John Cox’s introduction to the California restaurant scene was a bit unorthodox. After graduating from culinary school on the East Coast, the New Mexico native secured an internship at Sierra Mar, the acclaimed restaurant at the breathtaking Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. During his first three years at Sierra Mar, Cox worked his way up to chef de cuisine and along the way he developed an appreciation for California’s micro-climates as well the Golden State’s majestic beauty. It’s not surprising, then, that Cox is praised for his aesthetic sensibilities, crafting food that is simultaneously pleasing to the eye and the palate. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer even went so far as to call Cox the “Dominique Crenn of the Central Coast.”
The celebrated chef now runs two Central Coast restaurants—Cultura Comida y Bebida in Carmel-by-the-Sea and The Bear and the Star in Los Olivos—and he shared some of his Golden State favorites with us via the California Questionnaire.
Where do you live? I’m lucky (and crazy) enough to live aboard a boat in the Santa Barbara harbor.
Why there? For me, Santa Barbara exists on a perfect equilibrium between Northern and Southern California. We have palm trees and long sandy beaches, but we also have steep forested mountains and redwood groves. There is usually a hint of morning fog that soon gives way to perfect California sunshine. My wife and I thought it would be fun to live on a boat as a temporary housing transition. After two years in the Santa Barbara harbor I can honestly say there is no place we would rather live. We can walk to downtown, watch the Fourth of July fireworks from our deck, and are surrounded by lovely neighbors.
Who or what is your greatest California love? The Pacific Coast. Some people may wonder why I would be willing to have two restaurant concepts so far apart from each other—The Bear and Star in Los Olivos and Cultura in Carmel-by-the-Sea—but the 3-4 hour “commute,” either along the Big Sur Coast or through the Salinas Valley, is something I really enjoy. It’s just over 150 miles, but the two locations couldn't be more different or exceptional in their own ways. Whether my route takes me through the vineyards of Santa Ynez and Paso Robles or the coastal communities of Cambria and San Simeon, there are always beautiful views and something new to experience.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? For every stereotype of Californians, there is a counterbalance. As a Texas/New Mexico transplant, I don’t worry too much about misperceptions because part of appreciating a culture is discovering how you were wrong about it and being pleasantly surprised.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? California is one of the most diverse and multi-cultural states and generally Californians are inclusive and nondiscriminatory.
What’s your favorite Golden State splurge? A whole local box crab or spiny lobster grilled over charcoal on the Big Green Egg on my boat.
Time for a road trip—where do you go? It’s tempting to say Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Cambria but since that’s a normal drive for me, it can hardly be considered a road trip. Instead, I would drive up 395, a lonely desert highway that runs between Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I would then go over Tioga Pass into Yosemite and then return along the Merced River back toward the coast.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would that be? Eat a purple sea urchin freshly pulled from the Pacific. This is partly because they are delicious but mostly because right now there is a major concern about their exploding population and their ravenous appetites. These urchin have little commercial value and can wipe out entire stretches of kelp forest, creating an “urchin barren,” or an area that has been completely “deforested.” I figure if I can decree anything, it might as well have a positive environmental impact.
Best California Song? To understand my answer, you first have to know that I moved to California in 2000, and as it happened a couple of the band members from Red Hot Chili Peppers lived in Big Sur, where I lived and worked at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar. The band was known to throw impromptu community concerts and occasionally dine at my restaurant. For that reason, Californication, despite its questionable lyrics, is the first song that comes to mind.
How would your California dream day unfold? I would wake up early, have an espresso, and drive up toward Lake Cachuma into wine country. My next stop would be the Parker Home Ranch, where Katie Parker McDonald and Rocky McDonald would have horses saddled up and ready to tour the upper pastures. We would check in on the herd of Wagyu cattle, ride through vineyards, peek into the mushroom cave and root cellar, check along the stream for any foraging, walk through the garden and orchard, and check on the chickens, ducks, turkey, and quail. For lunch I would have one of our ranch-raised Wagyu burgers paired with a splash of Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah from the vineyards we just rode through. I would head back home in time for dinner, picking up some fish from our neighborhood market to prepare on the boat with my wife (who is also a chef). While dinner is cooking, we would relax on the back deck of our boat, sipping some beer from Third Window Brewing Company and watching the sunset.
