Historic Santa Barbara, known as the “American Riviera,” offers experiences beyond the obvious. Sure, you can visit and simply relax on the pristine beaches and dine on fresh seafood. But why not also explore some of the history and the landmarks of this small, elegant beach-side city?
And you won’t have to look hard at all. As soon as you reach Santa Barbara, you’ll see so many red-tiled roofs on old white adobe buildings. Stately homes from the early 20th century line the suburban streets. And historic structures house theaters, shops, and restaurants. The Spanish, Mexican, and American heritage of the city is evident around every corner, giving Santa Barbara its unique character.
Read on to learn about some of the notable historical sites and landmarks.
Where Is Santa Barbara?
Santa Barbara is just a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, so it’s a perfect choice for a quiet weekend getaway. And if you’re driving the California coastal route, Santa Barbara is an ideal place to spend a day or two during your road trip.
Getting the lay of the land for your explorations of historic Santa Barbara
It helps to know that the main street of downtown, State Street, runs north from the shore. The wharf reaches over the water just south of State street. The street that hugs the shore is Cabrillo Boulevard. You can walk or bike to see many of the attractions, as streets go under Highway 101 and nothing is far apart.
Many numbered parking lots dot the downtown area. Take a photo of your parking lot so you remember which one to return to and the street it’s on. If you’re a visitor, it’s easy to confuse the street names such as Anacapa and Anapamu, and Cabrillo and Castillo and Carillo.
Visit iconic Stearns Wharf
First, head to the most iconic symbol of Santa Barbara. Jutting out over the water where State Street ends, Stearns Wharf is a favorite Santa Barbara landmark. It’s suffered four major fires since it opened in 1872, closing for as long as nine years. But after every disaster, the city rebuilds and reopens the destroyed restaurants and shops. Today, the Wharf thrives.
Stearns Wharf is one of the oldest operating piers on the West Coast. It is home to restaurants serving fresh seafood, a handmade ice cream shop, and souvenir stores. If you want to fish, stop in the tackle shop for your gear. And the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center provides a look at the sea life beneath the Wharf using interactive exhibits.
Tour the Santa Barbara Courthouse and gardens
The lovely Santa Barbara County Courthouse in downtown, just off State Street, was completed in 1929. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2005 in recognition of its architectural significance and its role in preserving the Spanish Colonial Revival style in California.
Take a tour, if possible, and wander the halls of this functioning courthouse. Your guide will point out the little details you may miss on your own. You’ll see beautiful hand-painted tiles, wrought-iron grills, and intricately designed ceilings. This fun guide taught me so much!
The white adobe walls of the sprawling courthouse, topped by red clay roofs, sit amid lush gardens of palms and pines. In summer, locals fill the expansive lawn, sitting on blankets to watch movies when the sun goes down.
Take in history at the Presidio
Remnants of one of only four forts built by the Spanish in early California history lie in Santa Barbara. Follow the signs to El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, just off State Street downtown.
Two buildings of the original presidio are restored. Other parts of the presidio are reconstructed. Archeological excavations continue on this site.
Inside the Presidio you can learn about life long past. Take a self-guided tour of the exhibits to learn about the influence of the Spanish on the formation of the city.
Go to the Queen of the Missions
Travel back in time to the early days of Spanish settlements here when you visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara. This is one of a string of missions founded by Spanish Franciscans along the California coast. It’s known as the “Queen of the Missions” due to its beauty. Founded in 1786, it features double bell towers and an expansive front lawn, set against a backdrop of foothills. Look out from the front for a view of the nearby ocean. And across the street is a small grassy park where you can picnic or let the kids run around.
Explore the historic downtown
Historic Santa Barbara is on full display in the quaint downtown area. Shops and restaurants and offices now reside in buildings that date back to early times here. And keep an eye out for two historic theaters. The Arlington, built in 1931, is known for its striking façade and Spanish Moorish interior design. The Granada Theater, which dates to the 1920s, also features Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. These theaters host concerts and plays throughout the year.
You can relax in the center of downtown because its streets are pedestrianized. Stop at a sidewalk café for lunch or a cold drink. Wander through antique stores, or shop at name brand stores. You may hear some live music, and sometimes pianos sit on the streets, beckoning musicians to treat you to a song.
