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The beaches of Santa Barbara (often referred to as the American Riviera) face south, looking out to three of the Pacific’s Channel Islands, so it can be a bit disorienting for new visitors waiting for the sun to set straight out over the ocean. Cabrillo Boulevard runs along the city’s beaches and Santa Barbara’s downtown area begins at Stearns Wharf up State Street.
During the school year, you’ll find the city busy with students from nearby University of California Santa Barbara and crowded during the summer with visitors from Los Angeles, about two hours to the south. Inland and north of the city is the Santa Barbara’s own wine country, the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills, famous for pinot noirs grapes featured in the film Sideways.
Santa Barbara Accommodations
Check out Fess Parker's astonishing Doubletree Resort. Ask for a beach view room with a balcony at the Best Western Beachside Inn . The historic (built 1931) Hotel Mar Monte is located conveniently on East Beach. For a more sedate vacation, check into the Best Western Encina Lodge & Suites, in midtown, located on a residential street with turn of the century homes.
Santa Barbara Food
Upstairs on Stearns Wharf, Longboard’s Grill is a beach casual restaurant. In the harbor area, the Breakwater Restaurant is a family-friendly place with great breakfasts and brunch. For romance and atmosphere, take in the panoramic ocean view at Bella Vista at the Four Seasons Resort/Biltmore.
Santa Barbara Activities
State Street offers both local specialty shops and major stores in small outdoor malls (paseos) and courtyards. Like many beach cities, Santa Barbara has a strong artist’s community; you can see their work at the many galleries along the street.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art displays several types of art from Antiquities to contemporary pieces. Visitors to Santa Barbara note the consistency of Mission-style architecture throughout the city. This stems from one of California’s Spanish missions, Santa Barbara Mission. Other examples include El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
The University of Santa Barbara has three museums:
One of the ten Karpeles Institutions, a museum and library for documents and manuscripts, is located in Santa Barbara. The permanent exhibit at this location includes an original stone copy of the Declaration of Independence and a reproduction of a globe used by Columbus. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History focuses on the history and science of Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast. There is a Sea Center annex to the museum located on Stearns Wharf.
Santa Barbara’s mountains offer many well-marked hiking trails as well as the 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. Looking for a zoo with an ocean view? Lucky animals in the Santa Barbara Zoo. On Cabrillo Boulevard, you can rent skates, bikes and rickshaws to use on the walkway along the beach. There are six public golf courses in Santa Barbara.
The city of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department provides lifeguards to Cabrillo (East and West, divided by Stearns Wharf) and Leadbetter beaches. Check with lifeguards (805-564-5418) prior to your ocean adventure. Locations for allowable activities (including surfing and diving) can change due to current weather and water conditions and signs aren’t always obvious.
At Santa Barbara Harbor, there are facilities to rent kayaks, diving equipment, charter a sailboat or go out deep sea fishing in the kelp beds. There are also cruises for whale watching and sunset dining.
Santa Barbara Transportation
Santa Barbara is served locally by the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD). Take the Downtown-Waterfront electric shuttle bus to the beach, harbor and the zoo. The Wharf Woody runs free on weekends from the end of May through October on Cabrillo Boulevard every 20 minutes from the Visitor’s Center to Stearns Wharf. For travel to and from Santa Barbara, there is an airport serviced by seven regional and national airlines and an Amtrak train station.
Santa Barbara Annual Events
International Orchid Show Santa Barbara Whale Festival
Old Spanish Days Fiesta
Sand Castle Festival
Harbor and Seafood Festival
Christmas boat parade