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.”
The charmingly small city, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, hugs both the beaches and Highway 101 (and also offers easy access by train): Don’t miss sandy stretches such as Refugio State Beach, Summerland County State Park (with views of Channel Islands National Park), or Butterfly Beach, which sits across from the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Step across the 101 and the city is comprised of Spanish-style architecture and rolling hills that stretch east into the Santa Ynez Mountains and wine country.
But Santa Barbara has a new energy, too—leafy streets lined with designer boutiques, a buzz-worthy food and wine tasting rooms, and a waterfront teeming with sailboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle-boarders. Come and experience Mediterranean-style magic along the Central Coast.
Fronted by azure ocean waves and backed by the soaring Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara has been a favored getaway of Hollywood celebrities since the silent-movie era. In its cosmopolitan downtown, chic shops and edgy eateries are tucked between white stucco walls draped with bougainvillea that never seems to stop blooming. Planning a visit? A few days is never enough in this idyllic coastal paradise.
Visit Old Mission Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s stately Spanish-Mediterranean architecture is adopted from the regal Santa Barbara Mission, one of 21 missions Spain built in the late 1700s to gain a foothold in what is now California. Santa Barbara’s mission is one of the grandest, with a magnificent Moorish fountain, domed belfries, twin bell towers, heirloom rose gardens, and an abalone-encrusted Chumash Indian altar. Since its founding in 1786, the altar light has never been extinguished. The mission is open daily; tour its whitewashed rooms and museum or attend Sunday mass.
Stay at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore
Echoing the mission’s aesthetic is the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, a spectacular coastal property that wears the Spanish-Mediterranean style well. This vast-yet-intimate 1927 hotel shows off painstaking craftsmanship from adobe walls and wood-beamed ceilings to hand-made Mexican tiles and massive oak doors. Elegant archways, stairways, towers, fountains, and loggias are found throughout its tranquil 22 acres. Bougainvillea-draped paths thread through the grounds. As at all Four Seasons properties, guests have access to a long list of amenities—lighted tennis courts, a fitness center, a lavish spa, and full conference and business services—but you could easily just lounge poolside at the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, or walk the brayed-tan sand at Butterfly Beach. Whatever you do, don’t miss The Biltmore's lavish Sunday brunch.
Hike La Cumbre Peak
Santa Barbara’s grandeur doesn’t end with its architecture. There’s wild natural beauty to be discovered in the Los Padres National Forest lands that hug the city. Dozens of hiking trails start on Santa Barbara’s oak-lined northern edge, including the popular 10-mile round-trip to La Cumbre Peak. This challenging trail will test your cardiovascular fitness as you switchback uphill to Santa Barbara’s highest summit (3,995 feet). You’re well rewarded for your effort with sweeping views of the coastline and the Channel Islands.
Visit the Funk Zone
If climbing mountains sounds like too much of a workout, get in your 10,000 steps in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. This once-neglected warehouse district by the Amtrak station contains a fun-and-funky collection of galleries, tasting rooms, breweries, boutiques, and sidewalk cafes. Try a handcrafted cocktail at Test Pilot tiki bar (ask for an umbrella in your drink), or a nitro milk stout at Topa Topa Brewing Company. Shop for vintage finds at The Blue Door, and check out the penny-covered wall and artisan pizzas at Lucky Penny. To see the city from on high, stop in at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. El Mirador, the courthouse’s 85-foot-tall clock tower, offers Instagram-worthy city views framed in its Spanish arches.