Santa Barbara is compact enough that you can walk from the beach area to downtown. If you prefer to drive, you’ll find street parking as well as parking lots that charge a small fee. You are aiming for the area bordered by East de la Guerra, Santa Barbara Street, East Sola, and De la Vina Street.
Meander through fascinating courtyards
Santa Barbara’s downtown provides charming old courtyards that branch off State Street. One of the most well-known is El Paseo. This shopping and dining complex is both a historic landmark and a popular destination for both locals and tourists. It reflects Santa Barbara’s commitment to preserving its unique architectural and cultural heritage.
Shop in El Paseo for clothing, jewelry, home décor, and art. And dining choices include eateries featuring Mexican cuisine, Spanish tapas, and Mediterranean dishes.Another courtyard to check out is La Arcada Courtyard, with its art galleries, stone fountain, and tile stairways. La Arcada dates to 1926. Today, you can sit on the bench with Ben Franklin, notice the ship’s canon hanging high on a wall, and go in the small shops in search of one-of-a-kind treasures. The ambience of Santa Barbara is here.
Find a good book to read at the Book Den
This one of-a-kind bookshop at 15 East Anapamu, just off State Street, opened here in 1933. Previously in San Francisco, The Book Den has been serving Santa Barbara for almost a century. It’s nestled between other shops, so you want to look closely to find it. And then, enter to peruse shelves and tables of recently published books as well as used and out-of-print books on subjects ranging from Art and Literature to History to the Sciences.
On my last visit, due to construction in the area, I had trouble finding the store. A local silver-haired man exited his Bentley, dressed smartly in a suit. I asked directions to the Book Den. He helped me out, sharing that his mother sold her collection of National Geographic magazines to the store, decades earlier. Yes, the store is a fixture of Santa Barbara.
Learn about the seagoing history of Santa Barbara at the Maritime Museum
The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, located in the Santa Barbara Harbor, focuses on the maritime heritage of the region. Exhibits relate to the city’s maritime history and include artifacts, ship models, and information about Santa Barbara’s maritime connections. Three historic vessels are docked outside the museum.
The museum’s website states that its purpose is “to instill a love and respect for our Santa Barbara Channel, for the people who make their living on its waters, for those who enjoy its recreational activities, and for the abundant marine life that calls these waters home.”
Be amazed at the collections of the Carriage and Western Art Museum
This hidden gem of historic Santa Barbara will surprise you. Tucked away in a corner of Pershing Park on Castillo, the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum transports you right into the past. An extensive collection of vintage carriages, saddles, and Western art offers a window into history. Outside the museum is a street of storefronts with an 1800s feel. With a goal to preserve historic horse-drawn vehicles and Western memorabilia, this non-profit museum is free to the public.
Trace Santa Barbara architecture on the Red Tile Walking Tour
Can’t get enough of the exquisite Santa Barbara Spanish architecture? One way to see outstanding examples is to follow the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour. Download the map before your visit to check out the tour. Choose to walk all or part of the route. It starts at the County Courthouse and covers 12 downtown blocks, going past the Presidio to end up back at the Courthouse.
Stay at a hotel with a delightful retro feel
Indulge your love of history by staying at a quaint place. The Marina Beach Motel on Bath Street, just a half block from the water, opened in January 1941. While the rooms are comfortably and tastefully modern, the footprint of the original motel remains. The rooms form a U, and you can park right in front of your unit, just like in bygone days. In the center of the U, a lawn and outdoor furniture beckon you to relax. Bicycles and a surrey are available for no additional charge.The atmosphere is cozy and friendly. And a breakfast of local pastries, bagels, and yogurt is served each morning.
These are just a few of the many historic Santa Barbara sites and landmarks scattered throughout the city. Exploring these places will give you a deeper appreciation for the city’s rich and diverse history. With a backdrop of foothills, streets of Spanish-style architecture, abundant palm trees, and miles of waterfront, you will soon understand why this “American Riviera” makes the perfect getaway for lovers of history and beauty, sand and sun.
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