Wandering along terracotta-tiled streets, under the dappled shade of eucalyptus and palm trees past handsome Spanish-Colonial architecture, it’s easy to understand why Santa Barbara is much loved by its many well-heeled residents, among them stars of the screen, sports field and music world. Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it’s a wealthy city with an elegant downtown area, a year-round sunny climate and surrounding areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The best way to soak up the Santa Barbara atmosphere is to just start walking. State Street, which cuts through the center of the city, is a laidback, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare with art galleries, theaters, and museums. You’ll also find upmarket shops and stores and a host of local restaurants and bars, and many of the main visitor attractions are close enough to reach from here on foot.
Number one among these is the Santa Barbara Mission. Known as the ‘Queen of the Missions’, it’s one of 21 built in California as the Spanish colonized the region in the 18th century and brought their Catholicism with them. The mission was founded on the Feast of St Barbara in 1786, but the church that sits on the site now was in fact completed in 1829 after an earthquake destroyed the original in 1812. The mission’s twin bell towers crown what is still today a place of worship and the gracefully landscaped grounds afford stunning views of the city just below. There’s a museum outlining the colonial history of the area and you can join up for daily guided tours.
For an altogether different vibe, head back into town towards the area known as the Funk Zone. Sandwiched between Highway 101 and the beach, these ten or so blocks of old warehouses and manufacturing plants have blossomed to become the city’s hippest neighborhood. It’s now home to art galleries, hot restaurants, brew bars and shops, and one of the most enjoyable things to do is to hit the Urban Wine Trail – a run of more than 20 tasting rooms showcasing the wines of Santa Barbara County. If you’re in town on a Tuesday or Saturday, the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market on nearby Anacapa Street is also well worth a visit for a wander among more than 100 stallholders selling a tempting rainbow of farm-fresh produce.
Carry on towards the sound of the surf and you’ll reach Santa Barbara’s sandy shoreline, where jutting out directly from the end of State Street into the waters of the Pacific is Stearns Wharf. Completed in 1872, it became the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco and is now the oldest wooden wharf in continuous use in California. Though used for passenger and freight services in the past, today it is home to shops, restaurants, and an aquarium. Our advice is to go for a stroll along its wooden boards, taking in the sea and mountain views, then stop at one of its eateries for a seafood lunch and a chilled glass of Californian white.
Santa Barbara doesn’t have as big a beach scene as some of its more southerly California coast neighbors, but it does have stretches of golden sand, so if you’re in the market for a lazy day by the water, with perhaps a game of beach volleyball and a bit of gentle body boarding, then you do have options. There are three major beaches in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter, West, and East. If you want to escape the worst of the crowds, head to East Beach, slightly removed from the bustle of downtown, and catch a few rays before tucking into crispy calamari or fish tacos at the beachside restaurant with its umbrella-shaded tables.
If you’ve got the kids in tow, there’s plenty to keep them happy too. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is located on Stearns Wharf and its interactive exhibits are designed to inspire young minds. Take the little ones along to crawl through a 1,500-gallon tide pool tank, examine the microscopic marine life and even stroke a shark in the on-site touch pool.
For one of the most awe-inspiring of the area’s natural wonders, you’ll need to head west along the coast a while, to Goleta’s Coronado Butterfly Preserve. Visit from October to Early March and you’re likely to encounter what can only be described as a giant flock of Monarch butterflies. The 9-acre preserve encompasses woodlands, meadows, trails, an outdoor gathering area, and a classroom and sits next to the largest Monarch butterfly overwintering groves in California. Migrating south for the winter, the Monarchs can travel up to 3,000 miles to roost in the preserve’s eucalyptus trees, Monterey pines and Monterey cypress. Visit during the middle of the day to see them in full flutter, warmed by the midday sun.
Santa Barbara isn’t known as the American Riviera for nothing – its idyllic shoreline of smooth sands and sparkling Pacific Ocean makes for a blissful beachside vacation with all the charms of its refined city center within easy reach. Our Santa Barbara beach rentals range from a penthouse suite at a luxury resort to a New England-style shingle-clad beauty where you can open up your bedroom doors and step right out onto the shore. Other Santa Barbara villas to make your vacation one to remember include a spacious property set in the scenic hills that surround the city, with enough room to take the whole family, a group of lucky friends or perhaps the wedding party for a very special Big Day.