Enjoy Stearns Wharf & Santa Barbara Harbor
Kids and kids-at-heart will love strolling along Stearns Wharf, the West Coast’s oldest continuously operating wharf (built in 1872). Walk its 2,300-foot-long wooden expanse and pop into stalls and shops selling seafood chowder and beachy souvenirs. The Santa Barbara Harbor is a 15-minute walk away (or get there faster on the water taxi). Visit the Maritime Museum Store to shop for nautical gifts, wander past tidy rows of yachts and sailboats, dine at one of a half-dozen seafood restaurants, or finish out a perfect Santa Barbara day with a sunset cruise on the Double Dolphin, Santa Barbara Sailing Center’s colorful catamaran.
Home to such one-name icons as Ellen and Oprah, the ultra-exclusive enclave of Montecito rises from a gorgeous stretch of coast and into the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. A celebrity retreat for nearly a century, ever since the days when Charlie Chaplin opened the landmark Montecito Inn, this Santa Barbara County community is one of the country’s most expensive residential areas.
The good news is you don’t have to be an A-Lister to get a taste of the good life, Montecito-style. Take your pick of several classic California resorts, including the renovated Rosewood Miramar Beach Montecito, along one of the Santa Barbara area’s most appealing beaches, and which reopened in early 2019 after being shuttered since 2000.
While the Miramar blends an easygoing beach cottage atmosphere with contemporary elegance, the nearby Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara fully embraces the vintage romance of the American Riviera. Opened in 1927, the resort along dreamy Butterfly Beach has a lobby with graceful archways and painted ceiling beams, while its airy Spanish Colonial–style rooms are situated in buildings and bungalows that ramble across 22 lushly landscaped acres.
Meanwhile up in the foothills, San Ysidro Ranch boasts its own storied history as the location where John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned in 1953.
Though a Montecito estate is likely beyond your price range, you can visit a pair of classic properties for an inside glimpse of the local grandeur. A must for horticulture lovers (tours available by reservation), Lotusland is a botanic garden created by Madame Ganna Walska, a renowned opera singer originally from Poland, who moved here in 1941. Over more than four decades, she established 25 different gardens on the Eden-like estate, where rare cycads and 300 species of cacti thrive.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered one of the country’s finest Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, Casa del Herrero was designed by leading Santa Barbara architect George Washington Smith. Built in 1925 for industrialist George Fox Steedman, the estate is virtually unchanged since its glory days, and tours (by reservation) explore both the house’s interior and its period gardens. Inside tip: To see the house at its most spectacular, take a tour during the holidays.
While Montecito is a rather private community, upscale Coast Village Road is this sophisticated town’s Main Street, the place where locals gather for shopping and dining. At Maison K, Santa Barbara native Kimberly Phillips Hayes has created a unique lifestyle boutique with a thoughtfully curated collection that ranges from cashmere capes imported from Italy to antique Syrian shell mirrors.
With its savory croissants and flakey, buttery kouign-amann, Bree’Osh Artisan Bakery brings the delectable baked goods of France to the coast of California. And for dinner, take your pick of such favorites as TRE Lune, celebrated for its authentic pastas and old-school vibe, and the impeccably prepared chops and steaks at Lucky’s.
Named for the overnight train that served Santa Barbara from 1910 to 1968, the Lark restaurant showcases the Central Coast’s seasonal bounty. Located in the Santa Barbara Fish Market building, in the heart of the city’s Funk Zone, the innovative restaurant combines a farm-to-table ethos with a family-style approach. During most months, the outdoor courtyard seating is as convivial as the tables in the dining room. The menu of small plates is organized by their ingredients’ places of origin (farm, ranch, or ocean): crispy Brussels sprouts include sweet medjool dates as well as spicy serrano chilies; pickled fennel and compressed Granny Smith apples accompany the grilled Kurobuta pork belly; and passion-fruit vinaigrette and fried avocado enhance the flavor of Japanese hamachi collar. Larger platters are meant to be shared, and restaurant regulars often choose one or two (the Baharat spiced cauliflower and Israeli couscous is a favorite) along with several smaller plates. Pro tip: While it’s tempting to fill up on the herbed popcorn that’s delivered to your table the instant you’re seated, slow down, order a craft cocktail, and make sure you save room for the main event.
