The geographical midpoint of California may well be somewhere near San Francisco, but the Southern California of popular imagination—golden beaches washed by waves and peopled by blond-haired surfer gods—has its start, and perhaps best expression, in Santa Barbara (pop. 88,410). Around 100 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has grown threefold in the last 60 years, but for the moment, at least, it manages to retain its sleepy seaside charm. Much of its character comes from the fact that, following a sizable earthquake in 1925, the town leaders—caught up in the contemporary craze for anything Spanish Revival—required that all buildings in the downtown area exude a mission-era feel, mandating red-tile roofs, adobe-colored stucco, and rounded arcades wherever practicable. The resulting architectural consistency gives Santa Barbara an un-American charm; it looks more like a Mediterranean village than the modern city it is beneath the surface.
For a good first look at the city, head down to the water, where Stearns Wharf sticks out into the bay, bordered by palm tree-lined beaches populated by joggers, in-line skaters, and volleyball players. From the wharf area, follow State Street away from the sands to the downtown district, where Santa Barbarans parade among the numerous cafés, bars, and boutiques. At the north end of downtown is the excellent Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State St., 805/963-4364, Tues.-Sun., $10 adults). A block east on Anacapa Street, the County Courthouse is one of the finest public buildings in the state, a handcrafted Spanish Revival monument set in lush semitropical gardens, with an observation tower (Mon.-Fri. 8am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 10am-5pm, free) giving a fine view over the red-tiled cityscape.
Santa Barbara’s reigning attraction, Old Mission Santa Barbara (805/682-4713, daily, $9 self-guided tours), stands atop a shallow hill that is a well-posted mile up from State Street, looking out over the city and shoreline below. Called the “Queen of the Missions” by the local tourist scribes, Mission Santa Barbara is undeniably lovely to look at, its rose-hued stone facade perfectly complemented by the roses and bougainvillea that frame the well-maintained gardens and lawns.
Santa Barbara is one of many great places along the coast to go on a whale-watching cruise (805/822-0088 or 888/779-4253), on the Condor Express or other boats, to see migrating gray whales in winter and jumping humpbacks in summer. Trips take a half day or a full day, and some head out to the Channel Islands; call for details or reservations.
Santa Barbara has perhaps the south coast’s best variety of places to eat. State Street holds the most lunch and dinner places, like the old-fashioned burgers and beer on tap in the 1920s dark-wood dining room of Joe’s Café (536 State St., 805/966-4638). Fans of grilled burgers and Albacore tuna fillet will enjoy the tasty local chain The Habit (628 State St., 805/892-5400), which started in collegiate Isla Vista, near UCSB. There’s excellent fresh sushi at Arigato Sushi (1225 State St., 805/965-6074), while some of the world’s best hole-in-the-wall Mexican food is served a half mile east of State Street at La Super-Rica (622 N. Milpas St., 805/963-4940, Thurs.-Tues.), where such distinguished foodies as Julia Child have come to chow down on a variety of freshly made soft tacos and delicious seafood tamales. It’s not cheap, but the food is great (fresh tortillas, traditional adobado-marinated pork, and spicy chorizo), and the horchata is the creamiest you’ll taste. Yum.
The city’s accommodations, however, are among the central coast’s most expensive, especially in summer when even the most basic motel can charge as much as $200 a night. One of the nicest of many motels is The Franciscan Inn (109 Bath St., 805/963-8845, $135 and up), just a short walk from the beach and wharf. At the top of the scale, the Simpson House Inn (121 E. Arrellaga St., 805/963-7067 or 800/676-1280, $300 and up) offers comfortable, centrally located B&B rooms. Off the scale completely, money’s-no-object visitors can enjoy the deluxe facilities of the San Ysidro Ranch (805/565-1700, $695 and up), in the hills above neighboring Montecito, where Jackie and JFK spent some of their honeymoon. Somewhat ironically, considering the generally high prices here, international budget chain Motel 6 (443 Corona Del Mar, 805/564-1392, $85 and up) got its start in Santa Barbara, where it now has five area properties, including the recently redesigned original one near the beach.