Santa Barbara’s idyllic setting and stunning terrain has given rise to its moniker, the American Riviera. This small shelf of prime real estate is sandwiched between mountains and the Pacific Ocean and feeds the affluent traveler’s hunger for more.
Fiercely proud of its cultural heritage, Santa Barbara has a history that extends 13,000 years, back when the Chumash Indians inhabited the area. But while the city’s past is vibrant, its current state is equally stunning. There is brilliant shopping, a vibrant wine industry, charming Spanish architecture along with a laid back vibe inspired by endless waves and eternal sunshine.
Using Belmond El Encanto, the only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star property in the city, as your base, you’ll feel not only connected but you also won’t want to leave.
Breakfast is crucial to a long day of being on the move so head to The Shop Café, a locally owned breakfast spot with innovative food housed in a former taqueria.
Next, head to where it all started, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park — the birthplace of Santa Barbara. Most of this Spanish fort has been rebuilt; however, two sections of the early structure still stand. El Cuartel, an original adobe built in 1782, is the second-oldest building in the state of California — Mission San Juan Capistrano is the oldest — and was used as a private residence until the 1940s. You can stand inside history here or in the other building, the Canedo Adobe.
Directly up the street, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is the definitive Santa Barbara experience, incorporating Spanish and Moorish architecture, history, red-tiled roof views of the city, mountains, oceans and islands — all in a singular package.
During the complimentary guided tour of the courthouse, called the most beautiful public building in America by some, you will not be disappointed by what you see. Make sure you head to the top of the clock tower for unsurpassed peeks at the city, the ocean and Channel Islands. You’re also free to stroll along State Street, with its shops and Mediterranean, old-world look.
At lunchtime, head to the Funk Zone, formerly an unsightly industrial area just a scant two blocks from the beach: it’s all about wine and waves now. Visit Les Marchands for local and international wine and small bites.
In the Funk Zone, you can sip wines from 17 tasting rooms. Drop in Riverbench for its delicate pinot noir and chardonnay or sample Figueroa Mountain Brewery’s creative beers. Also in the Funk Zone you’ll spy a distillery, art galleries and gentle sea breezes that conspire to subdue your senses.
Afterwards, go for a stroll at Arroyo Burro Beach (known locally as Hendry’s Beach), a dog-friendly stretch for any Fidos that may need to play by the Pacific. With a restaurant on site and a small grassy area for picnics, it’s far removed from downtown’s more tourist beaches. As the sun sets, amber hues bounce off the ocean, illuminating the bluffs usually in time for dolphins to crest the water in search for food.
With your own dinner in mind, march towards Toma Restaurant and Bar near the harbor and nosh on spicy ahi tuna cone appetizers and other delightful items while sitting in a relaxing space reminiscent of an Italian bistro.
Wrap the evening up with a moonlit walk along the breakwater across the street from the restaurant. As the waves crash on a rock wall built in the 1920s to house yeast king Max Fleischman’s yacht, take in spectacular views of the city, harbor, mountains and islands.
Start with breakfast alfresco at El Encanto while taking in commanding looks of the ocean the same way that FDR and Clark Gable once did.
A five-minute walk gets you to the Frog Wall, an urban oddity where all manner of the amphibian (plastic, stuffed, etc.) cover a rock wall as an ode to spring that’s completely unique to Santa Barbara.
From there, it’s a short drive to Lotusland in Montecito, the stunning 37-acre private residence of Madame Ganna Walska, a former Polish opera singer obsessed with horticulture. Lotusland offers a variety of green spaces, including a topiary garden, Japanese garden and a Moorish-inspired parterre.
When you’re done taking snaps there, head to the El Paseo complex, the first outdoor mall in California (1924), with its winding Spanish paseos, tiled walkways, wrought iron staircases and bougainvillea-covered adobe walls. Stop for some wine at one of the property’s six tasting rooms, visit local art galleries or try local chocolates at CaliBressan.
With its open-air courtyard, mariachi accompaniment and fresh-made tortillas, lunch at El Paseo restaurant makes perfect sense next.
Just down the street, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum offers a unique look into the city’s history, including its connections to the Tong Wars, Flying A movie studio, and Spain and Portugal.
After walking those halls, it’ll be around 3 p.m., time for afternoon tea (Fridays and Saturdays only) at the Four-Star Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.
When you finish your scones and jasmine tea, take a short walk on Montecito’s Butterfly Beach. Or, since it’s polo season (May to October), visit the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, the third-oldest United States Polo Association club in America, to watch the sport of kings within view of the Pacific.
After, head back to Belmond El Encanto for a late-afternoon spa treatment. The seasonal menu is scented with treatments doused in lemon-basil, sage and peppermint — all plucked from the on-site garden.
Ideally, your 48-hour visit will end with a sunset cruise with Azure Seas. While hugging the coastline, take in the stunning sight of the beach, sea lions, the occasional dolphin and miles of shimmering blue water.
For dinner, make the 15-minute drive to the romantically remote Stonehouse restaurant at the Four-Star San Ysidro Ranch. Savor pan-seared Santa Barbara abalone, the local uni crudo or a classic Steak Diane flambéed on a classic California al fresco patio with views of indoor and outdoor fireplaces and the majestic waters mere feet away.