The coastal city of Santa Barbara is affectionally called the American Riviera. Santa Barbara’s history is rooted in its origins as a Spanish mission town, evidenced by its predominant Spanish and Moorish architectural style of terracotta shingles pressed against gleaming white stucco walls and its bougainvillea-draped balconies. It is blessed with a sunny Mediterranean climate, and whether strolling State Street or padding in the sand, you will find food, fashion, fun and the fruit of the vine. Experience some of this historical and culturally rich city’s top sights on a three-day jaunt in this premier resort destination with big attractions and small-town charms.
Day 1: Welcome to Paradise
Commanding a premier position in the lively downtown center of Santa Barbara, Hotel Californian redefines luxury and celebrates the history and coastal beauty of the American Riviera. Check into this 121-room boutique hotel, a sexy and sophisticated space from celebrity designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Recently renovated, well-appointed guestrooms entwine Moroccan-infused influences and jeweled tones with clean and classic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture for a glamourous nod to the past with a modern twist. A rooftop pool offers a light brunch menu and evening appetizers along with its endless view of the city and palm-tree-lined Pacific shoreline. Locally sourced farm-to-table food defines the Blackbird menu. You can grab a bite at the casual Goat Tree marketplace café before heading to the beach and then play board games at the Library Bar. The hotel offers umbrellas and beach chairs for a day on the sand, or you might choose to see the sights on a custom Hotel Californian bicycle.
After getting settled into your elegantly appointed room, it’s time to explore, and one of Santa Barbara’s most eclectic destinations is right outside your door. Called The Funk Zone, this neighborhood sports an eye-popping array of bright murals and art pieces, an enchanting assortment of boho cafés and arts-and-crafts boutiques, and a heady selection of wine tasting rooms known as the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. The Funk Zone is a hot district offering the cool, contemporary side of Santa Barbara, extending from Highway 101 to the ocean. Grab a street taco, pop into a gallery, and create your personal paint-splattered apparel at the Funk Factory. The Funk Zone surrounds Hotel Californian to the north and west and makes for a great, Instagram-worthy stroll.
Wind down the day with hot and cold tapas and savory paella on the sprawling patio of Loquita, where authentic Spanish cuisine is fused with an abundance of locally sourced produce, grilled seafood, and predominantly Spanish wines. As the sun dips below the horizon, thank your lucky stars for a perfect day in paradise.
Day 2: Heritage & Horticulture
Set off to the petite seaside community of Montecito (Spanish for “little mount”), just a stone’s throw east of Santa Barbara. This exclusive enclave, inhabited for more than 10,000 years by the Chumash Indians until the arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century, maintains much of its cultural charm. Follow the warmth of the sun and tree-lined roads to one of its most beloved botanical attractions. Lotusland, a 37-acre oasis of tranquility developed in 1941, was the creation of famed Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska, who purchased the Montecito, California, property and dedicated 43 years to creating what is distinguished as one of the 10 best gardens in the world. A stroll among the exotic blooms and foliage, including rare species of cycads, reveals wonderful themed gardens studded with antique statuary and water features as well as whimsical topiaries and fragrant flowerbeds drenched in color.
Just a 15-minute drive, but worlds away, find the “Queen of the Missions.” Old Mission Santa Barbara is a stately California Historical Landmark with old-world architecture set against a dramatic backdrop of rugged mountains and is one of the most popular attractions in the area. A self-guided tour on the 15-acre grounds takes you back in time to the 1700s when the mission was built to bring Christianity to the Chumash Indians. Explore the church and a collection of 17th-century art and artifacts in the on-site museum. Dioramas give a glimpse into the mission’s living quarters, and an on-site gift shop is the perfect place to pick up a memento of the day. As you make your way back to the Hotel Californian and the sky turns dusty pink and orange with the last glow of the sun, wind down with a variety of small bites served at the rooftop Tan-Tan Bar. Named for a petite Berber village near the southern border of Morocco, the décor celebrates its Moroccan influences and is the perfect spot to kick off your evening before the main course. At Bouchon, indulge in elegant “Wine Country Cuisine,” which pays homage to the fertile soil and Mediterranean-style climate of this coastal town. Owner Mitchell Sjerven and chef Greg Murphy present fresh seafood and an abundance of locally sourced produce from the countryside accompanied by wines from the fertile Santa Ynez Valley. The “exclusively Santa Barbara County” wine list has earned Wine Spectator magazine’s “Award of Excellence” for 10 years running. Bring a sweater or jacket and prepare for a memorable night under the stars. Bouchon serves dinner seven nights a week.
Day 3: Sun, Fun and the Fruit of the Vine
On your last day on the California Riviera, enjoy the famous coastline in all its glory, making the most of the refreshing sea spray and all the attractions the Santa Barbara Waterfront has to offer. Lace up your walking shoes and set off on a hike down the Thousand Steps staircase to Leadbetter Beach to watch the local surfers hang ten as you search for shells along this golden stretch of sand. Continue on to the Cabrillo Bike Path, which runs the length of three picturesque beaches. Bikes and cruisers as well kids bikes and charming surreys (two or four people) can be rented at Cabrillo Blvd. near State Street. The path connects Leadbetter Beach and Shoreline Park in Santa Barbara and ends at Butterfly Beach in Montecito, for a total distance of about 4.5 miles. Other waterfront attractions include the Santa Barbara Harbor, where the famed Santa Barbara sea urchin is caught daily. Adventure seekers can rent kayaks here or hop aboard the Lil’ Toot water taxi to the iconic Stearns Wharf, a popular landmark anchored by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center (reopening spring 2022) and brimming with colorful shops.
Sun-kissed and perhaps a little sore from all your morning’s activity, treat yourself to a wellness indulgence at the charming Cielo Spa. Cielo, Spanish for heaven, pampers mind, body and soul at this locally owned boutique spa experience that truly caters to each client with a splendid selection of body and face treatments based on holistic principles. You’ll emerge refreshed and relaxed and ready for a late lunch.
La Super Rica Taqueria is a relaxed, order-at-the-window, watch-your-food-being-prepared kind of joint that just so happens to serve up world-renowned chef Julia Child’s favorite tacos. Enjoy your fiery feast on a foliage-shaded patio, the perfect spot for a midday fiesta. A dizzying array of tacos stuffed with seasoned steak, chorizo, marinated pork and more are enhanced with the shop’s signature pico de gallo and a generous serving of spicy red or green salsa, all washed down with a fruity agua fresca. As your three days in paradise draw to a close, sip, savor and reflect on your adventures with a glass of wine from the Santa Ynez Valley, home to numerous world-renowned wineries and tasting opportunities. The scenic beauty of the dramatic mountains, lush valleys and oak trees is surpassed only by the rich flavors of the wines produced in the area. To the west, the cool ocean breezes create perfect conditions for Burgundy-style wines, and the warmer weather in the east of the valley is perfect for the production of full-bodied Rhone-style wines. Here, a wonderful series of family-owned wineries and small, boutique producers invite guests to learn the winemaking process and engage in tasting sessions, the perfect way to toast your unforgettable time spent in Santa Barbara. Cheers!
Raquel Baldelomar is an entrepreneur, author, and journalist. She is author of Sugar Crush (HarperCollins, 2015). Her written and video journalism focuses on how travel leads to a unique kind of productivity, creativity, and wellness. She can be found at https://www.instagram.com/rbaldelomar/.