image: A boat sits alone in the water in Santa Barbara, California.
A boat sits alone in the water in Santa Barbara, California.

Photograph © Marie-Louise Brimberg

Sensuous Santa Barbara
By Christopher Hall

Southern California's laid-back coastal town offers a taste of Hollywood glamour— tony shops, fine wines, and a new luxe resort.

Nestled between mountains and coastline, its whitewashed buildings ensconced in gardens of bougainvillea, palm, and citrus, Santa Barbara is a poster child for la dolce vita, California-style. "Where else can you live such a good life?" asks crime novelist and longtime resident Sue Grafton, who sets her best-sellers in a fictional but distinctly Santa Barbara-like town of white adobe and red-tile roofs.

Founded by the Spanish in the late 18th century, Santa Barbara for years was a pleasant but architecturally dull place known largely as a watering hole for movie stars and the well-off. In 1925, however, when an earthquake leveled much of downtown, the city rebuilt in its now-classic style, evoking an idealized Old California of dashing dons and dark-eyed señoritas.

Santa Barbara now boasts a major university, high-tech businesses, and the cultural offerings of a large city—and movie people like Kirk Douglas and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as well as those behind the camera, seem more prevalent than ever. That doesn't surprise real estate broker Roy Prinz, whose clients have included high-profile Hollywood personalities. "Celebrities come for the same reasons as anyone else," he says. "A wonderful climate, amenities like great restaurants, and the casual, outdoors lifestyle of a place where time moves a little slower."


Santa Barbara visitors expecting to see a flame-orange afternoon sun sink into the Pacific are plumb out of luck—beaches in this city of 92,000, as well as its tony neighbor, Montecito, face south, not west. The rugged Santa Ynez Mountains rise dramatically behind the city, providing vast spaces to hike, ride horses, or study pre-Columbian pictographs by the Chumash, the region's first residents.


The soul of the city is Mission Santa Barbara—the "Queen of the Missions"—a twin-towered beauty still used by the Franciscan order that founded it in 1786. More earthly matters are dealt with on State Street, the downtown hub of shopping, outdoor cafés, and nightlife where you can see French Impressionists at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art or catch a film or symphony concert at the Arlington Center for the Performing Arts, a 1931 Moorish-fantasy movie palace. Close by are historic adobes and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a storybook-Spanish concoction of turrets, tiles, and spiral staircases. At one end of East Beach, a favorite walking spot of author Sue Grafton, Stearns Wharf juts a half mile into the Pacific; its restaurants, views, and kid-friendly Sea Center draws a lively mix of families, fishermen, and strolling lovers.


El Paseo, a charming, store-lined pedestrian passage from the 1920s, may well have been California's first shopping mall. Located off lower State Street, its gurgling fountains and wrought iron gates are meant to evoke Old Spain, but the award-winning local vintages at the Wine Cask (also a restaurant) offer a taste of the New World as well. Northwest of downtown, Jedlicka's Saddlery has catered to ranchers and trail riders—including former President Reagan—for almost 70 years. "There has always been lots of horseback riding around here," says Josiah "Si" Jenkins, who has owned the nationally known Western store since 1964, "but lately there's more than ever." At Channel Islands Surfboards, close to Stearns Wharf, you don't have to know what "cowabunga" means to appreciate the craftsmanship of owner Al Merrick's custom boards. Not in the market for a candy-apple-red ten-footer? You can still shop for swimwear and T-shirts or find out where to watch the locals hang ten.


"This region is an Eden of food," says chef John Downey, who relies on top-notch local ingredients to create swordfish with mango- cucumber salsa and other "Santa Barbara cooking" at his intimate Downey's. Citronelle, an oceanview spot owned by big-name chef Michel Richard, offers elegant fare like shiitake feuilletée pastry with garlic cream, while the Enterprise Fish Co. features pristine seafood—from local snapper to Hawaiian ahi—cooked over a mesquite fire and served in a 1912 brick building filled with marine artifacts. There's always a line for hot-off-the-grill tacos and other Mexican specialties at La Super Rica, a simple taqueria with picnic-table seating and a customer list that includes area resident Julia Child. And the patio of the Shoreline Beach Café is a favored spot for a surfside margarita after a long, hot day on the sand.


Stretching along two miles of bluffs and golden sand beach north of town, the newly opened Bacara Resort & Spa is a grand, self-contained world of Mediterranean-style villas. Guests sleep on Italian linens after a day spent golfing, horseback riding through fragrant lemon groves, or indulging in treatments at the 42,000-square-foot spa. Need to view the dailies from your latest film? No problem—there's a 211-seat, state-of-the-art screening room. More low-key is Montecito's San Ysidro Ranch, whose secluded, hillside cottages and lush gardens have drawn celebrities since 1935, when Ronald Colman bought the place. In town, Hotel Virginia and Hotel Santa Barbara occupy historic red-tile buildings close to the State Street scene and a five-minute walk from the beach, while the five-star Simpson House Inn offers antique-filled rooms in a Victorian mansion surrounded by an acre of lawn and trees.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler