Santa Barbara’s Mission-era buildings, with their white stucco, red-tile roofs, thick wooden beams and arched doors, bear a striking resemblance to the architecture in parts of the Côte d’Azur. That is one of the many reasons why this stretch of the Southern California coast is often referred to as the American Riviera. One almost forgets that the Mission period, when Spaniards ruled and these structures were built, only lasted from 1780 to 1822. The era was followed by a stretch where ranching and agriculture were prioritized, and then, at the end of the Civil War, the Victorian period took hold. The architecture of the city changed, and maritime transport became the focal point of all trade and industry.
Surprisingly, Santa Barbara owes its Mission-era appearance and Mediterranean ambiance to the devastating 1925 earthquake that shook it to its core. The Victorian structures burned leaving only the Spanish colonial buildings, which were designed using indigenous building techniques and materials to shield against all elements. On this trip, we visited the city’s famed Mission, but also gained a better understanding about Santa Barbara’s shipping history, environmental preservation initiatives and military past.
Set on 13 acres, Old Mission Santa Barbara is still owned by the Franciscan order. The best way to explore it is to book a 90-minute tour led by one of the friars, which provides more of a behind-the-scenes introduction than a self-guided itinerary. Founded in 1786 to convert the native Chumash Indians, the mission, known as the “Queen of the Missions,” was the 10th to be established in California. The original church building was a simple adobe structure, but due to earthquake damage over the years, much of it has not survived. The present church, the fourth and by far the grandest, is set amid gardens and features double bell towers, an elaborate façade, floors embedded with stone plaques and walls festooned with 18th- and 19th-century artwork. We also spent a significant amount of time in the marble-clad Historic Mausoleum. Surrounded by 200-year-old sandstone walls, the mausoleum is the final resting place of some of the wealthiest of the early Spanish families.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
2201 Laguna Street. Tel. (805) 682-4713
Most visitors pay little mind to this museum fronting the Santa Barbara Harbor, but it is well worth a detour. Santa Barbara has a diverse maritime history, and we spent more than two hours roaming the 8,000-square-foot space. The interactive displays, hands-on activities and a theater make it an ideal destination for both children and adults alike. Topics covered in the displays include the rise and fall of the area’s shore whaling industry, offshore oil production from Santa Barbara and Ventura county waters, marine mammal conservation efforts, cattle and sheep ranching on Santa Cruz Island, and the native Chumash population and their innovative use of asphalt for sealing baskets and waterproofing their ocean-going tomols (canoes). Some of the highlights on display are an original Chumash canoe, the 160-year-old Point Conception Lighthouse Fresnel lens and a working periscope. In addition, the museum has docking space to showcase three historic vessels.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
113 Harbor Way. Tel. (805) 962-8404
Located two blocks from State Street in the heart of downtown, El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park is often unjustly overlooked by visitors. It preserves the last of the four military garrisons founded in Alta California by the Spanish. Presidios were intended to guard the region from invasion, defend the missions and function as an arm of the government. Built in 1782, the Santa Barbara presidio controlled the territory between today’s town of San Luis Obispo and El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument. The military outpost is surrounded by an outer wall with cannon bastions. Under the command of Spanish soldiers, the local Chumash Indians built several structures around a central courtyard, with whitewashed walls created from sun-dried adobe bricks, red-tile roofs and timbered ceilings. Highlights of our self-guided tour included the orchards in the heritage gardens and the chapel, which remained an active parish church until the mid-1850s and where weddings are still held to this day.
El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park
123 East Canon Perdido Street. Tel. (805) 965-0093.