Santa Barbara Is Known as the American Riviera

Summer is near and crowds of tourists will soon descend on France’s fabled Riviera. But sunseekers longing for a Mediterranean getaway can find all the luxuries they desire just 90 miles north of Los Angeles on California’s central coast.

View of cityscape and white buildings

Erika Hobart

Santa Barbara has been fondly referred to as “The American Riviera” for more than a century because of its temperate climate and lush landscapes, as well as its robust food and wine culture. In fact, Santa Barbara reminded American cookbook author Julia Child so much of the South of France that she chose to spend the final chapter of her life here. Since then, celebrities including Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rob Lowe, and more recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, have decided to make the sophisticated but laidback city their home.

Here’s everything you need to know about the American Riviera for your next trip.

View of white villa and trees

Erika Hobart

What to Do in Santa Barbara

Wine Tasting: Santa Barbara is a world-class wine destination and many of the wineries that grow grapes in the surrounding mountains have tasting rooms in the city. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can follow what’s known as the Urban Wine Trail and sip your way through more than 20 tasting rooms across two neighborhoods, the trendy Funk Zone and the historic Presidio.

Sailing: You can’t visit the American Riviera without going on the water and the Santa Barbara Sailing Center has you covered. Their most popular offer is the two-hour sunset cruise, but you can also hire private yachts and even take lessons if you want to give sailing a try yourself.  

Sailboats docked in the marina at sunset

Erika Hobart

Lotusland: Ganna Walska Lotusland is the historic estate of Madame Ganna Walska, an eccentric opera singer who married six times and used the wealth she accumulated from her relationships to build a 37-acre botanical garden at her mansion in Montecito, one of the most affluent communities in the area. You can visit Lotusland twice a week by reservation only. This ensures that guests get an intimate experience and that the garden stays in pristine condition. If you want a unique experience in Santa Barbara, it’s an absolute must.

A paved road through lush trees

Erika Hobart

Santa Barbara County Courthouse: Built in the Spanish-Moorish revival architectural style in 1929, this fully operational courthouse is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings and an iconic landmark. Climb to the top of the clocktower for the most incredible panoramic views of the city and pack a lunch so that afterward, you can enjoy a picnic in the surrounding gardens. 

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, Santa Barbara: Perched high in the residential hills of Santa Barbara, Belmond El Encanto overlooks the Pacific Ocean and has the city’s best vantage point of the American Riviera. The hotel consists of several elegant suites and bungalows set amid swaying eucalyptus trees, winding paths, and even a small waterfall that’s home to four turtles. You’ll feel welcome from the moment you step foot on the property and are offered a glass of freshly-made lavender mint lemonade.

Walkway through white buildings

Erika Hobart

San Ysidro Ranch: If heaven is a place in California, it’s in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and it’s called San Ysidro Ranch. This enchanting hideaway welcomed everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Winston Churchill to even John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy on their honeymoon in 1953. The service is inimitable and guests’ privacy is considered to be of utmost importance. Despite being surrounded by 500 acres of land that includes citrus groves and rose gardens, San Ysidro Ranch has only 38 private cottages.

Dining room

Erika Hobart

Where to Eat in Santa Barbara

Scarlett Begonia: A local favorite, Scarlett Begonia is a farm-to-table eatery that’s famous for its weekend brunch. You can’t go wrong with the lemon ricotta pancakes or the shrimp and grits. Arrive early or be prepared to wait in line. 

Alessia Patisserie & Cafe: Run by Santa Barbara native Alessia Guehr, this bakery has the best croissants in the city and they come in every flavor imaginable. If you prefer a proper sit-down breakfast, the cafe serves a fantastic salmon board and blue crab crepes.

Palm trees tower over white buildings with red tile roofs

Erika Hobart

The Stonehouse Restaurant: Set inside a 19th-century citrus packing house on the grounds of San Ysidro Ranch, the focus at Stonehouse is contemporary American cuisine inspired by ingredients available on California’s central coast. Among the highlights are Santa Barbara diver-caught sea urchins and seasonal vegetables drizzled in honey from local bees. Tucked beneath Stonehouse is a temperature-controlled cellar that holds an impressive collection of 14,000 wine bottles. If you want to take your evening to the next level, you can book the cellar for a private dining experience.

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