The last time I visited Santa Barbara was in those halcyonic Before Times. The oceanside city—a little less than two hours north of L.A. and five hours south of my home in the Bay Area—has always been a haven for folks who crave a mix of adventure and culture with a side of Spanish Colonial style architecture, beach time, (and now, Meghan and Harry). But its mix of moderate climate (the temperature rarely dips below 50°F) and outdoor living meant that Santa Barbara was, let’s say, uniquely suited to offer the things we’ve all sought during the pandemic: nature and the ability to gather in the fresh air.
In fact, in May 2021, the city—after years of discussion—transformed 10 blocks of its main drag, State Street, into a pedestrian promenade that could rival Europe’s best. Beginning four blocks from the waterfront, travelers and locals alike can stroll or cycle block after block, now packed with parklets and outdoor patios.
I spent a weekend exploring all that’s new and pleasurable—here’s how you can, too.
New hotels to check into
Palihouse felt like a home away from home—well, the posh, impeccably decorated home of my dreams. Opened in March 2021, the 24-room boutique hotel is located on a quiet stretch of Garden Street, three blocks from State Street. Rooms are spacious and outfitted with colorful vintage and new furniture, quirky art, Smeg fridges, and an awfully tempting selection of mini-bar snacks. There’s a pool for day-time lounging, an intimate pink-chandeliered bar for nighttime boozing, and a plant-filled courtyard where you can order breakfast and lunch. Bonus: You’re right around the corner from the head-spinningly beautiful Alessia Patisserie, opened in July 2021 by pastry chef, and Santa Barabra native, Alessia Guehr. (You can’t go wrong, but my partner and I gobbled up a rum-accented monkey bread and a flaky ham-filled croissant—and vowed to return for the chocolate bombé, filled with liquid chocolate.)
For those looking for an ocean view, book a room at Mar Monte. The 90-year-old hotel, a local icon, is fresh off a remodel that maintained the Spanish revival bones (check out the painted beams in the lobby) but modernized all 200 of its rooms with poppy new furniture and diving-inspired art, as well the main gathering spaces. Don’t miss a meal at the new on-site restaurant Costa Kitchen & Bar, where you can linger over cocktails at the patio bar while watching the sun sink beyond the Pacific. Then enjoy Mediterranean-inflected dishes (branzino with olive salsa verde, lamb with charred feta) on the restaurant’s patio, also overlooking the beach.
Restaurants to plan a trip around
There’s a clutch of new—or newsy—places to eat well in this food-loving city, starting with the three latest additions to the California Michelin guide: Loquita (a Spanish restaurant with stellar tapas, which got a Bib Gourmand designation), Caruso’s (California-style dining at the Rosewood in Montecito, just north of the city), and Bibi Ji. At the outdoor patio at Bibi Ji, I had the best Indian food—paired with glasses of natural wine—I’ve had in years, including a butter chicken I still think about, fiery fried cauliflower, and a dreamy, paneer-stuffed kulcha, a type of flatbread. Don’t skip the sauce section of the menu—the okra raita was out of this world (and I never like okra).
Beyond the Michelin guide, there’s plenty to eat. La Paloma, which opened in November 2020, honors the restaurant of the same name that ran in the same place for 37 years. At the spacious outdoor patio, spoon up homey pozole verde and a Santa Maria Wagyu tri-tip that’s criminally good: sliced thin with a mouth-watering char on the outside and paired with a ranchero salsa.
For lunch—or dinner—you can’t go wrong with Secret Bao, a casual restaurant that opened in March 2021 and traffics in seriously good bao buns: spicy Korean Fried Chicken, tender octopus, or even PB&J folded, taco-style, into pillowy bao. (Cap things off with the donut bao, a fried concoction topped with vanilla ice cream.) Korean fried chicken is also on the menu at Bossie’s Kitchen—named for the sculpted cow that once sat atop the Art Deco building, formerly a dairy—this time sandwiched between a bun and topped with sesame slaw and gochujang sauce. The hearty dishes, homemade brioche donuts, and quiet outdoor patio draw people from all corners of the city.
