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Santa Barbara: The American Riviera

Backdropped by the Santa Ynez Mountains and located just 95 miles north along the coastline from the western terminus of Route 66, Santa Barbara is doubtlessly one of the most beautiful cities to sit along America’s western coast. Characterized by white stucco buildings with red terracotta roofs, pristine white sandy beaches, Mediterranean influences, and a rich and vibrant history, this coastal haven invites you to explore its past and revel in the beauty of its present.

Photo By Blake Bronstad

Long before the arrival of European settlers, the region was home to the Chumash people, a Native American tribe with a rich and vibrant culture. The Chumash thrived in the area for thousands of years, fishing in the abundant waters, crafting intricate baskets, and establishing villages along the coastline. Their connection to the land and sea was profound, and their legacy is still visible in the remnants of shell middens and cave paintings that dot the region.

Then, Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the California coast in 1542 and claimed the land for Spain. However, it wasn't until the late 18th Century that Spanish missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra, began to establish a presence in the region. In 1786, the Santa Barbara Mission was founded, becoming the tenth of the California missions, playing a central role in the colonization of California, as both a religious center and an agricultural hub.

Over the years, Santa Barbara underwent a significant evolution. The arrival of Mexican rule in the early 19th Century brought about some changes, but it was the American period, beginning in 1848, that truly marked a symbolic turning point. The Gold Rush brought an influx of settlers to California, and Santa Barbara evolved from a small mission settlement to becoming a busy hub for trade and commerce.

Then in 1925, a devastating earthquake struck the city, causing widespread destruction. However, this setback led to a unique architectural renaissance. The city embraced the Spanish Colonial Revival style in its rebuilding efforts, giving rise to the distinctive red tiled roofs, white stucco walls, and intricate wrought-iron details that define Santa Barbara's aesthetic to this day.

Today, The American Riviera, as the town is famously nicknamed, beckons as a destination where the mountains meet the sea, and the spirit of Spanish colonial heritage dances with the vibrancy of modern life, ready to be explored. And choosing the right place to base yourself is paramount to ensure that you take in all that Santa Barbara has to offer. While this paradisiac town contains ample amounts of incredible accommodations and dining options, we share a few of our favorites here via a list that will ensure that you experience the enchanting story of Santa Barbara as it unfolds, revealing why this coastal gem deserves a pivotal place on your travel itinerary.


Harbor View Inn

Perched on Santa Barbara's main beach drag, Cabrillo Boulevard, and just steps from the soft sands of West Beach is Harbor View Inn. Owned and operated by the Romasanta family for over 40 years, the venue’s architecture reflects the Spanish Colonial Revival style that defines much of Santa Barbara. Whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, and wrought-iron accents integrated with lush landscaping, brimming with palm trees and vibrant flowers, captures the essence of the city's coastal charm.

Accommodation wise, you will love that the 134 spacious rooms and 15 luxurious suites come with private balconies or patios, many with ocean views or an awesome view that overlooks perfectly manicured gardens. Each room is a blend of modern luxury and coastal charm and comes with waffle weave bathrobes, Keurig coffee makers, and a mini-bar or mini-fridge among other amenities.

The best part though is Harbor View Inn’s prime location, literally steps from the warm water and welcoming sand of the Pacific Ocean. This is the perfect spot to get easy access to the sea for a well-deserved swim or surf. Or just soak in the sun’s rays and check out everything going on from a cozy beach towel for a while. If laying on the beach isn’t quite your style, head to Harbor View Inn’s oceanfront heated swimming pool and jacuzzi where you can relax with a cocktail amidst the tropical tranquility. In other words, this is your time to kick back and take some “you” time and this hotel is the very best spot to do it from this season.

Harbor View Inn is also mere steps away from everything you’ll want to explore. Historic Stearns Wharf – the oldest working wood wharf in California – sits a stone’s throw away and offers restaurants, shops, and even a small aquarium. Also, within easy walking distance is State Street with its Spanish-influenced architecture and array of shops, restaurants, and bars. And just a few streets down is Funk Zone, the city’s arts and entertainment district. One of Santa Barbara’s most impressive offerings is the sheer number of fine dining opportunities available. This is a town that has simply delectable food and the general atmosphere and variety is fabulous. Unlike larger, busier destinations, this small coastal town feels relaxed without feeling removed or overly tiny.

In the evening, Harbor View Inn takes on a serene, peaceful vibe that allows guests to truly appreciate the magic of the California coast. So, when the night comes around, after a beautiful dinner down the road, return to the hotel, grab a refreshing glass of California wine or an ice-cold beer, and enjoy the Inn’s lush gardens as the full moon rises high in the mesmerizing sky.

Need we say more?

Brisas del Mar, Inn at the Beach

This boutique inn, located just a short stroll from West Beach and the bustling Santa Barbara Harbor, invites you into an intimate retreat where the beauty of the surroundings is matched only by the comfort of the accommodations and the attention to detail.

