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5 Amazing Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Blessed with grand architecture, near-perfect weather, and ocean-to-table eateries, this city earns its nickname as “the American Riviera”

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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.

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