Last Updated on September 13, 2023
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Often called the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is located less than 100 miles north of Los Angeles in southern California. On the other hand, it’s also considered the southernmost part of Northern California.
The reality, however, is that it incorporates the best of both Californian worlds.
It’s a stylish Californian seaside city as seductive as it is charming. It also has a unique patina the local tourism people tout as the region’s “aphrodisiac credentials.”
And they may just be right, given the fact that several Hollywood celebrities have tied the knot here. They range from Sir Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable to Gwyneth Paltrow and Sandra Bullock. It’s also where JFK and Jackie O spent part of their honeymoon.
The late President Ronald Reagan’s ranch (aka the “western White House”) is here. Other celebrities such as Oprah, Kirk Douglas, George Lucas, Carol Burnett, John Cleese, Drew Barrymore, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Costner have also had homes in the area.
What draws so many to this American Riviera? Make up your own mind by visiting this city nestled on the coast along California’s fabled Highway 101.
The American Riviera
You only need to view the azure sea lapping the beach, or the sea of red-roofed whitewashed buildings with their dramatic backdrop of mountains, to understand why Santa Barbara has become the American Riviera. And the resemblance is more than just seas and mountains.
As in Cannes and Antibes, San Remo and Portofino, Santa Barbara also has legions of restaurants that wind their way down to the seaside. And charming streets where the aroma of culture wafts from a multitude of museums and galleries.
Far off in the distance vineyards scurry across the foothills. Closer by shoppers scurry in and out of chic boutiques and galleries peppered all over the city.
It’s a coalescence of la vie est belle and la dolce vita on the shore of the Pacific.
Santa Barbara Downtown
Aside from its aphrodisiacal qualities, much of city’s appeal is that Santa Barbara’s downtown is chockablock with cultural sites, historical places, great restaurants, and tasting rooms for wineries, all within easy walking distance of one another.
The most popular local destinations on this American Riviera include the Waterfront District with its iconic Stearns Wharf. And the Downtown Historic Arts District, both just a short walk apart. The heart of it all is State Street, lined with a multitude of cafés, shops, galleries and museums, and little paseos, with their gatherings of boutiques and cafés, that run off it.
On State Street, you’ll also find the small Santa Barbara Museum of Art, home to a good American collection that includes works by O’Keefe and Hopper, as well as some works by Picasso.
History À La Carte
Santa Barbara is so easily navigated you can visit almost two-dozen historic and architectural landmarks all within a 12-block area of downtown. This area includes the Presidio State Historic Park, a former Spanish fort dating from 1782, and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
This court, however, is not your average courthouse, something not totally unexpected on the American Riviera. In addition to a sunken garden, the building also contains a beautiful Mural Room on the second floor with two large chandeliers hanging over the chamber.
Before you visit the Mural Room take the elevator to the top of its clock tower for 360° view of the city. Out across the sea of red-tiled roofs you can see everything from the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, right out to spinnaker’s racing across Santa Barbara Channel. Take the stairs down to the mezzanine level and between the fourth and fifth floors you’ll see the clock mechanism working.
The Old Mission Santa Barbara
The area along the American Riviera embraces three of California’s 21 missions, including the historic Old Mission Santa Barbara. It’s the best preserved of all the California missions and the primary cultural and historic landmark in the city.
Founded in 1786, it’s quite interesting from both a historical and ecclesiastical perspective. It’s well worth taking an hour or so to wander about the church, the museum, and the cemetery. It will provide a sense of what life was like on the central coast of California during the 18th century.
You’ll find the entire mission, including the church, the museum, and the gardens rather austere, much like the life of the monks who lived here.
Santa Barbara Wineries
Like other wine regions further north of Santa Barbara, oenophiles find the American Riviera’s wineries a delight. Movie-goers might recognize Santa Barbara as the setting of the “wine-infused” Oscar-winning film Sideways.
It only takes about 45 minutes to reach wine country from downtown. There you’ll find more than 175 wineries and five wine trails in the area. On the other hand, you’ll also find an “Urban Wine Trail,” with 11 wine production facilities and tasting rooms right in downtown. (To see how to get to Santa Barbara and the wineries from elsewhere, see below).
Don’t limit your tastings to wine, however. If you’re a beer lover, you’ll find some microbreweries scattered about town, as well.
From an epicurean perspective, the American Riviera is on steroids, nestled as it as between the ocean and vast stretches of farmland and wineries. Farm-to-table and sea-to-table are important concepts here, and keep the city’s restaurants filled.
It’s also the city where you’ll find La Super Rica Taqueria, the down-and-dirty taco joint that late in life Julia Child proclaimed as her favorite place to eat in Santa Barbara. (It’s on Milpas Street in the city’s Mexican neighborhood.)
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
You should have no trouble finding a suitable hotel in Santa Barbara. Although depending on the time of year availability could be an issue. Hotels on the American Riviera range from the original #1 Motel 6 (it’s been modernized) to five-star resorts and spas.
The most popular places to stay, as ranked by TripAdvisor are Hotel Indigo, Harbor House Inn, Simpson House Inn, Spanish Garden Inn, Pacific Crest Hotel, Cheshire Cat Inn, The Eagle Inn, Beach House Inn & Apartments, Marina Beach Motel, and Bath Street Inn. There are also numerous luxury resorts in the area.
I stayed at the charming and historic Hotel Santa Barbara, a throwback to the early days of the city after being rebuilt following the 1925 earthquake. At that time, the hotel was a place to get away for stars such as Clark Gable and Carol Lombard.
There was also a casino squirreled away inside, and, as one might expect, booze flowed freely in the hotel during Prohibition.
These days it doesn’t, since this American Riviera hotel lacks both a bar and dining room, although breakfast is served in the lobby. I didn’t find the lack of either an issue, however, since the hotel is quite close to several good restaurants. I also found it quite comfortable and well located for sightseeing in Santa Barbara’s downtown area.
How to Get to Santa Barbara
You can get to the American Riviera several different ways. If you’re flying you’ll arrive at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA), an 8-mile drive from downtown. There are daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Phoenix and Dallas.
If you’re driving, Santa Barbara is 92 miles from Los Angeles and 332 miles from San Francisco on California’s famous Highway 101.
It’s also reachable by train (Amtrak), and is a port of call on some coastal cruises.
If You Go:
Visit Santa Barbara
500 E. Montecito Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Tel: (805) 966-9222 / (800) 676-1266
Hotel Santa Barbara
533 State Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Tel (805) 957-9300 / (800) 549-9869