The idyllic city of Santa Barbara, California, just 100 miles north of Los Angeles and situated between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, has been the ultimate getaway for high-profile celebrities, politicians and the elite for more than a century. It’s often called the American Riviera for its striking similarities to the French Riviera, both with red-roofed buildings and homes, pristine ocean views, a boating scene and incredible gastronomy. It was famously a favorite destination among Jackie and John F Kennedy (they spent part of their honeymoon here) and for Californians looking to escape the high energy of Los Angeles or San Francisco. But beyond the gated communities and sprawling mansions and estates, Santa Barbara is a laid-back scenic enclave meshing the best of Southern and Northern California in one coastal spot.
Apart from being an incredibly active destination (surfing is unbeatable), those who enjoy the finer things in life will relish in Santa Barbara’s impressive culinary scene (a dozen of the city’s restaurants are featured in the 2019 Michelin Guide), wineries to rival those of Napa Valley and five-star hotels with world-class spas and unique experiences.
Santa Barbara has a unique charm that makes it hard to ever leave. Come to enjoy its Spanish colonial-style architecture, history and luxurious indulgences that aren’t quite the same anywhere else in California. Here is our comprehensive guide to the perfect weekend in Santa Barbara.
Where to stay
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, Santa Barbara
Located across the street from the pristine Butterfly Beach, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, Santa Barbara is situated within 22 acres of lush gardens (the jungle-esque gardens actually have more than 100 plant species). The architecture features the city’s classic Spanish-colonial-style with red-roofed hacienda-style buildings and large arches; red-brick paths that lead you to hidden courtyards, expansive lawns and secluded sitting areas. There are 206 rooms (including 40 spectacular suites and bungalows; no two are the same), a rose garden, Jungle Pool, a 12,000-sq ft spa, Ty Lounge (with an impressive cocktail menu) and Bella Vista restaurant (on the 2019 Michelin Guide), plus access to the historic Coral Casino members’ club. The historic, pale-pink-accented club is set overlooking Butterfly Beach and the Pacific Ocean, and only members and Four Seasons guests have access to the pool, cabanas, Tydes restaurant and Coral Café and Bar. (At sunset, grab a drink at Tydes to watch dolphins swim and jump as the sky fades from blue to deep orange and pink hues.)
The most impressive accommodation is the Ty Warner Villa, a freestanding one-bedroom villa with a private plunge pool, many fireplaces and an outdoor rain shower in the gargantuan master bathroom. The impeccably designed private accommodation also has its own driveway and several outdoor seating areas for you and your guests to enjoy the lapping sounds of the ocean waves while sitting next to a crackling fire. Trust us when we say that it will be nearly impossible to pull yourself away. If you book the Ty Warner Villa, enjoy service at PS (formerly The Private Suite) at LAX; from a nearby location, you’ll be transferred from LAX to Santa Barbara aboard a private helicopter, taking you along the California coast until you get to your destination in no time. Read more about the villa in our 2019/20 list of the Top 100 Suites in the world. fourseasons.com/santabarbara
San Ysidro Ranch
