Insider Intel: Santa Barbara
With its Mediterranean climate, Spanish Colonial architecture and SoCal lifestyle, Santa Barbara — aka “America’s Riviera” — is a magnet for travelers looking for a change of pace and scenery. Here, a roundup of the food, shopping and cultural offerings that make Santa Barbara well worth a visit.
To truly understand and enjoy Santa Barbara’s eclectic present, you have to know a bit about its past. The Native American Chumash were the first modern-day inhabitants of Santa Barbara. They lived on fish and wild plants and are known to have been skilled artisans, creating complex tools, elaborate basketry and ocean-faring canoes considered the most advanced of their time. (Tip: You can learn more about this history and see artifacts on view at the Chumash Cultural Exhibit, a permanent exhibition at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara; it was entirely developed and designed by artists and experts of Chumash descent.) By the 18th century, Spanish settlers had arrived and given Santa Barbara its name and what would become its signature architectural style.
The area remained a sparsely populated beach town until 1901, when the railroad connected the city to San Francisco. The next 100 years saw Santa Barbara evolve from a Victorian-era resort town to the center of the American movie industry (Flying A Studios, the first major movie studio in the country, opened in 1912 and produced thousands of silent films during its six-year run) to an oil town (it’s the location of the world’s first offshore oil well) to, finally, the eclectic beachside respite it’s known as today.
Even the most casual sightseer will want to take in the stunning architecture of Mission Santa Barbara, which was founded in 1786 and rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1812. The California missions were erected by Spanish colonists looking to convert the native peoples, and while that work has long since been abandoned, Mission Santa Barbara still houses a Franciscan order and a museum that displays artifacts, crafts and tools of the native Chumash. 805-682-4713; santabarbaramission.org
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is open seven days a week, offering views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which bound the city along its eastern edge and help to create the area’s distinctive climate. The garden is a 78-acre tribute to California’s biodiversity. 805-682-4726; sbbg.org
Nature lovers will also want to make time to explore Ganna Walska Lotusland in nearby Montecito, which includes a stunning aloe garden (home to 140 types of aloe), citrus orchards, beautifully sculpted topiaries and a succulent garden. 805-969-9990; lotusland.org
An eclectic mix of restaurants — from high-end eateries to casual spots — keeps the dining scene in Santa Barbara exciting. For example, Bibi Ji takes a refined approach to carefully prepared Indian cuisine and features an extensive wine list courtesy of James Beard Award-winner Rajat Parr. Among the artfully presented plates are Thali (curry platter) and Uni Biryani (served in an actual sea urchin). 805-560-6845; bibijisb.com
With its white-washed interiors, marble tabletops and hanging planters, Smithy Kitchen + Bar is a Mediterranean escape with a menu to match (think burrata with peas and preserved lemon or flatbread with chèvre, coal-roasted leeks, pancetta and romesco). If the alfresco spirit takes you, grab a table in the expansive outdoor area, which is surrounded by olive trees. 805-845-7112; smithysb.com
Forty minutes from the downtown area is Mattei’s Tavern, which is located in the town of Los Olivos and situated in a landmarked two-story wooden building that dates back to 1886. It’s a local institution that has just reopened, serving up steakhouse classics and a crowd-pleasing mud pie (with coffee ice cream and house-made caramel) for dessert. 805-729-2857; matteistavern.com
Santa Barbara’s much vaunted wine region adds another dimension to the area’s natural beauty. The unique geography — its mountain ranges are transverse, meaning they run from east to west instead of north to south — creates growing conditions hospitable to cool-climate wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, arguably the region’s most popular varietals. Many of the area’s vineyards also produce other Rhône (Syrah and Grenache) and Loire Valley (Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc) varieties.
While a day trip to the area’s picturesque vineyards is always a unique experience (there are wineries within an hour of the city), those looking to stay closer to their accommodations can head to the Funk Zone, a warehouse-district-turned-hip-enclave in downtown Santa Barbara. More than a dozen local wineries have opened tasting rooms here — Kunin Wines, Riverbench Winery and Municipal Winemakers are three favorites — allowing visitors to create their own wine tours, grab lunch, browse local shops and take in a few galleries, all within the span of a few blocks.
If you prefer to enjoy your wine in a distinctly luxurious setting, the Foley Tasting Room at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara draws on its 12,000-bottle cellar for daily tastings (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and offers wines by the bottle and glass on Friday and Saturday evenings. 805-968-1614; ritzcarlton.com
The founders behind The Shopkeepers, also located in the Funk Zone, wanted to create a uniquely warm and welcoming space that is as well-curated as the products it contains. This is the place to find handcrafted jewelry, clothes and accessories, goods from local artisans and hostess gifts that are sure to impress. Old-school rock ’n’ roll photography shares space with covetable bags from Want Les Essentiels, candies from Sugarfina and all manner of body and skin care products. 805-883-3122; theshopkeepers-sb.com
Caroline Diani’s boutique Diani is a local mainstay opened in 2002 with the idea that Santa Barbara should have a chic shop on a par with what you might find in the Knightsbridge district of London. The British expat’s boutique brims with effortless blouses, linen shirts, caftans, dusters and summer scarves from brands like Inhabit, IRO, Lemlem and Jane Carr. The boutique was so successful that in 2014, Diani opened a sister shop devoted to home design, Diani Living, where shoppers can find rugs, pillows and throws with a washed and vintage look. Diani, 805-966-3114; dianiboutique.com. Diani Living, 805-770-7043; dianiliving.com/shop/all.html
Gentlemen visitors looking for a precise cut can head to Wolf’s Head, a barbershop set in a masculine, throwback setting alongside an expertly curated selection of clothing (like Japanese selvedge denim) and grooming products (Bixby combs and Baxter pomades). The whiskey on the rocks — or neat — is complimentary. 805-845-0685; shopwolfshead.com
Perhaps uncommon for a city with fewer than 100,000 people, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has a major collection of 27,000 pieces, including works by Rodin, Whistler and O’Keeffe, and the largest collection of Monets owned by a museum on the West Coast. 805-963-4364; sbma.net
With its focus on contemporary classical music, the Ojai Music Festival draws a crowd of adventurous music lovers for four days of first-class concerts. Each year, the festival invites one musical luminary to curate the festival — past music directors have included Peter Sellars, Pierre Boulez and John Adams — with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja taking the honors in 2018. 805-646-2053; ojaifestival.org