Things You May Not Know About Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara's Gone to the Dogs...And Other Tidbits About Our Fair City

Santa Barbara. Paradise on the Pacific. The American Riviera. Playground of the rich and famous, where the sun shines 365 days a year.

Well, yes and no. It’s true that Santa Barbara, just 90 miles north of Los Angeles, is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. With its signature red-tiled roofs and Spanish colonial architecture, lush vegetation and a stunning natural setting between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, it’s the perfect vacation spot.

Here are a few things you won’t find in the tourism brochures.

1. Despite a reputation for year-around sunshine and mild temperatures, the best time to visit Santa Barbara isn’t during the summer. Between late May and early September, you are more likely to be sitting in a fog bank, wrapped in a wool blanket, than lounging on a beach blanket. One of the reasons the annual average temperature in the city is 70 degrees is because a marine layer keeps things cool in the summer months. The best times to enjoy Santa Barbara are April through early May (January, February and March can be lovely, but also wet) and October and November. December can be rainy and chilly, but also delightfully warm. I once spent a toasty Christmas Day on the beach, swimming in an unseasonably warm ocean.

2. In Santa Barbara, North is East and South is West. Really. The orientation of the city along the coastline is literally East-West, with south-facing beaches. So if you drive north on U.S. Highway 101 through Santa Barbara, you’re actually driving due West. It’s the only spot on the entire California coast that jags that way, and is also one of the reasons we have that lovely weather – most of the year.

3. Yes, there are a lot of rich people who live near Santa Barbara (Oprah spent $50 million on her digs in nearby Montecito) but most of the people who live in the city proper are decidedly not wealthy. At the 2000 Census, the median household income in Santa Barbara was $47,498. The per capita income was only $26,466. With the economic downturn the past two years, that is likely to have dropped. Half of the city’s housing stock is rental property, and more than 13 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The well-heeled suburbs of Montecito and Hope Ranch boost the wealth factor, and in fact employ many of the city’s gardeners, maids and other household workers. The wealthy love to live in Santa Barbara because, mostly, we leave them alone. But you can spy them all over town, wandering through the boutiques along State Street or dining at one of the city’s many eateries. Celebrity spottings are common at Lucky’s and Tre Lune restaurants on Coast Village Road, the Vons grocery store in Montecito (which once famously offered valet service) and at the San Ysidro Pharmacy in Montecito’s upper village.

4. The city’s broad and vibrant cultural offerings are due in large part to the generosity of wealthy magnates who came to Santa Barbara around the turn of the 20th century for its healing waters. In the early 1900s, barons like yeast king Max Fleischmann, railroad multimillionaire Dwight Murphy and other wealthy patrons came to the city, drawn by spas touting the mineral springs that dot the foothills. Once here, they helped to build a cultural infrastructure. The Santa Barbara Art Museum, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Symphony, and many other top-notch educational and cultural organizations were started and continue to be supported by captains of industry. The Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens was built on property donated by the widow of a New England tea and coffee merchant. Lotusland, now a sumptuous botanical garden on 37 acres in Montecito, was built in the 1940s and ‘50s by a flamboyant opera singer named Ganna Walska, who had a talent for marrying very rich men. Nearly every cultural organization in Santa Barbara claims ties to one early-20th-century benefactor or another.

5. The city has deep literary roots. Many people know that bestselling authors Sue Grafton and T.C. Boyle make their homes here, but they are just the latest talents in a long history of famous authors who have claimed Santa Barbara as home. The city’s earliest literary connection is perhaps Richard Henry Dana Jr., who wrote Two Years Before the Mast. Published in 1840, it chronicles his two-year journey (1834-36) as a sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim. Dana included detailed descriptions of the 19th-century coastal cities they visited, including Santa Barbara. In the early-to-mid 20th century, many writers discovered Santa Barbara. Ken Millar, who wrote detective novels under the name Ross Macdonald, and his novelist wife, Margaret Millar, were prominent members of the literary elite, which included Raymond Carver, Clifton Fadiman, Sinclair Lewis, Beryl Markham, Kenneth Rexroth and Christopher Isherwood. More recent author residents, besides Grafton and Boyle, include Fannie Flagg, Gayle Lynds, the late Dennis Lynds (who also wrote as Michael Collins), John Cleese, Dennis Miller, Arianna Huffington, Steve Martin, Pico Iyer and Jack Canfield. There are more than 800 published writers living in Santa Barbara County.

6. Santa Barbarans love their dogs! Celebrities tote their handbag pups. High-tech workers take their Labs to work. Agility-crazed owner-dog teams romp through obstacle courses in parks on the weekends. Pampered pooches even had their own bakery on State Street until the economy put the bite on it. An estimated 29,000 dog owners live in the city, nearly one-third the population. There are numerous off-leash parks and beaches in Santa Barbara and environs, one of the most popular being Hendry’s Beach (officially known as Arroyo Burro County Beach). Until it moved its headquarters, the Big Dog clothing retailer sponsored an annual Big Dog Parade, during which hundreds of owners and their costumed canines strutted up State Street and competed for various prizes. The city has literally gone to the dogs.

But don’t worry. True to Santa Barbara style, we pick up after our pets. Because, honestly, image is everything in this Mediterranean mecca.