Take a generous serving of spectacular scenery with both mountains and beaches, and combine it with year-round sunshine and extremely pleasant temperatures. Then, sprinkle all that wonderfulness with the famous laid-back Californian lifestyle and – tataaa – you have Santa Barbara, aka the new favorite destination on your to-go list.
Occupying the slither of flat land that separates the Californian coastline from the Santa Ynez Mountains, sunny Santa Barbara knows how to impress and delight: Aside from its enviable weather and the ability to both surf and mountain hike in the same day, the city’s Spanish-style, red roof-tiled streets come with an interesting colonial history and picturesque architecture, while the surrounding area is littered with world-renowned wine regions. The locals love it here – and for good reason:
Appreciate its charming beauty
Santa Barbara can be summed up in two words: seriously pretty. If you’re a budding photographer make sure that your DSLR is fully charged up and ready to go. If you’re just really into Instagram, clear some memory on your phone before you set off to explore and capture Santa Barbara’s charming beauty: It’s as if a Spanish villa was plucked from Europe and placed in central California, where it found that the year-round sun was to its taste and decided to slowly populate the whole town with its easy-going Mediterranean ways. Here, terracotta-tiled roofs top creamy houses that celebrate every shade of pastel – only the leafy green palm trees will remind you that you’re not in Europe. Throw in a few sunset snaps or a wide view across the stunning coastline from halfway up the mountains, and you’re good to hashtag and share. #EFMoment
Treat your taste buds
The best way to tick the ‘cultural immersion’ box when travelling is to do as the locals do: This means that when the sun shines in Santa Barbara (so, all the time) the locals set their sights on the nearest establishment that sells frozen yogurt. McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams and Yogurt, and the alluringly named Yogurtland not far from West Beach are big hitters with both the residents and visitors.
Later, when you’re making the most of the stunning beaches, it’s easy to imagine that there are plenty of others nearby who enjoy the Californian weather – but one of these sun worshippers is not like the others: You’re in wine country, my friend, and so the same sun that gently bronzes your skin also radiates life into the neighboring vineyards, producing plump grapes and a variety of world-famous wines. Wine tasting tours are aplenty and quite simply, it would be rude not to try a little sip or two.
Be at one with nature
Santa Barbara is where the Californians go to escape the hustle and bustle of its big brother cities – San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Fast-paced doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara and California’s laid-back lifestyle is taken to new heights: Here, time drifts by slowly in the gentle ocean breeze without any notion of hurry, making it the perfect place to escape the crowds. And what better place is there to spend quality time with Mother Nature than a surfboard?
In keeping with its Californian heritage, Santa Barbara gazes out to the rolling Pacific Ocean and boasts surf to satisfy any water baby: Experienced surfers can head to North County in search of the windswept beaches and cooler, untamed waters of Jamala State Beach for big, fast moving swells. If you’re a beginner, stay in Southern County Santa Barbara and follow the UCSB students to Stu Peak or Campus Point. Don’t let the sea distract you for too long, though, the mountains and the Lost Padres National Forest behind the city are riddled with scenic paths and hiking routes – complete with hidden natural hot springs for a quick dip.
Meet the wildlife
The local, sun-kissed Californians aren’t the only friendly critters in town: Take a trip out to the Channel Islands National Park – an island archipelago just south of Santa Barbara that plays host to the largest seal and sea lion breeding habitat in North America. Visiting Point Bennett, on San Miguel Island, is the best bet, as you’re (almost) guaranteed sightings of California sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals among the fray.
But we’re not done with the boat activities: 30 species of whales and dolphins move through the Santa Barbara Channel throughout the year to migrating to feeding waters with their young calves. Climb aboard a whale watching tour boat and catch a glimpse of Pacific gray whales, Blue and Humpback whales and, if you’re lucky, even Orca and Pilot whales.
Explore its history and (culinary) culture
In the same way that San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and San Diego has, um, fish tacos, Santa Barbara too has its own icon – the Old Mission. While it might not be quite as grand or as tasty as its Californian rivals, the white-walled and terracotta-domed Old Mission tops the cultural ‘to-do’ list in SB. Founded in 1786 by the Spanish Franciscans, this beautifully preserved church sits amidst acres of immaculate gardens and is still home to a community of Franciscan friars.
Tree-lined State Street, in the heart of historic downtown SB, is home to the region’s best shopping and fine dining haunts – in our books, a stroll through the shops definitely counts as being cultural. In the evening, head over to Stearns Wharf at Santa Barbara harbor: The wharf once primarily serviced the passenger and trade shipping routes of California’s South coast, but it’s now lined with restaurants that serve mouth-wateringly delicious grub with a side of spectacular views across the water. Here, you can round off your day of adventure with a traditional Californian dinner – we recommend a hearty portion of authentic Mexican food.