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Published February 17, 2013, 12:00 AM

Laid-back Santa Barbara is California cool

City’s palm tree-lined streets offer quiet escape from LA
Santa Barbara, Calif. - This laid-back coastal city may not be travelers’ first thought when it comes to California destinations, but its distinct landscape and atmosphere sticks with its visitors.

Santa Barbara, Calif. - This laid-back coastal city may not be travelers’ first thought when it comes to California destinations, but its distinct landscape and atmosphere sticks with its visitors.

Upon my arrival from Fargo, the first thing I noticed was the Santa Ynez Mountains forming a picturesque backdrop to this laid-back city. Palm trees sit on nearly every block, just one reminder of the area’s extremely moderate temperature and sunny skies.

Santa Barbara feels almost European, full of red-tiled rooftops and stucco-style architecture.

This city of 90,000, located on the coast about 90 miles north of Los Angeles, provides everything there is to like about a California trip but without the suffocating, sprawling feel of LA.

And depending on when you fly during the week, airfare to Santa Barbara on United Airlines could be as cheap, if not cheaper, as flying into LAX.

What’s more, relatively cheap flights to Santa Barbara will still be available only several weeks out. I booked my trip out of Fargo just days before leaving for only $300.

When to go

I traveled in January to the sunny, relaxing city, which offered a warm refuge from the deep freeze of the Red River Valley.

But there’s no wrong time of the year to visit Santa Barbara. Temperatures during the summer typically get into the 70s and 80s, and winter days don’t get much colder than the 50s – though the nights can be chillier.

Festivals and city events scheduled throughout the year also ensure there’ll be something going on no matter when you visit.

I visited during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which runs during the end of January and beginning of February of each year.

Though the festival includes a wide variety of films running at various theaters around town, the real draw is arguably the stars.

Every year, the festival honors some big-name directors or actors for their work in the previous year. This year, the honorees included Quentin Tarantino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jennifer Lawrence and more.

But if you can’t make it for the film festival, try the Whale Festival in March, the Old Spanish Days in August or Winterfest in December.

What to do

Beyond the festivals, there’s plenty to see and do in Santa Barbara, though the city lacks the kind of tourist attractions or historical sites you’d find in L.A.

Getting around Santa Barbara is pretty easy without a car. Buses run throughout the day along the waterfront and up and down State Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. One way on each route costs only 50 cents. Taxis are plentiful, but can be costly.

You’ll find much to do along the waterfront, whether it’s simply taking in some sun on the beach or strolling along the palm tree-lined sidewalk. Head out to Stearns Wharf, jutting into the ocean, for a better view of the coast.

Once you pry yourself away from the beach, spend some time downtown. Visit the grand courthouse, just a couple blocks off of State Street. Climb up to the clock tower, which offers a striking panoramic view of the city and the surrounding area.

After that, head towards the city’s historic Old Mission, established in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans. The mission is either a 30-minute walk or a short drive from downtown.

Near the mission you’ll also find the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of National History, both of which are worth a visit.

And then there’s the shopping. Stretching for blocks up and down State Street, Santa Barbara offers local and national stores that would keep any avid shopper busy for hours. Be prepared to open your wallet, though – Santa Barbara is expensive.

There’s plenty on State Street for non-shoppers, too. Museums and historic houses seem to pop up around every corner.

State Street is also where you’ll find most of the eating and drinking establishments downtown, ranging from fast food to high-class restaurants. Have a seat at the many outdoor cafes, bars or eateries and take a laid-back, relaxed cue from the local lifestyle.

If you find yourself with time on your hands and have a car to get around, there are several wineries worth visiting in the surrounding area.

Additionally, the mountains are just a short drive outside the city, offering scenic hikes and outstanding views of the city below.

After a few days, you’ll probably feel as if you’ve checked off all the necessary activities in Santa Barbara, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to leave, especially if you’re traveling during winter.

The scenery, the beach and the warm weather are enough to make any traveler start to wonder when they’ll find a way to make it back here again.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535