How can you not love California’s beaches where the weather is temperate, and the vibe is laidback? My daughter had extra Hyatt points, so she gifted me with 2 nights in Santa Barbara, one of my favorite beach cities to visit.
Santa Barbara has always been a gem with its Spanish-style architecture, the Queen of Missions, and, of course, the long stretch of white sand beach that you can view in all its glory at the end of the historic Stearns Wharf pier.
The funky part
My daughter recommended that I visit The Funk Zone because she knew I would love it. I had time to kill before my hotel check-in, so I stopped there for lunch. It’s a vibrant and colorful artists community close to the Amtrak train station and the beach.
Amidst converted warehouses and workspaces that run for several blocks, you will find imaginative wall murals, art pieces, galleries, cafes, and small shops.
Click on the images to view them full-size in a gallery.
But what many people come to The Funk Zone for is winetasting. Follow the Urban Wine Trail to sip Santa Barbara County’s superb wine varietals in over 20 tasting rooms that are tucked into nooks and alleyways within the area.
I had lunch at the Brass Bear Brewery and sat in a lovely outdoor patio decorated for Halloween. Although I would have loved to do some wine tasting while I was there, I didn’t want to show up tipsy at my hotel. But I made sure to enjoy at least a ½ glass of their IPA beer.
After I ate, I took a stroll around The Funk Zone, popped into a shop or two, and then headed down to the beach. Stearns Wharf was beckoning so I walked out to the end of it.
The old pier was constructed in 1872, by lumberman John P. Stearns. It is the oldest working wharf in California and the longest between San Pedro and San Francisco. There are several seafood restaurants at the end of it with as well as shops selling souvenirs, ice cream, and candy.
The wharf angles out to where the Santa Barbara Natural History Sea Center sits. It will be reopening in the spring of 2022. Families can pick up sea creatures from the Santa Barbara Channel in touch tanks and learn about them at interactive aquarium exhibits. I took my kids there when they were young and they loved it. The venue is also used as an event center for receptions, weddings, meetings, parties, etc.
Santa Barbara night life
The building is a family-friendly food court with several ethnic food vendors. I loved that free public parking underground is available.
Afterward, I walked to Victoria Court in the downtown section passing by The New Old Vic Theatre and the old Granada theatre. The area was alive with outdoor dining, shopping, and live music.
As we are still dealing with the pandemic, I was impressed that most people in the area were wearing masks and observing protocols.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
On an endless quest to get my steps in, I decided to kick off the morning with a stroll through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. I’ve always been a fan of gardens and live near Descanso Gardens, and The Huntington near Pasadena. The garden is located up in the hills above the old mission. It is a 78-acre area featuring over 1,000 California native plants.
There are about 5 miles of walking paths and it is a serene place to soak up nature. The garden is also dog-friendly, which is nice because dogs love enjoying nature too and poop bags are readily available. I walked down to the Redwoods area to forest bathe amongst the ancient trees and woodlands.
Afterward, I couldn’t resist buying a few things in the gift shop. They also have native plants outside for sale. It was a great workout and I left feeling renewed and purified.
Historic downtown SB
It was near lunchtime by the time I left the garden, so I headed back downtown to take a look at the old courthouse. It was constructed in 1929 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and is a sought-after location for wedding photos as well as a popular filming location. The interior is quite extraordinary but is currently closed to the public because of the pandemic.
Both the courthouse and the Old Mission are must-sees when you come up to Santa Barbara. I’ve been to the mission several times but didn’t have time to go there this time. It’s one of the most beautiful missions in California and is the largest in California.
In downtown Santa Barbara off State Street, you’ll find wonderful shops, restaurants, the Santa Barbara Art Museum, the Lobero Theatre, and much more. The town is easy to navigate, and parking is affordable. It’s also a friendly and culturally rich community.
Painted pianos have been set on street corners for anyone to play. I saw the same thing in downtown Denver. The homeless situation exists in Santa Barbara, like most cities in California, but compared to Los Angeles, there were very few. Some played the pianos and were quite talented.
I had lunch at the Olio Crudo Bar on their outside patio. It’s part of a trio of Italian eateries owned by an Italian couple. The Olio Crudo Bar sells authentic Italian food ingredients to take home. The Olio Pizzeria is a pizza/wine bar, and Olio e Limone is their full-scale restaurant. If you love authentic Sicilian cuisine, you can’t go wrong at either of these 3 establishments. I had a fabulous slice of lasagne with a glass of Italian wine and took home packages of Sicilian pasta and risotto.
By the time I got back to my hotel, I was pooped. Rather than venture out again, I had a quick dinner during happy hour at Palapa Restaurant next to my hotel. It’s a casual eatery but all their ingredients are made fresh daily from scratch and I was quite satisfied. It’s hard to get a bad taco in Santa Barbara!
Breakfast by the beach
Alas, two nights is never enough. Rather than eat the “not so exciting” comp breakfast at my hotel, I went back to The Funk Zone to the Helena Avenue Bakery. They sell rustic organic bread, homemade pastries made from scratch, sandwiches, picnic fare, and salads.
I ordered the most amazing Avocado toast with coffee and ate it on their outdoor patio. It was pure foodie bliss.
There are so many fun things to do in the Santa Barbara area I could have stayed at least a week but had to drive back to LA before Friday traffic. The wonderful thing about this beach town is that you don’t have to do anything to enjoy it. It’s delightful just hanging out by the beach.
Nearby side trips in the area include the Danish Village of Solvang, Ojai, Lake Casitas, The Channel Islands, and Winetasting in Los Olivos.
You could also run into Prince Harry and Meghan or Oprah in Montecito or shop for antiques in Summerland. Let’s face it, Santa Barbara is California living at its best.
What is your favorite beach town? Please leave a comment below.