Santa Barbara is steeped in history, but San Ysidro Ranch, part of Leading Hotels of the World, is one of the city’s most historic hotels, dating back to 1893. The country-style hotel sits on a 500-acre ranch and boasts a rustic-chic style with massive stone fireplaces, globally inspired decor, Persian rugs and sumptuous fabrics for the ultimate cozy hideaway. Most all of the accommodations encourage you to bring the outdoors inside through French-style doors that open onto private patios surrounded by gardens (the cottages have private plunge pools). There’s a swimming pool; two restaurants, The Stonehouse (also on the 2019 Michelin Guide) and Plow & Angel; fitness center; boutique; and access to more than 17 miles of hiking trails in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Allow the concierge to schedule golfing, biking, in-room spa services or kids’ activities. The resort is also pet-friendly, and there is a comprehensive Privileged Pet program so your furry ones can join in on the action, too. sanysidroranch.com
Belmond El Encanto
What you’ll soon find about Santa Barbara is that nature plays such a crucial role in your experience; Belmond El Encanto is no different. The hotel is set within the lush Santa Barbara hills with exceptional views over the city and the ocean. The resort is celebrating 101 years and is rooted in history. Some of its decor recalls the glamorous 1930s. The rustic hotel delivers both elegance and laid-back West Coast charm with locally crafted furnishings. Relax at the horizon-edge pool with a crisp glass of local wine, or take to the winding pathways that allow you to explore the resort’s seven acres of gardens. As you can imagine, the restaurants are incredible; the Dining Room and Terrace serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks both inside and or al fresco, and The Lounge is perfect for drinks and light bites or afternoon tea. The Spa at El Encanto is also not to be missed; the wellness sanctuary offers hydrotherapy, spa retreats and classic spa treatments, and it also has a fitness center and serves detoxifying juices and teas. belmond.com
Rosewood Miramar Beach
Located just 15 minutes away from Santa Barbara proper, Rosewood Miramar Beach offers the best of both Montecito and Santa Barbara. The hotel has 124 rooms and 37 suites, all with exquisite views over the ocean and a soothing neutral color palette that really lets the blue water shine through floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces. There’s plenty of dining, too: Caruso’s serves coastal cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood; Miramar Beach Bar serves bites and cocktails on an oceanfront terrace; Malibu Farm serves health-forward dishes; and cocktail lounges, like the Cabana Bar and the Manor Bar, specialize in hand-crafted cocktails. There’s also the Scoop Shop, serving ice cream and sweet treats for hot summer days. Relaxation is key here; indulge in treatments at Sense, a Rosewood Spa, or chill out at the palm tree-fringed pool area, which offers guests private cabanas. rosewoodhotels.com
The airport experience can be stressful, but luckily, those landing at LAX have access to one of the most seamless and unique experiences of any US airport. PS (formerly The Private Suite) is a service that meets you just as you de-plane to whisk you to its luxe, private terminal, meaning that you skip the baggage process and airport experience altogether. A BMW will pick you up next to your commercial aircraft and take you to your suite, which is a spacious and luxurious room (similar to a hotel room but without a bed) filled with champagne, wine, beverages, healthy snacks and travel essentials (from Advil to neck pillows to car chargers). You can even order cappuccinos or healthy meals, as a PS attendant retrieves your checked baggage and delivers it to your door. When you are ready to depart LAX to your next destination, you are able to relax and go through private TSA screening before you board your flight. PS also handles custom clearance and checked baggage to and from. reserveps.com
Where to eat
If it’s a culinary vacation you seek, Santa Barbara has you covered. With a dozen restaurants that made the 2019 Michelin Guide, there’s no shortage of restaurants with exceptional dishes with beautiful presentations. The city’s Spanish influence extends well into the food scene, and delicious seafood and locally grown vegetables are key ingredients.
