Things to Do in Santa Barbara California

Santa Barbara, California

“Whenever you are in Santa Barbara and whoever you are with, you will be thinking one thing over and over again: Life is good!”

I do not recall who said or wrote the phrase above or how I came across it, but it stuck in my mind. When our travel plans to foreign countries had to be canceled one after another during the pandemic, that same sentence kept reappearing in my thoughts. And so it happened that we went “domestic” in our travel plans, and in May of 2021, we arrived in Santa Barbara, California.

Monochromatic gate Santa Barbara
Monochromatic Gate to California Riviera.

This pleasant little town is snuggled comfortably between the imposing Santa Ynez Mountains and the glittering Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara is simultaneously artsy, chic, and casual, and is widely known as the “American Riviera.” And indeed, that coastal town’s red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, its omnipresent Spanish colonial heritage—all channel the Mediterranean atmosphere and European-like civility that immediately took us, in our imagination, across the Atlantic. Haven’t we decided to go “domestic” or what?

Walking, hiking, or bicycling along the East Beach boardwalk

We stayed at the Hilton Beachfront Resort located on one of the best California beaches, the East Beach. And there we discovered that just walking or bicycling along that beach made us feel, if not exactly Santa Barbara’s natives, but almost an integral part of their community. That boardwalk stretches for miles along the coast. And, just like we saw in Copacabana in Rio, the beach is treated by the locals as their living room, exercise studio, soccer field, in other words, a natural extension of their homes and a fundamental part of their lifestyles. People practice yoga and martial arts, roller-blade and skateboard, drive a strange hybrid of a bike and cabana, and eat and drink wine with their friends. In short, they live in their home away from home, the East Beach. A large number of homeless people seemed disturbing at first, but they too looked perfectly at ease laying on the beach’s grass or sand.

East Beach Santa Barbara
One of the best beaches in California: East Beach in Santa Barbara.
East Beach Art Fair
Art Fair on the East Beach.

Enjoying State Street

We loved to stroll down the city’s main street. Called State Street, it seemed to be designed down to the smallest details—from exotic potted plants to thorny and flowery ornamental vines covering walls and facades. Twinkling lights surround fun bars and fantastic places to eat, enticing boutiques and attention-grabbing art galleries.  Even at the time of pandemic restrictions, this grand dame of Santa Barbara streets, buzzing with people and activities, looked elegant and charming.

E. Cabrillo Blvd
Enjoying the Mediterranean Vibe of E. Cabrillo Boulevard.
State Street, Santa Barbara
Walking along the State Street.
Granada Theatre, Santa Barbara
Historic Granada Theater on the State Street.
La Arcada, State Street, Santa Barbara, CA
La Arcada on the State Street: Shopping and dining in a quaint, art-lined square built in 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival style.

The Architecture

We fell in love with Santa Barbara’s historic architecture. To us, it seemed both Mediterranean and Spanish: its deep-red colors contrasted with the white walls and polished wood textures. Santa Barbara’s iconic architecture and its visual identity were largely derived from the rebuilding and reconstructions following the devastating earthquake of 1925 when the entire town was reborn in Spanish Revival style. The spirit of Spain is felt everywhere, pervasive and persuasive.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786 (the current exterior from the 1920s) is called “the Queen of California Missions.” The amazing Santa Barbara Courthouse (1929) is known as “the most beautiful government building in the United States.” Both places seem to us belonging to Spain rather than to the twenty-first century the United States. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 safety rules, visitors were not allowed inside the working courthouse. So we could not see the elaborate murals and ornate chandeliers and were not able to climb up the El Mirador, the famous clock tower for the panoramic view of Santa Barbara and environs.  Oh well… But we did go to its sunken garden and spent some enjoyable time there.

Santa Barbara City Hall
Santa Barbara Historic City Hall, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2005 for its architecture.
Santa Barbara Historic District
In the Old Spanish District of Santa Barbara.
Irene Shaland in Spanish Courtyard
The Author inside a typical Spanish Style Courtyard in Historic Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Courthouse
Historic Santa Barbara Courthouse.
Sunken Garden in Santa Barbara Courthouse
Sunken Garden of the Santa Barbara Courthouse.
Santa Barbara Old Spanish Mission.
Old Spanish Mission, Santa Barbara.

