Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—Santa Barbara’s charms tempt at every turn. Perfect getaways don’t get much more perfect.
Take it from the movie stars who sneak away to Santa Barbara all the time—or just straight up move here. Oprah, Brad, Ellen and other first-name’s-enough A-listers have estates here, many tucked away in the coastal enclave of Montecito. Why not? There’s that legendary Old World beauty that befits the city’s nickname, “The American Riviera.”
But Santa Barbara has a new energy, too—leafy streets lined with designer boutiques, a buzz-worthy food and wine scene, and a waterfront teeming with sailboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle-boarders. Come and experience Mediterranean-style magic along the Central Coast.
In Santa Barbara, State Street is synonymous with shopping, and if you don’t want to be tempted, you’d better put on blinders before you walk. If you’re ready to dive in and enjoy, start at State Street’s upper end, with luxury retailers such as Tiffany & Co. at La Cumbre Plaza. Next up, La Arcada; it’s twisting walkways with fountains and flowerpots allow plenty of time to gaze into boutique windows and think, “Oh, I really need that…”
Grab an espresso at local favourite The French Press to keep you going then continue south to the babbling fountains and lush landscaping at Paseo Nuevo shopping centre, home to more than 50 stores. Continue to Victoria Court, with an alluring mix of independent shops and top restaurants. Once you’re ready to call it quits, settle in at Blue Tavern (California cuisine with a Peruvian twist), Olio (perfect wood-fired pizza in a rustic chic setting), or Bouchon (classy to the max).
Besides being Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark, Stearns Wharf brings new meaning to fresh seafood—fishermen drop off their daily catches at the harbour just down the road—and ordering a round of authentic fish-and-chips is a must. Take in the view at the pier from the historic wharf, which was built in 1872, before letting the kids visit the many shops to pick out favourite trinkets and souvenirs.
Join the locals and rent bikes to pedal along the famous beachfront, or pose for selfies in front the iconic dolphin statue at the base of the pier. This is also a great place to try standup paddleboarding, with rentals available from various companies, including Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which also offers guided kayak trips. East Beach is perfect for families—the sand is soft and inviting, and the surf is gentle. It’s also the spot to come if you’re into art; local artists show and sell there works here on Sundays.
Tucked between U.S. 101 and East Beach, a narrow band of warehouses has become an enclave of urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, surfboard-makers, and bohemian-cool restaurants like The Lark.
Start your sampling at AVA Santa Barbara Vintners with its dozen or so house wines, each made with grapes from a different corner of Santa Barbara County. Continue to sip your way east toward the beach, finishing with a pale pink rose from Municipal Winemakers, then stroll a block to the sand to dabble your toes in the surf. When you want to take a break from sipping and swirling, check out the Funk Zone’s galleries and studios, as well as its ever-changing murals on Mason Street, part of an ongoing project by AMASS (Artists Making A Street Scene). End in true California style, watching the sunset from the tip of 701-metre-long Stearns Wharf, a wooden gem dating back to 1872. From here, it’s just you, the swirling gulls, the barking sea lions, and the twinkling lights of town against the soaring coastal mountains.
Established by Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and nicknamed Queen of the Missions, Old Mission Santa Barbara perches above the town, fronted by a glorious swath of lawn that practically screams “Picnic.” No wonder plein-air painters prop their easels out front, capturing the elegant mission towers. Take time to stroll through the mission’s lovely gardens, including a collection of plants important to native Chumash Indians, and visit the historic cemetery. But do it quietly: this is still a practicing mission, with Franciscan friars in residence.
If you want to learn more about the mission, consider taking a guided tour to learn more about the mission’s art and architecture. Another tour lets you visit the Huerta Historic Garden, which contains plantings that mimic those of the Mission era (1769-1834). Plants here were gathered from those found at other mission sites, then cloned, grafted, or planted from cuttings and seeds.
In the mood for some perfect pampering in a breathtaking setting? Santa Barbara makes sure you’ve got plenty of ways to make sure you’re happily spoiled. Lodgings here specialize in laid-back luxury, with settings ranging from hilltop areas, to secret bungalows, to edge-of-the-sea dazzlers.
Consider Belmond El Encanto, with terraced gardens and sweeping views of the Pacific. Perched in the hills above town, it feels like a private enclave that doesn’t draw attention or flash—just pure relaxation and sigh-worthy settings. Pull on a fluffy robe from the closet of your classic bungalow to dip into the pool or get a treatment at the onsite spa.
Natural beauty meets classic luxury and romance at San Ysidro Ranch, nestled in the Montecito foothills. This stunning retreat has a storied past sprinkled with celebrities: Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier exchanged vows here and it made a perfect honeymoon retreat for then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his beautiful bride Jackie.
At the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, it’s ultimate five-star service a seashell toss from the ocean. This luxury lodging feels the most like a see-and-be-seen destination—albeit in one where arriving for brunch in a chauffeured Bentley seems oh so normal. The waterfront property has onsite tennis courts and provides access to nearby golf courses. Guests can also use the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, across the street at secluded Butterfly Beach.