Don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s laid-back atmosphere; the dishes are far from informal. Each dish here is better than the next (and a sure highlight on your gastronomy journey in Santa Barbara). Located in the Funk Zone, The Lark is an ambient-lit space with plenty of indoor and outdoor dining and a happening bar; be sure to order a Sticky Fingers, Smugglers Cove or the Lazy Daisy. When it comes time to order, the Crispy Brussels Sprouts must make an appearance on the table (your waiter won’t be surprised if you place another order). You can’t go wrong with the Whole Stuffed & Grille Durade or the Roasted Mary’s Chicken, but be sure to save room for some fresh oysters and hamachi crudo. Everything here is approachable but is carefully curated, prepared and presented to elevate your experience. The cocktails are divine, but the wine list highlights the best of Santa Barbara’s unique producers. thelarksb.com
For casual wood-fired pizzas and a fun dining scene, order a pie from Lucky Penny; they have all your classics, plus delicious vegetable-forward options and three-cheese indulgences. They also serve sandwiches, salads, yummy appetizers and frozen treats. If it’s nice out, sit outside on a picnic table with beer or cider, local bottles of wine or prosecco or a housemade cold brew. Lucky Penny also has takeout and delivery options if you’d rather eat a scrumptious meal in the comfort of your hotel room or accommodation. luckypennysb.com
Barbareño specializes in casual California cuisine, though the experience is anything but informal. The beautifully designed dishes are presented so elegantly, each looks like a tiny work of art. The restaurant does a fantastic job and letting healthy, local ingredients speak for themselves in dishes like Grilled Avocado, the Carpaccio, Oak Tagliatelle (with acorn, wild mushrooms and charred oak broth) and plenty of meat dishes with herbs and spices. The wine list is exceptional, and your server can suggest something to pair with your meal. barbareno.com
For a sweet treat, stop by two of Santa Barbara’s most famous spots: McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams (we recommend Salted Caramel Chip) and Helena Avenue Bakery, with seasonal pastries made from scratch. If you’re out for the day, pick up a picnic basket at Helena Avenue Bakery, with organic bread, sandwiches and fresh salads. mcconnells.com, helenaavenuebakery.com
What to do
Santa Barbara’s Spanish colonial architecture can be seen throughout most of the city, but head to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (yes, really) on the weekdays or weekends to see the magnificent Spanish Colonial Revival-style building in person. Built in 1929, the courthouse is incredibly beautiful and has a four-faced clock tower, red-tile roof, magnificent arches, gardens and gorgeous hand-painted murals throughout. Walk (or elevator) to the top of the courthouse, where an outdoor terrace provides panoramic views all over the city, giving you a glimpse into the magnificent terrain and design of the city. santabarbaraca.com
Urban Wine Trail
Did we mention Santa Barbara has incredible wine? Even if you can’t make it to one of the many vineyards located just outside the city, you can take a tour along the city’s Urban Wine Trail, to taste the region’s best expressions. On the Urban Wine Trail (a loosely suggested list of 33 wineries), you can explore just one, a few or all of Santa Barbara’s best sips in neighborhoods including Funk Zone, La Arcada, Midtown, Presidio, Goleta, Montecito and Summerland. We love Margerum, Melville, Folded Hills and ABC (Au Bon Climat) tasting rooms for their nice tastings and small bites. If you fall in love with a certain bottle, take one (or a case!) home with you. urbanwinetrailsb.com
There are miles and miles of hiking, biking and walking/running trails for you to immerse yourself in the destination. Santa Barbara locals and visitors adapt to an active lifestyle; it’s often you’ll see surfers, paddle boarding and even windsurfing in the ocean at any time of the year. Surfing is best enjoyed at Santa Maria River Mouth, Guadalupe Dunes, Jalama State Beach and more. Fall offers the best surfing (typically in September and October), though winter is fairly consistent as well. If you want to try it out but prefer the guidance of a professional, Four Seasons offers surfing lessons for guests. The city is extremely walkable and for the more adventurous, you can make your way by foot or bicycle along the coast. While exploring, visit Stearns Wharf, the plenty of beaches, Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens and the Santa Barbara Zoo (often considered one of the country’s best small zoos). Butterfly Beach is perfect for sunset; walk along the beach or along the running path to downtown. sbzoo.org, sbbg.org
Santa Barbara boasts such unique flora, and there’s no better place to see it in person than at Lotusland. The public garden, situated in a private, residential neighborhood, offers guided tours through its subtropical and tropical gardens. See various species of cacti, aloe, bromeliads, cycads, Dracaena trees, ferns and palms; be sure to visit the topiary and succulent garden, too. The 37-acre property is home to more than 3,000 different plant species from all over the world. lotusland.org
Avid golfers will find delight in the many courses throughout the city. The incredibly lush courses offer exceptional views and challenging holes that will excite even the most accomplished players. There are plenty of public courses worth playing — like Rancho San Marcos and Sandpiper Golf Club — and also private courses that, if you can get into, are beautiful. Try out La Cumbre Golf & Country Club, Montecito Club or Birnam Wood Golf Club, to name a few.
Photos: Visit Santa Barbara/santabarbaraca.com