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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera

Written by Brent Bakeman
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I left Esau’s on State Street after a satisfying meal of chicken fried steak and eggs, and walked outside for a breath of fresh air and a look around. It was a beautiful Santa Barbara day -- 73 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. People walked up and down the busy street in shorts and t-shirts busying themselves with some shopping and enjoying the day. .The large college population and world-class shopping in Santa Barbara bring money up from bigger California cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Downstate past the 101 Highway, pristine beaches lay ahead where sunbathers, surfers and bike-riders gather to be near the ocean breeze – the perfect place for people-watching.

As a local college student I quickly learned that a bicycle was an indispensable piece of equipment in Santa Barbara. I wanted to take advantage of the weather this day so I borrowed a rundown beach cruiser from a friend and headed upstate. There is a Spanish theme throughout the city, stemming from its’ roots as a Spanish Mission and Presidio (fortified base) long before Santa Barbara was part of The United States. The garish windows of Nordstrom, Saks, and Macys reflected locals in t-shirts, sandals and sunglasses wobbling up State Street on rusted cruisers. I fit right in.

The buildings of Santa Barbara all have a city-enforced theme reminiscent of its Spanish heritage: white-washed stucco walls and Spanish tile roofs. After taking a right at a crowded Starbucks, I entered De La Guerra Plaza. The plaza is a little block-park 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 celebration held every year in early August. The Fiesta embraces the city’s Spanish heritage and is the most profitable week of the year for surrounding businesses. Both residents and visitors to Santa Barbara flock to this yearly event and let loose in a scene I’ve witnessed time and time again. Regardless or age, race or economic status, all party goers become one -- drunk, sun-burnt people wearing sombreros who stagger around these blocks spending money and keeping the entire city police force on alert. Here in Santa Barbara you don’t say fiesta…you say FIESTA! followed by those tongue rolling versions of “ARIYBA!” which I have still yet to master..

Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera, Photos  by Ava WarmathI continued the ride on my gearless cruiser and encountered a gradual palm-lined hill. The climb became steeper as I pushed up the foothills towards the famous Santa Barbara Mission. This “Queen of the Missions,” was built in 1786. Its’ steps provide a sweeping view over the city and illustrate perfectly why Santa Barbara is commonly referred to as the American Riviera. The Rose Garden and expansive lawn in front provide a beautiful view as well as an ideal backdrop for picnics, birthdays, Quinceañeras (Hispanic sweet fifteens) and weddings. The nearby houses are some of the most expensive in the area. The incredible views are what 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 arrived at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. In its day the bowl headlined acts such as Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors and the Grateful Dead -- seating just over 6,000 it still has the capacity to bring in today’s big names. After my ride past the bowl, I decided to strike out along Alameda Padre Sierra Drive (called APS by locals.) Although the narrow, winding road is not typically biker friendly, the views more than make up for the lack of bike terrain. Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera, Photos  by Ava WarmathFrom parts of APS, visitors can look down upon the city and 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-artist friends of mine couldn’t afford to attend.

Heading downhill on the APS, 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 nearby. 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, a pier built in 1872 used to reach the deep draft vessels of the day with local lumber and cattle. Now, the wharf is a popular tourist stop featuring popular restaurants as well as a fishing spot for locals. 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 the left. These islands are home to incredible beaches and oftentimes host a throng of pale European tourists. Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands, was privately owned and supported by 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 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. I had previously been ticketed for riding on the breakwater, so instead I kept moving 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. Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera, Photos  by Ava WarmathThe beach is so close to the campus that many students often go surfing between classes. Up above Ledbetter, continuing westward, is Shoreline Park, a public haven 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, built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but can easily cost the buyer over a million dollars. The closer to the park, the more expensive the property..

Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera, Photos  by Ava WarmathLate in the day the shadows grow long on the beach as lifeguards lock up their stations and shore birds dissipate into the orange-pink sky. The day is still warm and beautiful -- the sunsets in Santa Barbara are sheer magic. I admired the view a while longer before returning the old beach cruiser to my friend. Its job was done and my ride in and around Santa Barbara completely satisfying.


Esau’s Café, 403 State Street, 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 Santa Barbara, New Orleans meets California.

Citronelle, atop the Santa Barbara Inn – 901 East Cabrillo Boulevard., 805-963-0111. Impressing someone? Go here, incredible views, valet parking.

Joe’s Café, 536 State Street, 805-966-4638. Hearty food and even heartier drinks.


Hotel Santa Barbara, 533 State Street, 800-549-9869. Smack downtown, surrounded by the clubs, but elegant environs.

Casa Del Mar,18 Bath Street, 800-433-3097. Kitchenettes available, half-block from the beach and the original “Sambos.”

Villa Rosa, 15 Chapala Street., 805-966-0581. Great staff and also a stone’s throw from the sand; close to State Street as well.

The Lemon Tree Inn, 2819 State Street. Uptown hotel near the hospital and The Earl Warren Showgrounds


Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, 1212 Mission Canyon Road, 805-682-4726. Incredible and beautiful.

Douglas Family Preserve, End of Linda Street on the Mesa. Michael Douglas kicked in the dollars to preserve this 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.

Santa Barbara: A Bike Ride through the American Riviera, Photos  by Ava Warmath


Santa Barbara Mission

The Waterfront

The Courthouse

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

El Presidio State Park

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

© Brent Bakeman

Brent Bakeman can be reached at: brentbakeman [at] gmail [dot] com

Photos ©Ava Warmath

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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