Summer travel 2022 is in full swing, even as erratic weather, COVID surges, gas gouges, and frequent flight cancellations make things challenging. We might all want to forget the reality of our surroundings and jaunt far, far away, but it’s just not practical for a lot of us, financially or mentally. And that’s where shorter jaunts and road trips come in. Last Summer, LA Weekly published practical, up-to-date travel guides for pandemic times, focused on Las Vegas and San Diego. This year, our concerns may have shifted a bit, but we still want escapism made easy. So it’s time for another dive into one of our favorite nearby getaways: Santa Barbara.
Let’s start with our favorite thing about this beautiful, breezy li’l town: the temps. It’s less than two hours away, but even when L.A. is sizzling at the height of Summer (July-August), Santa Barbara rarely gets above 75 degrees, and that’s because most everything you’d want to do there is located near the coast. From biking to drinking, eating to shopping, art and music appreciation, and more, SB provides a relaxed yet rousing vacay destination for couples, friends and families alike. Read on to learn about them all.
The pandemic made us all readjust our lives in different ways. It also made us seek out new pastimes and forms of entertainment, mostly outdoors. In L.A., drive-ins enjoyed a resurgence and outdoor movie screenings grew in popularity, for example. Many of our friends got into roller-skating and skateboarding (again) as grown adults. Personally, we rediscovered a love of bike riding and started frequenting trails in Santa Clarita, Ventura and, of course, Venice Beach and Santa Monica. But nowhere in L.A. beats Santa Barbara for those of us who like to roll, by the beach or otherwise.
SB wasn’t the only city to close off streets to traffic, in an effort to provide more outdoor amusements, but it is so far the most successful. State Street always was a hotbed for locals and tourists, but since its “emergency closure” to cars during the pandemic, it’s become one of the most unique pedestrian boardwalks in California. One side of the street is designated for walkers, the other for bikes, boarders and bladers, all of which is sandwiched by outdoor dining areas. It’s a blast for bikers, with a doable incline anyone can handle and sturdy bike racks on every block for easy lock-up anywhere you choose to stop.
According to the local paper Santa Barbara Independent, “it remains unclear” if State Street will be a permanent promenade. but it looks like it will, at least until a newly formed State Street committee makes a decision about how to move forward. And that’s a good thing for visitors. It makes this area feel special and different. The mile-long closure has revitalized the downtown corridor, as it’s allowed pedestrians and peddlers alike to safely fill the streets, as vendors, performers and more surround the pathway.
In addition to craft fairs and the like, State provides a bounty of businesses for browsers and buyers to peruse. Yes there are chain stores like Old Navy and Cost Plus along the stretch, but there’s also some gorgeous old theaters –The Arlington and The Granada (both still running)– and some intriguing mom-and-pop shops like Paradise Records & Trading Post for old vinyl, collectables and unique treasures; Punch Vintage and Antique Alley for groovy retro clothing, knick knacks and doo dads; and Namaste for boho threads, incense and yoga-vibey accessories.
If you’re the crystals and meditation type, definitely don’t forget to check out Salt, featuring the largest Himalayan salt cave in North America. The retail boutique and spa has rooms crafted with 45 tons of 250-million-year-old Himalayan crystal salt, which are kept at a temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. Visitors recline in zero-gravity chairs for mediation and halotherapy (which touts breathing air saturated with microsalt particles for respiratory health) sessions, and there’s also massages, salt scrubs and facials available.
Also on State Street, one of the area’s best cannabis dispensaries, Beyond/Hello features quality flower, edibles, extracts, topicals, tinctures and pre-rolls at competitive prices. The shop is “ADA compliant and fully accessible, LGBTQ+ friendly, and offers a 10% discount to anyone 65 years or older, veterans and active military with ID.”
Sights, Sounds and Sea
Also on State Street, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is always worth a pop-in for its eclectic mix of contemporary and classic works. After a six-year, $50 million renovation, SBMA revealed expanded galleries in 2021. Current exhibitions include “Going Global: Abstract Art at Mid-Century” (displaying abstraction forms during the Cold War and the proliferation of the globalized art movement) and “The Lens of Architecture: Photography, Buildings, and Meaning” (exploring photography’s relationship with architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries).
Our favorite look-and-learn locale has to be the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which can be reached via an uphill bike trek (the downhill ride back is worth it!). In addition to its dinosaur garden and mini-observatory, its current exhibitions provide moments of wonder: “Rare Earth” featuring stunning gems, minerals and rocks, and “Butterflies Alive!” an outdoor immersion inside of a colorful butterfly filled pavilion. Both are happening thru Sept. 5.
