Casual chic with a laid-back, Mediterranean vibe is the defining characteristic of this cool town tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains along California’s Central Coast. Known as the “American Riviera,” the city has refined restaurants, breathtaking hikes, chaparral-covered hills, renowned surf breaks, and world-class vineyards producing high-quality wines. The epitome of a sun-kissed beach town meets stylish getaway, it’s also a college town (University of California, Santa Barbara) and a cultural center for the region, with a healthy number of arts institutions and venues.
There’s not a bad time of year to visit this temperate region where the daytime temperatures only vary about 10 or 15 degrees throughout the year, however the summer season is busiest, with the warmest and driest period from May to September. In spring and fall the hiking paths and botanical gardens are bursting with color, and winter brings big ocean swells popular with surfers, as well as the annual gray whale migration and monarch butterfly season.
Santa Barbara is 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and is around 2.5 hours by car or Amtrak from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Alternatively, Santa Barbara Municipal Airport offers 22 daily departures and is an eight-minute drive from the city center. The downtown is easily navigable by foot or bicycle, and there are a number of transportation rentals available. Buses do run, but they aren’t the easiest to sort out, so if you’re looking to explore the greater region, it’s best to rent a car.
Eating fresh, local and sustainably isn’t an after thought, it’s one of the main focuses of this town and the Santa Barbara farmers’ markets are part of the pulse of the town. Vegetable farmers are on a first name basis with local chefs, fish, seafood and even the seaweed are caught in the surrounding waters, and the meat is raised at nearby ranches. Additionally, much of the wine, beer and coffee is produced or brewed within the region.
The original residents of Santa Barbara were the Chumash Indians who lived in the region from 13,000 years ago until the Spanish arrived in the 18th century. They built El Presidio, a military outpost, in 1782, and two of the original buildings still survive in downtown Santa Barbara. After the U.S. took over California from Mexico, the Gold Rush ushered in the American age, and Santa Barbara transformed from a tranquil pueblo to a bustling little village and then city. From 1912 to 1921 Santa Barbara became a major hub of silent film production. Today it’s home to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, along with a number of world-class museums and performing arts, but also pays homage to its past with the Old Spanish Days fiesta, a week-long festival celebrating Spanish and Mexican pioneers.
Many museums and zoos have children’s programs, and most outdoor activities are kid-friendly and kid-accessible, including hiking, swimming, surfing, kayaking and paddling in the tidal pools. The area restaurants welcome children, often offering a fun twist on a “grown-up” dish made especially for them.
Although considered temperate, it’s cold in the early mornings and evenings, so bring a light layer if you plan on being up for sunrise or out after sunset. Downtown Santa Barbara is very walkable, but there much more to see than just the city center. Rent a bike or car and explore the mountains, the Santa Ynez Valley or nearby Solvang, a Danish town. The locals are intensely passionate about their city; if in doubt or curious, just ask.
Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce http://www.sbchamber.org/ Visit Santa Barbara http://santabarbaraca.com/ The Santa Barbara Independent http://www.independent.com/ City of Santa Barbara https://www.santabarbaraca.gov/ Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation http://www.sbthp.org/
Alexandra Cheney is a travel writer and culture reporter, an ex-professional surfer, and a born-and-bred Los Angeleno. She’s lived in Boston, Barcelona, and New York, and enjoys wandering the globe in search of those indescribable moments when everything either comes together or falls apart, and loves to return stoked to her house by the ocean.