Known as the "American Riviera" and set along a stunningly rugged stretch of the central California shoreline, Santa Barbara ranks among the most picturesque vacation destinations on the West Coast. Just a 90-minute drive up the coast from Los Angeles and less than an hour down the coast from San Luis Obispo, this affluent seaside city with a population of nearly 95,000 abounds with sophisticated restaurants, Spanish Mission-inspired architecture (including a number of memorable hotels), south-facing beaches, posh boutiques, and vibrant urban wineries, art galleries, and cocktail lounges.
Below, you'll find recommendations and stories about some of the top attractions in Santa Barbara and the surrounding Wine Country, including the towns of Santa Ynez, Solvang, and Los Olivos.
Getting to Know Santa Barbara - A Santa Barbara County Gay Guide
For tourist information on exploring the city and surrounding county, check out the Visit Santa Barbara website, which abounds with helpful planning advice and resources. Also very useful are Pacific Pride Foundation, which organizes Santa Barbara Gay Pride each year, and the city's lively alternative newsweekly, the Santa Barbara Independent.
For tips on wine-touring, the Wine Institute of California produces an outstanding site with detailed information on each of the state's key wine regions, including the Santa Barbara County Wine Country. It's well-worth visiting the area during in September, which is California Wine Month. Also ideal for sampling vino in the area is April, Down to Earth Month, during which numerous events around the area highlight sustainable, eco-friendly winemaking, from eco-tours to dog-friendly vineyard hikes.
Also have a look at the Santa Barbara County Gay Nightlife and Dining Guide and the Santa Barbara Gay-Friendly Inns and Hotels Guide, both of which list a number of great options for LGBT visitors.
Touring the Santa Barbara Wine Country, including charming Los Olivos
The Santa Barbara Wine Country extends over a considerable span of coast and inland foothills, stretching north and west up the U.S. 101 and Highway 1 corridor from Santa Ynez to Santa Maria (in addition to the burgeoning collection of urban wineries in downtown Santa Barbara). The small, charmed village of Los Olivos is, however, both one of the nearest Wine Country towns to the city of Santa Barbara as well as the most prolific in terms of tasting rooms and restaurants. This historic town of about 1,000 residents lies in the Santa Ynez Valley and is a hub of wine tasting and shopping. Pictured here is Grand Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Los Olivos. Along the three or four blocks that run south from Hwy. 154, you'll find dozens of wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and boutiques, plus a few places to stay. Los Olivos is also Santa Barbara's most recent American Viticultural Area (AVA), it being home to around 50 different vineyards and wine-making operations.
To reach Los Olivos from Santa Barbara, you can either take the U.S. 101 freeway northwest along the coast, exiting either in Solvang or farther north at Hwy. 154, or you can opt for the shorter-in-miles but longer time-wise route, taking Hwy. 154 (San Marcos Pass Road) all the way up from the foothills on the north side of Santa Barbara (reached via Hwy. 192). This route is extremely scenic, especially as it passes by Lake Cachuma - here's a map and directions of this drive from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos. Using either route, it's about a 45-minute to 1-hour drive from downtown Santa Barbara to Los Olivos.
You can get a full sense of the Los Olivos wine scene as well as more information on the tasting rooms and vineyards throughout the region by visiting the excellent website produced by the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association as well as the Wine Institute of California guide to the Santa Barbara County Wine Country. Additionally, for more on where to dine, shop, taste wines, and stay in downtown Los Olivos, check out LosOlivosCA.com.
Exploring Downtown Santa Barbara
The core city center of Santa Barbara looks, at first glance, like a mid-sized town in colonial Spain. There are no buildings taller than the historic eight-story Granada Theater, the pedestrian-friendly sidewalks are shaded by ornamental trees and decorated with benches, planters, and fountains, and from virtually any downtown corner you can see looming mountain peaks, the endless ocean horizon, or both.
Rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial style following a devastating earthquake in June 1925, downtown SB ranks among the prettiest cores of any city in America. Although many local attractions are farther afield, along the shore or in the foothills, downtown Santa Barbara is home to the excellent Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the late-18th-century El Presidio State Historic Park, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, and a clutch of laudable, mostly upscale boutiques and restaurants, especially along its main commercial drag, State Street, which is also where you'll find the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center. Another big draw on State Street, especially for foodies, is the handsome Santa Barbara Public Market, which contains nearly a dozen artisan-food purveyors specializing in everything from fresh seafood and craft beer to cupcakes and organic ice cream.
Walk down State away from the mountains and through the railroad and US 101 underpass, and you'll gain easy access to both the arty and food-driven Funk Zone and, just a bit farther, the bustling waterfront, with its palm-shaded beaches and lively - albeit touristy - marina and wharves.
