City Guides



See Santa Barbara through the eyes of Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is one of the greatest writers alive. She is also a fantastic human who loves houses and all that goes along with them, so when she called me to talk about where to buy a vacation home in California, I was beyond excited to chat. You may know her as the ultimate orchid expert, the queen of drunk Twitter, the shepherd of an iconic LA Schindler house, or as a staff writer at The New Yorker, but I’d like to officially add one more feather in her cap – Santa Barbara tour guide. Even though Susan is busy renovating her new Santa Barbara digs and is always juggling a handful of exciting projects, she has somehow managed to find the most excellent, under-the-radar spots for shopping, dining, and enjoying everything Santa Barbara has to offer. - Jenna

Padaro Beach at sunset.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! We’re big fans of your novels and are curious about what your creative life looks like these days.

I'm a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, where I'm currently writing a weekly obituary column. I'm also working on a book and on adapting my last book, The Library Book, for television. I'm a consultant on the HBO show "How To With John Wilson". I'm probably forgetting a few other projects, too!

Why did you decide to sell your place in Upstate NY, and how did you find yourself in Santa Barbara?

We were really in love with our New York house, but increasingly, the work of maintaining two houses 3,000 miles apart was getting to be too much. When COVID first appeared and travel seemed almost impossible, we felt it was a sign that it was time to keep our real estate a little more accessible. We hoped to find something near LA that had the ambience of upstate New York -- rural but sophisticated, peaceful but with lots of culture and opportunities to explore. It's a tall order, for sure! But once we visited Montecito, we knew it was just what we were looking for.

Susan’s home in Upstate New York, photographed by Ren Nickson for the New York Times.

What other communities did you consider buying in, and how did you settle on Santa Barbara?

We really flailed around at first, because we just didn't know the outlying areas well enough to know if they would feel like home or not. We first looked in Topanga, which we loved for its ruggedness and proximity, and we toured a few houses in Malibu, and we took a peek at Ojai, and we read a lot of listings for Lake Arrowhead. We got very close to making an offer on an architecturally significant house -- a Lautner -- about forty-five minutes from Palm Springs. But that was too remote; Ojai was too hot; Malibu was too crowded; Topanga was almost TOO close to LA. Montecito and the Santa Barbara area immediately seemed like what we were looking for, and once we saw it, we weren't interested in anywhere else.

The Santa Barbara Courthouse - an architectural gem!

How would you describe the ethos of the Santa Barbara community, and what drew you to it?

That's a great question, with a lot of answers. One thing that stands out in Santa Barbara is a reverence for historical preservation -- the city has so many of its old Spanish buildings, and seems to really value them. That's in great contrast to Los Angeles, which for so long was plowing headfirst into the future and held its architectural heritage in very low regard. (Fortunately, that's no longer the case!). Santa Barbara also has the feel of an agricultural hub--you really have a sense of it as the "market town" for the outlying agricultural areas, which gives it a wonderful feel, something that gives it a sort of timeless quality. I also think people there are endlessly appreciative of how beautiful the area is -- the phrase "We live in Paradise" is one you hear regularly in town. There is certainly a feeling of awe there, as if everyone pinches themselves a few times a day when they realize what a special place they're in.

You’ve lived in some stunning homes - what made your Santa Barbara house stand out amongst all the homes you saw during your search?

The view! Our house is on a bluff that's about 400 feet above sea level, and from our deck, we have a huge, sprawling, wide view of the ocean from Carpinteria to downtown Santa Barbara and beyond. Because of the contours of the land, nothing will ever block our view. We walked into the house the first time and just stopped dead in our tracks and said, 'This is it!" Of course, we also liked the bones of the house and saw a lot of potential for a really nice renovation. But the view is what sold us.

The Well in Summerland.


Describe your perfect day in Santa Barbara.

Coffee on the deck, breakfast at Esau's in Carpinteria, walk the dogs on the beach, poke around some antique stores in the afternoon, late afternoon wine on the deck to watch the hawks circling and the sunset, dinner with friends somewhere interesting.

Pizza + more from Bettina.



What are a few of your favorite places to eat and drink in and around Santa Barbara?

We love Field + Fort in Summerland for breakfast and lunch; Esau's in Carpinteria for great diner food; Little Dom's in Carp for seafood; Secret Bao in Santa Barbara for pan-Asian food; The Lark for wonderful modern American food; Loquita for paella; Bibi Ji for the best Indian food; Bettina in Montecito for great pizza.

The back patio of Laquita.


One of our favorite things about Santa Barbara is how easy it is to escape for a day trip. What is your ideal weekend getaway in the area? 

We've done several drives into the Los Padres National Forest that have been wonderful. Within an hour, you're in total wilderness with some spectacular views and not a soul around! It's also really fun to drive up to Los Olivos for wine tastings or dinner; it's a beautiful drive and so easy from Santa Barbara.

The landscape and vegetation in Santa Barbara are absolutely stunning - where are your favorite places to hike and spend time in nature?

The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden is really lovely; we go there a lot, and the fact that you can bring dogs makes it even more appealing! We regularly hike through Toro Canyon Park, which is very close to our house, and has nice, manageable trails. We also live by the Montecito Trail Association's map, which details loads of great day hikes nearby. Another thing we like to do is to pick a neighborhood and just walk through, for the chance to see beautiful gardens and houses at a slower pace than in a car. And of course, walking on the beach is probably our favorite outdoor entertainment.

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden


What is your favorite local beach? 

Loon Point! It's a gorgeous beach, and at low tide you can walk all the way to Padero Beach, which is also gorgeous. Even on the hottest days in the middle of the summer, Loon Point is never crowded. It's like having your own private beach, and it's just spectacular.

Garde in Summerland.


Name a few of your go-to local shops in the area, and tell us why you love them!

We love Santa Barbara Mid Mod, which is a great mid-century modern shop with a really well-curated collection; Field + Fort, which is a cafe/shop with great housewares; Garde, for the most distinctive, elevated home goods in the world; Whistle Club in Montecito for very cool women's clothing. Montecito Country Mart has some great, quirky boutiques that always have something good.

Describe your everyday Santa Barbara uniform.

I've had to adjust to the fact that it's always ten degrees cooler in SB than in Los Angeles! So I rarely wear anything very bare -- it's too cool (which I love). Most days I'm likely to be in a James Perse t-shirt under an Agnes B snap cardigan and a pair of jeans (if we're naming names, I love Nudie jeans). When we head out to dinner, I'll put on some bigger jewelry and bring a bright scarf for that late-evening chill. That's about as dressy as it gets there!

Reading next

The Inside Scoop: Joan McNamara, the Owner of Joan’s on Third - +COOP

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.