Rediscovering the Enchantment of Downtown Santa Barbara
If you haven’t visited Santa Barbara in a while, it’s time to rediscover the city’s enchanting mix of history, architecture, culture, and epicurean adventures. Early in the pandemic, the city transformed the heart of Downtown Santa Barbara into a wide pedestrian promenade. A 10-block stretch of State Street now conjures a festive European milieu with outdoor dining spilling into the street, pedestrians strolling the shops and galleries, and graceful trees and Spanish-colonial architecture rising above it all. The first Thursday of every month, downtown hosts the open-air State Street Promenade Market with local crafts, art, music, and food.
Alfresco dining has long been a part of the Santa Barbara experience thanks to its sun-kissed Mediterranean climate, but in the last few years, far more restaurants have created inviting dining spaces outside. In downtown, the romantic bouchon Santa Barbara expanded its alfresco options into the courtyard and pathways of Victoria Court. A few tables are perched on an elevated deck offering views of the historic Arlington Theatre spire and the stars above. The perennial favorite Opal Restaurant and Bar expanded seating onto State Street with an outdoor patio and views of the Arlington Theatre marquee. Santa Barbara Public Market also created new outdoor seating along Victoria Street for enjoying artisanal bites from their bustling food hall.
In addition, several new restaurants have opened downtown in recent years. Augie’s is serving elevated, Mexican-influenced fare in an inspired space and while Mokutan brings an authentic Japanese izakaya experience to Santa Barbara. The Black Sheep SB Brasserie opened in a new location serving a reimagined menu of modern French-Californian cuisine in a historic space.
Santa Barbara’s world-class performing arts scene has returned with gusto to downtown’s historic stages. The beautifully restored 1924 Granada Theater is home to the Santa Barbara Symphony, State Street Ballet, Opera Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Choral Society, CAMA, and UCSB Arts & Lectures. The schedule also features touring Broadway productions, film screenings, and musical performances. Upcoming shows include the Wynton Marsalis Septet, staging of the musicals Anastasia and The Book of Mormon, and performances by Riverdance and the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Founded in 1873, the historic Lobero Theatre is California’s oldest continuously operating theatre and presents an eclectic range of shows. Next month’s line-up includes Colin Hay, The Moth, The Derek Douget Band, John Oates, and much more. Inside a converted former church, The New Vic is a state-of-the-art venue and the home to the acclaimed Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC). Upcoming shows include The Children and Seared.
Last August, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art celebrated its 80th anniversary with a grand re-opening after a $50 million renovation. New gallery spaces and public areas welcome visitors with compelling new exhibits. Now through May 14, 2023, the museum is presenting Out of Joint, an exhibition of provocative sculptures and large drawings by Joan Tanner.
If State Street is Santa Barbara’s cultural and culinary heart, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park is its birthplace. Just two blocks east of State Street, the park preserves the Spanish military fortress established in 1782 that gave rise to the city. Two of the fort’s original adobe buildings – El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe – are open to the public to explore.
A block away, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum reaches even further back in time. Its signature exhibition traces 500 years of the region’s history beginning with the native Chumash, the periods under Spanish and Mexican rule, and Santa Barbara’s starring role in the silent film era.
Just up the hill from downtown, Old Mission Santa Barbara is the city’s most renowned landmark. Founded in 1786, it was the 10th of California’s 21 missions and is the only mission that has remained in continuous operation by the Franciscans. Known as the “Queen of the Missions,” it features twin bell towers, a Moorish fountain, beautiful gardens, and an abalone-encrusted Chumash altar from the 1790s.
For a panoramic view of the city’s red-tiled roofs stretching to the sea, climb to the top of the clock tower of another iconic landmark, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Considered one of the most beautiful public buildings in the country, the 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival-style courthouse features elegant archways, sunken gardens, hand-painted murals, ornate tile, and a fascinating clock gallery. Self-guided and docent-led tours are available.
Where to Stay
Downtown Santa Barbara’s newest boutique hotel opened in November 2022. Housed in a restored 1920s building on State Street, the interiors feature floor-to-ceiling windows and a minimalist aesthetic. An on-site coffee shop and cocktail bar draws on vintage surf culture with indoor/outdoor appeal.
Opened in March 2021, Palihouse Santa Barbara is an intimate hideaway in the historic Presidio Neighborhood. The hotel features a tranquil Mediterranean-style courtyard, sparkling pool, garden café, cocktail bar, and a spirited “vintage preppy meets the American Riviera” aesthetic.
This former motor lodge turned hipster hotel in downtown Santa Barbara has a cool nautical vibe with coastal-inspired art, modern furnishings, and amenities sourced from local artisans. A sprawling outdoor courtyard features fire pits, lounge areas, games, and more.
The historic De La Vina Inn is an intimate place to stay close to State Street. Built in 1895 and restored with period-perfect detail, the inn offers eight well-appointed guest rooms with a mix of antique and modern furnishings and lovely backyard gardens.
Built in 1871, The Upham Hotel is the oldest, continuously operating hotel in Santa Barbara. The hotel offers elegant rooms and suites housed in its historic buildings and surrounding garden cottages. The hotel is just steps from State Street’s shops and cafes.
The cheery, sun-filled rooms and cottages at this bed and breakfast are named for characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The inn features tranquil English gardens with graceful old oaks and is located just a block from State Street.
Timeless and elegant, the grand dame of Santa Barbara’s bed and breakfast inns is a lavish Victorian nestled amid tranquil English gardens and hidden behind tall hedges in a quiet historic neighborhood a couple of blocks from State Street.
With its 12 rooms spread across two houses in a quiet residential neighborhood three blocks from State Street, this cozy inn boasts Victorian charm, delicious house-made breakfasts served under a backyard arbor, lush gardens, and a peaceful ambiance.
Tucked in a residential neighborhood within walking distance to State Street, Secret Garden Inn & Cottages is a homey 1905 farmhouse ringed with cottages and gardens. The French owner serves up warm hospitality and delicious baked goods.