For covering a bit more territory than just the immediate downtown vicinity, consider renting a bike. Wheel Fun Rentals (805-966-2282) has bikes of all kinds and three different locations downtown or near the beach.
Franceschi Park viewpoint of the Santa Barbara skyline and Channel Islands
For one of the best views of the Santa Barbara skyline and oceanfront, along with Channel Islands National Park in the distance, head up into the foothills above downtown to tranquil Franceschi Park (1501 Franceschi Rd.), an exquisitely landscaped 18-acre tract with picnic tables, a few parking spots, and footpaths leading to several wonderfully scenic - and romantic - viewpoints. In fact, just from the parking area the view is magnificent, as are many of the mansions on the surrounding hillside.
It can be a little tricky to find this park, as it's reached via a series of switchback lanes that rise up into a residential neighborhood. Here are directions and a map for reaching the park from State Street downtown. The park is just a couple of miles from downtown, about a 10-minute drive.
Coast Village Road and downtown Montecito
Coast Village Road is the primary commercial thoroughfare through the village of Montecito, a posh enclave that's part of metro Santa Barbara, ranks among the wealthiest communities in America, and is nonetheless unincorporated (it's officially a census-designated place, or CDP, with a population of about 9,000).
Montecito actually comprises a considerable area that extends well inland into the foothills high above the ocean, where Coast Village Road is. There are a few shopping areas up in the foothills, notably at the junction of East Valley Road (Hwy. 192) and San Ysidro Road. But more of the community's shopping and dining is along Coast Village Road, which parallels and lies just north of the U.S. 101 freeway and is also just a short drive east of Santa Barbara proper. Among the noted restaurants along this stretch, consider Cava Restaurant and Bar, the Honor Bar, Tre Lune, Los Arroyos, and Jeannine's Bakery.
Old Mission Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful of the state's 21 missions
Created in 1786 as the 10th - and some say the most visually arresting - of the 21 missions established by Spanish Franciscans throughout California, Old Mission Santa Barbara (2201 Laguna St., 805-682-4713) is today one of the city's foremost cultural institutions. Self-guided tours of this formidable red-tile-roof structure in the foothills can be enjoyed daily from 9 until 4:15, and docent-led tours are offered once a day from Thursday through Saturday (check the website for exact hours, but these docent tours are generally late morning). Admission is $8, but it's free to stroll the 13 acres of grounds and meticulously kept gardens.
The Old Mission is most easily reached by driving northwest (away from the beach) on State Street and following the signs. It's in the same general vicinity of several other noteworthy attractions, including the Museum of Natural History Santa Barbara, Rocky Nook Park, and - a bit farther up into the foothills - the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
Downtown Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail and Funk Zone
Santa Barbara County, of course, has become extremely well-regarded as one of the nation's leading wine regions over the past two decades. The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail is a more recent creation, spurred by the innovative spirit of several wine entrepreneurs who recognized the value in bringing first-rate Santa Barbara wine right to the center of the area's largest city. If you haven't the time or inclination to drive up into the Santa Barbara Wine Country, which is at least a 45-minute drive away, this is an excellent way to sample some terrific vino right in the heart of the city. The Wine Trail represents around 30 urban winemakers or tasting rooms related to wineries elsewhere in Santa Barbara County, and the number continues to rise rapidly.
Set inside a former tire shop in a semi-industrial neighborhood known as the Funk Zone (between the beach and the freeway and just east of downtown State Street), the airy and elegant Oreana Winery (205 Anacapa St., 805-962-5857) is a popular stop on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail that produces estimable Pinot Noir and Syrah and features live music on many weekends. Some other favorites include Jaffurs (outstanding Syrahs and other Rhone varietals), Kunin (another favorite for Rhone and also Loire Valley-style wines) and Area 5.1 (a hip spot specializing in unusual, well-crafted red and white blends). Other Santa Barbara notables with tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail include such major players as Au Bon Climat, Babcock, and Sanford (which boasts the oldest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plantings in the county).
Many Santa Barbara wineries are downtown (on or near State Street), while a handful are farther afield, but the bulk of the Urban Wine Trail businesses are right in the Funk Zone, on or near Anacapa Street and Helena Avenue. This bustling district offers not only wineries but more than a dozen art galleries, several excellent restaurants (Metropulos Fine Foods for breakfast and lunch or to grab picnic supplies in the market, the Lark for exceptional mod California farm-to-table cuisine), and a handful of other businesses. It's a compact neighborhood that's good fun to explore on foot.
Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara's visual drama comes from two key points, the soaring Santa Ynez Mountains, which form its backdrop, and the stunning south-facing Pacific coastline, which is strung with curving beaches and picturesque sea cliffs. Within walking distance (or a short drive) of downtown is the vibrant Santa Barbara Waterfront, which includes historic Stearns Wharf at the foot of State Street and, just a 20-minute scenic stroll to the west, the lively Santa Barbara Harbor and adjacent Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Note that you can also catch "Lil Toot," a water taxi shuttle between Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor - it's a particularly nice way to go if you're wanting a great photo of the waterfront against the city and mountains.
