Santa Barbara, California: Biking Through the American Riviera

After leaving Esau’s on State Street, in my opinion the finest chicken fried steak on the west coast; I walked out the door and looked State Street up and down. It was a typically beautiful Santa Barbara day, probably 73 degrees, not a cloud, everyone in shorts and sandals. There are over 300 sunny days a year here so this isn’t strange. Up State toward the mountains there is exceptional shopping and people-watching.

One cannot forget that there is a large and youthful college population here, combined with world-class shopping that brings money up from Los Angeles 90 miles to the south. I looked down State past the 101 Hwy to the pristine beaches where there is more people-watching. A man can sit just about anywhere in downtown Santa Barbara and have his heart broken by the minute.

A bicycle is a very important tool in Santa Barbara, almost as important as a pair of shorts. After I secured a crappy beach cruiser from a friend I headed up State. I went to college here so crappy beach cruisers are generally at my disposal. There is a Spanish theme throughout the city, stemming from its’ roots as a Mission and Presidio long before Santa Barbara was part of The United States. The garish windows of Nordstrom, Saks, and Macys reflect locals in shorts, t-shirts, sandals and sunglasses wobbling up State Street on rusted cruisers so I fit right in.

The buildings all have a city-enforced, old-country white-washed stucco wall and Spanish tile roof theme reminiscent of the Spanish heritage. I entered De La Guerra Plaza after taking a right at a crowded Starbucks. The plaza is a little block-park, generally speckled with the homeless, in front of City Hall and the Santa Barbara News Press building. It is also the epicenter of Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta celebration, a weeklong spectacle that happens every year in early August; a true party that embraces the city’s Spanish heritage and makes for the most profitable week of the year for surrounding businesses. Drunk, sun-burned people wearing sombreros, young and old, rich and poor, stagger around these blocks spending money and keeping the entire city police force on alert. Around here you don’t say fiesta, you say FIESTA, followed by those tongue rolling versions of “ARIYBA!” which I have never been able to properly do.

I began heading up State on my cruiser with no gears. I encountered a gradual palm-lined uphill, and then the climb was steeper as I pushed up the foothills to the Mission. The Santa Barbara Mission, “The Queen of the Missions,” was built in 1786 and its’ steps provide a sweeping view over the city and Santa Barbara Channel and illustrates why this place is called the American Riviera. The Rose Garden and expansive lawn in front afford views as well as picnics, birthdays, Quinciertas, weddings and those with dogs. The nearby properties are out of reach to all but the  wealthy; the views and locations that these properties have bring people from around the world to Santa Barbara.

Heading along the edge of the bowl, though Santa Barbara is really shaped more like a scoop with the open end at the ocean, I come to the Santa Barbara County Bowl. In its’ day the bowl presented acts such as Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Doors and the Dead; seating a little more than 6,000 it still brings in the big names. I decided to strike out along Alameda Padre Sierra Drive, or as the locals call it: APS. The road is not very bike friendly but the views make up for that, unless of course you were to get mowed by a car on this narrow, winding road. From parts of APS you can look down upon the city and the harbor and make out the shape of the Southern California Coastline. In Santa Barbara the beaches face south, the only location from Alaska to the tip of South America where this is the case. I also passed by the main campus of The Brooks Institute of Photography where many aspiring friends of mine couldn’t afford to attend.

Once heading downhill, visitors will encounter the Santa Barbara Inn and can hop on the bike path that goes along the beach and Cabrillo Boulevard. To the east is East Beach, the birthplace of beach volleyball, and across Cabrillo Boulevard is the Santa Barbara Zoo. The famous Biltmore Hotel, where JFK and Jacqueline honeymooned, sits on the other side of a large bluff. The hills above The Biltmore, Montecito, boast some of the most lavish and expensive properties in the country including Oprah’s 50 million-dollar estate.

To the west is Stearns Wharf, built in 1872 to reach the deep draft vessels of the day with local lumber and cattle. Now the wharf is a popular tourist stop featuring friendly restaurants and locals fishing, tourists taking pictures of them. It also provides an excellent view of the harbor entrance where grand yachts and racing sailboats are joined by what is left of the local fishing fleet.

