Winter is in full swing, complete with buckets of rain and early sunsets. If you’re one of the many Seattleites craving some vitamin D and a change of scenery right about now, there’s no time like the present to book a long weekend in Santa Barbara.
The small coastal city in central California boasts beautiful beaches and mountains, rich history and top-notch restaurants — and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from Seattle. A direct flight on Alaska Airlines clocks in at just under two-and-a-half hours, and upon arrival you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a completely different place and time.
Known as the American Riviera (in reference to the French version), Santa Barbara has a Mediterranean feel and a strong Spanish influence from the explorers who settled there in the 18th century. All the buildings — even convenience stores — are constructed in Spanish-style stucco with red tiled roofs, and if you love beautifully decorated ceramic tiles, you’ll be thrilled to find them everywhere in Santa Barbara, from historical attractions to shopping centers.
The city’s laid-back vibe makes it a perfect break from the Northwest’s daily grind. And thanks to its small size, you can easily make do without a rental car. Most destinations and restaurants are either walkable or a quick Lyft ride from area hotels.
Where to stay
If you’re looking to treat yourself, the Four Seasons Resort is well worth the price tag (check for deals, which crop up fairly often). Located directly on the south-facing Butterfly Beach, the hotel is a prime location for viewing stunning sunsets. Be sure to allow plenty of time for exploring the resort’s beautiful grounds; botany professors from the University of California, Santa Barbara, take their students on field trips here because it contains the area’s widest variety of flora and fauna.
For a more affordable option, book a stay at The Eagle Inn (theeagleinn.com). With the beach and marina less than a five-minute walk away, this charming B&B has an excellent location and a friendly, attentive staff. Each room is decorated differently, and for a little extra, you can get one with a whirlpool tub, fireplace, or balcony. If you’re a solo traveler like me, the smaller rooms are just perfect.
Parks and beaches
It may be too cold to swim, but a peaceful walk along the ocean in Santa Barbara is pretty close to paradise. On a bluff above the ocean, stroll Shoreline Park (santabarbaraca.gov/gov/depts/parksrec/parks/features/beaches/shoreline.asp) and take in the views. There are plenty of staircases along the way so you can get down to the beach when you please. The beach is only walkable during low tide, so if you want to be as close to the waves as possible, head to Leadbetter Beach (santabarbaraca.gov/gov/depts/parksrec/parks/features/beaches/leadbetter.asp) to the east or Arroyo Burro Beach to the west (countyofsb.org/parks/day-use/arroyo-burro-beach.sbc), better known as Hendry’s Beach).
Located against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the iconic Stearns Wharf (stearnswharf.org) is home to the city’s harbor, specialty shops and a number of restaurants. Bike rentals are available and a great option if you want to cruise around and take in the scenery.
Even if you’re not staying at the Four Seasons, be sure to visit at least once so you can check out Butterfly Beach. Grab a drink at one of the resort’s ocean-facing restaurants at sunset — it’s arguably the best sunset view in the city.
Built as a military fortress by the Spanish in 1782, El Presidio de Santa Bárbara (sbthp.org/presidio) has since been turned into a museum. Two of the fort’s original adobe buildings are still standing and open to the public, and the museum features exhibitions and displays with information about the history of the Presidio. Admission is $5 and it’s open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Founded in 1786, Old Mission Santa Barbara’s (santabarbaramission.org) architecture strongly influenced the style of the city as we know it today. Admission is only $9 and a self-guided tour is an option. Visit the chapel, the cemetery and mausoleum, and explore the 12 acres of gardens. Docent-led tours are available at 11 a.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. Saturdays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse (santabarbaraca.com/businesses/santa-barbara-county-courthouse) is free and open the public every day except Sunday. Wander through the many rooms to see the gorgeous tile work and handpainted ceilings, and don’t miss the Mural Room, which depicts Santa Barbara’s history. Be sure to walk (or take the elevator) all the way to the very top to take in the view (best enjoyed when the weather is clear).
Where to hike
Inspiration Point (santabarbarahikes.com/hikes/frontcountry/inspirationpt) is a popular hiking destination that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. The 3.5-mile round-trip hike is mostly uphill so you’ll get in a workout as well as a beautiful view of the city and the ocean.
Experienced hikers looking for a more challenging outing will love Gaviota Peak (santabarbarahikes.com/hikes/frontcountry/gaviota). A steep climb brings you to the peak, where you’ll get an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean. Be sure to take the side trip to the Gaviota Hot Spring, located about a half mile from the trailhead — it’s the perfect place to relax and soak your feet after the climb.
And if the hot spring appeals but you’re not up for the hike, you can always just take the 1-mile round-trip hike to the water. It’s your vacation, after all.
Where to eat
If I could eat breakfast at Jeannine’s (jeannines.com) every day, I would. From the breakfast quesadilla to the banana Kahlua French toast, you really can’t go wrong — and don’t worry, the coffee is up to Seattleites’ standards.
Be sure to visit Santa Barbara Public Market (sbpublicmarket.com), a large space offering everything from Asian to Italian food under one roof. It’s affordable and ideal if you’re traveling with companions in the mood for different cuisines. My personal favorite is Empty Bowl (emptybowlnoodle.com), a gourmet Thai noodle bar, and I usually try to save room for a treat at Enjoy Cupcakes (enjoycupcakes.com) or Rori’s Artisanal Creamery (rorisartisanalcreamery.com).
For a Spanish tapas dinner and incredible libations, Loquita (loquitasb.com) is a must. The menu recently underwent some changes and the waiters are more than happy to make recommendations. The seafood dishes are wonderful (the octopus is my favorite), as are the paellas. For cocktail enthusiasts, gin and tonics happen to be Loquita’s specialty, with five variations available.
An earlier version of this article misstated the direction Butterfly Beach faces. It faces south.