Santa Barbara - California

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Cote de Californie

Appearing more like a resort on the Cote d'Azure than an American city, Santa Barbara is an amazing delight that is largely unappreciated as a destination for vacationers.

A lush, semi-tropical community set between the Santa Inez mountains and the Pacific, the unique ambience of this small city is the result of several serendipitous factors. It is part of the only section of the whole North American Pacific Coast which runs from east to west, giving the entire city a southerly exposure. Expansive beaches line the shore and the sea, and the mountains behind Santa Barbara provide a moderate climate.

The vagaries of nature that include the beneficial climate also brought a devastating earthquake that destroyed much of downtown Santa Barbara in 1925. The disaster resulted in a planned reconstruction program bringing a coordinated architecture which is a remarkable mixture of Spanish, central Mediterranean and North African elements.

Things to See & Do

The presence of a university and a thriving cultural life provide a level of arts activity which is unusual for a small city and it is graced with parks, gardens and public sculpture which enhance the architectural scheme. All of these elements have made the city not only a desired home for the upper crust -- starting with the early days of the film industry -- but also a superb vacation center. Several scenic drives are available, including sideroads that take you to the fast-growing wine district north and east of Santa Barbara.

Pinot Noir, the wine made famous by the movie Sideways, is available at many of the regional wineries, in addition to other fine varietals. A "Sideways" Tour map is abailable from the Santa Barbara Visitor Center.

Pismo Beach and the dunes recreation area are 30 minutes north via Highway 101. Channel Islands National Park is located just offshore, accessible from Santa Barbara or Ventura.

It helps if you have a lot of money to enjoy the posh resorts but with the availability of state beaches with campgrounds and modest motels in the area, Santa Barbara is accessible to all. It is definitely on our list of the ten best places to visit along the Pacific Coast.


Nine beaches line the Pacific waterfront between Carpinteria (east of Santa Barbara) and Goleta, to the west. The most popular one is East Beach, near downtown Santa Barbara on Cabrillo Blvd. between Palm Park and the Bird Refuge. Visitors may rent beach chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards and volleyballs at the clubhouse. There's a bike path and several picnic areas are conveniently located along the beach.

West Beach lies between Stearn's Wharf and the harbor, also on Cabrillo Blvd. with Ambassador Park across the road. Surfers usually head for Leadbetter Beach, in a shallow cove with a nicely landscaped picnic area, at Shoreline Drive and Loma Alta Dr. Also known for surfing is Rincon Beach in Carpinteria at Bates Road and Hwy. 101.

Opposite the famed Biltmore Hotel is Butterfly Beach. This is a narrow strip of sand with a fine view of the mountains at the end of Butterfly Lane. One of the best bird-watching spots along the shoreline is Isle Vista Beach, in Santa Barbara on Del Playa Dr. at Camino Corto.


A walking tour -- following a procession of red tiles -- leads you past the historic downtown area's prime architecture, shopping and eating places. This is the area that was mostly destroyed by the 1925 earthquake and which now defines the "Santa Barbara Look." Highlights of the walking tour (we suggest starting on State Street at De La Guerra) include: the Arlington and Granada theaters, old movie palaces now featuring live performances of music and drama; the Museum of Art; the County Courthouse (a Spanish/Moorish gem); El Presidio, the site of the original Spanish fort; Presidio Gardens, on the site of the old parade grounds; the Lobrero Theatre; the Santa Barbara Historical Museum; more than a handful of historical adobe structures; and El Paseo, a distinctive Spanish-style shopping arcade with boutiques and restaurants. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree, a humongous native of Australia with a span of 160 feet, is seen at Chapala Street and Hwy. 101, south of downtown near the Amtrak train station.