There’s a reason this hotel is named after the Spanish word for “charmed.” An oasis for old-Hollywood stars since the 1920s, this upscale resort offers guests an away-from-it-all feel, even though it’s just minutes from downtown. Sitting on a seven-acre hillside property overlooking the city, the central building and several craftsman-style and Spanish colonial bungalows were recently restored, offering elegant spaces to relax. At the two restaurants—called simply the Dining Room and Terrace—chefs showcase the region’s ingredients in coastal-inspired dishes, which can include herbs from the on-site garden and cheese from the milk of the property’s resident Holstein cow, Ellie. Indulge at the spa with massage therapies, facial and body treatments, oxygen treatments, and skin care products from Beverly Hills facialist Linda Ross. Use the fitness studio for a workout on the Technogym treadmills, exercise bikes, and ellipticals, or take a cardio class. Or just soak in the California lifestyle at the zero-edge swimming pool, with a drink and an unparalleled view of the Santa Barbara coast.
Since 1983, food lovers in the know have headed to Santa Barbara’s renowned Paradise Café. Housed in an early 20th-century brick and stucco building with a relaxed atmosphere, the café’s oak wood grill is fueled by Santa Maria live oak—also known as California live oak—a wood that’s essential for the area’s regional style of barbecue. The flavors brought out by the oak in steaks, pork chops, roast chicken, shrimp and sausage, ahi tuna, rainbow trout, and salmon keep added seasonings to a minimum, so fresh ingredients remain the focus of the menu. The crowd favorite, the half-pound signature Paradise Burger, is grilled over oak, topped with Tillamook cheddar cheese, and placed on an onion roll—and best enjoyed with a glass of Paradise syrah, sourced from local vineyards. If you sit on the patio, give the historic mural more than a glance. It features Leo Carrillo, an old-Hollywood actor best known for his role as Pancho in the television series The Cisco Kid; he is locally beloved for his involvement in preserving and conserving California open spaces.
As the name suggests, this 37-acre Santa Barbara garden is horticultural heaven. For more than 43 years, socialite and opera singer Madame Ganna Walska filled the grounds with more than 3,000 plants; after her death, Lotusland opened to the public in 1993 as a nonprofit botanical garden. The species of plants hail from all over the world, and the collection includes succulents, aloes, ferns, bromeliads, and water lilies. Other gardens are planted by theme, like the Blue Garden, Theatre Garden, and Water Garden. There’s never a bad time to visit, but if you’re especially interested in seeing the lotuses bloom, mark July and August in your calendar. Nonmember visitors must make reservations in advance for two-hour tours that include both horticultural and historical information, but the parties are small, so you’ll have a clear view of the gardens. If you want the luxury of wandering the gardens unattended, consider purchasing a membership. Either way, be sure to stop at the garden shop for plants and tools, and dream about creating your own little Lotusland at home.
This stylish wine bar, bottle shop, and all-day restaurant is the brainchild of two food and wine world forces: Jessi Singh, the chef from San Francisco and New York City’s acclaimed Babu Ji, and James Beard Award–winning sommelier Rajat Parr. Opened this year, Bibi Ji, which takes its name from an Indian term of endearment, pays tribute to the women in the cofounders’ lives who cultivated their love for food and hospitality. The seafood-focused menu with Australian and Indian influences changes regularly, depending on what’s available at the Santa Barbara farmers’ market. Oysters are accompanied by pickled green mango butter, sea urchin is featured in the uni biryani dish with fried rice, and the seafood coconut curry can include prawns or vegetables. The presentation is almost so pretty you don’t want to disturb it, but let that moment pass and dig in. Pair your meal with any of the limited-run, small-keg draft beers; the rotating new beers in the beer fridge; wine from the bottle shop—or surrender to the experts and let them do the pairing for you. Whether you sit indoors or outside, the California spirit blends with Singh’s and Parr’s beloved India, making the restaurant what the owners call a “good-time place.”
