Get to know this sophisticated little California city, and one of the 20 Best Places to Live 2017. Get the inside scoop on Santa Barbara, including where to eat, drink, play, and stay. 

By Bob Curley and Tracey Minkin
April 14, 2017
Photo: Kevin Steele/Getty Images

Like a dream off a Hollywood director’s vision board, this sophisticated-yet-laid-back small city owes its gemlike beauty to an early urban design code that meant streetscapes, public spaces, and even civic buildings grew together in harmony. Just moving through Santa Barbara—whether along its historic shopping streets or out to its sweeping beaches—is like taking an aesthetic happy pill. So does a food and drink scene fueled by innovative chefs, not to mention proximity to rich farms and wine country. It’s also a classic surf town, which keeps the vibe right in the sweet spot.

Santa Barbara by the Numbers

Population: 91,842 
Average July high: 74
Average January low: 44
Median home price: $1,075,900
Average commute time: 32 minutes
Number of sunny days: 283

Best Beaches and Other Attractions

East Beach—more than a mile and a half of pale sand—has spectacular views of the offshore Channel Islands in one direction and the retreat of a tree-shaded green park in the other.

And while the beaches always beckon in this surf-loving town, the history and architecture of Santa Barbara are irresistible. The Presidio District is the birthplace of this historic city; the Spanish built the Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782. Take a guided tour of El Cuartel, the second-oldest building in California (and the oldest adobe building in Santa Barbara), explore the past at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, and sip wine as you shop in the Paseo de la Guerra. For a wider purview, the Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara’s walking tours reveal splendid glimpses of the historic downtown.

For a change of pace, the acclaimed Santa Barbara Zoo has lion, gorilla, and leopard habitats amid 30 acres of coastal botanical gardens.

And for something completely absorbing, step inside The Blue Door, with its three floors of amazing vintage and modern finds for the home, all housed in a 1922 former car dealership.

Finally, the Funk Zone district, with its ever-growing coterie of boutique wine tasting rooms, cafes, galleries, and shops, is where it’s at when it comes to hanging out with plenty of stops for, well, nourishment.

Where to Eat and Drink

Founded by two pro cyclists with a passion for coffee (and the beach), Handlebar Coffee Roasters has an irresistible logo (and swag), roasts twice a week, is right in the middle of everything downtown, and is known for its excellent espresso.

The hottest seats going in this ever-hotter food town are at Loquita (the latest from the city’s hottest restaurateur  Sherry Villanueva), Somerset (owned by designer Steve Hermann), and The Lark (and Villanueva restaurant), which occupies Santa Barbara’s historic Fish Market building and features innovative, fresh seafood. For spot-on cocktailing, go directly to The Good Lion for its robust and knowing lineup. Don’t miss the Tiki beer cocktails.

For romance with a water view, the ivy-covered environs of Toma exude amore. French-influenced California cuisine paired with wines drawn exclusively from Santa Barbara define Bouchon, while Brophy Bros. keeps it casual with seafood dining and a lively bar scene at sail top level alongside Santa Barbara Harbor.

Where to Stay

The elegant Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara’s Spanish Colonial style bungalows and the exclusive, Art Deco inspired Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club are snuggled amid 22 acres of gardens and palm trees along Butterfly Beach. Spa and beach meet at Bacara, which drinks in the Pacific views from its bluff top vantage.