Pico Iyer’s Santa Barbara

“Don’t even think about the beach!” That’s the counterintuitive advice I foist on every visitor to the idyllic, Mediterranean-style resort town where I’ve been officially based for 50 years.

The water’s cold, the sand is speckled with tar, and the harbor—or pelican-haunted Stearns Wharf—is much more colorful. What gives our town distinction is everything you don’t expect—the thickly wooded canyons around Schofield Park, a serene Our Lady of Mount Carmel church amid the gated mansions of Montecito, the abundant vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley barely an hour away.

So turn your back on the sea and ramble along the pathways of the Botanic Garden. Follow that up with a drink at sunset at the recently restored El Encanto Hotel, which daydreams over the white walls and red roofs below.

Take in a concert at the stately Music Academy of the West and browse for hours at Chaucer’s, one of the finest independent bookstores in the West, even though it’s tucked into a mini-mall.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel church (Photograph by lisnalty)
Our Lady of Mount Carmel church (Photograph by lisnalty)

Santa Barbara is a place that keeps its treasures out of view. You need resourcefulness to catch the sushi at Arigato, a tiny place so fashionable it doesn’t accept reservations, or the meditative spaces of Alice Keck Park, a short walk from the Museum of Art downtown. And you need enterprise to seek out a visiting lecturer or performer at our University of California campus, home to five Nobel laureates.

Of late, inevitably, our somewhat sleepy town of surfers and bohemians has been rather taken over by Hollywood, about a hundred miles to the south. Valet parking suddenly appeared outside overpriced restaurants, and our quaint, two-lane stretch of freeway was unhelpfully widened.

Oprah Winfrey took a place in ritzy Montecito, not far from Jeff Bridges and Kenny Loggins. Some of us worry that our town will soon disappear within the ravenous maw of L.A.

But for now our modest pleasures are still intact: the family-run taqueria La Super-Rica, which the late Julia Child pronounced one of her favorite restaurants in the country (though its owners still didn’t raise their prices); the contemplative views at the Sarada Convent, a Vedanta temple run by some (American) Hindu nuns; the cozy Upham Hotel near downtown, where Aldous Huxley used to stay.

If you still want the beach, Carpinteria and Ventura, 15 and 30 minutes to the south, offer exactly the relatively unvisited sands you may have dreamed of in Santa Barbara. But my city is about discretion, and ignoring pretty faces for the depths that lie within.

Pico Iyer is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose most recent book is The Man Within My Head. Iyer also collaborated with photographer Macduff Everton on an ode to Santa Barbara, The Santa Barbara Book.


  1. Jeff B
    Santa Barbara, California
    May 3, 2014, 4:20 pm

    As a proud man of Santa Barbara, I was looking to write a unique piece on my hometown. You’ve saved me the time. You’ve done so beautifully! I will be sharing this with all.

    I’ve lived here now 10 years, spending the first half mostly along the water, surfing and running along the stunning coast. Not until a few years ago did I begin to discover the second, hidden half of Santa Barbara, the mountains. I spend my weekends now running the trails and staring in awe at the views of the ocean and islands as the Yellow/Red Tail Hawks play and hunt overhead.

    Inspiration Point Trail is a great gateway for the first timer. Many more await those looking to jump in. Either way, the refreshing ocean awaits you if you need it after the warm day in the mountains.

    We now have cruise ships arriving twice per week. I’m hoping these new arrivals find the beauty that you speak of rather than look at only the surface of wine, shopping and beaches; might they experience these European-esque nooks and crannies in which you and I have come to find solace and peace after our latest world travels.

  2. Prasad Np
    Hyderabad India
    January 16, 2014, 8:38 am

    You can trust Pico to open your eyes what most can not see or refuse to see. I first read his books as a school kid and it was a big impression on me.

  3. Jennifer
    January 15, 2014, 4:24 am

    I have spent time time talking to Pico..very interesting soft spoken man :)

  4. Vago Damitio
    Reedsport, Oregon
    January 14, 2014, 11:06 pm

    A friend in Girona, Spain told me to read your books and I’ve been trying to find the time for a year now (we have a two year old so it’s hard to find time) – I’m so glad to read this essay and it pushes me further to read your work. I always loved Santa Barbara as a kid and that line about the tar…lol… we used to come out of the water with the bottoms of our feet black!