With a Mediterranean climate, laid back vibe, and the glorious Santa Ynez Mountains rolling down into miles of serine coastline, it has been called the American Riviera. Located just an hour and a half from Los Angeles up the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) or more officially, Highway 101, Santa Barbara is a world away. And, like the European Riviera, it is more than a destination, but a lifestyle.
From its vineyards flush with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, as well as producing some famous Rhône and Bordeaux styles; to the Los Padres National Forest in and around the Santa Ynez mountains; the Channel Islands National Park, and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Santa Barbara is sure to impress.
Santa Barbara boasts four universities and is more than its past. The modern, hipster heaven located between the beach and Highway 101 is called The Funk Zone. It features repurposed spaces and converted warehouses covered in graffiti art, as well as galleries, cafés, wine tasting rooms. Stop in at The Lark for locally and responsibly sourced cuisine in a 5-star setting. The area is also home to the Figueroa Brewing Company, because it’s not just wine they make over on the edge of America.
The pulse of Santa Barbara, though, is its downtown. The Granada Theatre is home to the Santa Barbara Symphony, State Street Ballet and Opera Santa Barbara to name a few. While electric shuttles run the length of State Street, the area is easily walkable on foot to sampling the shopping, restaurants, and wine tasting rooms along the palm-lined streets. La Arcada Court is old style, open-air shopping along tile line walkways in the best Riviera style! The white washed adobe brick and red tiled roofs of the Spanish Colonial Mission architecture is throughout the city of just 91,000. The style evokes its early heritage, with the Santa Barbara County Courthouse as the jewel of the crown. Often called the “most beautiful public building in the United States”, it is a destination itself.
If downtown is the pulse of the town, its heart is the Presidio neighborhood at its center. This is where it all started for Santa Barbara, and it still exudes that open, European charm. Be sure to check out the historic spots, like the Casa de la Guerre– one of first Royal Presidio Army commandant homes, as well as El Cuartel, the oldest building in California. History buffs can take self-guided Red Tile Walking Tours via podcast anytime.
Much more mellow and traditional than The Funk Zone, this neighborhood has one of the oldest shopping arcades in the state, the Paseo de la Guerre. Food in the Presidio has something for all tastes, Intermezzo Bar & Café serves tapas, flatbreads, salads and a glass of dozens of local wines. Feeling more beach bum than California hip? Grab a burger and a local beer.
Au Bon Climat features wines from the nearby gorgeous Bien Nacido Vineyards in nearby Santa Maria. Bouchon Santa Barbara offers an atmosphere that is rustic and hushed and impossibly romantic while serving up the best local ingredients on the plate and glass. For something a little more casual, The Black Sheep restaurant is a little global and a little more weird. And that’s precisely the point. With flavors from Latin America, Asia and Italy, brilliantly render through French technique, you get the best of it all in a come as you are atmosphere.
Set between mountain and coast, Santa Barbara floats between European Riviera and LA cool, between beach town and high culture, history and innovation. So have a glass of wine and just take it all in.