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Santa Barbara : the prettiest city in California

Santa Barbara is the prettiest city in California! Well that’s what I reckon anyway.

Beautiful adobe architecture makes shopping on State Street seem like you’re in some little Spanish town with the majestic Santa Ynez mountain range hugging the city that sits protected from Pacific Ocean breezes thanks to its south facing location.

I know – south facing??! Yes, because Santa Barbara sits on a little piece of California that juts into the ocean. That means it’s pretty much a blue-sky day every day.

State Street, Santa Barbara
Shop, walk, cycle along State St

On my first excursion driving from Los Angeles up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara – on the wrong side of the road with the rear view mirror to the right and the seatbelt pinning me into the Dodge Grand Caravan driver’s seat – just seemed so wrong.

Our vehicle, of bus-like proportions, accommodated four people in theatre-style seats with enough room in the back for a family to stow away, let alone plenty of shopping bags and I was the nominated driver in our little posse of travel agents and me.

I inched out of Enterprise Car Rental at LAX. Thank the Lord for the GPS perched on the dashboard and for my colleague sitting next to me following the sultry voice’s every command on a map the size of a dining table.

Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles
Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles

It’s about a two-hour drive north from LA to Santa Barbara on the picturesque Highway 101. The GPS weaves between the coastal road with its majestic ocean views, and further inland, where we caught glimpses of the devastating fires, before descending to sea level where Santa Barbara sprawled in front of us.

This, I can conclude, is one of the most beautiful cities in America, and I’ve been to the Land of the Free more than 50 times.

Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara has palm trees that sway along the wide road running parallel with an even wider beach carpeted with sand that disappears into the distance.

Spanish Mission, Santa Barbara
The hilltop Spanish Mission

Sheltered from much of the Pacific Ocean breeze and with temperatures that are gorgeous year-round, Santa Barbara sits snuggled in front of a low mountain range which is hugged by the awesome Santa Ynez mountains – home to valleys of vineyards.

Posh houses are dotted up the hillside and the famous Spanish Mission, founded by the Spanish Franciscans on the Feast of Saint Barbara in 1786, looks across the bay.

There are plenty of things to do in Santa Barbara, but you need to make time for a visit to the The Mission.

This original, unpretentious adobe building of the Mission was built more than 200 years ago primarily to Christianise the local Chumash Indians, who were spread from nearby Malibu, north to San Luis Obispo. It was added to over the years before being destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. The present building was dedicated in 1820 and the adjoining friary has been added to (and subtracted from, courtesy of more earthquakes) ever since.

Looking over the rooftops out to the beach in Santa Barbara
Climb up the bell tower for these views over downtown Santa Barbara

The arrival of the Franciscan monks introduced agriculture and irrigation to the local Indians who were primarily hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Soon the fields were full of wheat, barley, corn, beans and peas. Orange and olive trees were also planted and the first grapevines cultivated. These days vineyards stretch in an 80km radius – many were featured in the movie Sideways.

State Street is where you’ll find the main shopping and eating area and where buildings are not allowed to be more than five stories high, and most are only two. Santa Barbara’s town planners have been strict about architecture and design and consequently all the shop fronts have beautiful Spanish-style facades.

Tucked off State St is Paseo Nuevo, an outdoor mall decorated with hanging baskets bursting with colour. It is full of nooks housing cafes and more than 50 shops to keep me amused.

The Mission Santa Barbara

Although the climate is dry here, there is no shortage of vibrant colour in the gardens. Drought-tolerant planting is not just about cactus and olive trees. The streets are alive with flowering shrubs and splashes of bougainvillea, ice plants, zinnia and other species that only my mother would know.

Three hundred days a year are blue-sky days here, so we headed down for a sail in Channel Harbour. At the Santa Barbara Sailing Centre we met Captain Barry who, it turns out, spent time in Auckland working at the Whitbread – a long time ago.

He eased the 50-foot Catalina out of her berth and for the next two hours, with barely enough breeze to fill the headsail, we spent a glorious afternoon lying on the deck watching seals and dolphins playing. The mighty blue whale – the biggest mammal that ever lived (and still lives) – can also be seen here, but alas not today.

Beyond the shoreline, Santa Barbara’s adobe houses with their red-tiled roofs climb up the mountain range that keeps the city protected from the inland heat and causes a foggy marine layer to hover most mornings.

I’ll be back!

Read my post about driving the Pacific Coast from LA to San Francisco here >>>

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!