Between the blue Pacific and the steeply rising Santa Ynez Mountains, the Californian town of Santa Barbara enjoys an ideal climate and styles itself, with reason, the ‘American Riviera’. With gorgeous beaches and spectacular mountain views, there’s a wide range of tourist attractions in Santa Barbara and its mountain hinterland. Downtown, white buildings with red-tiled roofs reveal the town’s Spanish heritage, while Lining State Street offers classy boutiques and restaurants where you can savor local wines and food. If you’re after a romantic trip to the mountains, fun with the kids or just a good time with friends, this Californian sunspot has everything you need.
10. Casa del Herrero
This historic home just outside town off the East Valley Road is a relic of a gracious age. There are beautiful views on the winding road up, and on arrival you’ll find one of America’s finest examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Casa del Herrero is designated a National Historic Landmark and preserved just as the industrialist and amateur architect George Fox Steedman created it. The Steedman family’s antiques, books and belongings are all there too: step in, and you step straight back to a day in 1925. The eleven-acre estate is beautifully landscaped, and tours run Tuesday through Saturday throughout the year (advance booking necessary) with tickets costing from $20 per adult.
9. Water sports
Get out on that beautiful blue ocean with any one of a range of water sports: stand up paddle, surfing, kayaking or sailing. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company at 32 E Haley Street takes groups kayaking and snorkelling round the Channel Islands caves, all equipment supplied, for around $179 per adult. Children twelve years and under must go in a tandem kayak. Active Ed’s Surf at 2926 La Combadura Road offers customized surfing lessons for all ages at prices starting at $75 per person for a two-hour session in a group of three. If you’re after a really cool sporting experience, contact the Eagle Paragliding School and take a one-day introductory course for $200 – or test your wings by flying tandem over the waves with an instructor for $100.
8. Santa Barbara Mission
Founded in 1786, the Mission high up in Laguna Street was built by Franciscan friars and their Chumash Indian workforce, whose skill and dedication is evident from the Roman temple façade. Known as the ‘Queen of the Missions’, this lovely complex houses twin bell-towers and offers beautiful views over the city, the ocean and the mountains. Daily tours guide you round the earliest mission buildings and give you a good idea of contemporary monastic (and Indian) life, both sacred and domestic. The kiln, reservoir and mill in particular are testament to the backbreaking labor of a pre-industrial age. Once you’ve done marveling at the paintings on the ceilings, enjoy a picnic in the rose garden. The mission houses the I Madonnari chalk painting festival over Memorial Day weekend. The adult admission prices around $8 and the place is open daily from nine to five.
7. The Land Shark Tour
All aboard this eccentric and amphibious truck, which will take you on ninety-minute tours over land and sea. This has to be one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara if you have the kids along: after winding through the pretty town streets– the expressions on the faces of passers-by might just be the best part of the experience – the Land Shark turns into a boat and sets off across the ocean waves. You’ll pass luxurious yachts and fishing fleets, and see marine creatures from just a few yards off. The tours leave from just west of the dolphin fountain on Stearns Wharf, run seven days a week and start from $30 per adult. Tickets are bought on board and cannot be reserved in advance.
The beaches of Santa Barbara are famous, but locals say the beaches of Carpinteria are even better. Ten minutes south from the city by car, Carpinteria is a beach community where the pace slows and the style is casual. Surfers, sun-lovers and bucket and spaders will all find a space on the fine sand, and there’s even a campsite with direct access to the beach if you want to stay over. Prices are from $45 per night. Best beach for surfing is Rincon, and there’s great fresh fish and Mexican food to be had on Linden Avenue, in among the antique stores and vintage clothing outlets – and specialty vintage cocktails from Sly’s: rye, bitters and some other magic ingredients they don’t vouchsafe.
Created by the opera singer and socialite Ganna Walska in the early twentieth century, this unique botanical garden will enchant you. You have to take a guided tour rather than wander round at will but you’ll learn from the guides’ expert commentary that Madame Walska’s life was as colorful as the flora she planted. These secret gardens in residential Ashley Road abound with eccentricity: bizarre cacti, weird topiary, an all-silver-and-blue garden and many other lovingly crafted surprises. It’s romantic, brilliant and daft, all at the same time. Twice-daily tours start at 10am and 1.30, Wednesday to Saturday between February and November. Admission is steep at $45 and reservations are compulsory, but it’s worth it.
4. Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf is among the West Coast’s oldest wooden piers. Erected in 1872 to handle passengers arriving to seek their fortune, it now mainly attracts tourists and strollers. It’s still a workplace, though, and you can lean over the rails and watch the local boats bring in the day’s catch (and the local pelicans waiting for anything they drop). The dolphin fountain by the entrance is a town treasure, and there are eateries, shops and even a wine-tasting venue on the pier. If you’re on a weekend getaway with your partner, the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company towards the end of the pier sells fresh crab, lobster and abalone and is just the place for a romantic supper as the day ends. Public parking on Stearns Wharf is free for the first 90 minutes with ticket validation by a wharf merchant.
3. Sea Center
If you’ve brought the kids, the Sea Center to one side of Stearns Wharf one of the first places to see in Santa Barbara. Its mission is to inspire a passion for the natural world, and it certainly succeeds: there are interactive exhibits where you can work like the scientists do, get close up and personal with sea creatures and even pet live sharks. Children will have great fun crawling through a tide-pool tank to get a different perspective on marine life, and learn the importance of conservation and respect for their environment from guides who are passionate about their subject. Tickets are $8 per person, and the museum is open every day between ten and five.
2. Whale watching
Santa Barbara is one of the best places in America for whale watchers today. February to April, they’re seen migrating between the mainland and the offshore Channel Islands and May to September, plentiful krill attracts them to the Santa Barbara Channel. Several local tour companies operate from Stearns Wharf and along Cabrillo Boulevard, and you can expect to see porpoises, seals and dolphins as well as the majestic humpbacks, blue whales and California grays on their way north to the Alaskan feeding grounds. Remember to pack a warm jacket: even when the temperature’s high in Santa Barbara itself, it can get chilly out on the ocean. Prices start from around $99 per adult.
1. Wine tour
The Santa Ynez mountain range houses many fine vineyards – the movie Sideways was set here – and several companies offer tours in transport ranging from bikes through open air Hummers to helicopters. Download an app from the County Vintners’ Association for a list of providers, and expect to pay between $70 and $90 per person. If you’re a connoisseur, don’t miss the Wine Festival in June, held at the Museum of Natural History, or a wine bar – there are plenty to choose from. For a romantic evening out, go to the smallest wine bar in town: Louie’s Bistro inside Upham Hotel on De La Vina Street seats a maximum of three people! If you’re looking for something a little livelier, visit the Hitching Post at 406 East Highway, featured in Sideways. Arrive before 6, and you can join a wine tasting session for a nominal fee.
Getting around the city is part of the fun: the historic open air trolley car running between downtown and Stearns Wharf or the electric shuttle between the downtown and the waterfront are interesting and environmentally friendly ways to see the city. If you’re after something a little more private, hire one of the pedicabs, which travel along the beachfront and in the downtown streets and various other places to visit in Santa Barbara.