Sama Sama Kitchen
Growing up in Indonesia, chef Ryan Simorangkir says he only craved kid’s food. But as an adult, he fell in love with the local street food of his home country and began to cook from family recipes. After attending Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu school, he opened Sama Sama Kitchen, co-owned with chef Tyler Peek, where he celebrates Indonesian cuisine in a warm, casual setting (the name means “you’re welcome” in Indonesian). The menu features renditions of traditional Indonesian street fare, like the signature wings, hot chicken bao, or crispy brussels sprouts. Salads are also a highlight here, including the crispy duck salad, green papaya salad, and market gado-gado. Pan-seared octopus becomes rich with leek and chili oil, as well as rendang remoulade. The black pepper tofu and broccolini may sound simple, but with garlic, scallion, ginger, and chili, it’s a dish that many return to over and over. Don’t skip dessert. Try the banana doughnut fritters or black sesame tres leches with spiced rum milk, and you’ll wonder if you should order an extra to take home.
In Partnership with Afar.
Though Goleta can’t claim the international renown of its glamorous neighbor Santa Barbara, savvy locals know that this community just up the coast along the American Riviera has its own distinct appeal. Home to the oceanfront University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and with a long stretch of unspoiled beach, Goleta brings together natural beauty, culture, and an enduring agricultural tradition.
One of the country’s leading public universities, UCSB is a scenic and easy campus to explore. From a meditative labyrinth overlooking the ocean to the acclaimed Art, Design & Architecture Museum, as well as a busy lineup of live performances, UCSB is filled with discoveries—even if your college days are long behind you.
An extensive network of bicycle trails connects the campus to the surrounding community, including Goleta Beach County Park, where you can slurp oysters, feast on fish tacos, and savor paella at the Beachside Bar Café. Take a walk along the park’s 1,500-foot fishing pier or get out on the water with a kayak or SUP rental from the Paddle Sport Center. With its beaches and nearby hiking, outdoor recreation is a big part of the Goleta lifestyle and you can stock up on footwear at Deckers Brand Showcase, the place to find the latest releases from UGGs and Teva.
Some of Goleta’s best ocean views are from the blufftop Sandpiper Golf Club, where several fairways run along the edge of the cliffs, while other holes offer glimpses of the Pacific in the distance. Looking at the course’s gorgeous setting, it’s hard to believe that this was all once a major oil production area.
Dubbed “The Good Land,” the Goleta Valley is a fertile farming region best known for citrus and avocados. Step back into Goleta’s agricultural past at Rancho La Patera and Stow House. Tour the 1872 ranch house and bask in the serenity of the restored Ida G. Stow Memorial Arboretum, a sanctuary for tropical and subtropical species, as well as a grove of 300 coast redwoods. Farming still plays a big role in the Goleta Valley and at Fairview Gardens you can visit a working organic farm and pick up just-harvested produce at a bountiful farmstand.
Goleta has its posher side too. Built in a classic Mediterranean style, the Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, west of town, overlooks the Pacific. Indulge with an ocean-inspired spirulina wrap at the spa and take in incomparable ocean views from Angel Oak, the resort’s steakhouse that boasts a wine cellar with 12,000 bottles. Speaking of wine, the hotel’s Foley Food & Wine Society Wine Tasting Room lets you discover some of the premium wines produced nearby in the Santa Barbara wine country.
Closer into town and just five minutes from the UCSB campus, The Kimpton Goodland is the epitome of California cool, with poolside yoga and surf-inspired rooms complete with record players for playing your purchases from VNYL, the hotel’s very own record shop.