Both the Stearns Wharf and SB Harbor areas have a number of souvenir shops as well as some highly popular restaurants, most of them specializing in seafood. Good bets include Santa Barbara Shellfish Company on Stearns Wharf, Brophy Bros. and Shoreline Beach Cafe at nearby Leadbetter Beach. You'll also find sailing and tour-boat charters and shops that rent kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and every other imaginable type of equipment for getting out and enjoying the sea.
Continue just west of the harbor, and you'll also find yourself at lovely Leadbetter Beach, whereas in the other direction, to the east of Stearns Wharf, you can laze on or stroll along the sand at East Beach and visit the Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center, a favorite site of LGBT weddings.
Hendry's Beach (aka Arroyo Burro Beach) and More Mesa Gay Beach
None of the several beautiful beaches in Santa Barbara has an obviously gay presence, but there are a few spots in the area where you're at least somewhat more likely to see "family" - and at the very least some gorgeous sunbathers. Pictured here is Arroyo Burro (aka Hendry's Beach), which is 3 or 4 miles southwest of downtown and home to the excellent waterfront restaurant, the Boathouse (2981 Cliff Dr., 805-898-2628).
Continue west a few more miles through posh Hope Ranch to reach nudist-popular More Mesa Beach, which draws very few crowds but does have something of a gay following. It's a little tricky to reach More Mesa Beach - here's a helpful description, with directions. Other lovely beaches in Santa Barbara include Butterfly Beach in Montecito (excellent for sunsets and located right across the street from the posh Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel), centrally located East and West beaches (near downtown), Leadbetter Beach, and - out near University of California Santa Barbara campus - Goleta Beach Park. Here's a full rundown of area beaches.
Shopping and Wine-Touring in Danish-inspired Solvang
Situated right in the middle of the Santa Barbara Wine Country about a 45-minute drive northwest of the city, the small, charming town of Solvang resembles a Danish village for good reason. Now with a population of about 5,200, Solvang was founded by a group of Danes in 1911 with the aim of preserving the culture and aesthetic of Denmark, and over time, as the community has become better known as a tourist destination, locals have continued the theme. You'll see windmills and quaintly designed buildings created in the Danish style, and dozens of shops and cafes in the walkable downtown sell Danish-inspired gifts, housewares, and foods (along with plenty of other goods).
Surrounded by winegrowing regions on all sides, Solvang is also home to a number of tasting rooms. Check out the map of the Solvang Wine Walk here. It's just a short drive from the many wineries in Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Buellton, too. Another highlight is the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art (1624 Elverhoy Way, 805-686-1211), which contains a Viking exhibit (naturally) as well as art and historical collections, many of them related to both Denmark and California's Central Coast.
Exploring the Santa Ynez Wine Trail
With Solvang and Los Olivos, the small, picturesque village of Santa Ynez forms something of a wine- and food-lovers' triangle, with numerous restaurants, boutiques, and tasting rooms set among all three communities and plenty of beautiful rolling vineyards set in the countryside between them. Santa Ynez proper is tiny, with fewer businesses than its neighbors, but there are some terrific restaurants, including Brothers Restaurant at the Red Barn for creative American fare and Trattoria Grappolo, a romantic yet unpretentious spot for delicious classic rustic Italian cooking.
One exceptional vineyard in the heart of the aforementioned triangle is Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard (1500 Alamo Pintado Rd., 805-688-3032). Run by a friendly and knowledgeable team, including talented abstract painter Seyburn Zorthian, whose work appears on Buttonwood's wine labels, this 106-acre spread of undulating vineyards (primarily Bordeaux grapes, from Cab Sauvignon and Cab Franc to Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) also is home to peach orchards (the fruit appears in the preserves and salsa sold in the farmstand-style tasting room), olive trees, herb gardens, and all sorts of other crops. On a sunny day, the best plan is to bring a picnic and enjoy a tasting of Buttonwood's stellar wines out in the gardens behind the tasting room. Tip: it sells out fast, so if you visit when the dry Syrah Rose is available, definitely grab a bottle (or two).
Anapamu Street, a typically pleasant, tree-shaded residential row downtown
One defining and highly appealing aspect of downtown Santa Barbara, particularly its residential neighborhoods, are the canopies of soaring shade trees. Anapamu Street, shown here at the intersection with Laguna Street a few blocks east of State Street, is a particularly scenic street. It's lined with mostly modest though attractive bungalows, including many Craftsman and Spanish Colonial examples, and dense boughs shade the sidewalk below.
Fess Parker Winery, a key stop on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail
You can sample many different kinds of Santa Barbara wines at the cluster of tasting rooms in downtown Los Olivos and some of the villages nearby (Solvang, Santa Ynez, Lompoc) as well as downtown Santa Barbara, which has a growing number of tasting rooms. But one of the prettiest ways to explore the area is to drive the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, much of it along bucolic Foxen Canyon Road, which begins just north of Los Olivos and parallels U.S. 101 up to Santa Maria, at the northern end of the county.
Pictured here are grape vineyards at one of the trail's - and the region's - most famous and prestigious properties, Fess Parker Winery (6200 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos, 800-841-1104), which is named for the late actor who starred as such rugged Wild West icons as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in TV miniseries throughout his career. Following his retirement from acting, Parker became a prominent winemaker in the area, and back in downtown Los Olivos, you can stay at the wonderfully charming and romantic Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa (800-446-2455), which is also home to Petros Los Olivos Restaurant and the hip Bubble Shack, a tasting room and shop specializing in sparkling wine. It's just a short walk from the many other tasting rooms and eateries in town.
Los Olivos Tasting Room and Wine Shop
A wine shop that sources from a number of wineries around Santa Barbara County and often pours and sells unusual, hard-to-find bottles, Los Olivos Tasting Room (2905 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, 805-688-7406) is right in the heart of this charming town in the Santa Barbara Wine Country and specializes in the region's most acclaimed varietal, Pinot Noir. For the $10 tasting fee, you can sample a nice range of wines, many from small, family-owned vineyards, some of them not open to the public. It's an excellent source if you're hoping to gain a sense of the region's eclectic wine offerings, and the staff is very knowledgeable.
I picked up the astoundingly good (and well-priced) Luli Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, which is pictured here on the very right side of the counter, as well as a bottle of the first-rate Jaffurs Syrah - from a winery that specializes in Rhone varietals (they make a memorable Grenache and Mourvedre, too). Others featured on this day included the Barrack Brand blend from Happy Canyon Vineyard, an excellent Pinot Noir from Jack Creek Cellars, and another worthy Pinot from one of Santa Barbara County's winemaking legends, Ken Brown. Whatever they're pouring in this intimate shop, you're apt to come away with some terrific finds.
Butterfly Beach, Montecito, adjacent to the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel
You don't have to be a guest of the posh Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara to enjoy the mesmerizing ocean views from Butterfly Beach in coastal Montecito - but it helps. The Biltmore is just across the street from this spectacular stretch of sand. In the late afternoon, as shown here, you'll be treated to a gorgeous sunset. The street fringing the beachfront, Channel Drive (reached via Olive Mill Road, off ofMontecito's primary commercial strip, Coast Village Rd.), is public and does have a limited number of parking spots. There's no fee to park here or use the beach, but there's also an absence of any kind of beach facilities.
Checking the wineries of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto and Santa Rita Hills
One of the more recently emerging wine regions in Santa Barbara County is Lompoc (pronounced lahm-poke), a city with about 43,000 residents that's located in the western reaches of the county, about 20 miles west of Solvang. Home to many employees of nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, and with a cool, marine climate, Lompoc has been less of a tourism destination than some of its neighbors around the county, but with ideal terrain for growing Pinot Noir, the area has benefited from that varietal's increased popularity in Santa Barbara since the movie Sideways.
Many of the region's wineries have tasting rooms clustered relatively close together in the so-called Lompoc Wine Ghetto (you can view a map here). They include the highly acclaimed Pinot Noir producer Ampelos Cellars (pictured above), which also turns out an outstanding Viognier, but there are more than 20 tasting rooms in the area, plus another dozen or so up in the Santa Rita Hills, whicih lies between Lompoc and Buellton/Solvang (and the U.S. 101).
Paseo Nuevo shopping center, an upscale mall on downtown State Street
Built in the ubiquitous Spanish Mission style of downtown Santa Barbara, the indoor-outdoor Paseo Nuevo shopping center (651 Paseo Nuevo, just off State Street, 805-963-7147) is right in the heart of the city's retail and entertainment district, at the corner of State and De La Guerra streets. Anchored by Macy's and Nordstrom, the upscale complex with tile walkways and outdoor terraces opened in 1990 and contains more than 50 shops, mostly of the mid-range chain variety: Abercrombie & Fitch, Aveda, Express, L'Occitane, Lucky Brand Jeans, Nine West, Papyrus, Sephora, Victoria's Secret, and White House/Black Market among them. You'll also find about a dozen casual restaurants (California Pizza Kitchen, Eureka Burger, etc.), and a couple of theaters. Paseo Nuevo is smack in the middle of downtown, meaning it's also a very short walk to countless fine restaurants and nightclubs as well as hotels and still many more boutiques and shops.