Heading west along the bike path, the Channel Islands lie to your left; before them the Channel and an incredible beach packed with pale European tourists. Santa Cruz Island, the largest, was privately owned and supported a cattle business for years. Now most of the islands are protected nature sanctuaries, and at least one, San Clemente, is owned and staunchly guarded by the military. Past the wharf I arrived at the harbor, with its funky shops and restaurants and a recently completed Maritime Museum. A long breakwater juts back out toward the end of Stearns Wharf. A stroll on the breakwater provides an excellent view back towards the city, and an occasional drenching when the water is rough. You can get ticketed for riding a bike on the breakwater; so I kept going along the bike path.

Just west of the Harbor is a small restaurant on Ledbetter Beach, and right across the street is Santa Barbara City College, one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. You can literally go surfing between classes, Ledbetter point provides some fun little waves and Ledbetter Beach is a difficult place to study, during bikini season forget it. Up above Ledbetter, if you continue west, is Shoreline Park, seemingly made for Frisbees and dogs. This long green strip provides an excellent view back over the beachfront of Santa Barbara. The houses in this neighborhood are primarily tract homes with remodels, built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and can easily cost the buyer a million dollars. The closer to the park the more you will spend.

Don’t get the impression that everyone in Santa Barbara is wealthy, not at all. Those that are wealthy need people to cook and do dishes in the dozens of world class restaurants here. Over 150 hotels county- wide call for a lot of maids to keep those rooms in shape particularly on the weekends when everyone from Los Angeles shows up for an escape. It is often called “The town of the newly wed and the nearly dead,” mainly because of the many students, the retirees, and the slow growth and astronomic housing costs that tend to drive out the middle class as well as families starting out.

Late in the day the shadows get long on the beach, lifeguards lock up their stations, and shore birds dissipate. It is still warm and beautiful; the sunsets in Santa Barbara are the stuff of sheer magic. I admired the view and then returned my old cruiser to my friend, the crappy cruiser’s mission accomplished. I was still in shorts and sandals which in a couple of hours could have been a little chilly. Not cold, just chilly.

Where to Eat and Drink:

  • Esau’s Café, 403 State St, 805-965-4416
    Best breakfast in town, line out the door occasionally during prime breakfast hours.
  • Palace Café, , 8 East Cota Street, 805-963-5000
    One of the best dinners in S.B., New Orleans meets California.
  • Citronelle, atop the Santa Barbara Inn – 901 East Cabrillo Blvd., 805-963-0111
    Impressing someone? Go here, incredible views, valet parking.
  • Joe’s Café, 536 State St, 805-966-4638
    Hearty food and even heartier drinks.

Where to Stay:

  • Hotel Santa Barbara, 533 State St., 800-549-9869
    Smack downtown, surrounded by the clubs, but elegant environs.
  • Casa Del Mar,18 Bath St, 800-433-3097
    Kitchenettes available, half-block from the beach and the original “Sambos.”
  • Villa Rosa, 15 Chapala St., 805-966-0581
    Great staff and also a stone’s throw from the sand; close to State St. as well.
  • The Lemon Tree Inn, 2819 State St,
    Uptown hotel near the hospital and The Earl Warren Showgrounds
  • Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens,1212 Mission Canyon Rd, 805-682-4726
    Incredible and beautiful.
  • Douglas Family Preserve, End of Linda St on the Mesa
    Michael Douglas kicked in the dollars to preserve, beautiful bluff over the sea. (Locals call it The Wilcox Property)
  • Shoreline Park, Shoreline Drive and La Marina
    Break out your sunscreen and hacky-sack
  • Franceschi Park, 1510 Mission Ridge
    Incredible views and a bit of history.

What to See:

  • Santa Barbara Mission
  • The Waterfront
  • The Courthouse
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art
  • El Presidio State Park
  • Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Brent Bakeman Written by:

Brent Bakeman, a freelance writer and unconventional living enthusiast is based in Seattle, Washington. He was educated in Southern California with a study abroad stint in Cambridge but never finished college; nominated to the Air Force Academy and West Point by then Rep. Leon Panetta but never attended. An extensive traveler, Bakeman’s credits include hitch hiking throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, sneaking aboard, landing on and catapulting off an aircraft carrier, being locked in an airplane bathroom while in-flight at the age of seven, and crashing more parties than most people have attended. Fiction, non-fiction, travel, feature, copy, SEO/ SEM writing and even poetry by Brent Bakeman can be found extensively online as well as in an increasing number of print publications. Bakeman can be contacted at