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Four Hours in Santa Barbara

Known as the "American Riviera," this enchanting city wins over visitors with its natural beauty and storied past

Often referred to as the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara, is a beautiful, waterfront city with Spanish Revival architecture and gorgeous hillside backdrop. At times, you’ll feel like you’re in the south of France or Andalusia with the blossoming bougainvillea and red-roofed architecture with flower-lined balconies. Other times, the vibe is distinctly Californian with surfers hauling their boards along tall palm tree-studded sidewalks by the beach.

Besides being popular with the Hollywood crowd for decades and a huge road trip destination for many along the West Coast, Santa Barbara is a cultural hot spot with museums and theater playing an important role in drawing tourists. Its hotels and resorts draw group events of all sizes from weddings and reunions to conferences and incentive group travel.

As a result, the city is abuzz throughout the year, which is partly due to its temperate climate and majestic landscape that pulls people from the big cities for a slice of Mediterranean living in America. Another exotic view in the Pacific distance is the four Channel Islands that often are shrouded in fog or the distant sunset. A stroll down waterfront Cabrillo Boulevard gives you a glimpse of just how long the Central Coast waterfront is.

Whenever you choose to visit, it is easy to get around town if you have a car or using rideshare services. The city is divided into neighborhoods with downtown area home to excellent shopping and dining.

Close to downtown is the Presidio neighborhood, home to some of the city’s oldest restaurants although many visitors love dining along the waterfront area. Once an abandoned warehouse district, the Funk Zone is popular for shopping, wine tasting and dining, too. If you have a car, driving to Montecito (a charming coastal town minutes from Santa Barbara) reveals breathtaking estates and luxury shopping.

Whether you are here for work or planned a road trip along the famous state highway that runs along the California coast, these entertaining suggestions should give you plenty to do for an afternoon or longer if you have the time. Mix and match your favorite activities, or enjoy some and save the rest for your next visit. You can always finish up a stay with some virtual visits on Santa Barbara’s YouTube channel to explore where you want to go next.

Stately Architecture and Street Promenade 

State Street has been pedestrianized to make it more user-friendly. A weekly marketplace, the State Street Promenade Marketplace, features local shops and food vendors that is popular with locals and tourists.

Photo by Blake Bronstad

Not far away is the Spanish and Moorish-inspired Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a local landmark with an 80-foot clock tower (the elevator ride to the top is free) and beautiful gardens where locals love to relax, perhaps with picnic snacks from the marketplace. Another option for great local eats is the close-by Santa Barbara Public Market. If architecture is of interest, the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour takes visitors to and through the most interesting Spanish-inspired buildings, like the Old Mission Santa Barbara, around the city.

Santa Barbara Zoo 

With more than 500 animals, the zoo stretches across 30 acres. Don’t miss the threatened and endangered animals like the California condor and California desert tortoises that live here. The zoo is highly recognized for its focus on preservation and conservation.

Stearns Wharf

This is the oldest working wooden wharf on the West Coast and is packed with shops and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot for a photo opp with the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains in the background. You can also board a sunset cruise from the Santa Barbara Harbor to take in the city from afar; water taxis shuttle between the harbor and the wharf.

Photo by Santa Barbara Museum of Art

A city of museums

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is just steps from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. No matter what your preferred artistic style, there is a little bit of everything from ancient works to contemporary art and photography. If the Spanish history in the area intrigues you, stop into the Santa Barbara Historical Museum and the numerous historic adobe buildings nearby that have been preserved and restored. You’ll also pass by Plaza de la Guerra, a beautiful square where the first city council met nearly two centuries ago. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum takes visitors on a tour of the region’s sailing history while also showing off the marine life of the nearby Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Sip along the wine trail

The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail showcases the dozens of wineries in the area including numerous with tasting rooms in the city. The trail winds through various neighborhoods like the Funk Zone, the Presidio and downtown among others. If you’re in a hurry, Grassini Family Vineyards is close to many of the historical sites in the Presidio. Those visiting multiple tasting venues should sign up for a membership card to enjoy one free tasting at each of the stops along the trail. Most of the vineyards are within walking distance downtown.