Abundant sunshine, a moderate climate, and a healthy amount of rain make this part of the Central Coast ripe for a year-round cornucopia of fresh produce, much of it grown organically. The locavore and slow food movements are big here, and chefs source food mostly within a 100-mile radius. The area hosts farmers markets every day of the week except Mondays, and while they are all worth a visit, the signature event is that one on Tuesday afternoons, when downtown’s State Street morphs into the ultimate place to be, with food, music, and beautiful people. White-jacketed chefs snap up thick bunches of fresh herbs to use that night on just-caught local sea bass or black cod. Kids say “thank you” to farmers offering samples of juicy peaches, and guitar-strumming folk singers gather clusters of listeners. Really—does it get any more “California” than this?
Can’t make it on Tuesday? Try La Cumbre Plaza (Wednesdays), Carpinteria (Thursdays), Montecito (Fridays), Downtown (Saturdays), and Camino Real Marketplace (Sundays). Consider this your chance to try something new like funky looking cherimoya, nicknamed “custard apple” for its creamy white inner fruit. From avocados and eggplants to figs and fennel, melons and squashes, pears and persimmons, the food—and the people—make for an unforgettable day.
The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles/ forty-eight kilometres inland at Happy Canyon, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.
And scenic? How about rolling hills, endless vines, and ancient oaks to the horizon. Between the wines and the views, it’s easy to see why the region became a star in the 2004 surprise hit, Sideways. Take a self-guided tour of the film’s many shoot locations in Buellton, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.
Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery. It has a cool wine cave, sustainably grown grapes, and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Another tip: buy a pass from Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.
If you’re looking for a totally different way to tour the region, sign up for a Cloud Climbers Jeep Tour. Guides take you four-wheeling on mountain roads to various wineries, including picnic lunch.
Here’s a great food find, a classy food hall, where you can sample an array of handcrafted and sustainably made food products highlighting local farms and artisanal ingredients. Find international cheeses at Counter Culture, then end on a sweet note with miniature cupcakes like vanilla cake filled with ollalieberry-lemon mousse at Enjoy Cupcakes.
Part of the Alma del Pueblo mixed-use development in the heart of downtown, the LEED-certified building also features a commissary kitchen that hosts cooking classes and winemaker dinners. Look for freshly baked country loaves at Crazy Good Bread Co., Thai- and Taiwanese-inspired handmade dumplings at Empty Bowl Noodle Bar, and fresh-off-the-boat fish at Santa Monica Seafood.
Start in one of California’s sunniest destinations, not just in terms of the weather, but also in attitude. In the heart of the city, shop in Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighbourhoods,...
Finish your trip in one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to visit “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a...
If the idea of ocean waves and a majestic sunset outside your window sounds good, this compound of glistening white villas on a bluff west of Santa Barbara might be your piece of holiday heaven. Situated on 78 acres along the Gaviota Coast, Bacara Resort takes advantage of its oceanfront setting to deliver “we’ll take care of everything” indulgence—ranging from cushy banquettes around fire pits to more than 60 specialised treatments offered at the onsite spa.
Bacara has all the amenities you’d expect at a five-star resort. Wake up in your guest room and have coffee on your private balcony. Stay in one of Bacara’s Signature Suites and shake or stir a martini at your own wet bar, then sink into a plush chair on your private terrace to watch dolphins swim by.
If there’s anything that will tempt you out of your room, it’s great food and wine in a beautiful setting. Options range from flip-flops-are-fine cafés to Ocean House, Bacara’s premier restaurant. The menu, created by Paris-born Executive Chef Vincent Lesage and executed by Chef de Cuisine Johan Denizot, focuses—with outstanding results—on seasonal, locally grown ingredients in intriguing combos: think house-crafted goat ricotta atop smoked lettuce, leek pesto, pistachios, and crunchy fried bread. Seafood gets innovative presentations too, like black cod with bacon dashi, nori, squid ink pasta, and sea asparagus.
Bacara has an outstanding—and enormous—wine cellar, with more than 12,000 bottles representing 1,200 labels from 75 international appellations and 13 countries. Local wines get big play here, plus there’s an onsite tasting room (open to day-trippers as well as resort guests) for Foley Family Wines, featuring vintages from Kuleto, Lancaster, Sebastiani, and Chalk Hill estates.
After all this decadence, consider booking a guided mountain-bike ride or an exclusive yacht cruise. Or consider a multi-day wellness retreat offered by Sky Ranch Fitness. Sandpiper Golf Club is next door, and of course there’s the beach, where you can take a surfing lesson or just grab a boogie board and jump in (be forewarned—ocean temps are chilly here, even in summer). Monarch Kids’ Club, named for the butterflies that spend the winter in the neighboring Ellwood Butterfly Preserve, offers special activities for youngsters age 5 through 12 (offered during summer and on select holidays).
To round out your stay, why not end with a massage on the rooftop terrace, followed by a Hollister Lemonade (acai liqueur, lemonade, and lime juice). It is a holiday, after all.