Exploring ‘The American Riviera’
Lysa Allman-Badwin | 8/21/2014, 3:18 p.m.
In our first exploration of Santa Barbara—dubbed “The American Riviera” and situated along the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline just 92 miles north of Los Angeles, 249 miles from Carmel and Monterey and 332 miles south of San Francisco—we learned about its early history, stunning Spanish architecture and the tip of the iceberg in terms of its sites and attractions.
Seen in many a television show and movie shot here, Stearns Wharf is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and its No. 1 tourist attraction. Completed in 1872, the Wharf, located in the Santa Barbara harbor, served as a vital freight and passenger portal for more than 25 years, and at that time it was the longest deep-water wharf between San Francisco to the north and San Pedro to the south. Attractions here today encompass fine dining, specialty shops, a gallery, cruise and water taxi companies, bait and tackle shops and breathtaking views up and down the coastline.
Also located here is the Ty Warner Sea Center, an important marine research and education center offering visitors numerous unique opportunities to learn about and interact with many of the creatures found in the surrounding Santa Barbara Channel. A 1,500-gallon tide pool tank, shark touch tank, Santa Barbara Channel Theater, interactive exhibits and more are part of the fun here.
For kids of all ages, there’s the Santa Barbara Zoo, home to more than 400 animals, including 160 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects—many in open, naturalistic habitats that make learning about their lifestyles and habits easy and visually appealing. The landscape here is spectacular as well, as the zoo sits on 30 acres of lush botanic gardens overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Santa Ynez Mountains and the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, the latter an inviting, 42-acre open space recreational area for boating, fishing, hiking, biking and bird watching, highlighted by three islands resting in an artificially modified estuary.
Nature and the environment play major roles in Santa Barbara’s past and present, and one of the best places to gain an overview of the area’s landscape is at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1916, the museum encompasses two entities, the Ty Warner Sea Center and its main campus, set on 17 acres of riparian oak woodland and dotted with several eye-catching Spanish Revival-style buildings and a 73-foot Blue Whale skeleton at the entrance. Here, visitors can explore more than 3.5 million artifacts featured in the museum’s eight permanent and two temporary exhibit halls.
Speaking of history, be sure to check out the El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, founded in 1782 during the American Revolutionary War. This attraction is significant, in that it played a pivotal role in the city’s history as the last of four military outposts built along the coast of Alta California by the Spanish. Restored buildings (some originally built by the native Chumash Indians), ongoing archaeological excavations and El Cuartel (the oldest remaining residence in Santa Barbara and the second oldest in California) are just a few of the features here. The Presidio also originally served as a guard post to the western gate into the Plaza de Armas, which is now part of downtown.