Santa Barbara’s secret gems

State Street on Downtown SB - Picture by Mark Weber

If you thought California was all about LA or San Fran, it’s time to think again. Book a California rental bus and head North from LA less than 100 miles, along the jaw dropping Pacific Coast Highway. There is a treasure trove of clifftop restaurants, stunning beaches and iconic towns waiting to be explored.

Moving from LA to Santa Barbara is actually the perfect short fly-drive – have lunch in Malibu, spot dolphins as you cruise down the coast (in a convertible, of course!) and reach the place where a burgeoning art scene, incredible restaurants and iconic landmarks abound by sunset.

The vibe

Beach volley on SB sand beach - Picture by Rob Sims

Beach volley on SB sand beach – Picture by Rob Sims

Classy, sophisticated and still retaining a classic American coastal town feel, Santa Barbara’s lamp-post-lined streets attract well-heeled travelers in need of sea air and cool vibes.

The best way to explore the town, at least the area near the iconic Stearns Wharf, is by taking a tandem bike along the beach path and around the waterfront. From the wharf, you can cycle the 3-mile Cabrilo bike path and enjoy captivating views of the majestic bay and Santa Ynez mountains.

Historical facets

The Santa Barbara Mission - Picture by Mark Weber

The Santa Barbara Mission – Picture by Mark Weber

For history and art buffs, there is much to enjoy. Santa Barbara Mission, a friary and home to a community of Franciscan monks, has a beautiful church and is set in 12 acres of landscaped gardens. Known for its distinctive bell towers, the mission has self-led tours and is a must-visit.

The town and cultural landmarks are easily accessed on foot or by hopping on the Santa Barbara trolley. You can also make the most of the sunshine on a self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour.

The Moorish-inspired Santa Barbara County Courthouse boasts an 80ft clock tower and inside you’ll find a treasure trove of murals and hand-painted ceilings. Cross to Anacapa Street to the impressive Spanish-style Public Library and mooch around the Santa Barbara Museum of Art close by.

Presidio Avenue is the oldest street in town, the Presidio Gardens on the site of the Presidio parade grounds are perfect for a summer stroll, while along State Street you’ll find independent boutiques, plaques commemorating historic events and El Paseo, California’s ornate first shopping centre, built in the 1920s.

Wine tasting and sculpture

AVA Santa Barbara winery in Funk Zone

AVA Santa Barbara winery in Funk Zone

Over recent years, the 12-square block east of State Street, nicknamed the Funk Zone, has blossomed into a cool stretch famed for sculpture studios, open art galleries and wine-tasting rooms. With over 200 wineries in the county (the region is especially known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah varieties) the Funk Zone boasts a stream of tasting rooms – don’t miss Kunin Wonery, the Valley Project and Santa Barbara winery. Get a pass for the Urban Wine Trail to cover all of the best tastings in this hip part of town.

For vinophiles, a ride for two hours inland will take you to the wine country near Paso Robles – a must when visiting this area. Niner Wine Estates boasts a spectacular setting – with a heart shaped valley – and a fantastic vineyard restaurant where wonderfully engaging  executive chef Maegen Loring delivers an exciting menu inspired by Niner’s kitchen garden.

Where to stay

The Spa at Bacara hotel

The Spa at Bacara hotel

Once you’ve soaked up the sunshine, the sights and the wine tours, head for Bacara the luxury spa resort in Goleta. An oasis of calm with one of the best and largest spas on the West Coast, Bacara is a genuinely tranquil hotel and oozes American sophistication.  The hotel’s beautifully appointed rooms cascade down a gentle slope towards the ocean. There are two pools, one jutting towards the beach and one smaller pool enclosed by the sand coloured buildings near the serene spa. With fire pits outside for sunset watchers, the hotel’s oceanfront Angel Oak restaurant is a highlight of our trip. Aged steak, delicate lobster and scallops, a fastidiously good wine menu – with fantastic local varieties – and festoon lighting out on the terrace complete the unique setting.

Who needs to go

Santa Barbara is the perfect antidote to the fast pace of LA or San Fran. Beautiful, laid back and a breath of fresh sea air, it is an immaculate town, easy to explore and boasts a plethora of dining, spa and art gems.


Hire car: – One week’s car hire in LA with Hertz starts from £301.18 – we signed up for the free Hertz Gold Plus Rewards which gave us access to a range of free extras and discounts and ensured the car was waiting for us.
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