Central California: Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is the perfect place to spend a plain old weekend away from Los Angeles.  Except for the plain part.

90 miles on the 101 from the junction of the 405 (in other words, 2 hours from the LA/San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sherman Oaks), Santa Barbara is elegant, relaxing and surrounded by the ocean on one side and mountains on the other.

Between the house ogling, beach strolling, garden wandering, shopping, and sun-drenched alfresco dining, you might suddenly realize that the place where your life usually takes place doesn’t have as much color as vivid Santa Barbara.  Then you might find yourself scheming, like many of the town’s PhD-holding waiters, a way to move your life here.

Santa Barbara itself wasn’t always the beauty it is today, with its painted tiles, terracotta-tiled streets and rooflines, hanging baskets of flowers, and gurgling fountains.  In 1925, a huge earthquake hit the town, flattening its then unremarkable architecture.   What came up in its place now looks like Seville, Spain crossed with San Miguel de Allende….and Nordstrom’s.


If you want to ease into town, stop off and see neighboring Montecito first.  Jump off the 101 at Olive Mill Rd. and cruise right over to the Biltmore.

The Four Seasons Biltmore is drop-dead gorgeous, and by all means you should hang out there.  (Or, if money’s no object — welcome home, traveler.)  It recently had a luxurious, multi-million dollar remodel, strewn with native flowers and people who’ve stepped whole from a Ralph Lauren photo shoot.

The food in the ocean-view Bella Vista Restaurant, with its entrance fountain, soaring ceiling, and huge balcony is amazing — go for the soups and seafood, enjoy their iced tea and list of local wines, and save room for dessert.  The beach out front/across the street from the restaurant is a perfect strip of blond sand and teal water. The spa at the Biltmore is one of the most expensive in the area, though, so before plunging in maybe do a search for Santa Barbara and Montecito spas to compare.

Adam and Toby on the beach across from the Four Seasons Biltmore

A lovely (and less exorbitant) place to stay here is The Montecito Inn, which uses a caricature of Charlie Chaplin as its mascot because he built the place back in 1928 as a place to host his friends. The Inn is a few blocks from the Biltmore on Coast Village Road, a several-block stretch full of little shops and cafes.

Our favorite place to have a romantic dinner on Coast Village Road is Cava, where Spanish tapas meet Mexican flavors.

Whether or not you linger in Montecito, treat yourself to a winding drive up San Ysidro Road to see incredibly wealthy people’s houses. This after all, is Oprah country, and tooling around this neighborhood is a willful exercise in future-based fantasy.


It’s just four blocks down Coast Village Road or off the 101 at State Street.

Here’s a map of town.

Santa Barbara’s downtown begins with the coastal Cabrillo Boulevard, which on weekends is lined with artists hawking their wares, and is generally lined with hotels, restaurants and public parks.

Right in the middle is Stearns Wharf, a long wooden pier lined with touristy restaurants, sea-themed souvenir shops and families with small children.  The fountain that marks its entrance, a huge spray of breaching bronze dolphins, is a Santa Barbara landmark.

Beginning directly across from Stearns Wharf, State Street is the heart of the main shopping and restaurant district.

Santa Barbara California downtown

Downtown Santa Barbara


Paso Nuevo Mall, between Chapala and State Streets just past Cañon Perdido Street, is mostly comprised of stores you’ll just as easily find back home — but they’re arranged in such a quintessentially Santa Barbaran setting that it’s worth it to wander through.  The fountains, painted tiles, terra cotta paths, and hanging baskets of flowers may be modern additions from the 1990s, but they fit this town like a soft (new) shoe.

Farther north up State Street, El Paseo is vintage 1920s and even prettier, with more vines, more shady porticos, tiled fountains, gardens and more unique shops and galleries. La Arcada is much the same, but with the cheesy addition of a reproduction chiming clock and several life-size bronze figures draped about.

There is ample parking behind both El Paseo and La Arcada at Figueroa Street, a block behind the west side of State Street.

For women’s clothing, do as the tony locals do and look for anything with Wendy Foster or Pierre Lafond in the name.

