Nicknamed “The American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is a great place for a weekend jaunt or a full fledged vacation. Famed for having at least 300 sunny days a year (bring your shades!) and a mere 100 miles north of L.A., it’s long been a favorite retreat for Hollywood’s elite and many have even bought homes here (Oprah, Rob Lowe, Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore, to name a few.)
From the surfers dotting the Pacific Ocean and the hiking trails in the Santa Ynez Mountains, to the palm tree lined streets and the Spanish architecture in between, the whole place just has a cool, Cali laid back vibe that’s hard to resist. Any place that’s credited with introducing the Mexican avocado to America is fine by me.
Here, our favorite places to stay, shop, eat and do in this sunny playground.
WHERE TO STAY
Belmond El Encanto:
With its stunning views of the Pacific coastline far below, lush gardens and homey vibe, it’s no surprise that Belmond El Encanto is a popular place for weddings. In some ways it seems more like someone’s massive yet welcoming estate than a hotel.
After a seven-year, $134 million renovation there are some new modern touches and amenities (Aqua di Parma bath products, spacious closets, pillowcases with your initials), but the retro romantic feel harking back to when the hotel first opened in 1918 remains among the Spanish Colonial revival and California Craftsman architecture.
There’s a gorgeous lily pond surrounded by wisteria-covered columns, an infinity pool where you can lounge, plunge and sip on cocktails and plenty of meandering paths among the 7 acres that feature birds of paradise, fuchsia bougainvillea, and fragrant lemon trees. The best part about the restaurant, which boasts “California Coastal Cuisine” as envisioned by a French chef, is the al fresco dining with more majestic views. On weekends there’s usually a crooner in the lobby singing Frank Sinatra tunes.
Our room was a luxurious “cottage” with two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and our own private patio—yes, also with stunning views—which served as the perfect spot for our sunset glasses of rose on night one and our room service breakfast our last morning.
For those who want to do more than relax, there’s a fitness center, yoga classes, pilates, an excellent wellness program and electric bikes that you can ride into town.
800 Alvarado Pl., Santa Barbara, CA 93103; 805-845-5800; belmond.com/elencanto
The Bacara Resort & Spa
Kicking back in a poolside cabana at the Bacara is the definition of vacation bliss. With Reggae tunes playing at the pool bar, the Pacific Ocean lapping a few hundred feet away, a margarita in one hand and a fork full of delicious “Kalifornia Kale” salad in the other (baby avocado, pixie oranges, dates, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, roasted almonds and aged chorizo), I released a sigh of contentment.
Technically, this Mediterranean “village” sprawling across 78 acres of ocean front property is in Goleta, 13 miles north of Santa Barbara, but close enough. There is a lot to explore here and golf carts driven by friendly hotel staff ferry guests up and down the hilly paths from beach and pool to restaurant, spa to lobby or the coffee bar to your room. Speaking of the rooms, (there are 358) they are like exquisitely decorated mini apartments complete with fireplaces, homey touches like objets d’art, books and plush throws to drape over your legs as you sit on your patio watching the sun set over the ocean.
The spa here is first rate, offering 60 treatments in a tranquil setting. Think lounges with fireplaces, comfy couches, magazines and healthy snacks. I had the “Diamond Rose Experience by Natura Bissé” ($195 for 50 minutes), which included a gentle and nourishing exfoliation followed by a regenerating massage with Damask rose oil. It was so relaxing I fell asleep.
As far as cuisine, their new restaurant Angel Oak is rated one of the top in the area with a 12,000 bottle wine cellar. There’s an impressive seafood “tower” with lobster, oysters, nd crab but the focus here is steaks, which all come with a selection of tasty sauces, and sides. For dessert go for the “Candy Bar” which tastes exactly the way it sounds.
