It has been a month since I’ve landed in sunny Santa Barbara, California. On a personal level I’m so grateful that I am here in such a beautiful paradise, and as a lifestyle photographer, it’s an actual dream. It’s dubbed the American Riviera for a reason friends. Oh my goodness. No wonder so many people flock here for vacation and getaways, weddings, elopements, and honeymoons. Each street is lined with lovely flowers and plants, the air smells like fresh gardens and the sea, and I see hummingbirds dancing in the sunlight every single day. No joke, every day. Spanish Colonial Revival architecture surrounds you and there is tile magic around every corner that stops me in my tracks. While my “big cam” hasn’t been out a lot yet, my iPhone camera has been getting a workout, so I thought I’d share some new faves and Santa Barbara sights! These are places I can’t want to photograph “for reals” in the near future. (* sidenote, a few of these were taken on a visit prior to moving here pre-Covid)
Seems like one of the best places to start is at the beach. I’ve been to a few so far and they each offer something a little different. I had the pleasure of celebrating a friend’s birthday at Butterfly Beach at sunset my first week here. Technically this beach is in neighboring Montecito, but it only took me less than 10 minutes to pop over there. The beach was so lovely and I felt so relaxed at our little picnic gathering watching the waves roll in and the sun dip into the distance.
Next up? East Beach. I visit this beach weekly for a bit of beach yoga. I’ve never had a more relaxing experience thanks to Santa Barbara Beach Yoga. They hook you up with headphones and you get to melt into your practice in an absolutely perfect setting. I’ve enjoyed both overcast and sunny mornings there so far and you can’t beat it no matter the weather. It’s filled with locals and visitors getting in on beach volleyball action, having swims, and enjoying walks with their friends and family. It’s the absolute essence of the best of California lifestyle if you ask me, the salty breezy air just mellows you out.
Closer to the action you’ll find Stearns Wharf at the end of State Street, and Leadbetter Beach below Shoreline Park. If you’re looking for pelicans and surfers these are the spots for you. The pier provides a great vantage point looking back on the city and the Santa Ynez mountains and you can walk or bike along the water.
Perching up in Shoreline Park gives you a similar perspective of town but from above and bonus, you’re up bird’s eye level. Once you walk around the bend and overlook Leadbetter you can see the peaceful blues of the Pacific Ocean for what seems like forever. I’m looking forward to some family photo shoots in some of these beach spots, from riding little go carts to getting tasty fruit cups, or flying kites to chasing after the waves, there are plenty of photographable activities for parents and kids to do together.
If you’d rather spend some time focused on dry land, head out to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a 78-acre botanical garden that provides the perfect backdrop to take in nature and unwind. We went when the meadows were showing their spring colors and you can’t beat how happy it felt. With a new membership in tow, I know we’ll be back again soon, and I really hope to get to have a portrait session here. There are so many natural backdrops that would set the stage perfectly.
Ok, back to more of the action in-town. I’ve been loving visits to the Funk Zone, a collection of restaurants, bars, and shops nestled alongside train tracks and full of personality. Did you want a tiki bar? Check. Brewery? Yep. Wine tasting? Of course. Whatever you’re in the mood for there’s a spot for it, and they provide a lovely backdrop and a heavy pour of authentic and genuine kindness while they’re at it. Early fave so far is Llama Dog.
Umm, speaking of some tasty food and drink, another spot to check out is the Santa Barbara Public Market, a wonderful collection of eateries that will show UP for you and your hungry bellies. I’ve only been to a couple of spots so far but you can get noodles, ice cream, tacos, you name it. Planting a seed to go get some fresh ceviche from Corazón Cocina, grab a seat on the outdoor patio and dig in, you will thank yourself.
The main drag in town is State Street. It’s blanketed with shops, bars, and restaurants and rolls all the way to the ocean. Since the pandemic hit, it has been largely blocked off to motor traffic to allow more space for pedestrians and businesses to have outdoor seating. I’ve come to love walks there early in the morning or in the evening on a weeknight when it’s quiet. I’ll also put in a plug here for an early start to the weekend by snagging a pretzel and a beer from Institution Ale Company.
If you do want a special State St. treat I’ve got a few early favorites to share. Mosaic Locale houses several businesses including Hook & Press Donuts, Draughtsmen Aleworks, and Buena Onda. Buena Onda is an empanadas experience you won’t want to miss. We visited on a special occasion (first dose of the vaccination day!) and couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into these Argentinian delights. Not only were the savory ones amazing, we also got a dessert option and let’s just say honey, apples, and goat cheese have never tasted better.
Speaking of treats, if you want a cold dessert look no further than McConnell’s Ice Cream. They’ve been in business since 1949 (and their dairy started in 1934 in SB!) and that’s a lot of time to develop a beautiful product. There are multiple locations on State and they always have a line, but promise, it’s worth it. I can’t wait to get through all the flavors. My first go was churro con leche. Yes, with chunks of churro in it. Swoon. And so far the coffee game has been real nice, which let’s be honest, was important to a Seattleite. I’ve been enjoying sips from Lighthouse, Low Pigeon, and Dune so far with more to check out.
This is clearly not an exhaustive list of things to see in Santa Barbara. I’m just getting started! But all in all, it has been an absolute joy to be here so far, and I look forward to what’s ahead. I went to school in Southern California, and spent a year in Northern California, but the Central Coast is new territory for me. It operates a bit differently and offers an entirely different style of relaxed West Coast vibes. I’m here for it. Maybe I’ve been tucked away in the more introverted and passive PNW pocket for too long, or maybe it’s also after a year of the pandemic, but I feel like I’ve been completely taken aback by the warmth and kindness displayed here. Everyone welcomes you, asks how your day is (genuinely!) and interacts with you as a human with a life and stories to tell. It has been good for the soul and the heart. You can effortlessly picnic at the majestic Santa Barbara County Courthouse (yep, at the courthouse, it’s that pretty) or just go shopping at the gorgeous open-air mall Paseo Nuevo where the tile stairways alone will be worth the visit.
Santa Barbara isn’t the same place I visited in my 20s, I remember it being full of students and retirees and not much else. It has grown up tremendously to incorporate a much wider demographic. And from the murals to the small businesses you can’t beat the charm of this place. The coffee shops, the corner stores, the hardware store, all of them are filled with niceness and laid back vibes. I can’t want to continue my adventures here, especially as things start to open back up and more people are vaccinated. There are art galleries and museums I’m looking forward to checking out, not to mention the concerts, movies, and other shows. It may be small, but it’s mighty.