santa barbara beach

The Best of Santa Barbara

What do Oprah Winfrey, George Lucas, Drew Barrymore, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Costner, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres have in common? They’ve all chosen to make Santa Barbara – commonly called the American Riviera – home. 

Between the glistening beaches, golf courses, outdoor adventures, nearby wine country and gourmand greats across the region; it is easy to see why. And, at less than seven hours by car or just about an hour via plane, it is relatively easy to visit from the Valley anytime of the year.

Mediterranean in vibe, Santa Barbara has Spanish, Moorish, Portuguese and American Indian-inspired architecture all over the city. Over 100 years ago, the region was also a major player in the film industry, with more than 1,200 movies filmed in the area during the silent-film era. As a result, families including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Duponts invested in land in the area, which inspired poets and artists to come see what all the fuss was about.

The Sights

For those who prefer the beach, there are 25 from which to choose in the area. And nature lovers will be in heaven touring through acres of orchids and native plants at one of the area’s gardens or public parks, including Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, Casa del Herrero, Lotusland, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Santa Barbara Orchid Estate.

Of course, the beach is only a fraction of the fun awaiting in the area.

Artistic attractions beyond the major sights and sounds abound as the region is home to more than 200 annual classic and contemporary stage productions, including concerts, drama, comedy, dance and musical theater. Of particular note is the State Street Ballet, the internationally lauded dance company. The company is comprised of 20 dancers representing six countries, and its performances are riveting and beautiful (on hold at present due to COVID-19).

The best way to get one’s bearings while taking in a piece of everything at once is via DeeTours of Santa Barbara. During these open-air tours, which are led in one-of-a-kind, bright red stretched Jeep, expert guides share the geographic and architectural beauty of the city as well as delve into its vibrant history, and buzz by most of the major cultural attractions. In just over an hour, the wildly entertaining and often funny city tour visits El Presidio, Queen of the Missions, Stearns Wharf, beaches, a bird refuge and zoo areas, the famous old Moreton Bay Fig Tree, elegant Montecito’s Lower Coast Village and Butterfly Beach.  

The Santa Barbara Zoo as well as the Santa Barbara Aquarium, respectively, offer families as well as animal lovers full days of fun, with giraffe feeding, a rattlesnake quarry, behind-the-scene tours, play areas and – of course – dozens of exhibits with animals from every pocket of the world. Other sneaky-cool gems: the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum offers an in-depth look at the region’s maritime roots and surf culture; the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center resembles a working marine science laboratory; and the newly opened MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation offers hands-on ways to explore history, art, culture, technology and science.

The Sips

Beyond the many urban wineries scattered throughout the region itself, there are actually are six official wine appellations – Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon. Los Olivos District, and the Sta. Rita Hills – located in Santa Barbara County. The region is known for its Chardonnay to Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, but a total of nearly 50 varieties grow throughout.

Given there are over 100 wineries from which to choose, consider opting for one of the nine wine trails in the area. Among our favorites is the San Ynez Trail, as it is nestled between farms and horse properties so gives a rugged and rustic yet romantic and quiet sense of place. Among the can’t-miss vineyards there are Buttonwood Farm, Brander, Dovecote and Rancho Boa Vista. Another great option is Santa Maria Valley, which boasts Byron Winery, Cambria Estate, Foxen Vineyard, Rancho Sisquoc and Tatomer.

The Scrumptious and Savory

A culinary king in the United States, people come from around the world to enjoy the farms, waters, vineyards, restaurants, farmer’s and fishermen’s markets, cooking classes and food and wine events that create, cultivate and celebrate the region’s distinctive flavors. A true bucket list experience, don’t miss Bouchon when visiting. Chef Greg Murphy is a flavor wizard. If there was a doctorate available in kitchen science, he would not simply have the degree, but be teaching the graduate courses. The best way to experience his genius is by joining him through his cooking process via his market tour and gourmet dinner package ($125 per person). Through it, twice a week chef Murphy leads an intimate group through Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market, both giving a tour and showing how he sources ingredients for his award-winning dishes. And then, later that evening the group is invited back for a three-course wine pairing dinner using the ingredients sourced during the earlier adventure.

The Lark, which recently earned the Michelin Plate award, is another must. It is located in a region of Santa Barbara known as the Funk Zone, which is today the epicenter of the thriving arts scene in the city. Urban in design and built using repurposed materials in a nod to the area’s history as an industrial zone in year’s past, the restaurant especially excels at pairing locally sourced dishes with craft cocktails as well as wines grown in the area, with a special focus on the smaller producers.

For some of the freshest seafood – not to mention awe-inspiring views – don’t miss Tyde’s at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. The indoor-outdoor space excels at taking seafood and infusing it with dreamy Mediterranean flavors that melt in one’s month. The olive oil poached halibut, charcoal roasted black cod and crispy skin salmon with Israeli cous cous are particularly spectacular. Insider tip: at sunset just before dinner at Tyde’s, visit the resort’s Coral Reef Bar, where the actual bar itself is a freestanding, 275-gallon, saltwater-aquarium overlooking the ocean. The drinks are just as good as the view, and that is saying something.

One final culinary must: the new, interactive downloadable Julia Child Food Trail Map, which is a essentially a do-it-yourself culinary tour that incorporates long-time Santa Barbara resident and food god Julia Child’s favorite places to eat in the area. A quick Google search makes downloading it a snap.

Belmond El Encanto

The Stays

Among the most impressive, chic spots in the city is Belmond El Encanto. Majestic and regal, the Forbes Five Star award-winning property features seven acres of gardens and is limited to just 96 rooms, suites and bungalows. Restored in recent years for today’s traveler, it still boasts much of the charm that guests like President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed nearly 100 years ago, including its original 1928 wishing well, lily pond and romantically placed wisteria vines that climb up brick-columned arbor. Its negative-edge pool not only has sweeping views of the entire city from on high, but one of the most impressive views of the miles of beaches and crystal blue oceans you will ever see. The spa is similarly lavish yet cozy, with just seven treatment rooms and intoxicatingly relaxing men’s and women’s lounges as well as treatments inspired by the California coast.

Drinking and dining on property are special treats. The Lounge excels in using herbs and citrus grown on property in its cocktails, and the Dining Room – which has a stunning terrace known for some of the best al fresco dining in the country – not only does the same with its dishes and has a sumptuous caviar service to boot, but the property even makes its own signature cheese, thanks to a hotel cow named Ellie, who lives onsite. For anything it cannot source from on property, every effort is made to support nearby local farmers, ranchers, fishermen by using their vegetables, fruits and sustainable wild seafood.

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