The Art Museum Santa Barbara Opens! Hooray!

Well, only two rooms were open on our last day in town to showcase the highlights of the Museum’s impressive collections. But that was enough for us to feel that “normalcy”– identified by us as packed theaters and crowded museums – that normal state of things is just around the corner.  Our optimism was rewarded by two surprises: an amazing Marc Chagall “Jeune fille en marche” or “Young Girl Running” from 1927 and a beautiful “Portrait of Nadya” from 1890 by Ilja Repin who is largely unknown outside Russia.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Painting by Marc Chagall titled Young Girl Running,
Marc Chagall. “Jeune fille en marche” or “Young Girl Running,” 1927. Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.
“Portrait of Nadya" by Ilja Repin.
Ilja Repin. “Portrait of Nadya,”1890. Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.

Not being impressed by the Funk Zone

We heard and read a lot about the city’s widely popular area called the Funk Zone. This former industrial district is located between the ocean and Highway 101. You will find it right next to the Amtrak station. The Funk Zone is a complex of wine tasting rooms, cafes, art galleries, and funky street art. But for some reason, our hearts belong to State Street!

The Foodie Capital of California

Mexican food
Who is able to stay away from Mexican food when in California? At Flor De Maiz on Cabrillo Boulevard we most possibly ate the best Mexican food ever!

I do not think that Alex and I are fully qualified as typical “Food and Wine” travelers. We are too art and history-centered and too agenda-driven to be completely and professionally immersed in the food-n-wine scene. But we always see food and wine produced by the region and served at its restaurants as an integral element of the local history and culture.

  And so it happened that in our four-and-a-half days and five nights in Santa Barbara we were doing our best to eat and drink in as many places as it was humanly possible to appreciate the freshness and carefully-crafted quality of what we were served. Among all the fine dining places that we greatly enjoyed, our favorite place was …a seafood shack at the very end of the historic Stearns Wharf. We ate twice there, and we never do that during short trips when we usually strive to try as many establishments as possible!

Historic Stearns Wharf.
Historic Stearns Wharf.

This famous wharf is located at the southern end of State Street. Built in 1872, it is the oldest continuously operated wharf on the West Coast. But most people come to this long rough wooden pier not for its history but the great views and the great food. Our favorite establishment was the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
Irene Shaland eating oysters
Enjoying the fresh oysters at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

This company was born as a seafood takeout counter. For over forty years, it has been owned and operated by the same family. Today, the company is located on its original spot at the very end of the wharf. The first time we ate there, we had to shoo away the aggressive seagulls who wanted to steal our dinner. We had terrific lobster bisque, amazing cioppino, aromatic garlic-baked clams, and the rock crab, my personal favorite! And we came back once again—for more of the same!

Irene Shaland with a glass of vine
Life is good!

Find out more about the author and the photographer.

Celebrating a Milestone Anniversary inside the Enchanted Fig Tree of Australia

Irene and Alex Shaland at Fig Tree Restaurant, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Alex and I have traveled to nearly 70 countries. We celebrated our birthdays and anniversaries in places like a street corner café on Easter Island, tiny seafood restaurant in Cochi, Kerala,  a second century BC villa –turned Renaissance palace-turned art studio in Rome; opera singers’ favorite tavern in Palermo near the famed Teatro Massimo, just to name a few. But we had the most unique experience this year on March 5th, when our new friend Steve Lane, Kangaroo Island’s Sea Dragon Lodge owner and our exceptional guide, took us to the remote Snellings Beach on the north coast. As a present on our milestone wedding anniversary, Steve invited us for a luncheon inside a… tree.

Continue reading “Celebrating a Milestone Anniversary inside the Enchanted Fig Tree of Australia”

Where to Stay on Kangaroo Island, Australia: the Sea Dragon Lodge is an Excellent Choice

Koala looking at visitors

Since childhood, I always wanted to live among the animals of Australia – even if for a few days only. And this was how the Kangaroo Island, a small dot in the Indian Ocean, materialized first in my imagination, and then – in our itinerary for the Spring 2016 trip. Overlooked by most popular guidebooks, this third largest Australian island (after Tasmania and Melville) remains the largest secret of that country for many globe trotters. There are precious few corners left in our 21st century urbanized world where Australian animals could be observed in the wild, and Kangaroo Island is exactly that place.