Construct a miniature race car and watch it speed down a four-lane track, or step inside a private studio to create sound effects for a famous movie scene. You’ll find these interactive experiences and so much more at Santa Barbara’s MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, where thinkers of all ages expand their minds through hands-on play.
A relatively recent addition to lower State Street, MOXI opened in February 2017 and has quickly become a must-go family destination along California’s Central Coast. USA Today named MOXI one of the top 10 best new attractions in the United States, while Fodor’s Travel listed it as one of the 10 best new museums in the world.
So what’s all the fuss about? Visit MOXI, and you’ll get a sense of the unforgettable experience to come even before stepping through the door. The stunning building, designed by the late Barry Berkus, mimics the structure of a sandcastle, paying homage to Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches and paralleling the concept of building something from scratch. It’s also the county’s first LEED Gold-Certified museum.
Once inside the three-story building, guests are invited to explore more than 17,000 square feet of thought-provoking space. MOXI is divided into seven themed areas: technology, sound, natural forces (think gravity, magnetism, etc.), speed, light, interactive media, and a rooftop garden.
Martha Swanson, director of marketing and communications at MOXI, says every activity is designed to “inspire for jobs of the future” and to “ignite learning through interactive experiences.” Swanson cites the Roll It Wall and the Maker’s Workshop as two of the most popular stops. At the former, visitors are challenged to redesign a giant wooden pegboard to create a new path for a dropped ball to follow. “I’ve seen people spend a few hours there,” Swanson says. The workshop hosts themed activities where makers-in-training can build anything from electric circuitry to embossed stationery.
Families love MOXI not only because it makes learning enjoyable, but also because the space is appropriate for kids of every age. Little ones can crawl inside the giant guitar while older siblings learn how strumming sounds are made. The museum also hosts regular adults-only evenings complete with music, dancing, and a bar on every floor.
MOXI is open every day of the year outside of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. Visit and you might just discover a life-changing hidden talent—or at the very least, you’ll learn a little something and have fun doing it.
An astounding 200-plus wineries populate the mere 3,789 square miles of Santa Barbara County. What makes this area so suitable for viticulture? The West Coast’s only mountain range that runs east to west has created a natural wonder: six distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) right in Santa Barbara County. In fact, there are so many wonderful reds, whites, and bubblies that mapping your wine tour can feel a bit daunting. Thankfully, there are numerous exceptional tasting rooms right in Santa Barbara proper. Leave the car at home and try these unique urban vino experiences without leaving the city.
A great introduction to the area’s wine, this popular room offers guests an educational tour of the region’s six AVAs with a whimsical schoolhouse vibe. See soil samples from each appellation while admiring the beautifully informative chalkboard mural.
You don’t need security clearance to visit this Cold War–style spot. Crack open the “top secret file” to find a list of the winery’s tasty blends that feature on-brand names like Collusion, Close Encounter, and Conspiracy Red.
Sparkle-lovers, this one’s for you. Riverbench’s estate, located in nearby Santa Maria, is one of the only wineries in the area that specializes in bubblies. The chic Funk Zone tasting room also sells bottles covered in glitter for you to take home.
Long before Santa Barbara’s downtown tasting rooms became trendy, Au Bon Climat was pouring its Old World–style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Located near the Presidio in the historic El Paseo section, locals love ABC for its cozy-yet-upscale feel and frequent deliveries of complimentary cheese plates.
Serving luscious Pinot Noirs and offering up some serious Jacques Cousteau vibes, Deep Sea is as close to an offshore tasting as you can get on dry land. This Stearns Wharf spot offers sweeping views of the Pacific from its giant glass windows and breezy outdoor deck.
This lively spot in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is known for its bright-tasting vinos and clever decor. Enjoy flights from its original label in a creative spot featuring a cheeky filing cabinet wall, a chandelier made of bottles, and even a wine fountain. Refills, anyone?
