Food and Drink in Santa Barbara
Farm-to-table was a lifestyle in Santa Barbara long before it was a cooking trend for urban centers. The best chefs have direct relationships with farms and fishermen, so between the sea's bounty and the produce of nearby Santa Ynez, fresh is the focus. As a bonus, the culinary influences of Mexico are usually within reach.
For a quick bite after landing, head to the Funk Zone, where Helena Avenue Bakery (131 Anacapa Street) serves up delicious, freshly baked breads, pastries and breakfast sandwiches at communal tables. An informal picnic assemblage can also be found at nearby Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant (216 East Yanonali Street), a gourmet market where hot and cold sandwiches and salads can be taken to go (closed Sunday).
If you're in a larger group with divergent interests, a terrific catch-all is the Santa Barbara Public Market (38 West Victoria Street), a collective of about a dozen local purveyors offering noodle bowls, cakes and cupcakes, poke bowls, and beer and wine bars; the creative tacos (tempura cauliflower, anyone?) at Corazon Cocina are surprising and satisfying. Starring a menu of hamburgers named after local streets, the all-purpose Benchmark Eatery (1201 State Street) wins over with a diverse menu of salads, sandwiches, seafood and meat dishes.
Away from downtown (but worth the trek) is La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 North Milpas Street), which has been serving authentic homestyle Mexican cuisine in Santa Barbara since 1980. Another Santa Barbara institution, McConnell's Fine Ice Creams (728 State Street), has been offering small-batch ice creams from its State Street storefront since 1949; flavors rotate, but from black coffee made with cold brew and Guittard chocolate to Earl Grey tea with shortbread cookies, they're sure to have something unexpected for you.
For an upscale, full-service venue not far from the port, aim for Convivo (901 East Cabrillo Boulevard) at the Santa Barbara Inn. Homemade pasta, wood-fired pizzas, grilled meats and seafood are in the spotlight, in an elegant, sunny setting facing the sea.
Beaches in Santa Barbara
Cruise ships call on Santa Barbara between September and May, so although the sandy shoreline fronting town looks inviting, the water is usually too cold for swimming in winter and spring. But September and October can offer good swimming conditions, and family-friendly East Beach -- located just past Stearns Wharf -- is a great spot for beach-lovers, with volleyball courts, bike rentals for the recreational pathway, lifeguard stations, cafes and a playground.
Don't Miss in Santa Barbara
Urban Wine Trail: You don't have to make a day trip to Santa Ynez to indulge in the fine wines harvested in Santa Barbara County, Southern California's finest. Twenty-eight local wineries have banded together to connect their tasting rooms, most within walking distance of each other; a few are a short drive. Most easily accessed is the Funk Zone, a 10-block warehouse district on either side of the train tracks, next to State Street, that has been converted into shops, galleries, restaurants, breweries and wineries -- you'll find 14 tasting rooms and plenty of diversions between pours. Seven tasting rooms surround the nearby Presidio area. (Hours vary; tasting fees vary but average $15 for four or five pours.)
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden: This 78-acre facility has displays that reveal the diversity of California's flora and vegetation. Plenty of signage leads the way along 5.5 miles of trails or jump onto a docent-led tour. (Mission Canyon Road, 4.5 miles inland from the harbor; 805-682-4726; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is about $12 with discounts for seniors and children)
Old Mission Santa Barbara: Father Junipero Serra founded this hilltop site, one of 21 California missions, in 1786 and it is still home to a community of Franciscan friars. Known as "Queen of the Missions" for its commanding position overlooking town and the Channel Islands, the graceful Mission has twin bell towers, subtly blending Indian and Spanish themes in its design, and is wrapped by lovingly tended gardens. (2201 Laguna Street; 805-682-4713; open daily 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with 1-hour docent tours Tuesday through Friday at 11 a.m. and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.; admission runs $9 with discounts for seniors and children)
Santa Barbara County Courthouse: Built in 1929, this working courthouse is a fine example of grand Spanish-Colonial style, and one of the most photographed public buildings in America (it helps that a lot of weddings are performed in the sunken garden!). The actual courtrooms are often open (and still in use today), while the beautiful Mural Room has beamed ceilings and lush murals in period style. Make the climb to the top of the four-story clock tower -- 360-degree views extending to your cruise ship are the main reward, but the 90-year-old clock mechanism is visible halfway up. (1100 Anacapa Street; 805-568-3070; free tours daily at 2 p.m. and also at 10:30 a.m. on weekdays)
Lotusland: The Montecito estate of the late Ganna Walska is an eccentric, beautifully landscaped oasis that represents one of the world's finest botanical collections. Home to 25 individual gardens, the two-hour, 2-mile walking tours are offered twice daily, Wednesday through Saturday, mid-February through mid-November. Reservations are essential. (695 Ashley Road; 805-969-9990; guided tour about $48 per person)
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation: This new, kid-friendly science museum sits close to the port and is organized around seven themes. Inside the Giant Guitar, engage with a Sound Machine, play with a futuristic musical instrument and step into a Foley studio to learn how movie soundtracks are created. At the rooftop Sky Garden, find interactive water features such as a wind-, sun- and human-powered "weather orchestra." (125 State Street; 805-770-5000; open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $15 for adults, $10 for children age 3 to12)