Continue reading “Where to Stay on Kangaroo Island, Australia: the Sea Dragon Lodge is an Excellent Choice”

Chasing the Elusive Northern Lights in Iceland

northern lights appear over the ocean

All visitors to Iceland fall into two distinctive categories: those who saw the northern lights and those who did not. When Irene set her trip target on Iceland, she was determined to place herself, our daughter, and I squarely in the first category. The problem was that unlike the predictable crowds at JFK on the way to Iceland, the famous northern lights of Iceland are highly unpredictable. However, the best time to see them is from November through December.  So mid-November looked pretty good. Oh, and  it also happens to be one of the coldest months of the year.

Continue reading “Chasing the Elusive Northern Lights in Iceland”

Holiday Magazine Publishes Irene Shaland’s Swiss Alps Article

Gimmelwald village located in Swiss Alps

It was great news when our Swiss Alps article appeared in Europe. The UK/French travel magazine Holiday Magazine published Irene Shaland’s latest travel article “The Non-Skier’s Guide to Enjoying the Swiss Alps.”  This used to be a legendary travel US magazine that was reborn in its new home, Paris, recently.

The majestic Alps were often on my mind as an ultimate travel destination. However, unlike our many friends, my husband Alex and I never took up skiing or hiking.   So, when considering an Alpine resort for our Spring 2015 trip to Switzerland, we first thought: Oh, my, all this money for just staying in an expensive hotel, drinking overpriced hot chocolate, and watching young people skiing…Then we thought: “Heck, why not? I am glad we did. The two days and two nights we spent in the Swiss Alps was a time of absolute enjoyment… Continue reading the article and enjoy the photos at  http://www.holidaymag.co.uk/murren.html

swiss, swiss chalet, skiresort, swiss alps vacation, swiss alps, the swiss alps, swiss alps skiing, swiss alps train, swiss alps train, swiss alps town, switzerland, switzerland travel, switzerland travel guide, switzerland mountains, mountains in switzerland, murren, murren switzerland, murren switzerland hotels.

Irene Shaland is an internationally-published art and travel writer, educator, and lecturer. Irene has a life-long passion for travel with a higher purpose. Together with her husband-photographer Alex, Irene has visited over 70 countries. Her research trips result in numerous publications and series of educational lectures and slide-shows. Learn more about Irene Shaland

Overlooked by visitors, Catania is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque

Duomo cathedral, Catania

The third largest city of Sicily, a UNESCO-listed Catania lies in close proximity to the majestic mountain Etna. The city was always subject to the brooding moods of that volcano.  In the late 1600s, Mt. Etna struck twice: first drowning Catania and over 12,000 of its inhabitants in boiling lava, and then, in less than 25 years, leveling the city again by a murderous earthquake. Only 2,000 people survived. However, like phoenix out of ashes, Catania, rebuilt by architects from Rome, was reborn as one of the greatest baroque cities of the Mediterranean.

Continue reading “Overlooked by visitors, Catania is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque”

Discovering Palermo and Sicily with Bianca Del Bello

Bianca and a group of tourists in Palermo

I met Bianca Del Bello by pure chance when searching for experts in Palermo Jewish history.  After a few email exchanges, I knew that I met not only a superbly knowledgeable historian but also a friend with a big heart.  Bianca and I designed a Palermo Immersion Experience for our small group: my husband and I, and our four friends.

Continue reading “Discovering Palermo and Sicily with Bianca Del Bello”

A quick look around Milan Piazza del Duomo

Take a quick look around Milan famous main square, Piazza del Duomo, with its Duomo Cathedral, Victor Emmanuel II statue, and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Milan is a perfect stop on a European vacation trip.

Look for our in-person and virtual lectures and events you might want to attend:  EVENTS

Read useful tips for traveling to Milan, Italy: Milan Tips

Interested in Jewish history around the world? Meet Irene Shaland and her books, lectures, and magazine articles.

Are you an adventurer? Meet Alex Shaland, the author of “Suburbanites on Safari.”