Escape to the American Riviera: Santa Barbara, California

Advisor - Jennifer Lopez
Curated By

Jennifer Lopez

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  • Santa Barbara

  • California

  • Food & Wine

  • Active Travel

  • Local Culture

  • Local Food

  • Entertainment

White houses and palm trees during sunset
Curator’s statement

Santa Barbara is perfectly situated on the Central Coast, about two hours north of L.A. It feels like a world apart, sitting between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountain range. Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera for its temperate Mediterranean climate, beautiful coastline and top-notch food and wine scene. Visitors will enjoy the many cultural spots, outdoor activities, excellent shopping, wine tasting and delicious and diverse cuisine that Santa Barbara has to offer.

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Insider knowledge

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Where to stay in Santa Barbara

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The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara

A tranquil coastal hotel with direct access to two beaches.



Fora Perks
  • $100 hotel / resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

Palihouse Santa Barbara

In the historic Presidio neighborhood, this charming retreat has just 24 rooms set around a leafy courtyard.

Fora Perks
  • Welcome amenities.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, Santa Barbara

Located in the hills of Santa Barbara, this iconic resort dates back to 1918.

Fora Perks
  • $100 hotel / resort credit.

  • Breakfast daily.

  • Upgrade & extended check-in/out whenever possible.

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Things to do in Santa Barbara

An aerial view of the resort of pool side during the day.

Tours:

Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
This 78-acre botanic garden features over 1,000 species of native Californian plants. Spend a couple of relaxing hours wandering its meandering paths through different habitats. It is a great place for children to enjoy as well, particularly the Backcountry section which is wide open for running and exploring.

Lotusland
This 37-acre gem located in the hills of Montecito, allows a very limited number of visitors per day and per season so be sure to book your reservation well in advance. Lotusland features many distinct gardens filled with unique and exotic plants, including the Bromeliad Garden, the Japanese garden and the water garden.

Santa Barbara Zoo
This 30-acre zoo overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is wonderful for both children and adult visitors alike. The modest size of the zoo makes it easy to add a zoo trip to your day's itinerary. Just be sure to book your visit in advance as timed ticket reservations are required.

Old Mission Santa Barbara
Founded in 1786, Mission Santa Barbara was the 10th of the 21 California missions. The beautiful Spanish-style buildings and picturesque grounds make this historical site worth a visit. Self-guided tours are available daily.

Santa Barbara Funk Zone Food and Photo Tour
The Santa Barbara Funk Zone is a downtown waterfront district that has emerged over the past few decades as a cool and eclectic place to eat, shop and view murals on the walls of the converted warehouses. You can visit contemporary art galleries and purchase a custom surfboard in this artistic neighborhood. It is also part of the Urban Wine Trail (see below), a walkable route of over 20 local wine tasting rooms.

Urban Wine Trail
The Wine Trail, with over 20 tasting rooms, crosses five distinct areas of Santa Barbara: The Funk Zone, The Presidio, Midtown, Downtown, and Goleta. Discover some great Santa Barbara wines while exploring different parts of this amazing city.

Museums:

Santa Barbara Museum of Art: The museum displays artwork spanning 4,000 years and several cultures in both its permanent and temporary collections. The modest size of the museum means you can enjoy the whole place in one visit.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History: This museum features exhibits and specimens focused on the Santa Barbara area and Central Coast region. The museum was renovated in 2018 and is state-of-the-art.

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation: This highly interactive STEAM museum encourages play and discovery. It is not your average museum! It is also a great place for families to visit together.

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum: This unique museum covers maritime history and how humans have interacted with the sea for over 13,000 years. The museum's exhibits focus on the native Chumash population, and the Channel Islands National Park.

Outdoor Activities:

Hikes: Santa Barbara has so many fantastic options for hikes, many located in the Los Padres National Park, including Inspiration Point, Rattlesnake Canyon, Cold Spring Trail Loop, Seven Falls Trail, Arroyo Burro Beach Loop, Parma Park Trail and the Potato Harbor Hike on Santa Cruz Island, the Channel Islands. For an easy walk with kids (and/or dogs on leashes), make your way along the coastline on the Santa Barbara Waterfront path, which stretches just under five miles from Leadbetter Beach to the Bird Refuge.

Kayaking in the Channel Islands: kayak tours in the Channel Islands are available for beginners to advanced kayakers. Take a ferry from Ventura to the Channel Islands and then begin your excursion with an orientation. View sea caves, kelp forests and the gorgeous coastlines as you kayak in your single-person craft. A snorkeling add-on is optional.

Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour
Cruise past the Santa Barbara waterfront, the Funk Zone, Butterly Beach and Montecito, and the Old Mission Santa Barbara on this two-and-a-half-hour e-bike tour.

Surfing: Santa Barbara is a surfer's paradise. Of particular note are the surf spots at Rincon Point, Campus Point, Refugio State Beach, Leadbetter Beach and Jalama Beach State Park. New to the sport? Take a surfing lesson or two with Santa Barbara Surf School.

Places to eat & drink in Santa Barbara

A picture of sushi served on a table.

Dinner:

The Lark: This New-American fare restaurant is located in the Funk Zone, near the Waterfront. The menu is focused on local and seasonal ingredients. Food is designed to be shared, with a lot of small plates and "platters" offered. The restaurant's craft cocktails are not to be missed.

Sushi by Scratch: Also known as Sushi Bar Montecito, this award-winning omakase-style dinner with just 10 seats has only three seatings per night. 17 courses (one divine piece of sushi per course) are prepared in front of you in this tiny chef's kitchen restaurant. Arrive an hour or two early and enjoy the fabulous shopping in Montecito.

Loquita: This Spanish restaurant located near the Waterfront features tapas, wood-fire grilled seafood and meats, seasonal paella, a delicious house sangria and a rotating selection of gin and tonics. Their outdoor dining patio is a beautiful space and a great place for people-watching.

Lunch/Dinner:

Santa Barbara Public Market: This food hall houses a fantastic Mexican cafe, Corazon Cocina, as well as Asian Street food, pizza and a top-notch burger joint, among others.

Brunch:

Boathouse at Hendry's Beach: there isn't a more classic beach brunch than Hendry's. Enjoy the gorgeous ocean views as you dine on vanilla bean French toast, chilaquiles, or "The Santa Barbara" omelets. Complete your meal with a fresh OJ mimosa. Hendry's beach is dog-friendly so feel free to bring your furry friend.

Jeannine's Restaurant and Bakery: There are four locations of this family business: Montecito, Goleta, near Stern's Wharf and in Uptown. Choose from Banana-Kahlua or Challah french toast, Tri-tip, Norwegian, Florentine, or classic Benedicts, or homemade granola, among the many offerings. Don't leave without getting some amazing baked goods to go!

Ice Cream:

McConnell's: This native favorite features outstanding regular and seasonal flavors. My favorite is chocolate-covered strawberry, which is made with locally grown berries.

Rori's: Rori's has locations in both Montecito and the Santa Barbara Public Market (see above). Inspired regular flavors, like Brown Sugar Banana, Lemon Curd and Black Pepper Pistachio, are joined by seasonal tastes such as Maple Pecan and Vegan Brown Sugar Roasted Apple.

Need to Know

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, Fall Foliage in the Hudson River Valley

Advisor - Jennifer Lopez

Travel Advisor

Jennifer Lopez

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Santa Barbara