Red tile roof architecture of Courthouse in Santa Barbara, California
Red tile roof architecture of Courthouse in Santa Barbara, California

by Lee Foster

Santa Barbara is an argument that an American city can achieve an overall architectural harmony, elevating the city itself to a work of art.

The immediate impression of Santa Barbara is Spanish–red-tiled roofs, adobes, wrought iron, bell towers, palm trees, and tan beaches rimming a blue sea. The mood is relaxed and gentle like the Mediterranean climate the city enjoys.

After an earthquake in 1925 leveled much of the Victorian architecture of the town, the city fathers decided to emphasize the Spanish Mission-Revival style in rebuilding. They instituted strict low-rise building codes encouraging that trend.

(Earthquakes have been a dominant force in the urban appearance of California, causing fearful Los Angeles to remain lowrise, until recent years, and requiring San Francisco to rebuild, after the 1906 catastrophe.)

Though Santa Barbara faces the sea, it lies in a protected cove, with the offshore Channel Islands shielding it against stormy waves and blustery weather. The city actually faces south rather than west because of the coastal pattern.

Santa Barbara is a city for strolling along beach promenades or among low-rise buildings. The traveler can bicycle along miles of paved paths. Vacationers are attracted to the sprawling beaches year round. Turquoise seas lure divers, bathers, sailors, and fishermen alike.

Away from the coast, Santa Barbara’s backcountry offers expansive valleys, lush meadows, mountain lakes, and quiet towns.


The Santa Barbara Airport is 10 miles west of town, along Highway 101 in Goleta.


If driving to Santa Barbara, you’ll arrive via Highway 101 from the north or south.


Santa Barbara began, like many California cities, as a Spanish mission settlement. Father Junipero Serra established the pueblo of Santa Barbara in 1782. The 10th California mission was dedicated by his successor, Father Fermin Lasuen, on the feast day of Saint Barbara in 1786.

Mission Santa Barbara, whose facade follows architectural directions suggested in a treatise by Vitruvius in 27 B.C., is the only California mission that has remained in continuous use by the Franciscans. Characterized affectionately as the “Queen of the Missions” by appreciators of early California architecture, the well-preserved structure, at the upper end of Laguna Street, serves as a modern parish church, open to the public seven days a week.

The Chumash Indians of the Santa Barbara Mission were one of the most advanced California tribes. They met the Spanish explorers at sea in board boats water-proofed with an oily pitch that oozed naturally from the ground at a beach south of Santa Barbara. The Spanish were so impressed with the Indian carpentry skills at this beach that they named the site The Carpentry, La Carpinteria. Today you can still see the oily pitch oozing from the ground here. The wide, shallow beach at Carpinteria is also excellent for swimming and sunning.


Beyond the Mission, the main pleasures of Santa Barbara can be seen if you take a self-guided “Red Tile Tour,” starting from the County Courthouse. After this walk, make the scenic drive along the immediate coast and stop at the downtown pier, Stearns Wharf, for a walk. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a final, inland site to explore.

All of the downtown area can be strolled, with much pleasure, guided by the Red Tile Tour leaflet free from the Visitor Information Center at 1 Santa Barbara Street.

The first and classic view is from the tower of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Take the elevator to the top and gaze out at the red tile panorama. Facing toward the sea, you look down at the historic section. Built in 1929, the Courthouse resembles a Spanish-Moorish castle with elaborate turrets, hand-carved doors, wrought-iron balconies, and a large archway. Festivals and concerts are held throughout the year in the Courthouse’s sunken gardens.

Within the Courthouse, on the second floor, you’ll see intriguing murals depicting the history of Santa Barbara from the time of the early Spanish explorers. The murals show events such as Portola’s encampment, the building of the Mission, and the arrival of John Fremont to inaugurate the American era.

Leaving the Courthouse, walk down Anapamu Street one block to the Museum of Art at the corner of State Street and Anapamu. The Museum boasts fine, eclectic collections, including some Bierstadt paintings of early California.

After the Museum, walk down State Street, the masterpiece of urban planning for which Santa Barbara is famous. If you entered the city via State Street from the freeway, you passed La Cumbre Plaza shopping center, which boasts one of the few Lucky’s or Radio Shacks in the U.S. with a red tile roof. The tug for commerce between the shopping center and downtown helped provoke the restoration of the downtown stretch of State Street. Driving in on State Street, you pass miles of appealing residences with mature shade trees, vines, and shrubs. Colorful bougainvillea and jacaranda add much to the city’s beauty.

Red tile roof architecture of Courthouse in  Santa Barbara, California
Red tile roof architecture of Courthouse in Santa Barbara, California

At the Art Museum corner, you can look up and down State Street to see the unified and pleasing effect that the architectural controls have created. The uniform facades, tree plantings, and such touches as tiled trash receptacles achieve a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Then walk down State Street three blocks and turn left on de la Guerra to reach the historic center of the city, the Presidio. One structure, El Cuartel or the “barracks”, which functions as an information stop, is part of the original 1782 fortress. Across the street, the Presidio chapel and several representative rooms have been recreated.