From the moment you check in, to the complimentary breakfast, the complimentary wine happy hour, the complimentary bikes and complimentary parking, you will feel embraced by the Inn’s warm hospitality and their genuine desire to enhance your experience.

The Mediterranean-style building with its stucco walls, red-tiled roofs, and arches exudes a sense of casual elegance that pays homage to the city's Spanish heritage while blending seamlessly with the natural beauty of the surroundings. The courtyard, adorned with vibrant bougainvillea and a trickling fountain, serves as a communal space for guests to relax. It's the perfect place where sunlit breakfasts and warm summer nights are enjoyed to the max.

The accommodations at Brisas del Mar offer beautiful rooms, suites, and penthouses, all offering a blend of modern amenities and classic California comfort. The suites feature a separate living room with sofa sleeper, a dining area, and a full kitchen.

Though not right within the Pacific Ocean’s view, Brisas del Mar is within easy reach of nearby beaches, the historic Stearns Wharf, and the vibrant Funk Zone and is a perfect base from which to explore the treasures of Santa Barbara, while immersing yourself in the rich tapestry of the city's culture and natural beauty.

Trust us, you will not want to leave.


Toma Restaurant and Bar

This Santa Barbara gem traces its beginnings to an eatery known as Emilio’s Ristorante and Bar and to an employee by the name of Tom Dolan.

When Emilio’s Ristorante and Bar, which had been in operation at the oceanfront historic building on Cabrillo Blvd., since 1990, shut its doors in 2012, Dolan, a loyal employee of 20-plus years, rallied several of his co-workers and in 2013, opened a new dining establishment in the same historic building they had spent years serving in. For the next decade, Toma Restaurant and Bar became a Santa Barbara favorite, so much so that, when Dolan was ready to pass the torch in 2022, third-generation Santa Barbaran Julian Sanders, and Sam Grant took up the reins to take the beloved restaurant into its next chapter.

From the beautiful, flowered vine-covered adobe exterior and outdoor patio to the wood-beamed low ceiling, muted-yellow walls, soft lighting, and white table cloths, you get the impression that at Toma, it is all about the love of food with a sense of place. The ambiance is classy and contemporary, yet warm and welcoming, equally embracing tradition and modernity.

The dishes feature the highest-quality ingredients and aren’t overly complicated. The 30-year plus signature Tuna Cones – four sesame cones stuffed with ahi sashimi, ginger, sesame, soy, chili, and chive – should be enough to pique your interest. Everything on the menu is flavorful and artfully presented – even the complimentary bread, butter, and olives to start is special. The service is friendly, knowledgeable and attentive – ready to swap your plates and utensils after each order.

Whether you are here for a leisurely meal with friends or a romantic dinner for two, the warm, inviting ambiance at Toma is the setting for an unforgettable evening that will have you plotting your inevitable return. Wine lovers take note because the restaurant’s wine cellar is also home to some of the world’s most prestigious vintages.

Convivo Restaurant and Bar

What could be better than enjoying great food and wine, while soaking in stunning ocean views? Well, Convivo, meaning ‘feast’ in Latin, delivers on all fronts. Located on the ground floor of the 55-year-old, newly (2016) renovated Santa Barbara Inn, the cuisine at Convivo reflects the restaurant's emphasis on capturing the spirit of convivial gatherings, in an elegant but relaxed setting.

Helmed by Chef and owner Peter McNee, the menu draws from diverse flavors – Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East – but with Italian sensibilities. Pasta and pizza lovers (so basically, most people) will have an absolute ball here, as the menu features a range of dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, including handmade pasta, wood oven pizza, grilled specialties, and fresh seafood.

One of the highlights of Convivo is its oceanfront location. So, while you may enjoy your meal in the stylish interior, it is the outdoor terrace, offering cerulean ocean views amidst perfectly verdant manicured lawns and under towering palms that will capture your heart.

Sip on a Convivo Sour made with pisco, egg white, lime, simple syrup, Amaro Alpino or on a Barrel-Aged Manhattan, and feast on Pesce Misto – mixed grill of seafood, shishito peppers, and salsa verde – or on the Lemon Ricotta Cappellacci; handmade pasta with SB rock crab & saffron shellfish, as you breathe salty sea air and watch as the golden hour blankets the Pacific Ocean. And the desserts? They – Crème Fraiche, Pistachio Cheesecake, and Lemon Tarts are favorites – will leave you more than satiated. Convivo can get pretty busy, so reservations are encouraged. Luckily, they are open for breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner.

Jeannine's at the Shore

Since the summer of 2021, Jeannine’s at the Shore has been making Santa Barbara locals and visitor’s days a little bit brighter (and sweeter). The story begins with a bakery in downtown Santa Barbara owned by a woman named Jeannine, and a young Stanford University graduate named Alison Hardey. Hardey fell in love with the bakery and its concept and convinced her parents, Eleanor and Gordon Hardey, to buy the bakery. This was in 1987.

