24 hours in Santa Barbara: Why you should stop at California's most beautiful city

Only two hours out of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara could be dismissed as 'another beach town' along the Pacific Coast Highway.

But this couldn't be further from the truth.

Also known as 'The American Riviera', the biggest coastal town between Los Angeles and San Francisco mimics the climate and terrain of Spain, but that is not all they have in common. Its unique Spanish-style architecture also imitates the Mediterranean country, due to a twist of fate that occurred back in 1812.

An earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale rocked the entire coast. But it wasn't the quake that destroyed the town - it was the tsunami that followed that caused widespread disaster.

The wave reached as far back as the Mission, which stands at the rear of the city, effectively wiping out what is now known as the downtown area. Further north, it carried a ship right into neaby Refugio Canyon.

The Mission.

The Mission. Photo: Kylie McLaughlin

At the time, Santa Barbara was in its Spanish period - occupied by a European settlement of Spanish missionaries and soldiers. It was the Mission fathers chose to rebuild the Mission in a grander manner, and it is now known California's best preserved.

But the disaster did not end there. In 1925 the San Andreas again rumbled catastrophically, with a magnitude of 6.8, taking the city's downtown district once more. When the city was ready to rebuild, it was decided to do so in a unified Spanish Colonial Revival style.

This is why the city is made up of almost entirely of white-stucco buildings with burnt orange roofs, that are bathed in Californian sunshine year-round.


Head to the old Courthouse, also rebuilt in 1925, and take an elevator to its tower, which provides stellar views of the entire town. You could easily spend a day gazing at the magnificent architecture the city has on display from the Courthouse, to the Arlington Theatre and the city's intricate, shady alleyways that seemingly hook it all together.

Views from the old Courthouse.

Views from the old Courthouse. Photo: Kylie McLaughlin

Along the shore, tall, Instagrammable palm trees line the beach's malecon, where you can walk, jog or cycle, which is best done at night to take in the remarkable sunsets which feature here on an almost nightly basis.

Best of all, it's not crowded like the beaches of Santa Monica or Venice, and on a warm afternoon during the week you could almost have it entirely to yourself.

The area, at the base of the Santa Ynez valley fruit bowl, is renown for its produce, which you can sample from during their twice-weekly farmer's market which lines the main State Street leading up from the pier, with brightly coloured stalls containing fruit that actually tastes as good as it looks.

Berries at the Farmer's Market.

Berries at the Farmer's Market. Photo: Kylie McLaughlin

The movie Sideways helped make its wine growing region famous internationally, but you don't have to take a trip to the surrounding vineyards to sample.

The Urban Wine Trail brings the wine to the people. More than twenty wineries have tasting rooms situated throughout the downtown area, and all within walking distance.

Head to the wineries downtown if you're looking for high-end wines; such as those found at Happy Canyon, a family owned winery that makes organic, sustainable wine.

Then late afternoon, mosey down to the Funk Zone, an arts district near the waterfront where most of Santa Barbara's nightlife is centred, featuring galleries, shops, restaurants and more boutique tasting rooms.

Artwork in the Funk Zone.

Artwork in the Funk Zone.

Oreana is one of the first wineries before the Funk Zone became what it is today and produce a 2014 Verdelho, a grape they claim was 'rescued from Australia'. Across the road at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, you can drink flights of wine by a select number of producers, or by wine grape.

On the weekends food trucks are open to satiate wine tasters, but no trip to Santa Barbara is complete without dinner at Loquita, a sustainable Spanish restaurant in the Funk Zone; a unique restaurant taking from its Spanish heritage and its Californian, farm-to-table ethos.

In the courtyard, bougainvilleas full of pink flowers pour over the white walls of the patio. Inside, cheery, colourful Spanish tiles and a lively kitchen entertain those who sit inside the restaurant.

Here, there are four different kinds of gin cocktails as gin is the national drink of Spain; on the menu, roasted local beets flavoured with cara cara, one of the 100 types of citrus found in the Ojai region. Sugar snap peas come from the Elwood canyon farms in Goleta and are served with a mild Spanish blue cheese. Local shrimp is served with a robust, Spanish-style tomato sauce.

The only other thing left to experience is its friendly locals and the new tiki-themed 'neighbourhood' craft cocktail bar Test Pilot is just the place to stop by for a drink and a tip from them on where you should head next.





Getting there

Qantas and Virgin fly daily to Los Angeles, from there you can hire a car and drive the hour-long trip along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara. qantas.com; virgin.com; hertz.com; rentalcars.com


Kimpton Canary, 31 W Carrillo St, Santa Barbara, canarysantabarbara.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Santa Barbara