With the Red Tile Tour map in hand, you can next discover several adobes, such as the Casa Covarrubias, Casa de la Guerra, and the Hill-Carillo Adobe. The restoration of the de la Guerra adobe in 1923 set in motion the idea of a conscious Spanish “look” for the city.

The Historical Museum, 136 East de la Guerra, tells the elaborate historical story of Santa Barbara through displays of early documents and costumes from the Spanish period.

Particularly appealing in the area is the use of actual or simulated older structures for outdoor restaurants and shops. El Paseo arcade is the epitome of a “Spanish street” type of shopping. Presidio Cafe and El Paseo Restaurant are good choices among outdoor eateries.

Following a look at the downtown, make a wide arc of a drive on the Scenic Drive and end up at Stearns Wharf, foot of State Street. The drive (outlined in the Red Tile Tour) takes you through the posh residential community of Hope Ranch, along Las Palmas and Marina Drives, showing you the graceful, seaside lifestyle of the Santa Barbara area. (A further Scenic Drive east of town tours Santa Barbara’s most affluent area, Montecito.)

When you approach the wharf, park and walk along the waterfront. Three miles of paved pathway for walkers and bikers make the seaside, with its sport fishing and sailing boats, a public area vibrant with life. You can rent small bicycle-cabs for extended outings on the pathway. Fishing charters and winter whale watching boats depart from here.

Stroll out the historic three-block-long Stearns Wharf, which dates from 1872, to peruse hopeful anglers and seafood restaurants. Stearns bills itself as the oldest active wharf on the California coast. A fish-selling shop at the end of the wharf specializes in live shellfish. Stearns Wharf begins at the former site of a prominent Chumash Indian town, Syukhtun.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road, is a final major Santa Barbara treat. The gardens amount to a magnificent collection of plants indigenous to California. Five miles of trails lead you through groves of redwoods, fields of wildflowers, and canyons of chaparral. Of special interest is the History Trail, which explains how area plants were utilized by the Indians for food, soap, and medicine.

The esthetic experience of Santa Barbara is cumulative. The more experience you have of the city, the greater is the feeling of harmony in the architecture. Santa Barbara stands as a model of what unified urban design can achieve.


Beaches are an outstanding attraction around Santa Barbara. Between Point Conception to the north and the city are five major state beach parks, all with camping and swimming. El Capitan is an excellent beach for camping, both at the public state park camp on the beach and at the private camp in the canyon behind the park. All along the coast, tan beaches and sparkling seas offer a variety of watersports. Numerous reefs make diving a favorite sport. Boating, fishing, water-skiing, and surfing are popular.

From Ventura, south of Santa Barbara, you can visit an offshore national park. A pleasant boat ride will take you to the Channel Islands National Park for a day of exploration. You can visit the two smallest islands, Santa Barbara and Anacapa. Isolated from the mainland, the islands have retained many primitive forms of animal and plant life. Camping is also allowed on the islands.

Excursions from Santa Barbara include outings to the Santa Ynez Valley, Pismo Beach, and the historic town of San Luis Obispo.

North of Santa Barbara, tucked between the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains, lies a valley of verdant meadows, flower fields, and expansive cattle ranges. Drive north along Highway 154 to reach the valley. About 30 miles from Santa Barbara, you’ll pass the Lake Cachuma Recreation Area, a pleasant stop for swimming, fishing or camping.

Continue north to the Danish village of Solvang with its windmills, thatched roofs, and stained glass windows. Be sure to visit the bakeries in town and sample the famous Danish pastries. The major festival here is Danish Days, held in mid-September.

Lompoc is a colorful community and a major center of flower seed production. Half of the world’s commercial flower seeds are produced in this fertile soil, nurtured by the mild climate. The fields stretch in summer like dazzling multi-colored quilts along the valley floor.

A California traveler who could see only one of the early Spanish missions would choose wisely to visit La Purisima near Lompoc. The power of La Purisima lies in the completeness of its re-creation of the 1820s, including the crops planted and animals tended at the mission. A tallow works shows how cattle hides were processed. Wool carding demonstrations recall the importance of sheep for mission clothing. The original mission herb garden has also been restored. Today Purisima still has a rural location, as it did in the 1830s, unlike the other missions now swallowed up by cities. The missions, with their complex social, economic, and religious dimensions, were outposts of European civilization in the raw California of 1776-1832.

Wine drinkers will be happy to know that the Santa Barbara region has emerged as one of California’s newer, prestigious wine regions, with 34 wineries. One good touring-tasting place is Santa Ynez Valley Winery, 343 North Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, 805/688-8381.

Continue north along Highway 1 to Pismo Beach, a sleepy beach well known for its sand dunes and clam beds. Clamming is allowed at selected sites.

A short drive north via Highway 101 will bring you to the historic town of San Luis Obispo. This farming and ranching town grew up around its mission, Mission San Luis Obispo, founded in 1773. The mission is used as the parish church and houses an excellent museum containing exhibits of the Chumash Indians, the mission development, and later American settlement.



Contact the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau, 12 E. Carillo St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805/965-3021 or 800/927-4688; website

Old Spanish Days in August is the city’s main festival time.



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