Round out your day
You’ve got to find some way to pass the hours between meals, right? In January 2021, Trek Bikes—whose CEO, John Burke, lives locally part of the year—rolled out BCycle, an e-bike sharing program in downtown Santa Barbara. Just download the app and off you go. The 4.5-mile beachfront trail is a given, but I liked pedaling up into the hills, toward the Old Mission—and with the e-bike, you won’t even break a sweat.
Or you can stroll up the State Street Promenade and pop into the newly renovated Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The six-year, $50 million remodel—completed in August 2021—added a contemporary art gallery and one devoted to photography, among many other changes. Sundays are free to the public. In 2022, watch for the exhibit “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources,” which will feature 20 works from the artist and Van Gogh–inspired partnerships with the opera, symphony, and other institutions.
Drink up, morning, noon, and night
Greet the day at Dart Coffee in the Funk Zone, a food-and-art filled district near the waterfront. Yes, there may be a line but that’s OK because a) you’ll be outside where you can admire the hot pink market lights and two expansive seating areas (one a plant-filled garden space across the street) and b) expertly made coffees and quite possibly the city’s best empanadas await. I’m a fan of the sweet corn-and-onion with a churro latte on the side. Too impatient? Try Golden Line Coffee on Anacapa Street. We stumbled on this pop-up one morning while wandering around, post-farmers’ market. It occupies the Villa Wine Bar on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, serving specialty teas and coffees, like flavored cacao chai lattes and single-origin pour-overs.
You can’t throw a cork without hitting a tasting room or wine bar in Santa Barbara, including newcomers Sevtap and Venus in Furs, which has a vegan pop-up. But right off the main drag there’s a little light-strung place called La Arcada Plaza, where you’ll find spots to eat, shop, and wine-taste, including at Barbieri & Kempe Wines. The European-feeling tasting room (check out the cheese case!), opened in late 2020, shares wines under two labels from husband-and-wife duo Paolo Barbieri and Erin Kempe. We couldn’t help but bring home a bottle of a Rhône-style grenache from the Barbieri label and the full-bodied Kempe Bianco, a viognier blend.
After a day of eating well and playing in the sun, there’s nothing like settling down with a well-mixed drink. Located in the Funk Zone and run by the same group that owns the neighboring Lucky Penny, Lark, and Helena Avenue Bakery (all delicious), Pearl Social has a swanky interior and a small patio—and cocktails so good we returned the next night. I especially loved the Martin & Gina, a concoction made with gin and amaro. Just blocks from the beach, at Santo Mezcal, you’ll find the city’s most extensive list of tequila and the restaurant’s namesake spirit. Order an Oaxacan Daiquiri (a world away from its overly sweet, resort-drink cousin) and savor the sounds of people living the good life.
Watch before you come
Julia, the just-released HBO documentary about the life of Julia Child, who retired to Montecito in 2002. While Santa Barbara isn’t the focus of the doc, it’s still fun to watch and then take a Julia-inspired whirl around the city, stopping at favorites like the Saturday farmers’ market, the Sicilian Olio e Limone, and of course, La Super-Rica Taqueria for bistec tacos.
Coming in 2022
Take the kiddos down under: In January 2022, the Santa Barbara Zoo will unveil the Australian Walkabout, an immersive exhibit that will allow explorers to wander among resident wallabies, emus, and more. In spring 2022, watch for the new Drift Santa Barbara, a tech-focused hotel on State Street, and the renovated Waterman, a Moxy hotel in the Funk Zone.
As of November 2021, Santa Barbara has no travel advisories in effect. Travelers age 2 and older are still required to wear masks in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Roughly 72 percent of eligible Santa Barbara residents are vaccinated. For more information, see this dashboard.
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