Santa Barbara is one of my favorite places in the United States. I had read about the city in a travel magazine and wanted to see it. We put it on our list of places to visit the first time we went to California.
I fully expected to love Santa Barbara from the pictures I had seen. It turned out to actually exceed my expectations. Santa Barbara was even better than I imagined. It includes two of my favorite things: warm, sandy beaches and nearby mountains.
Santa Barbara is about 100 miles from LAX. The drive is very scenic as you travel along the Pacific Coast Highway. Most estimates give the driving time at under two hours, but heavy traffic should be expected, particularly between 3 and 6 PM.
The American Riviera
It's easy to see how Santa Barbara came to be known as the American Riviera. There are miles of sandy beaches, and almost every day is sunny and warm. The fall is a particularly good time to visit, as it is less crowded, and the temperatures are pleasant.
Santa Barbara is known for its Mediterranean style architecture, large palm trees, harbor and breakwater, and beautiful gardens. Many of the homes and buildings feature red tiled roofs. There is a relaxed, laid back atmosphere here which is perfect for those who want to escape the big city of Los Angeles.
One of the most popular places for tourists and locals is State Street, located downtown. This historic area has a wonderful ambiance, with cobblestone sidewalks, attractive landscaping and many shops. There are many national retailers and privately owned galleries, boutiques and other stores.
There is a huge choice of restaurants for every taste and budget. Organic food is popular here, and the seafood is excellent. The downtown area is busy in the evening with a vibrant nightlife.
Things To Do in Santa Barbara
State street is so picturesque that it is a great place to spend some time, even if you don't plan to shop. However, there are many other things to do while visiting Santa Barbara.
Sterns Wharf is at the harbor. It's a busy place with areas for strolling, or to just sit and relax. There are shops and good restaurants here too. The Sea Center is an interesting place, as it explains the various marine life located in the area.
The Santa Barbara Mission, which is pictured below, is close to downtown. The gardens here are lovely. The Mission is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is over 200 years old and remains in active use.
The County Courthouse is one of the most popular places for photography in the area. It consists of four magnificent buildings. The Mural Room and observation tower are open daily. There are wonderful views from the tower, and an elevator is available for those who cannot climb the stairs. There also are lovely grounds that can be explored and are perfect for taking pictures.
Both the Courthouse and Mission are free and usually attract a lot of visitors. If you want to avoid crowds, the morning is the best time to go.
Every Sunday an arts and craft show is held at the waterfront. All the items on display are hand-made by local artists. This is a large show, with 200 or more artists participating each week.
Whale watching tours are available and kayaking and surfing are popular activities. There also are many parks and the botanical gardens are just outside the city limits.
Santa Barbara Neighborhoods
There are several neighborhoods within Santa Barbara that are very affluent and among the wealthiest communities in the country. This includes the neighborhoods of Montecito and Hope Ranch. I had heard about the Montecito Inn, a luxury hotel that was built by Charlie Chaplin, and wanted to see it.
The Inn is within steps of a beautiful beach and upscale shopping. We had lunch at the cafe onsite, where we enjoyed a great meal and the prices were reasonable, considering the ambiance and high quality of the food.
If you want to go for a drive and head away from the ocean, you should know that the roads are very windy and narrow. We found this out the hard way as we explored the area once we left the Inn. It's very beautiful and the views are stunning. However, the drive is rather scary if you aren't used to winding roads at high elevations.
There are other communities not far from Santa Barbara that can be enjoyed for a half day or longer. Ojai is a scenic town surrounded by mountains. Solvang has a strong Danish character. Many items from Denmark are available in the shops, and you can sample Danish food as well.
Why I Love Santa Barbara
I love this city because of its wonderful climate and scenery. Sunshine can be enjoyed almost every day of the year. This is a very welcome break for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest. My favorite month to visit here is November, as Santa Barbara has its best weather at that time. Many people from the Pacific Northwest want to escape the rain which is common in the autumn months.
Santa Barbara is not a cheap place to have a holiday, but I don't know of many places in California where that would be the case. Some of the wealthiest people in the country live here. However, more moderately priced accommodation is available away from the beach. There also is a great choice of restaurants and outdoor cafes. Meals can be found at reasonable prices for those who may be travelling on a budget.
A car isn't essential if you are staying within walking distance of downtown and the beaches. There are trolley cars and buses that make it easy to get around. However, we liked having a car so we could explore the area on our own and stop wherever we wanted to.
Shuttle service is available daily from LAX to Santa Barbara. The shuttle is convenient and makes several trips a day. This is a good option for those who would rather not drive.