8301 Hollister Ave., Santa Barbara, CA 93117; 844-276-0955; meritagecollection.com/bacararesort
THE BILTMORE FOUR SEASONS
I’ve been staying at this hotel on and off for the past 20 years and it remains a favorite. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, girls’ getaways and family vacations—I’ve done it all and keep coming back. Built in 1927, The Biltmore is a California Classic. Its Spanish Colonial Revival style—complete with coffered ceilings, dramatic archways, gurgling fountains and plenty of colorful tiles—is gorgeous yet comfortable, and it’s hard to argue with the location (22 acres with 2,000 species of plants). Plus, it’s a mere seashell’s throw from Butterfly Beach.
Although the property isn’t right on the water (it’s across the street), guests have access to the famed Coral Casino Cabana and Beach Club, with its Olympic-size pool, acres of lounge chairs and Tydes seafood restaurant. And there are plenty of ocean views at the main hotel, like the one from the terrace at Bella Vista, great for brunch and romantic dinners with its warm candle light and fire pit. The hotel bar, Ty Lounge, is also a fun place to hang. It's got great tapas and live Spanish guitar.
While all the rooms are comfortable, the bungalows are the way to go. It’s like having your own mini apartment with a private entrance and garden, plus they’re dog-friendly. Starting in June, the hotel will be offering a new wellness retreat including sessions with fitness and health guru Nora Tobin (her energy and enthusiasm is infectious), yoga, meditation, paddle boarding, a wellness menu and spa treatments.
1260 Channel Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93108; 805-969-2261; fourseasons.com/SantaBarbara
WHERE TO SHOP
Wendy Foster/ Angel
Wendy Foster, a Santa Barbara retail staple for more than 40 years, epitomizes the relaxed, California ethos—chic yet understated. Imagine an outfit you’d want to wear to a cool cocktail party on the beach—this is where you’d go to buy it.
There are romantic dresses and cozy cashmere shawls, silk camisoles and menswear-inspired trousers, sporty striped tees and boyfriend jeans, chunky leather boots, elegant flat sandals and lace sneakers. And each look can be topped with piles of colorful beaded bracelets, layers of sparkly necklaces or a floaty scarf. Wendy herself, a native with an eye for style buys for all three of the shops that bear her name plus one called Angel which has a slightly younger feel. At all the stores, moms shop alongside their daughters.
Multiple Locations wendyfoster.com
WHISKEY + LEATHER
The cool name (along with the cow skulls out front) beckoned me to walk into this store and I wasn’t disappointed. This tiny, but jam packed and well, cool, shop opened by two cute UCSB grads—Zee Chew and Ariel Hujar, seems like a place where a modern-day Stevie Nicks might shop. There are velvet and denim jackets, leather and silver bracelets, floral dresses and lots of skinny jeans. I spotted trendy labels like For Love and Lemons and Jet Set Diaries, Chan Lu and much more. I even bought my daughter a dressy top by Roe + Mae that she can pair with jeans for a night out.
1101 Coast Village Rd., Suite A Santa Barbara, CA 93108; 805-770-5155; whiskeyleather.com
Opened in 2002 by British Ex-pat Caroline Diani, this local fave includes 3 stores—one sells clothing, the other shoes and the third, Diani Living, which offers items for the home and garden, is my favorite. It’s perfect for gifts and I pretty much wanted everything in here—the Kinfolk Ceramic dishes in an array of earth tones, the various sized copper water bottles, monogrammed notebooks in every color, plush pillows and throws and most of all the wonderful array of cacti—including a gorgeous wreath of succulents.
1324 State St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 877-342-6474; dianiliving.com
WHERE TO EAT
You gotta love a place with a cocktail named “The Unapologetic.” This hipster spot in Santa Barbra’s “Funk Zone” (aka the Art’s District) is located in a former fish market, between the docks and the train station and named after a famous sleeper train.
On any given night the joint is hopping both inside and out (think cactus and twinkly lights) with all ages who flock here for the lively vibe and tasty fare—made from locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and meant to be shared. What’s not to love about rosemary and brown butter cornbread, a beet and strawberry salad, slow roasted short ribs or pappardelle with mushrooms, sugar snap peas and parmesan? Yum! Plus, there's an awesome selection of handcrafted cocktails with names like the Jackrabbit, the Aztec and the aforementioned “Unapologetic.” I’m not sorry.
131 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-284-0370; thelarksb.com
Finch and Fork
Located at the popular Canary Hotel, this rustic-cool eatery is all about comfort food and fresh ingredients. Referred to as “New American Fare”, selections include buttermilk fried chicken, deviled eggs, classic burgers, baked mac and cheese and seafood pot pie. Comfort me now. Bonus: grab a cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar, complete with a pool and outdoor fireplace.
31 West Carrillo St. Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-879-9100; finchandforkrestaurant.com
McConnell’s Ice Cream
Time Magazine once declared it ”The Best ice cream in the world,” and there are legions of fans who agree. This Santa Barbara landmark in a no-frills setting often has long lines out the door – especially in the summer—but the wait is worth it. For 70 years they’ve been cranking out creamy goodness made from fresh, local organic ingredients—Try the chocolate covered strawberry, sea salt cream, and cookies or churros con leche.
The cold treat became so popular that they opened more locations and now also sell to other outlets via the internet, but it’s fun to have it here, where it all started.
728 State St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-324-4402; mcconnells.com
WHAT TO DO
The Santa Barbara Zoo
Some people don’t like zoos. They don’t like seeing animals in cages and think it’s too sad. I get it. But I still love me a good zoo. It’s the only place most people will ever get to see exotic animals and learn first hand that we are but one of the many amazing species who share this planet. Plus, The Santa Barbara Zoo, which has 500 animals on 30 acres has been consistently ranked as one of the country’s best small zoos.
I love to buy food from the nearby Honor Bar’s deli and bring it as a picnic to eat on the grassy knoll here overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the giraffe exhibit. Fun fact: Six Masai giraffes have been born here in the past four years! There’s also a cute train that chugs around the perimeter and animals include Lowland Gorillas (two brothers), African Lions, Cheetahs, Asian Elephants and more. If you want to splurge, there are special behind the scenes tours and a “keeper for a day” program.
500 Ninos Dr. Santa Barbara, CA 93103; 805-962-5339; sbzoo.org
Patrick W. Price
Explore The Santa Barbara Public Market
Referred to as a “contemporary urban marketplace”, this foodie haven specializes in delicious locally and regionally sourced foods. Come here hungry! There’s a wine merchant, beer garden, gourmet coffee, fresh fish market, cupcake shop, noodle bar, oil and vinegar, Mexican Restaurant and Rori’s organic ice cream (try the “Cinnamon Toast Cereal Crunch,” the “Peanut Butter Chocolate Candy Swirl” or one of their ice cream tacos!). There are also special events such as wine, cheese and beer tastings, cooking classes, and live music.
38 West Victoria St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-770-7702; sbpublicmarket.com
Take in a Polo Match
The Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club, right near the Pacific Ocean is a beautiful spot to spend the day. The season starts May 5 (with a 12 goal series,) and runs through early fall. You don’t really even have to know anything about Polo to enjoy this spectacle—the people and the pony watching here are good enough reasons on their own, as is the festive atmosphere (plus, there's a Happy Hour every Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.). You can opt for a luxury cabana or a general admission ticket and after the matches on Sunday, stick around for their new “Polo After Hours” party with a no host bar and dancing by DJFab.
3375 Foothill Rd. #1200, Carpinteria, CA 93013; 805-684-6683; sbpolo.com
Want more ideas? Rent bikes or a surrey and ride along the waterfront, go wine tasting in nearby Santa Ynez, check out the Coronado Butterfly reserve or explore Santa Barbara’s picturesque sea caves via kayak. You can hire a guide via Aquasports, The Santa Barbara Adventure Company, Channel Island Outfitters or others. It’s a great way to spend a day on the ocean while taking in sea creatures (seals and dolphin), as well as some natural geographical wonders.