Just about 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, along Highway 101, the eclectic city of Santa Barbara stretches between the hills and the coast. Eclectic seems an apt description since the location has historically attracted the rich and famous, including Clark Gable, Barbra Streisand and other Hollywood legends. The real estate in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas isn’t cheap, particularly in neighbouring Montecito, home of Ms. Winfrey…there’s a reason they call this California’s Riviera. Yet, many people come to reside here after serving their time in L.A., not necessarily to retire, but to enjoy the slower pace, the surf and the chillax vibe indigenous to some of California’s coastal areas.
Worrying doesn’t appear to be something people do in Santa Barbara. But that could be because of the urban wine trail, with more than two-dozen tasting rooms located over several blocks of a small area off of State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
There are a surprising number of things to do, even when it rains, and the city is also the name of the county, home to a number of other lovely towns and cities worth visiting, as well as more than 200 vineyards.
Here are my recommendations for a good mix of culture and indulgence.
The best examples of Spanish colonial architecture can be found at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Still a functioning government building, the courthouse is one of the most beautiful municipal structures in the United States. The courthouse was built in 1929 and remains in excellent condition with bountiful, sunken gardens featuring exotic plants and flowers, hand-painted murals, elegant arches, circular staircases, ornate chandeliers, and original tiles (even in the bathrooms) transport visitors back to 1929, when the courthouse was built.
History buffs will love the Old Mission, a landmark charting the arrival of Franciscans to California in the late 18th century with the goal of converting Native Americans to Catholicism. This mission is the only one remaining under the leadership of the Franciscan Friars since its founding.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art on State Street is home to a handful of Impressionists, including Monet. It’s small, but perfectly formed and hosts rotating exhibits.
Santa Barbara’s State Street and Waterfront Shuttles are the best way to get around town. Fifty cents a ride gets you from one end of the long avenue to the other. Take the shuttle all the way down to Stearn’s Wharf at the end of State Street. Wander back up State Street to explore the shops, restaurants and old-fashioned Spanish courtyards, called paseo’s.
Try surfing or stand-up paddling with rentals from the Paddle Sports Center at the harbour.
Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail is a must-do for any visit. The sheer proximity of tasting rooms clustered together makes it easy to spend an entire evening sampling the local Pinot Noir and other varietals. Most tastings are reasonably priced at about $15 per person. Local brochures are available listing each tasting room and locations.
The three tasting rooms below offer three distinctly different experiences: an intimate tasting with a wine-maker, an old-school style winery and a modern tasting room that feels like a hip bar.
Santa Barbara Winery – This old-school style winery is a great place to begin the wine trail as the tasting includes background about the wine-growing region, climate, history and how the industry has evolved.
Paradise Springs Winery – A female bartender pours a flight of five wines at this modern, hip bar/tasting room. She expertly takes us through the Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc with its green apple and citrus flavours, on to a Chardonnay with hints of mandarin and honey and ruby red Pinot Noir, along with a couple of others.
Sanguis – Slightly off the beaten path, German-born wine-maker Matthias Pippig welcomes guests to his converted warehouse for a personal tasting of his renowned, small production, Rhone varietal wines.
You’ll spend more time deciding what to order than actually eating at the Goat Tree on State Street, just a couple of blocks from Stearns Wharf. An on-site bakery churns out orange and fennel tea cakes, pear and cheese Danish, chocolate ganache muffins, and then there are savoury offerings, like pies: lamb and squash or kale and cheese. The most divine item on the menu is the Dungeness crab over brioche, topped with an egg and accompanied by arugula, white beans and pomegranate. This is a winner for breakfast, lunch or a snack.
A husband and wife team are behind classic Italian restaurant Olio e Limone, which also has an eponymous pizzeria and crudo bar. It’s filled with locals and serves traditional dishes like mussels, aubergine parmigiana and other familiar favourites.
The Lark has been written up in every foodie bible for its use of produce sourced from local farms, fishermen and wineries. Dishes are imaginative and make good use of local ingredients. It’s best to book well in advance and set realistic expectations about service. The Lark gets very, very busy and it can be a challenge for the kitchen and wait staff to keep up.
The Belmond El Encanto presides over the hills of Santa Barbara like the grande dame it is. The hotel has a rich history catering to legendary Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Barbra Streisand, who came to escape La La Land, and stayed here for its discreet, beautifully-landscaped resort-style compound with a pool overlooking the Pacific. A complimentary shuttle service is provided for guests to destinations within 5 miles of the hotel.
Getting there: There is a train from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. You’ll want a car to explore surrounding areas and Hertz offers competitive rates.
Insider tip: If you travel by car, leave it at the hotel for local exploring and use it for heading out to the vineyards.
For more information on visiting Santa Barbara please visit https://santabarbaraca.com
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.