The Santa Barbara Zoo recently opened the “Australian Walkabout,” a 15,000-square-foot habitat recreating “Down Under,” with wallabies, kangaroos and emus; and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden just opened “The Backcountry,” a 4-acre outdoor path for kid play and adult discovery. Located along Mission Creek, it offers obstacle courses, waterfalls, mazes, hikes through different habitats, and more.
More oceanic exploring can be found at Stearns Wharf, California’s oldest wooden wharf of its kind. It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year (mark your calendar for October when there will be a huge event paying tribute). There’s also “Wharf Wednesdays” (first Wednesday of each month) with live music programming and dinner deals.
We saw The Black Crowes at the Santa Barbara Bowl just last month, and as a music lover/frequent concert-goer, we couldn’t believe we’d never been to the beautiful outdoor venue. Smaller than both the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater, this mini-amphitheater nevertheless has a similar feel and tends to get all the big tours we do in L.A. What makes it special is the view (you can see the ocean from the cheap seats). The sound and stage setup are top-notch, and the place even has a cool bronze statue of Jerry Garcia’s hand, recognizable due to the Grateful Dead musician missing most of his middle finger after a childhood wood-chopping accident. The Crowes, by the way, killed it. If your favorite band is playing SB’s bowl, it’s worth the visit. See the upcoming schedule at sbbowl.com/concerts.
While we’re mentioning music, it might be a good time to acknowledge that SB and, in particular, the Montecito area, is known for being home to some major recording artists, from Katy Perry (and huS.B.and Orlando Bloom) to Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore (when we interviewed him a couple of years ago, he noted the city’s nice weather, more relaxed alternatives to Los Angeles).
Of course, the biggest media moguls of all live in the area too – Oprah Winfrey, Megan Markle and Prince Harry, and Ellen Degeneres and Portia De Rossi, have mansons/compounds there. The area also got loads of media attention when Travis Barker proposed to Kourtney Kardashian on a Montecito Beach, as seen on their new Hulu show. But perhaps SB’s most legendary inhabitant was Julia Child, who lived there after she retired and until her death. With the famous foodie back in the spotlight, thanks to a new HBO Max comedy and a child-themed TV cooking competition currently on the Food Network, it might be a good time to revisit some of her favorite places in Santa Barbara where she retired and spent the remainder of her days. Check out the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience’s detailed map to do just that, go to sbce.events/julia-child-map.
Air BnB’s will get you more privacy, but if you’re looking for hospitality, Santa Barbara hotels are there to serve. And there are deals to be had right now, too. Visit Santa Barbara has a “Third Night Free” promotion now through September, with more than a dozen hotels and resorts participating, including a few of our top picks, some with L.A. ties.
The Mar Monte Hotel recently completed the final phase of its multimillion-dollar “reimagination,” and the result is an enchanting seaside oasis, refreshed and renewed. The historic 1930s building, Vista Mar Monte, has been embellished and transformed with new amenities and interior design touches by Los Angeles-based Beleco, with an open and airy lobby/living room area and library, opening out onto its courtyard. The Spanish-influenced setting also has been amplified in rooms, suites, eateries and bars, including the slick new Lido Café and the swanky/sexy Cal-Mediterranean Costa Kitchen & Bar, both offering gorgeous oceanfront views while drinking and dining, especially during sunset hour. This is the spot for your romantic getaway.
Likewise, the Kimpton Canary Hotel has invested in its classy yet whimsical property, including cozy redesigned rooms, rooftop pool area, lobby, bar and restaurant. About its restaurant: Finch & Fork is a must visit while in town. The renovated space (also designed by Beleco) just reopened this past spring with a new look and fun menu from Executive Chef Craig Riker.
We spoke with him on our last visit and learned that his creativity goes way beyond the kitchen. Riker also is a professional musician, playing bass with the metallic rock outfit Deadsy (led by LA’s Elijah Blue Allman, son of Cher and Gregg Allman). He tells us he lived in L.A., attending Cordin Bleu in Pasadena and playing in bands including Simi Valley punks Strung Out, before joining Deadsy. He worked at the Montage Beverly Hills and Mastro’s in Malibu before moving to Santa Barbara, establishing himself, and his dishes at F&F do not disappoint. The Canary’s restaurant renovation is the first stage in an extensive hotel revamp from Kimpton, a brand Angelenos will recognize via a string of stylish stays, including the Everly, Palomar, Hotel Wilshire and the LaPeer.
Other top hotels worth checking out and in: the historic Hotel Santa Barbara in the heart of downtown; Riviera Beach House formerly Hotel Indigo, near the Funk Zone area (it was recently purchased by the family that owns the Culver Hotel in L.A.); and coming soon, Drift Santa Barbara from TCM Hospitality, a trendy “tech-driven” hotel with properties in Cabo, Mexico and Nashville.
