Ninety miles northwest of Los Angeles, this area is often called the American Riviera for its Mediterranean climate and seaside geography. Nestled next to the ocean beneath the Santa Ynez Mountains, and with spectacular views of the Pacific and the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara’s dramatic setting has been a destination since Civil War times. Charming neighborhoods of bungalows and Spanish Revival homes dot the city.
The scenic route to Santa Barbara takes you up the PCH: the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway 1. I picked up a bright-red Camaro convertible at LAX and headed west to Malibu (45 minutes, traffic willing). After picking up some sandwiches on the side of the road and picnicking on the beach, I continued north on Highway 1.
It’s only an hour-and-a-half drive to Santa Barbara, but what a drive! Views along the coast are breathtaking. I stopped at Summerland, just south of Santa Barbara, to browse in the antiques stores on Lillie Avenue and snack on an avocado, the local specialty.
Arts & Crafts in the City
Once in Santa Barbara, orient yourself by visiting the Courthouse at 1100 Anacapa Street (tours: sbcourts.org). Cited as the “most beautiful government building in America,” the Moorish-style building was completed in 1929 and is a National Historic Landmark; ride the elevator to the top of the 85' El Mirador clock tower for an unforgettable panorama of the city.
I had dinner at Brophy Brothers on the waterfront: excellent seafood with a great view (brophybros. com). If the line hadn’t been so long (which it has been often since Julia Child praised the tacos), I’d have tried La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 N. Milpas St.; (805) 963-4940).
Downtown Santa Barbara is compact, a good place to shop and sightsee. Spend a few hours at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on State St. (sbmusart.org) to take in 19th- and early 20th-century art and paintings. Go by the newly restored 1924 Granada Theater, or catch an evening show (granadasb.org). To understand the area’s Spanish heritage, visit the Santa Barbara Mission on Laguna Street (santabarbaramission.org), founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786. Rebuilt after the devastating 1925 earthquake, it’s nicknamed the Queen of the Missions for its grand architecture.
The Arts & Crafts movement is alive and well in Santa Barbara. Walk around the four square blocks of historic Bungalow Haven, a well-maintained neighborhood just six blocks from State Street downtown.
A short drive to Montecito brings you to Lotusland, the fantastic gardens begun by Madame Ganna Walska in 1941. The motto of the famous Polish opera singer and socialite—“I’m an enemy of the average”—is evident in the exotic gardens and her home, now open to the public (lotusland.org).
Another day trip starts with a 45-minute drive northeast up Highway 101, through the steep chaparral of the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountains to quaint communities in the Santa Ynez Valley. Buellton, at the intersection of 101 and State Highway 246, has a variety of shops, restaurants, and wine-tasting rooms. Buellton is the Home of Split Pea Soup, thanks to Pea Soup Andersen’s Restaurant, which opened in 1924. The charming town of Los Alamos (Spanish for “cottonwoods”) is at the entrance to the Valley at the junction of 101 and State Highway 135. You’re in the heart of the wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley (gogrape.com/santabarbara).
My favorite community in the Valley is Solvang (Danish for “sunny fields”), founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants. It’s a European-style village of shops and restaurants; I had a cranberry and apricot salad at Panino on First Street, across from the extraordinary Solvang Antique Center (solvangantiques.com). On Wednesday afternoons, a splendid flower and local produce market takes over First Street.