Riviera. The Italian word for “coastline” conjures up images of sunny beaches and scenic towns teeming with beautiful vistas and beautiful people. Santa Barbara, known as the American Riviera, is no exception. This Southern Californian city with palm-tree-lined beaches, world-class shopping and lodging, and an 18th-century mission, nestled below the soaring Santa Ynez mountains, is a perfect destination for beachcombers who want to be close to the action and still feel a world away. Just two hours north of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast, Santa Barbara is even better if you time your visit when the Santa Barbara Sea Glass and Ocean Arts Festival is in town.
Santa Barbara gets its name from the historical Mission Santa Barbara, which sits on a rise two miles inland from the harbor and has a view of this coastal city of 90,000+ people. Originally home to 10,000 Chumash inhabitants dating from 13,000 years ago, the first permanent European settlers were Spanish missionaries and soldiers who came in 1782. These settlers earned their living through ranching, then in the 20th century through oil, and now Santa Barbara’s main industry is tourism. And it’s no wonder why. With a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, the weather welcomes visitors year round. Its beaches are great for lazing on the sand, beachcombing, and they’re a great launch spot for all kinds of water sports from sailing to kayaking to surfing.
There are so many ways to enjoy the water in Santa Barbara. Take a sunset cruise, go whale watching, try stand up paddle boarding, go kayaking, enjoy a cocktail in one of the wharf restaurants, learn to sail, rent a jet ski, go fishing, take a boat ride to Santa Cruz Island, take a sea lion cruise, charter a yacht, or just dip your toes in the water at the edge of the sand. Whatever your style, there’s a way to enjoy the beautiful Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara.
Stearns Wharf juts out into the Pacific at the base of Santa Barbara’s main drag, State Street, and a quick walk out to the end gives you a panoramic view of the city and the mountains beyond. Check out the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center on the wharf for close encounters with marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum located at the Harbor is a great place to learn about the people who make their living or enjoy recreational activities on Santa Barbara’s waters, plus learn about the abundant local marine life. Kids will want to check out MOXI, a hands-on children’s museum on lower State Street.
If you want to check out the flora and fauna of the area, reserve a tour of the botanical garden with subtropical and tropical plants from around the world called LotusLand in Montecito. Or visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a 78-acre botanical garden with over 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants. Get up close with the butterflies at the Goleta Butterfly Grove (winter home to monarch butterflies from November through February, but gorgeous with or without the butterflies). And, check out the Santa Barbara Zoo, situated on lush grounds with sweeping views and home to penguins, gorillas, a pair of snow leopards, California condors, and more. Visit the state-of-the-art interactive exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to learn about the Santa Barbara region’s unique and diverse natural history.
Ready to roll? Rent specialty cycles, bicycles, Taga Bikes, electric bikes, and more at Wheel Fun Rentals at the base of the wharf and take a ride along any of Santa Barbara’s bike trails, including the Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Bike Trail, a four-mile paved trail along the beach from Stearns Wharf to East Beach and the Santa Barbara Harbor.
For a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb the bell tower of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its beautiful murals and tile work. Or head up to the Queen of the California missions, considered to be the most beautiful and best preserved of the historic Spanish missions in California.
When you’re ready to hit the beach, there are plenty of spots for beachcombers to hunt for treasures including sea glass, driftwood, shells, rocks, whale bones, and more. Both Santa Barbara and the surrounding towns have many wonderful beaches. Right down the street from the Santa Barbara Sea Glass Festival is Arroyo Burro Beach, also known as Hendry’s Beach by the locals. Goleta Beach and Butterfly Beach are also favorites, with easy access and parking. Be sure to check the tides and weather before you head to the beach.
Santa Barbara is a great shopping town, with tony State Street sporting shops from tiny local boutiques to high-end major department stores. There are plenty of restaurants and bars along State Street, including Joe’s Cafe for old-time Italian food or Santa Barbara Public Market, a marketplace offering a variety of locally and regionally sourced food, wine, and beer in one location. For dinner or drinks with a view, visit Brophy Brothers on the harbor, overlooking sailboats and yachts owned by those who call Santa Barbara home. And, if you want to taste the local wines and brews, there are plenty of options, including the Funk Zone, an arts, business, and industrial district with wine tasting, breweries, and great restaurants, as well as art galleries and shops.
There is no shortage of options for places to stay in Santa Barbara. Have you always wanted to spend the night in a vintage Airstream trailer? Check out Autocamp and its luxury campground experience. Or, book at a room at a classic Santa Barbara-style hotel, the Villa Rosa Inn, just steps to the beach. For a bit of the suite life, check out Franciscan Inn & Suites. It is also just a short walk from the beach and harbor and suites have a kitchenette and living room, plus you can enjoy the complimentary breakfast every morning. If you bring your RV with you to Santa Barbara for the Sea Glass Festival, consider staying the night right at the fairgrounds in the Earl Warren RV Park. You can’t get any closer to the festival!
Nestled between the mountains and the ocean, Santa Barbara is filled with enough activities to keep you busy and enjoy for a week…or longer! The neighboring towns of Montecito, Ojai, and Carpinteria are a short drive away and so worth exploring.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue