Guide to Santa Barbara, California beach, vacation
Like Austin, Santa Barbara transcends being a geographic location and has become an ambitious lifestyle brand. While Austin’s lifestyle, at its best, is laid-back and trendy, Santa Barbara is luxurious and laid-back on the California coast.
What’s so special about Santa Barbara?
There is probably no place in the United States more beautiful than Santa Barbara. A ribbon of town nestled between a coastal mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, it looks south to a chain of islands that rise 30 miles from the sea and paint a picture-perfect backdrop. The town itself is mostly Spanish architecture with red tiled roofs. It’s easy to believe you’re in Europe. The landscapes, which in their original pre-settlement state looked much like the Texas Hill Country – live oaks and native grasses – are now lush, well-watered plantations of palms, roses, birds of paradise and agapanthus.
The Mediterranean climate in Santa Barbara is near perfect. Average highs range from 60 in winter to 70 in summer. In recent years, summer temperatures have increased. Winter lows are in the 40s. Summer is pleasant and fall is glorious, clear and crisp with low humidity.
The chance of summer rain is 0%. The rain comes, when it comes, in winter.
Late spring and early summer can be foggy, especially in the morning. Locals call it “June Gloom”.
Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches, from El Capitan in the west to Fernald Point in the east. All are a place to pack your cooler, set up your chairs, and lather up with sunscreen. But here, the beaches are more a setting than an experience. A place to sunbathe, walk or let your dog loose. The water is cold, mostly braved by young children splashing in the waves and surfers in wetsuits. Stroll the beach, or sit and watch in the early morning or late afternoon, and you’ll see a parade of dolphins and pelicans, and sea lions frolicking and feeding in the kelp forests at the beyond the breakers.
It’s hard to turn away from the ocean, but when you do, there’s a 4,000 foot mountain range right behind it. Spider-webbed hiking trails and verdant with brush and chaparral trees, the mountains are a puckered, photo-friendly backdrop, especially in the moments before sunset, when the hills glow softly in what is known as “the pink moment”. Invisible from below, the upper canyons are home to large predators like bears and cougars.
Here’s a rule of thumb: where the wine grapes grow, life is good. And luckily for us, wine grapes grow here. Hot, sunny summer days and cool nights with occasional foggy mornings are a recipe for world-class wines. Santa Barbara is full of tasting rooms, and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley is full of world-class low-key vineyards and vineyards.
Celebrities and the rich discovered Santa Barbara 100 years ago and they have never forgotten it. Keep your eyes peeled and you might see the Duke of Sussex walking his dogs on the beaches of Summerland, Ellen and Portia watching Brandi Carlile perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl, or maybe Oprah and Stedman having take-out coffees at Pierre’s Lafond.
It’s so easy to be healthy here. A list of daily activities:
- walk on the beach
- Mountain hiking
- electric bike ride
- paddle board
In one morning, you can dip your feet in the Pacific, walk the beach, cycle through the mountains, and have time to clean up and have a leisurely wine-soaked lunch. The climate and soil will grow anything, and there are farmers markets almost every day. Any kind of bodily or spiritual help you can think of is here. Namaste.
Other things to do
What to do is up to you. If you are traveling with someone special, or with young children, or if you are a surfer or a kitesurfer, your activities will be different. But here are a few for everyone to consider.
- Visit the Mission and the Rose Garden
- Santa Barbara Courthouse (self-guided tour, climb the stairs to the clock tower to see)
- Stearns Wharf (touristy but fun, with great views)
- Funk Zone and Harbor (for visitors, this is the heart of the city)
- Santa Barbara Bowl (outdoor amphitheater with ocean view)
- Montecito (wealthy community of celebrities, moguls, and trust funders)
- Wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley (one hour drive, many vineyards and the charming town of Los Olivos)
Where to eat
This and the other recommendations are samples only. There are a lot of great places and you will have fun finding your own special spots.
- Clark’s (coming soon, Montecito. This is Clark’s, McGuire Moorman Lambert Oyster Bar on 6th Street in Austin. They’ve expanded to Aspen and now Santa Barbara)
- Shoreline Beach Cafe (at the beach, some tables are in the sand)
- Brophy Bros. (harbour seafood house with bar and great views)
- Carazon Cocina (downtown, tacos)
- Santa Barbara Public Market (casual, varied)
- Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio (casual, funk zone)
- Finney’s Crafthouse (bar/restaurant, funk area)
- Arigato (sushi, downtown)
- Ca’Dario (Italian)
- The Lark (LA style, funk area)
- Bouchon (gourmet cuisine, downtown)
- The Stonehouse (fine cuisine, Montecito style)
Coffee & breakfast
- Jeannine’s (lunch and dinner, two locations)
- Handlebar Coffee Roasters (coffee, two slots)
- Caje (Cafe, Haley Street)
- Tre Lune (known for dinner, but serves an outstanding full breakfast)
Beer, wine & cocktails
- Figueroa Mountain Brewing (beer, funk zone)
- Melville Winery Tasting Room (Wine, Downtown)
- Riviera Bar (cocktails, downtown)
- Santo Mezcal (cocktails, downtown)
- The Pickle Room (cocktails, downtown)
- Harry’s Plaza Cafe (Cocktails and Food, Locals Square, Loreto Plaza)
- Lucky’s (Cocktails and Steakhouse, Montecito)
- Test pilot (never been but I want to try it!)
Where to stay
You won’t be spending much time in your room, so keep that in mind when choosing your accommodation. Any of the large hotels along the beach or boutique hotels in town are worth a visit. And some spectacular places are available on Vrbo and Airbnb. Just make sure the location is right for you. What is called “Santa Barbara” might be a 20-30 minute drive from downtown. It can get you something really special, so it might be worth it.
A few recommendations:
- Hotel Californian (perfect location – walk anywhere)
- El Encanto (quiet, beautiful views)
- San Ysidro Ranch (casual luxury, Montecito)
- Rosewood Miramar Beach (Beachfront Luxury, Montecito)
- Motel 6 (the very first Motel 6, some rooms have ocean views)
Flying: There are no direct flights to Santa Barbara. Fly private if you can. For the rest of us, here are your top picks:
- Southwest Airlines via Las Vegas
- American Airlines via Phoenix or Dallas
- United Airlines via Denver or San Francisco
Conduct: Another option, fun for some and not for others, is to drive.
1. Measured from Austin’s Steve Ray Vaughn Statue to the Santa Barbara Dolphin Family Sculpture at Stearns Wharf, the trip is 1,474 miles and takes approximately 22 hours.
2. Driving from Los Angeles can be fun if you avoid morning and afternoon rush hours. Rent a car and drive through Santa Monica and up the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop in Malibu and grab a cup of coffee, a drink, or lunch. Distance: 96 miles. Duration: 2 hours or more.
3. Driving from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. It’s 7:30 on google maps, but don’t go there if you’re in a hurry. Take two days and spend the night in Carmel, or further south along the Big Sur coast. At Pismo Beach, take the 101 and when you get to the wine town of Los Olivos, hop onto the 154 freeway for a spectacular first view of Santa Barbara as you cross San Marcos Pass and see the ocean, and little after, the city of Santa Barbara on its shore.
If you go, let us know how it went and let us know any recommendations you think we should add (or subtract). Enjoy your trip!