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 practising 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.
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.
In Santa Barbara, State Street is synonymous with shopping, and if you don’t want to be tempted, you’d better put on a blindfold 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; its 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 shops. 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).
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 flavour. 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 neighbourhood, 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 neighbouring 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.
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 portion of 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 choose favourite trinkets and souvenirs.
Join the locals and hire bikes to pedal along the famous seafront, or pose for selfies in front of the iconic dolphin statue at the base of the pier. This is also a great place to try stand up paddle boarding, with hire 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 their works here on Sundays.
Tucked between US 101 and East Beach, a narrow band of warehouses has become a hotspot for urban wine-tasting rooms, artists' 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 towards the beach, finishing with a pale pink rose from Municipal Winemakers, then stroll a block to the sand to dip 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-long Stearns Wharf, a wooden gem dating back to 1872. From here, it’s just you, the swirling seagulls, the barking sea lions and the twinkling lights of town against the soaring coastal mountains.
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 specialise 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 on-site 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 such as 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.
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), Town Centre (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 aubergines to figs and fennel, melons and squash, 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 film, these places are all worth a visit.
Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery in Santa Maria. 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 a 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 artisan 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 town, 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.