Get the VIP treatment at this appointment-only spot. Sanguis provides an intimate experience paired with exceptional wines. Owner Matthias Pippig, who hails from L.A.’s popular La Brea Bakery, crafts everything himself, from the labels’ artwork to the balanced Syrahs.
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 favorite The French Press to keep you going then continue south to the babbling fountains and lush landscaping at Paseo Nuevo shopping center, 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 harbor 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 favorite 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 2,300-foot/701-meter-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 has 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 (Editor's Note: San Ysidro Ranch was affected by the recent mudslides. It is currently closed until further notice. Please refer to their website for the latest information), 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, expect ultimate five-star service a seashell toss from the ocean. This luxury lodging feels the most like a see-and-be-seen destination in the region—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.
For total pampering in a dramatic oceanfront setting, head to The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, situated on 78 acres along the rolling hills and ocean bluffs of the Gaviota Coast, 20 minutes west of Santa Barbara. Posh rooms have private balconies or patios, and the resort boasts a full-service spa, a 12,000-bottle wine cellar, and a Paris-born executive chef. Hotel staff can arrange tempting activities—guided tours into surrounding wine country, sailing excursions, private tennis lessons, horseback riding, or a game of golf on adjacent Sandpiper Golf Club. Then of course, you can simply loll by the zero-edge pool and do nothing more taxing than watching the Pacific for passing dolphins and whales.
When it comes to food, Santa Barbara means business. This romantic Central Coast city is home to more than 400 restaurants, offering visitors the chance to experience very sort of regional flavor. The area’s laidback luxury style means that you can enjoy world-class dishes without the pomp and circumstance. (Read: Leave that tie at home). Thanks to plenty of rich farmland, the ocean’s fresh bounty, and exceptional wines growing on the surrounding hills, Santa Barbara offers incredible ingredients for its noteworthy restaurants.
Consider first Bouchon Santa Barbara (the product of celebrated restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven), where the motto is “as fresh and local as possible.” It’s a mantra you can see on the menu, highlighting fresh catch of the day from right off the coast, as well as produce and artisanal foods from local farms and food purveyors. Wine pairings featuring local vintages are highly recommended. The Palace Grill is another great choice for upscale dining; multiple presidents have enjoyed meals here.
Once frequented by Julia Child, La Super Rica Taqueria serves straightforward Mexican food in a bright little shop. Thanks to its cheffy reputation, a line starts forming right when the restaurant opens, with locals and tourists alike waiting for their taste the Especial. Just down the street sits one outpost of the family-owned local chain, Los Agaves. Try traditional Oaxacan there in a casual setting, or go upscale with the family’s sister eatery, Santo Mezcal, where you can sample the famous chile relleno in a hearty burrito.
A relative upstart of a neighborhood, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is packed with shops, tasting rooms, galleries, and restaurants. One of the best, The Lark, celebrates the Central Coast with New American–style inside of a stunningly beautiful converted fish market. For a less expensive but doughier affair, head to the neighboring Lucky Penny. Under the same restaurant group as The Lark, Lucky Penny slings charred-crust pizza out of its wood-fired oven and pours craft coffee morning, noon, and night.
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 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.
This appealing garden, situated on the hilly east side of town focuses on the state’s diverse native plants. But here, you don’t just look and see, you do too. The calendar is packed with guided walks, bird-watching sessions, book signings, lectures, and workshops on painting and photography. Kids love the chance to see and learn about an authentic Japanese tea ceremony at the tea house, open the second Saturday of each month from noon to 2 p.m. (Tea house closed in May.)
Of course, it’s perfectly fine to just hang out and enjoy the view. More than five miles of paths loop around the 78-acre property, and it’s a fabulous place to take in vistas of the handsome Santa Ynez Mountains to the north and east, as well as the Channel Islands, surrounded by Pacific blue.