Mission Santa Barbara

The tenth of the missions established by the Spanish Franciscans in California during the late 1700s, this mission overlooks the city from its mountain site on Mission Canyon Road. Its twin bell towers and arched walkway are reflected in a pool. Visitors may take a self-guided tour through the building, which still functions as a busy parish church. Highlights of the tour include splendid gardens, courtyards, a chapel and cemetery. The mission is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.An extremely modest admission fee is charged.

Stearn's Wharf

A fire destroyed several of the buildings on this historic wharf on the night of November 18, 1998. One of the buildings that burned was the famous Moby Dick Restaurant. The Harbor Restaurant was saved from the flames. The long wharf is at the foot of State Street, between East and West Beaches. Built in 1872, it is the oldest operating wharf on the West Coast, and has long been a favorite strolling and dining place for Santa Barbara residents and visitors.

Yacht Harbor

The harbor is a mooring place for pleasure craft as well as home to a sizeable working fleet. Off West Cabrillo Blvd., the breakwater provides a half-mile path for walking, parking places, several restaurants, marine supply stores and souvenir shops. Rental and charter boats are found at the north end of the harbor.

Botanic Garden

Located on the mountainside at 1212 Mission Canyon Road, the garden was established in 1926 and has grown to include five miles of pathways through areas that feature California's native plants, from tall redwoods to prickly cacti. The garden is divided into major sections: the Sierra Nevada, southern mountains, deserts and off-shore islands.

For serious botanists, there is a library and research center. The gift shop has plants for sale plus plant books and souvenirs. Guided tours lasting about one hour are available daily. Admission for adults is $3 ($2 for seniors).

A Driving Tour

Many of Santa Barbara's major attractions are located on a scenic drive that can be driven in an hour but could involve a full day of sight-seeing. The best way to start the tour is to drive to the corner of Coast Village Road and Olive Mill Rd. in Montecito (east of downtown Santa Barbara) and follow the scenic drive signs along Coast Village Rd., which soon turns into Cabrillo Blvd., leading beside the beaches, turning into Shoreline Drive and then palm-lined Las Palmas Drive (where you'll see the super-exclusive Hope Ranch estate homes). The tour then leads east along the mountainside via De La Vina, Los Olivos (to the mission) and then continues on Alameda Padre Serra Rd. You will return to the starting point in Montecito via Alston Road and Olive Mill Road.

Where to Eat

Eating is good in Santa Barbara and environs: on the beaches, in the historic downtown and in aeries perched on the mountainside.


Joe's, on State Street, features the oldest bar in the city with an eclectic informal menu that includes basic Italian and American dishes and sandwiches. Three cafes in El Paseo, the Spanish shopping area, stand out. El Paseo Restaurant offers traditional Mexican dishes in an outdoor courtyard; Old Towne Cafe features outstanding soups, sandwiches and other dishes; the intimate Wine Cask serves modern California Cuisine ($$ to $$$).

At the top of the State Street shopping area is Downey's, a fine restaurant with a country French ambience and fine dining in the grand style. Above the downtown area, on the mountainside, is the wonderful El Encanto Hotel, which has a restaurant overlooking the city and ocean, with classic French cuisine and excellent service.

Beside the Ocean

The Harbor Restaurant on Stearn's Wharf features fresh seafood and fine views of the ocean and mountains.

Beachside Bar and Grill, on Goleta Beach, also features seafood (mostly grilled), a large fireplace and a glassed-in dining patio. Sea Cove (at Leadbetter Beach), Brophy Brothers (upstairs at the Yacht Harbor) and East Beach Grill (under the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion at East Beach) are all informal and inexpensive seafood places with good food and local atmosphere.

Santa Barbara Camping

Good camping is available at four nearby state beaches (Carpinteria, El Capitan, Gaviota & Refugio) and four county parks (Cachuma Lake, El Capitan Ranch, Jalama Beach & Rincon Beach).

There are two private RV parks, El Patio RV Park, 4040 Calle Real (805-687-7614) and Sunrise RV Park, 516 S. Salinas (805-966-9954).

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