Today, there are several locations of Jeannine’s Restaurant and Bakeries, each helmed by Alison Hardey, including the newest one, Jeannine’s at the Shore, which sits on a prominent waterfront corner on State Street right across from Stearns Wharf and beside Harbor View Inn.

Whether you are stopping by for breakfast, brunch or lunch, Jeannine’s offers a full menu with all the classics, including favorites like eggs benedict and French toast, as well as an array of made-from-scratch baked goods.

Jeannine’s doesn’t take reservations but don’t be deterred by the long lines. Come early and hungry but know that this spot is worth every minute of the wait. This is how it works: Place your order at the counter, take a number, find a table in the airy interior or out on the spacious outdoor patio and the staff will deliver the food to your table. The patio's sunny and vibrant atmosphere – tons of fresh greens and florals, and colorful umbrellas around a tiered fountain – is the perfect backdrop for a decadent brunch that will leave you walking on a cloud all day. This venue is a great spot to socialize with friends or enjoy a relaxed moment with a loved one.

Dig into favs like Challah French Toast Breakfast, Huevos Rancheros, the Santa Barbara Scramble or the rather delicious Tri-Tip Benedict. Lunch options run the gamut from sandwiches, to soups, to salads… lots of choices for every palate.

This family-owned café and bakery is the definition of a local neighborhood spot – (shout-out to Mr. Lallo whose energetic and sunny disposition is unrivaled) — and it’s a place we'd happily go to every day if we could.

The Lark

Christened after the overnight Pullman train of the Southern Pacific Railroad that ran from San Francisco to Los Angeles from 1910 to 1968, The Lark opened in 2013 in the heart of the Funk Zone – the vibrant and artsy neighborhood known for its galleries, studios, and unique dining establishments. This area of the city was once the industrial sector right by the railroad tracks, but has undergone a transformation in recent years, evolving into a hub for art, culture, and gastronomy. It is a really cool area to roam around and explore.

Housed in a 1920 historic fish processing plant, only a short distance from the train tracks upon which Lark overnight trains ran through the city, The Lark retains elements of its industrial past, integrating vintage and repurposed materials, while incorporating modern and stylish design. The result is a warm and inviting atmosphere with both indoor and outdoor seating areas and a large 24-seat communal table, if you should desire that level of breaking bread with others.

Headed by Chef Jason Paluska, one of The Lark's distinctive features is its emphasis on communal dining, though this is not required. The restaurant's farm-to-table approach showcases seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. The menu is designed to be exploratory, allowing you to sample a range of dishes and create a shared dining experience. So, be open for a mix of creative small plates, shared plates, and main courses.

The servings are quite generous, so plan to order a few examples from different parts of their menu and get ready for a culinary exploration. Enjoy the complimentary spicy herb popcorn, then feel free to go wild; get the Brown Butter Cornbread, get the Crispy Brussel Sprouts, get the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and/or get the 6 Hour Smoked Duroc Pork Ribs.

If you’re looking for a lively scene with great cuisine, amazing cocktails, and a really chill vibe, then The Lark is the spot for you.

Flor de Maiz

Got a hankering for some Mexican goodness? Well, with Flor de Maiz, you’re in the right place. Opened in 2019 by restaurateur Carlos Luna, Flor de Maiz is taking a beloved cuisine into the fine-dining realm, encouraging diners to reframe their idea of “Mexican food.”

The name, which translates to ‘corn flower’, pays homage to traditional Oaxacan cuisine, which has its roots in southeastern Mexico, where dishes rely on local varieties of corn, chiles, herbs, and greens found only in this specific region. So, expect lots of delicious taco options on the menu, moles, enchiladas, quesadillas, and much more, all prepared in novel and creative ways and bursting with rich texture and bold flavors.

From the chips, salsa, and guacamole to the octopus ceviches, to hours-simmered mole and beyond, Flor de Maiz effortlessly brings the taste of Oaxaca, merging tradition with taste. Don't overthink your order. This is food you crave on a regular basis served in an easy-going, stylish setting, so indulge yourself.

The interior weaves that laid back charm with a touch of metropolitan flair and is abuzz with energy. The vibrant bar also opens out onto the patio with views of Stearns Wharf and the Pacific Ocean, making the outdoor seats some of the best in the house. Be warned though, Flor de Maiz is quite popular and usually has lines out the door. But then, that should tell you something, right?

The beverage card is equally impressive, so, if you’re looking for a refreshing drink to balance out the chili-fueled heat, Flor de Maiz’s drinks menu has you covered with an extensive list of Margaritas, signature cocktails, a wide selection of tequilas and everything else.

Santa Barbara offers a wealth of activities for visitors to enjoy, blending coastal beauty with cultural richness. So whether you're seeking relaxation, outdoor adventure, history or cultural exploration - from Historic Stearns Wharf, State Street, Funk Zone, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, to the Old Mission Santa Barbara - there's something for everyone. Make this jewel of California your next road trip destination.

Historic Stearns Wharf
Old Mission Santa Barbara
State Street
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
Photo by Karna Hughes


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