Barbara coastline and lots of people to watch. The wharf’s Sea Center is more sophisticated than the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and is fun for children and adults. Also of interest is the pier’s historic Twelve Flags Over California, flying replicas of each of the twelve flags that have flown over California. There is parking on the wharf. The best bet is to use the free valet parking service rather than fight for space in the self-parking area.
There is much to see in the Santa Barbara area. The following is just a sampling. I have not prioritized these sites. Their order is simply the order in which I thought of them.
A courthouse isn’t necessarily a magnet for visiting tourist. However, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is unique because of its architecture, its age and the fact it is still in active use. The top of the clock tower (which is closed until mid July) provides a panoramic view of Santa Barbara. The second floor mural room and the law library are also worth looking at.
The theater opened in 1924 as Santa Barbara’s first and only eight-story building. This historic venue has been well preserved. It has served as the stage for such past world-renowned performers as Sir John Gielgud, Will Rogers and Mary Pickford and such current world-class companies as the New York and London Philharmonic orchestras.
Built in the 1920s this shopping area is a pleasant respite from large malls. Maintaining much of its history, many of the stores have also kept their original interiors. The stores range from restaurants to galleries. Offices are located on the second floor. Its fountain filled with turtles is a consistent favorite among visitors.
The Santa Barbara zoo is especially popular with children. It is nicely structured with enough selection of birds, animals and reptiles to give children and adults a chance to see them alive but not in the wild.
While it reminds me more of a movie set rather than an historic structure and it doesn’t compare with northern California’s Mission San Juan Bautista or Mission San Antonio this mission, if one takes the interior self-guided tour, does offer one perspective of California life in the late 1700s.
Santa Barbara County is developing a justified reputation for producing quality wines. It is home to over 100 wineries. Rather than drive throughout the county, it is possible to sample a large selection of Santa Barbara wines without leaving the city of Santa Barbara. Most of the tasting facilities are clustered close to downtown and East Beach.
This is Santa Barbara’s principal street and is a commonly used landmark for directions. It runs from Stearns Wharf to Goleta and is best known for its shopping and restaurants. Evenings along State Street often include entertainment emanating from its restaurants.
The Book Den traces its history as California’s oldest used bookshop to its founding in Oakland in 1902 and subsequent move to Santa Barbara in 1933. The store carries a good selection of used books and a small but carefully selected number of new books. They have a friendly and helpful staff – as long as you don’t mention Amazon!
Places to Stay
Santa Barbara has many places to stay, ranging from Airbnb, bed and breakfast inns to motels, hotels and luxury resorts. I have only listed three. Each has some interest that goes beyond being a place to sleep.
Owned by Ty Warner, a reclusive billionaire, tax evader, philanthropist and inventor of the Beanie Babies toys, the Four Seasons Biltmore maintains its historical heritage while pampering its guests, perhaps to excess. Hotel workers stepping aside on hotel paths as guests pass and offering smiling hellos tend to conjure images of another, more unpleasant era. Nonetheless, the Four Seasons Biltmore is one of Santa Barbara’s best luxury hotels, its only competition coming from another Ty Warner property, Montecito’s San Ysidro Ranch.
The hotel was built in 1927, across the street from Butterfly Beach, and offers its guests full resort facilities. But for the cost, the Biltmore is an outstanding place to stay. It is possible to get slightly improved rates by booking several months in advance or taking advantage of some of their other specials – “specials” being a relative term. In any case, the Biltmore and its grounds are worth strolling through, even if you don’t stay there.
It’s not really a casino but a private club. If you’re a guest at the Biltmore you may (depending on your room rate) have guest privileges at the Coral Casino. There’s an Olympic size swimming pool that straddles Butterfly Beach’s high tide mark. There is also great service and superb food for dining at its Tydes restaurant.
A hideaway for the rich and famous (John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned here) the San Ysidro Ranch grounds are beautiful and it’s only 15 or so minutes from downtown Santa Barbara and from the beach. Driving there will take you through part of the Montecito high rent district. Going to the Stonehouse Restaurant will get you past the guard gate and provide an opportunity to walk through some of the grounds.
Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch
You don’t have to stay at the San Ysidro Ranch in order to eat here. You can even make an Open Table reservation. I have been impressed with the food and service. Most of the vegetables are grown on the ranch and they taste as if they were freshly picked - which they are.
Built in 1928 by Charlie Chaplin, the Montecito Inn maintains some of its Hollywood allure. Located just off the 101 Freeway on Coast Village Road, a series of restaurants, clothing stores, galleries and other retail establishments are within easy walking distance.
Santa Barbara has perhaps hundreds of restaurants. I have listed just a few that I am familiar with.
This family owned bakery and restaurant is popular for breakfast and lunch. It is located on Coast Village Road a few blocks from the Montecito Inn.
A wide selection of Brazilian food ordered at the counter and delivered to your table. If you’re not familiar with all the items (as I wasn’t) your server will be more than happy to describe the menu offerings and help you make selections. The art portion of the name consists of Brazilian paintings on the walls. Brazilian entertainment is offered on some evenings.
A little off the beaten tourist path, located in Montecito, Via Vai is a local favorite. Their Italian style pizza is not only "Italian style" but would be accepted by pizzerias in Italy. Their lasagna is excellent.
Bouchon has very good food, excellent wine selection and outstanding service. In my experience, this is one of Santa Barbara’s better restaurants. The noise level is a bit high but not so high as to kill all conversation.
Over 100 years old, this old stagecoach stop still looks like a stagecoach stop. The baby back ribs are excellent; the service is friendly and prompt. This is definitely a place to visit and enjoy.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.