Located geographically less than 100 miles from hyper-metropolitan Los Angeles, Santa Barbara feels light years away from the noise and congestion of its huge neighbor to the south, which helps explain why the upper crust of Southern California have long favored the coastal retreat as both a getaway destination and the perfect place for a second (or sometimes first) home. With a temperate climate and lush natural environs, the "Riviera of the West" is perfect for a day trip, with its wide, perfect beaches, highly rated wineries, and a large variety of shopping and dining choices, or a much longer stay, with a highly active local culture of volunteerism and fund-raising that enables the town of just 90,000 residents to enjoy the sort of cultural and social amenities that are usually found only in much larger cities.
Although the common perception of Santa Barbara is as a playground for the rich and famous, the reality is more middle-America than you might think, with an average income only slightly higher than California as a whole, and a diverse ethnic makeup and heritage. Notable for its California Mission-style architecture (a long-standing local ordinance ensures that all commercial construction follow the Mission theme, which results in a plethora of red-tiled roofs and faux adobe supermarkets), local residents are intensely proud of their city's roots and traditions, and a number of hugely popular festivals throughout the year celebrate the many cultures found within the city limits.
Santa Barbara Airport Information (http://www.flysba.com/)
Santa Barbara is served by a small airport, Amtrak train station, and Greyhound bus lines. Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, though tiny, provides access to LAX through a shuttle service that flies between the two airports several times per day.
Santa Barbara Airport Information
If arriving by car, be aware that there is only one highway in or out of Santa Barbara, US 101; downtown Santa Barbara can be accessed via the Garden St. exit, while the beaches can be found off the Cabrillo St. offramp.
There are numerous methods for getting around once in Santa Barbara. The city limits are cozy enough that simply walking from one destination to another is quite possible, but there is also a healthy public transit system in place here. The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District (SBMTD) runs busses all over Santa Barbara proper, as well as neigboring Goleta and Montecito. Their website lists all current routes and fares. The SBMTD also runs a special shuttle service between downtown and the waterfront, leaving every fifteen minutes during the day. Along the waterfront, many businesses offer bicycle or inline skate rentals for exploring the beach areas, and "rickshaw" taxis are also a common sight.
Budget and Hertz outlets are present at the airport terminal for easy car rentals, but several other rental agencies are located in Santa Barbara; call around for best rates.
For a city the size of Santa Barbara, the number of "must-sees" is quite astonishing. This is only a partial list:
- Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St. (from downtown State St., turn east onto Mission St. and follow signs pointing toward the Mission,) (805) 682-4149. Self-guided tours available daily from 9am to 5pm. Known as "The Queen of the Missions," Santa Barbara's "Old Mission" is a superb example of California's Franciscan Spanish architecture. The tenth California Mission to be constructed, Mission Santa Barbara today is both a scenic wonder and a fine anthropological study of original native culture in the surrounding area. Well worth a visit, be sure to take note of adjacent pottery kiln and tanning vat ruins. $4 for adults. http://www.sbmission.org/home.html
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta Del Sol Road (follow signs from SB Mission). Open 10am to 5pm daily. (805) 682-4711. This large, well-presented natural history museum is - literally - a hidden treasure. Highlights include eleven exhibit halls focusing on regional natural history, and a life-size Blue Whale skeleton. $6 for adults. http://www.sbnature.org/
- Stearns Wharf, located at the end of State Street along the Waterfront. This picturesque 1872 wharf - the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco - has tons of history. Badly damaged several times by fire, Stearn's Wharf has been repeatedly rebuilt and restored and today features more than a dozen shops and restaurants, and one of the best views in California from the end of its pier. The Wharf was also once owned by Hollywood legend James Cagney. Free. http://www.stearnswharf.org/
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street. Open M-F 9am to 5pm. (805) 963-4364. A remarkably well-provisioned museum considering the size of the town it resides in, Santa Barbara's main art museum features a strong collection of Roman antiquities, as well as an impressive lineup of classical European and modern art. Frequently rotated exhibitions are among the strongest in California. Adults: $7. http://www.sbmuseart.org/
Although Santa Barbara is an atypical coastal town, it offers the typical Southern California variety of outdoor activities, from surfing to whale-watching.
Beaches, along the Waterfront. Santa Barbara's most popular beach, East Beach, is a pristine stretch of blindingly white sand framed by postcard quality palm trees, surrounding hills and nearby harbor. For less crowded beachcombing, try nearby Leadbetter Beach, or further up the road, isolated Arroyo Burro (known to locals as Hendry's Beach,) where dog lovers bring their pets to frolic in a no-leashes-needed surfside dog park. Even more isolated is Butterfly Beach, tucked away in a cove beneath the high-toned Biltmore Hotel in Montecito. http://www.totalsantabarbara.com/beach.shtml
Santa Barbara is a shopping paradise. State Street alone offers more than a mile stretch of everything from trendy boutiques to popular chain stores like Borders Books and Barnes and Noble. El Paseo (812 State St.,) on downtown State Street, is an upscale mall that bills itself as "California's First Shopping Center," while lushly themed and nearby Paseo Nuevo (651 Paseo Nuevo) offers Nordstrom's, Macy's, and more then 50 specialty shops. Whatever you're looking for, you'll likely find it on State Street, but don't try to park your car downtown. Walking or taking a bus in is highly advised.
Latin-themed dishes are, quite logically, the order of the day in Santa Barbara, and the town's Mexican food ranks with any other town in California. The town's elevated cultural status attracts high-powered chefs from all over the world, and the selection and sheer variety of local fare is quite astonishing for a community of 90,000. Here are just a few of Santa Barbara's culinary choices:
La Super Rica Taqueria, 622 N. Milpas St., (805) 963-4940. Once tabbed "Best Mexican Food in the Country" by the New York Times. You won't come here for the atmosphere. There is no sign on the building, and seating is first come-first served, but you'll be happy you stood in the long line forming outside the door once you taste what's served up here. $5-$15.
Santa Barbara is full of bars. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your preference), the vast majority of them cater to crowds of freshmen from the nearby university. You won't find many dive bars here, and expect to pay a dollar or two more per drink than you would in your typical San Francisco or LA bar.
The James Joyce, 513 State Street. (805) 962-2688. Open 10am-2am daily. Yes, it's an Irish pub, or "A Traditional Irish Bar," as their website claims, meaning, expect fights and yelling. Rowdy clientele for Santa Barbara, if you're into that sort of thing. Guinness flows freely and live bands frequently play on weekends. http://www.thejamesjoyce.com/
Santa Barbara has a huge number of hotels and motels, ranging from Motel 6 to Fess Parker's astonishing Doubletree Resort. One thing you won't find here are dive hotels; you have to go to Goleta for that.
Hotel Santa Barbara, 533 State Street. 1-800-549-9869. European-style hotel smack in the middle of Santa Barbara's busy downtown shopping area. $129-$219, ask about midweek specials. http://www.hotelsantabarbara.com/
Although Santa Barbara is somewhat geographically isolated, with only one major route in or out of the city, the surrounding area is rife with fascinating side-trips.
- Solvang. Located approximately 40 miles north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is a gingerbread town. What must have started several decade back as a small "Little Denmark" tourist trap has grown into an entire town and surrounding community obsessed with its own overwhelming Danishness. Every sign, roof, light post and pothole is Danish-themed here, and reports of wandering bands of drunken men in plastic Viking helmets are firmly founded in reality. Take Highway 101 north/west to Buellton, exit at the Highway 246 offramp and follow the destination signs to Solvang.
City of Santa Barbara
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