About a hundred miles north of the City of Angels you’ll find Santa Barbara, a seemingly magical place where the hills melt into the Pacific Ocean. Welcome to the American Riviera.
During their migration season (November through April), thousands of Pacific gray whales travel through the Santa Barbara Channel; in late spring through early fall, humpback whales make their appearances, with an occasional sighting of the blue whale. Numerous whale-watching excursions are available on the water, or hike along the bluffs and watch their seasonal dance from above.
Walk along the coastline of Santa Barbara and its surrounds and you may stumble upon mini marine environments ripe for exploration—tide pools. These little ecosystems are created when the outgoing tide leaves water—and the creatures that live in it—behind, trapped in rocky pools and other natural formations until the tide comes in again.
Off the coast of Santa Barbara is Channel Islands National Park, considered “the Galápagos Islands of North America.” The park is only accessible by park-approved concessionaire boats and planes, or private boat. On-island activities include hiking, camping, bird-watching, photography, and more. Or, considering half the park is underwater, bring your gear or join a tour and go snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or kayaking.
Archaeological excavations are still underway at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park in downtown Santa Barbara. Here, two of the original buildings have been restored, with others reconstructed to depict the original Santa Barbara Presidio, which was founded in April 1782.
Santa Barbara embraces its Spanish heritage and celebrates that heritage every August with its Old Spanish Days Fiesta. Over the course of the multi-day festival, locals and visitors learn about the history, customs, and traditions of the American Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and early American settlers through music, dance, parades, and, of course, food.
Best Day Trip
Drive just 45 minutes north of downtown Santa Barbara and you will come upon vineyards that extend as far as your eyes can see; in fact, more than 220 wineries are found within the county. The prime weather and soil mean that all grape varieties grow well throughout the county, and six official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs or appellations) are found here.
Off the Beaten Path
Get off the land and onto the water to paddle your way around the Santa Barbara Harbor via kayak or SUP. Glide up beside the impressive yachts, or leave civilization seemingly behind and paddle along the coastline for a unique look at the landscape.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Most Iconic Experience
As the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, toast the day with a glass of Santa Barbara County wine at Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wooden wharf in all of California. From here you will have views of not only the sparkling ocean and coastline as the lights begin to twinkle, but the Santa Ynez Mountains as well.
Take the time to stop by the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The still functioning Spanish-Colonial style courthouse was finished in 1929 and is open to the public. Be sure to pop into the Mural Room, too, known for its Clock Tower with 360-degree views of the city and a sunken garden perfect for picnicking.
During the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, which is held the first week of August, cartons of cascarones, or colorful eggs, can be found on every street corner. Rather than yolks inside, however, the eggs have been hollowed out and filled with confetti. As part of the celebration, the eggs are smashed over friends’ heads along with the exclamation of “viva la fiesta!”