Welcome to the American Riviera

Welcome to the American Riviera


Butterfly Beach.

Sunny, seaside Santa Barbara lures with water, animals, and ice cream.

More than 500 real live animals frolic on 30 sunny acres at the Santa Barbara Zoo, which is nestled near the Pacific Ocean under the Santa Ynez Mountains. Even stuffed animals are part of the scene here, with kids pressing a foot pedal on the zoo’s huge candy-red stuffing machine—which looks like a snow-cone machine on steroids—that lets each child customize exactly how much fluffy white stuffing goes into each toy as he or she creates a DIY novelty costing less than $30.

During the zoo’s opening hour, parking is a breeze. Elephants munch on an entire watermelon, exposing its red interior for excited viewers. A pack of pink and gray flamingoes stroll on the sidewalk with a handful of trainers, who extend their arms to protect the birds from eager toddlers. Michael, a stately 17-foot-tall Masai giraffe—a genetically valuable (treasured) specimen and father to six—seems to be the king of the zoo.


Santa Barbara Zoo.

Santa Barbara’s lush greenery and sea views are why it is often referred to as the American Riviera. At aptly named Butterfly Beach in the chic town of Montecito, digging for shells and throwing rocks into the azure water are popular pastimes.

At MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation—which opened in February near the train station on the city’s main drag, State Street—kids of all ages bounce around a spectacular rooftop sky garden and its mountain-lookout tower. Triangular benches with slashes of bright orange adjoin the splashy Whitewater zone. Placing white Ping-Pong-style balls on a spout of water and watching them zoom up is one of many challenges at this Exploratorium-esque center of interactive science and art.

Steering a rented surrey, a pedal-operated, canopied carriage, means navigating street signs, large plants, and other visitors. Closer to the sand and water, paved wider walkways offer sea air and people-watching: everything from a multigenerational drum circle to beachgoers wearing college sweatshirts to young passersby in hats and stacked stylish footwear. Serious leg exercise is guaranteed.

At the Best Western Pepper Tree Inn, families frolic in the tiled pool and hot tub as palm trees soar overhead, birds chirp, and hot-pink bougainvilleas transfix sunbathers. A shady enclosed dog run nearby lets Fido get his own workout, and a central fire pit is ideal for family photos (or sunny selfies).


Santa Barbara Mission.

At the tile-roofed, two-towered Old Mission in the hills above downtown, find, near a huge tree at the back of the cemetery, the burial site of Juana Maria. She was a Native American woman, the last of her tribe, who spent 18 years living alone on nearby San Nicolas Island until being found there in 1853. Her compelling history inspired the classic children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Standing under the giant whale skeleton at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is thought-provoking and compelling. This museum also houses the skeleton of a pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) discovered in 1994 on Santa Rosa, another of the Channel Islands.

Cozy 42-year-old coffee-and-tea emporium Vices & Spices offers board games, a wall of spices, and Obama Blend coffee beans. Chicken and waffles at Farmer Boy means serious breakfast options at 6 a.m. or a more reasonable hour. Patatas bravas, churros, and Jamón Serrano Benedict equal brunch excitement on Loquita’s patio in the strollable and kid-friendly Funk Zone district sandwiched between the sea and Highway 101. At the Lucky Penny, sit under 164,456 copper pennies for wood-fired pizza and craft beverages.

Grab extra napkins for the inevitable drips of McConnell’s locally made double peanut-butter chip ice cream. Lemon curd or wild-berry chocolate-crisp scoops from Rori’s in the artisan-heavy Santa Barbara Public Market expand the flavor horizons even further.


Good to Know

Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, 805-962-5339, SBZzoo.org.

MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, 125 State St., Santa Barbara,  805-770-5000, MOXI.org.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta Del Sol, Santa Barbara,  805-682-4711, SBNature.org.


Published online on May 24, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.