Downtown Santa Barbara


Blue Agave has low lighting and a hip, romantic vibe. The menu is Nuevo Mexican, but they still make their own light, crispy tortilla chips, and the margaritas are from scratch.  Go for the Cowboy Plate, the chicken mole enchiladas, the arugula salad with duck…

At State & A you’ll find plain old American burgers, salads, and sandwiches at decent prices, in a pretty corner spot with a front patio for good people-watching.

El Caballo is a traditional Mexican place with a front patio that faces State Street.  The food is good, but what’s really great here are the specialty margaritas, like pomegranate.  If you like that kind of thing…or two.

La Super Rica Taqueria is incredibly popular not only in Santa Barbara, but also amongst young white people in Los Angeles; that said, I don’t really get it. The food here is no better or worse than you find on a neighborhood Mexican food truck in LA.  It’s mostly burritos and plates of overcooked squash and peppers sprinkled with queso fresca, for which you get to stand in line endlessly. But that’s as far as I’ll go from dissuading you — after all, as you stand in line, you just might meet some nice local people who’ll have their own Santa Barbara finds to recommend.

Mimosa is a quiet French place a few minutes beyond downtown that wins no awards for decor but has attentive, friendly service and appetizers gorgeous enough to make a whole meal.

Hills of Santa Barbara, California

View of Santa Barbara from the hills of Monetcito


While you’re over by the stately Old MissionSanta Barbara and its impressive rose garden, be sure to also head up the hill and visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Had all our grandparents been able to make it up or down the long flight of stairs to the garden, we would probably have gotten married here.  A maze of native plants and flowers, this is a great place to steal away from prying eyes and get a a little lost in each other.

Our favorite attraction in Santa Barbara is the Zoo. Beautifully maintained and full of exotic animals like a family of South American capybaras or a furry-coated Himalayan snow leopard, Santa Barbara’s zoo encourages you to relax, take your partner’s hand and stroll around, marveling that the animals may just have had great luck in landing here.

Santa Barbara Court House

Santa Barbara's gorgeous Court House


If you want to stay in town, know that it’s generally a fortune.

Even simple places like a Best Westernor a Motel 6 are at least $40 more a night than in other large towns.

If you’d like to be near the beach, try the Harbor View Inn just past Stearns Wharf. It has pretty rooms and an incredible pool, with the beach across Cabrillo and the heart of town just down the street.

Not far past the Mission is the romantic hilltop getaway of El Encanto, our usual overnight haunt. They have lush gardens, shaded canopies for reading by the pool, and at night, incredible views of the twinkling valley below, all the way to the ocean.

Just down the hill by the Mission itself, the Simpson House Inn is a huge Tudor house set amidst a private English garden. Rooms offer private decks, in-room jacuzzis, fireplaces, or sometimes, all three. Breakfasts are vegetarian.

Just off the end of downtown State Street, you’ll find the reasonably priced, couple-friendly Bath Street Inn. An 1890s house on a sunny, residential street, it offers frilly fabrics, a welcome afternoon tea and a lovely side patio overhung with bouganvillea. A few rooms have whirlpool tubs, and all are cozy and comfortable.

On one trip to Santa Barbara, we took along Toby the corgi, our beloved dog, and needed dog-friendly lodgings; thanks to the folks at the Chamber of Commerce, this took Adam about three minutes. The Blue Sands Motel (just off the main coastal drag of Cabrillo Blvd. at Milpas Street), is across the street from a park and the beach, and close to Stearns Wharf and State Street.  Our room was clean, the bed comfortable, and the remodeled shower pretty darn fancy. If we’d needed or wanted it, there was even a good-sized kitchenette. It cost about $115 + $10 extra bucks for Toby to spend the night at the Blue Sands, which turned out to be the magic number.  Other area hotels allow dogs, also — but for upwards of $75 a pet.


See related posts
Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail
A Santa Barbara “ReTweet”…I Mean, Retreat
Lean Times for Luxury?
Central California: The Santa Ynez Wine Valley
Romancing the Old West: Alisal Guest Ranch
Central California: The Santa Maria Wine Valley
The Best of Central California


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