It’s been called America’s Riviera because it’s as gorgeous and temperate as that famous stretch of European coast, except with the added value of movie stars (Brad Pitt and Oprah have homes there). And things to do in Santa Barbara range from the expected (long beach walks and poolside naps) to the novel (strolling a whole neighborhood devoted to wine tasting). The town’s rolling mountains have long enticed visitors, as have the miles of gently sloping beaches. But there’s also plenty that’s new and exciting in this enclave where monied settlers’ descendants rub shoulders with UCSB coeds—and everyone finds time to stop for just a moment to appreciate the world-class pink-hued sunset.
The Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara, Wine-Soaked Sunsets Included
1. Sleep In A Renovated Craftsman
The new Hideaway hotel is a nine-room mini-hotel where the rooms have fireplaces and views of the Santa Ynez Mountains. It’s three blocks from the beach and a short walk to restaurants and everywhere else you’ll want to go. High-end and a soft blue and beige beachy color scheme make you feel like you’re at your tech billionaire friend’s guest house, not at a hotel. And hey, where else are you welcomed with a glass of champagne?
420 W. Montecito St., Santa Barbara; 805-965-2333 or hideawaysantabarbara.com
2. See A Living Mission
Though it was founded in 1786, the Old Mission Santa Barbara is still a working mission with Franciscan friars in residence and an active parish and church. (The Franciscans built 21 missions in Cali, but this is an especially grand and scenic one worth visiting.) Sign up to have a friar give you a 90-minute tour of the grounds and buildings or stroll around on your own—there are 12 acres of manicured gardens and museums, as well as a cemetery and mausoleum. Take the time to see the state’s history of settlement by immigrants—it’s an especially meaningful reminder of California’s settlement by outsiders in today’s freighted political climate.
2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara; 805-682-4713 or santabarbaramission.org
3. Stroll An Entire Wine Neighborhood
The unfortunately named Funk Zone is a cluster of low-slung buildings around lower State and Montecito streets that, unlike so many spots in our California car culture, retains a sense of strollable discovery. Stop at the handful of wineries that maintain sipping rooms here and have a glass on the patio in the sun, then sashay over to a gallery or vintage store. You’ll meet other pilgrims searching for and finding the key to bliss: day drinking.
4. Take An Uber Wine Tour
A half hour outside town, the rolling hills of central Cali, like the Mediterranean coast before them, are set to work churning out world-class wine. Let someone else do the driving by using UberWINE (you’ll find it by swiping left on UberX), which will chauffeur you around the countryside and wait for you to, say, shop for vintage pieces while you sip wine at Babcock Winery & Vineyards or visit the wine cave at Sunstone Winery.
5. Toast To Sunset On The Beach
You can’t visit Santa Barbara without basking in the town’s famous afternoon pink glow on the mountains and the equally blush-toned sunset over the Pacific. The heated patio at the Boathouse is the place to be for your sunset toast, then settle in for a dinner of local rockfish ceviche with citrus and avocado followed by a spicy cioppino or, this being Cali, a spice-rubbed grilled slab of tofu with sticky rice.
2981 Cliff Dr., Santa Barbara; 805-898-2628 or boathousesb.com
6. Have The Prettiest Breakfast
Talk about pedigree: The pastry chef who opened Merci Montecito earned her degree at the Ritz-Escoffier in Paris before working at Spago and Bastide, and she was a food editor for Martha Stewart. So anyone with a sweet tooth or refined visual aesthetic would be cray not to frequent any joint owned by Elizabeth Colling. This pastel-pink wonder of a breakfast-and-lunch spot in the Montecito Country Mart turns out perfectly executed everything. We’re especially enamored of the croque madame and the quinoa tabouleh with sheep feta, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
1028 Coast Village Rd., Montecito; 805-220-0877 or mercimontecito.com
7. Pick Up A New Casual-chic Outfit
Not to be too brass tacks, but one of the nice things about taking a getaway in an affluent community? There’s great shopping. Wendy Foster’s mini fashion empire comprises boutiques in nearby Montecito and Los Olivos as well as a couple here in Santa Barbara. The State Street location is the place to pick up a pair of tissue-weight sweats and layering turtlenecks from brands like The Great and 360 Cashmere, or maybe splash out on a new Ulla Johnson dress to wear to drinks. And be sure to pick up a silvery patron medallion as a keepsake from your visit to this mission-founded town.
833 State St., Santa Barbara; 805-966-2276 or wendyfoster.com
8. Tour The Gardens Of Lotusland
This idiosyncratic estate is the brainchild of much-married Madame Walska, a woman whose attempts to gain acclaim as a professional soprano failed so miserably that she inspired a character written by Orson Welles. But her great success is this garden with acres of rare and strategically planted flora and fauna from around the globe. It’s a must-see, but since it’s located in a residential neighborhood, you’ll need to reserve a spot on the guided docent tour. And it’s two hours, so be ready to discuss cacti for that long.
Cold Spring Rd. Montecito; 805-969-9990 or www.lotusland.org
9. Get Home Design Inspiration
Beloved by designers such as Martyn Bullard and Mary McDonald, Raoul Textiles is a designer and distributor of high-end fabrics for the home, specializing in the screen-printed paisley linen sort of style that’s endlessly inviting and tasteful. Stroll into the showroom/gift shop for the soaring ceilings and sunny vibe, and walk out with a hostess gift or, if you’re lucky, a receipt for some yardage that will look great on that easy chair back home.
136 State St., Santa Barbara; 805-899-4947 or raoultextiles.com
10. Hike To The Knapp’s Castle Ruins
We’re not too proud to admit that we’re always looking for a great Instagram shot that’s not too much trouble but looks like it is—especially if it implies any sort of physical exertion. Knapp’s Castle is a bull’s-eye: It’s a hike (an easy walk up an incline, really) of less than a mile that ends at the remains of an estate that burned 70 years ago. Hey, if you’re actually looking for a cardio workout, you can totally jog uphill. But we’ll be strolling to the dramatic valley overlook and looking for our angles, thanks.
11. Indulge In Artisanal Ice Cream
Go ahead. Try to find a more delicious ice cream than McConnell’s signature flavor, Santa Barbara Strawberry. Big chunks of local fruit are borne aloft in a just-this-side-of-too-rich frozen creamy dairy. And that’s just for starters. Every month, this 70-year-old third-generation family-run company likes to come out with new seasonal flavors depending on what’s good in the harvest or heck, just what seems to be in the air (sweet cream caramel brownie ice cream, anyone?). Oh, and here’s the big bovine belly rub: You can be sure of the clean, almost herbaceous undertones of the milk used, since McConnell’s maintains its own grass-grazing Holstein/Jersey herd.
728 State St., Santa Barbara; 805-324-4402 or mcconnells.com