Local Getaways: Escape to Santa Barbara, the American Riviera

Santa Barbara is a must-stop city on the Californian coastline between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Local Getaways: Escape to Santa Barbara, the American Riviera

The American Riviera is one “riviera” that deserves the title.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton Bacara

From Albania to Slovenia, a lot of places brand themselves as rivieras. I grew up vacationing near the “English riviera” of Torbay, which, with apologies to Torbay, was kind of pushing it.

But sunny, palm tree–bedecked Santa Barbara, with its sweeping coastline framed by dramatic Santa Ynez mountains, its winetasting rooms, sandy beaches, and relaxed city vibe? That place definitely deserves the nickname of the American Riviera.

Less than two hours from downtown L.A. if the traffic gods are smiling, and six from San Francisco, with a lovely climate most of the year and an assortment of world-class cultural attractions and great dining options, it’s a perfect spot for a weekend getaway.

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

The Ritz-Carlton’s  Ambassadors of the Environment program gets kids interested in the local environment.

The Ritz-Carlton’s Ambassadors of the Environment program gets kids interested in the local environment.

Courtesy of Ritz-Carlton

Ritz-Carlton Bacara

Book now: from $329/night, expedia.com

Just north of Santa Barbara, the Ritz-Carlton is 78 acres of beachside luxury hidden among the central coast’s famous sage scrub. Blending beautifully into its surroundings, the resort has a long stretch of semi-private beach, three saltwater infinity pools, six restaurants, and a range of hiking and horseback riding possibilities. There’s also a golf course next door.

For families, its Ambassadors of the Environment program aims to foster an interest in, and care for, the environment, with expert naturalists teaching guests about traditional Chumash culture, the local bird population, and the biodiversity of the ocean’s kelp forest.

Rosewood Miramar Beach

Book now: from $895/night, expedia.com

Head just south of Santa Barbara, meanwhile, to Montecito, and you reach what AFAR’s VP and editor in chief Julia Cosgrove calls “one of the town’s toniest stretches of coastline.” Here, the Rosewood’s 161 guest rooms and suites stretch around a couple of cabana-lined pools that evoke . . . the Italian Riviera.

Both of these hotels, and many others, are part of Visit Santa Barbara’s Third Night Free promotion, which runs until March 2021.

Where to eat in Santa Barbara

To start the day, there’s an assortment of great spots to get caffeinated. Try either the downtown or midtown branch of Handlebar Coffee, which is run by two former pro cyclists and serves great coffee from beans roasted in-house, as well as pastries from Renaud’s Patisserie and locally made bagels and chocolates. Or head over to Dune Coffee Roasters to pick up a strong cup and coffee-related merch.

Its location on State Street is on the end of the newly pedestrian State Street Promenade, which was blocked off to traffic starting in May because of the pandemic, allowing car-free dining and browsing. Residents approve and the area will be operating until at least March 2021—possibly longer—with $250,000 just earmarked for improvements including terra-cotta planters and a dedicated bike lane.

For food, head to Bettina for excellent Neapolitan pizza and cocktails—or perhaps Loquita if you’re in the mood for Spanish fare. Prefer Mexican? Locals have been loving Flor de Maiz. Asian instead? Hit up Oku. The Lark, meanwhile, is renowned for showcasing the central coast’s bounty.

For drinks, Venus in Furs has been generating a lot of buzz for its cocktails and natural wines, and Test Pilot is a fun tiki spot with outdoor patio drinking.

Your weekend should take in Santa Barbara's harbor.

Your weekend should take in Santa Barbara’s harbor.

Photo by Cassiohabib / Shutterstock

Things to do in Santa Barbara

There are many ways you could spend your weekend in Santa Barbara. You could surf, swim, or rent a paddleboard. You could stroll round the harbor, taking in the Maritime Museum, cycle along the seafront, or kayak round the Channel Islands with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. You could eat clam chowder on the pier. Go whale-watching. Learn to sail. Or browse the city’s seemingly endless supply of boutiques. Explore the Old Mission. Or Lotusland botanic gardens.

For families, several days of wholesome fun awaits. No self-respecting five-year-old will leave town without captaining the Lil’ Toot water taxi, which pootles around the harbor and blows bubbles when kids sound the whistle. Little ones will also enjoy the excellent Moxi Science Museum. (Don’t overlook the rooftop exhibits. The museum just closed again at time of writing but will hopefully reopen soon.)

One thing you really shouldn’t miss is the chance to sample some of the region’s wines.

Winetasting in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is surrounded by central coast wine country, with vineyards stretching over both the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Maria Valley. The latter is home to several small wine towns, including Los Olivos, Danish Solvang, and Buellton—the setting for much of the excellent wine-soaked story Sideways with Paul Giamatti and Sandra Oh.

Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is a walkable couple of blocks that’s home to the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, a group of producers making the most of the region’s terroir; J. Wilkes, which specializes in petite sirahs, cab francs, and other varietals from the three nearest AVAs; and Riverbench (for the citrus delights of “Santa Barbara County’s only sparkling wine made with pinot meunier”) among many others. We also loved the zinfandel at industrial chic tasting room Municipal last time we were there, but you can’t go wrong on your own voyage of discovery.

In the Presidio area, meanwhile, you’ll find the tasting room for Grassini Family Vineyards, which has opened a spacious courtyard for socially distanced sipping, and Carr Vineyards & Winery, which serves pinots and cab savs in a pretty patio and fills up growlers to take out.

The best way to reach Santa Barbara from Los Angeles

  • By car: Santa Barbara is about two hours from Los Angeles in a car. If Waze allows, take the scenic route, by following the 10 freeway to Santa Monica, turning right at the ocean and driving through Malibu before connecting to the 101 north.
  • Train: You can reach Santa Barbara’s attractive station, in the heart of the city and not far from the beach, from Downtown L.A. via Pacific Surfliner in less than three hours several times a day.
  • Air: From San Francisco, it’s about six hours to drive. Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is seven miles west of downtown.

>>Next: AFAR’s Santa Barbara Travel Guide

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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