SB Bites and Bars
When it comes to cuisine and cocktail culture, Santa Barbara stands formidably right alongside San Francisco and Los Angeles. SB has more than a dozen restaurants in the current Michelin Guide to California, and Wine Enthusiast just declared it “Wine Region of the Year.” In addition to Finch & Fork and Costa Kitchen, there’s a few more places that should be on your radar when you visit.
Lucky’s Steakhouse, also seen in a recent episode of Hulu’s The Kardashians, is tops for many locals’ special occasion dining list. The Montecito landmark occupies the former Montecito Bungalows on Highway 1, the original Pacific Coast Highway. It’s now considered Montecito’s “second living room,” which means celeb sightings are frequent. The white tablecloth, old Hollywood vibe (vintage photos line the walls) complements the steak and classic cocktail Musso & Franks-esque vibe, and the service is the best in the city.
For a more casual but no less tasty lunch or dinner option, we recommend Broad Street Oyster Company, which originated in L.A. — Malibu beach to be exact. Known for its succulent lobster rolls, Christopher Tompkins’s colorful establishment was only opened in 2019, but it quickly became beloved for its lobster sandwich (served warm with butter or chilled with mayonnaise). The SB location opened earlier this year adding local sea urchin and oysters on the shell to the menu. We love the animated murals that line the walk in and its convenient location behind one of State Street’s best bars (see below).
Tiki enthusiasts will adore the tasty concoctions at the Shaker Mill, housed in the same building as Broad. Proprietor Brandon Ristaino also owns two other great bars in Santa Barbara, including The Good Lion and the more tropically minded Test Pilot, but Shaker’s the most open and airy of the three, and with COVID still out there, that’s a concern for many of us. Whimsical patio-style furnishings and inventive drinks, such as the Miami Vice (part pina colada, part strawberry daiquiri served glass shell) or the Orange Sky (bourbon, orange, lemon, citrusy white ale, white buffalo orange marmalade) — $1 of each drink donated to White Buffalo Land Trust — make this atmospheric spot a fave to get shook.
We love a fancy cocktail spot, but as the author of the book Los Angeles’ Best Bars, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the unfettered neighborhood joints where locals like to dwell. Check out the Sportsman’s Lounge, The Jolly Tiger/ Roy’s where Jack Johnson got his start, and the best named ever Pickle Room, in SB’s old Chinatown, serving stiff drinks and a mix of deli and inventive Asian snacks.
If wine is your thing, consider the “Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail,” your new alternative to a Napa visit. Made up of nearly 30 member wineries within walking distance of each other, new tasting rooms are constantly opening and moving around. Kunin Wines () known for sparkling rosés and exquisite cheese pairings, just opened a new tasting room at its Goleta winery; Frequency Wine Co. () moved to the up-and-coming Presidio Neighborhood; and Valley to the Sea Winery () opened in the Santa Barbara Public Market late last year. And don’t miss a chance to visit “The Funk Zone,” the ultimate tipsy stroll, where nearly every storefront is a tasting room. Notable wineries including La Lieff Wines, Santa Barbara Winery (the oldest in SB County) and Pali Wine Co. are all new to the area.
Upcoming SB Events:
Old Spanish Days Fiesta — Santa Barbara’s Spanish heritage is paid homage to at this five-day fiesta, beginning this week. Aug. 3 to Aug. 7, at multiple locations. oldspanishdays-fiesta.org
Pacific Pride Festival — After a two year hiatus due to COVID, this SB Pride event is back. Aug. 27, at Chase Palm Park. pacificpridefoundation.org
21st Annual Open Studios Tour — Santa Barbara artists, 28 to be exact, provide open studio tours. Sept. 3 to Sept. 5, at multiple locations. santabarbarastudioartists.com
29th annual Goleta Lemon Festival — The southern region of SB (Goleta) is known for its citrus fruit, so expect lots of lemon dishes, pie-eating contests, bake-offs and live music. The Goleta Fall Classic Car and Street Rod Show happens the same weekend. Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, at Girsh Park, Goleta. lemonfestival.com
50th annual Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddlers’ Festival has concerts, workshops, jams, and an “instrument petting zoo” where the public play banjos, fiddles, spoons and other “old-time” instruments. Oct. 8, Rancho La Patera & Stow House, Goleta. iddlersfestival.org
Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival A Seaside rendezvous. Oct. 15, Santa Barbara Harbor. harborfestival.org.
Special thanks to Visit Santa Barbara for help with this story.
Check out the city’s latest COVID-19 restrictions and protocols here.
Enjoy some of S.B.’s splendor in pictures, below:
Read our guides to other drivable travel locales below:
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