A Year After the Thomas Fire, Santa Barbara is Ready for the Holidays

Casa del Herrero boasts beautiful indoor and outdoor spaces. Photo credit: Matt Walla

After a not-so-merry season last year, Santa Barbara is back to celebrating what makes it a premier getaway: an intoxicating mix of ocean and mountain landscapes, the striking Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, and weather that even in winter is just right. It wasn’t so 12 months ago, when the Thomas Fire was followed by a storm that sent mud and boulders cascading down Montecito’s creeks. Now the browned hillsides are showing a flush of green, and shoppers strolling picturesque State Street have more overnight options.

Santa Barbara’s latest luxury accommodation, Hotel Californian, was open a short time when the fire roared through. With its Moroccan-style charm ($391 and up), the hotel became a favorite with Montecito evacuees. The lobby building on the north side of State Street boasts a rooftop pool and terrace with views of ocean and mountains. Farther south, the Santa Barbara Inn ($259 and up) has reopened after an extensive renovation, Hilton has polished up the old Fess Parker resort ($165 and up), and Rick Caruso plans to open his Rosewood Miramar Beach resort early next year, replacing the blue-roofed Miramar Hotel that served generations.

The open kitchen is a draw at Blackbird, the restaurant at Hotel Californian. Photo credit: Hotel Californian


Wheel Fun Rentals on Cabrillo Boulevard offers everything from surreys to e-bikes and beach cruisers. A bike path runs along Cabrillo to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge and the Santa Barbara Zoo, worth a visit for a ride on its vintage train. Energetic visitors can continue into Montecito with a stop at the chapel in the Santa Barbara Cemetery, decorated with murals by famed Mexican artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez.

Most visitors tour the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for its exquisite architecture and Montecito’s Lotusland for world-class gardens. Less known but just as lovely is Casa del Herrero, a masterpiece by George Washington Smith that was inspired by Spain’s Alhambra. The interior is largely unchanged from the late 1920s, when the house was completed, and the exterior boasts an Andalusian garden room. Admission is by reservation only.

For weeks after the mudslides, the Village Cheese and Wine Store, a Montecito deli beloved for its quality sandwiches, fed the first responders, giving them a place to gather and refuel. Chat up owner Patrick Braid about his experiences, then take your sandwiches to the park across the street in Montecito’s unique Upper Village. After lunch, browse Tecolote Book Shop, which has served readers for more than half a century.

From the mammal hall with its 100-year-old tableaus to the new sandstone butterfly pavilion, Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History is packed with child-friendly attractions. For the adults, don’t miss the exhibits on Chumash life or the bird hall graced with landscapes by local artist Ray Strong.

Toma restaurant has become a crowd favorite, so book a table in advance to savor the perfectly grilled octopus or homemade gnocchi in a quiet space looking out on the harbor. The Lark has the hip energy of the Funk Zone, an industrial hub that has been reinvented as a brewpub/wine bar hangout. A large communal table helps absorb the masses who come for the crispy Brussels sprouts and porchetta toast. For Mexican food, locals flock to the homey Eastside location of Los Agaves, where the sauce on the enchiladas suizas has a spicy kick.

Cocktails at The Lark are perfect for sharing at the communal table. Photo credit: The Lark


Take in a movie at The Arlington Theatre, one of the last theaters from a time when filmhouses were as transportive as their offerings. Moviegoers here are tricked into thinking they’re sitting in an outdoor courtyard complete with a star-studded sky. Opt for a nightcap at the Four Seasons Biltmore to admire the Reginald Johnson gem from its ceiling artwork to the tile murals.

Dec. 9: Snow and Santa converge at the harbor for an afternoon of seasonal selfies and to launch the evening’s Parade of Lights. Scores of boats draped in glowing holiday decorations will cruise the coastline.

“The Santa Barbara Bowl is the most beautiful music venue I have ever been to. I love that I can decide to go to a concert on the day of and have no trouble parking nearby.”
—Cristi Walden, sales manager of Sea Crest Wholesale Palm Nursery

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