As a native New Yorker, and specifically from Manhattan, my point of reference growing up was that residences were on streets like Riverside Drive, West End Avenue, Central Park West, and the stores were on Broadway, 5th, and Madison Avenues.
Manhattan was, and still very much is, a bustling city in the fullest sense. For more information on Manhattan, from past to present, as well as it’s size and geography, you can view the Wiki article here. Santa Barbara’s Wiki article, for similar info, is here.
Growing up, I spent plenty of time on Broadway, in particular between 82nd and 90th Streets. Buses ran every 5 to 8 minutes; at one time I took the bus from 9oth and Broadway to 77th Street every day to go to school.
For a large stretch, and I do not recall the specifics of that stretch, Broadway has a huge median. At the crosswalk section of that median are benches and small area. As the streets in that section are very wide, I often did not make it across on one light, and stood safely on the median waiting for the next light. Often elderly people sat on those benches. Maybe they were on walks and taking a break, maybe this was a good way to be in the middle of the action and have a front row seat.
Then we moved to Santa Barbara, and three thousand miles later my point of reference for the main drag went from Broadway, NYC to State Street, Santa Barbara. And ‘main drag,’ of course, took on a completely different meaning. Cabs did not race by at the speed of sound, their hands glued to the horns, buses seemed to run maybe once an hour, and there was no place to sit and watch the people go by. There was nothing particularly special or unique about the State Street I was introduced to, except that if you looked north, you could see the mountains.
Within about a year, however, the city had decided to beautify the area, which would, of course, be further revenue for a small city that has largely depended on tourist trade. So the 4-lanes from Mission and State to Ortega and State became two lanes, with the outdoor mall that you now see. Over the years, the city planners have endeavored to further enhance this area, with more flora (though no fauna), benches, and other park-like touches.
Upper State Street had its own beautification process. The large department stores and the huge mass of other strip mall shops and stores were non-existent ‘way back when.’ A project was undertaken in the late ‘60s to create an outdoor mall, which is still standing. It rivaled the lower State Street area, which had not yet taken on the look it is now known for, and which somewhat paled in comparison to the almost European ambiance of the upper State Street outdoor mall.
But things change! Upper State Street now boasts a large strip mall, abounding with all sorts of stores, large and small, including Tiffany’s and Macy’s, with lots of parking (under and aboveground). The parking is free.
Lower State Street gives you the first 75 minutes parking free (it used to be 90), and then you pay. Stores do not validate; they pay a monthly fee to the city to keep the expenses of the lots down for customers.
There is a shuttle that runs up and down lower State Street. The link for that is here.
State Street has always been colloquially divided into ‘lower State Street’ and ‘upper State Street. Now lower State Street is called ‘downtown,’ though upper State Street still retains its moniker. The mall and shops are located in what is formally called La Cumbre Plaza, being as the outdoor mall started out on La Cumbre Road. I, however, still refer to lower State Street in its original vernacular.
‘Back in the day,’ so to speak, Ortega down to the beach (which literally crossed the freeway), was rather a seedy section. I’m not certain that any really seedy sections currently exist in Santa Barbara. Since the freeway was renovated in the 90s, the streets below Ortega have now been added as bona fide lower State Street shops, cafes and bars.
The music scene on Lower State Street did not exist until the later 80s or so. Santa Barbara used to fold up at about 9 PM, with the exception of various restaurants and a few bars; there was no night life to speak of. Now those who enjoy music and nightlife have quite a few options.
There are myriad restaurants in the La Cumbre Plaza, including the chain Marlalade, as well, there are places peppered all along upper State Street. Several websites have them listed and reviewed. A good website to check for that is here. This website includes useful information on Santa Barbara overall.
Continuing up State Street there is another strip mall. It also has stores and restaurants, including a pet store, Albertson’s, Ross Starbucks and Big 5 Sporting Goods. It is referred to as 5-Points (or Five Points Shopping Center) due to the fact that there were five intersections. It is at the end of upper State near the 154 which takes you up to San Marcos Pass.
As a small aside, and you can refer to this as an insider's tip, if you are at the Old Mission and want to go to State Street, you can go one block down to Garden Street, make a right, and go to the end. Garden turns into Constance and Constance runs into State Street. This is a short cut if you are going to upper State Street.