It’s called the American Riviera, with weather, community, and sun-drenched beaches reminiscent of the Mediterranean coast. In truth, Santa Barbara is all California. It has all the amenities of a big city, but the pace of life slows down just enough to make for a relaxing stay. In fact, many California natives consider it their favorite vacation spot.
While you’re in town enjoying its world-class museums, shopping, dining, and the fabulous four-star resorts clustered along the beaches, make sure to include as many of these seven must-see sights in Santa Barbara on your itinerary as possible for the full experience.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Mysterious red, black, and white images are concealed in a small sandstone cave at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park.Old Mission Santa Barbara (2201 Laguna St., 805/682-4713, 9am-5pm daily, self-guided tours $7 adults, $5 seniors, $2 children 5-15), with its coral pink facade, is considered the prettiest of all the California missions, albeit one of the least authentic. A self-guided tour takes you through the interior courtyard, where a center fountain is encircled by palm trees, and the cemetery where a beautiful Moreton Bay fig tree planted around 1890 still stands. From there it is a few steps into the church. It has the most decorated of the mission interiors, with lots of vibrant stenciling surrounding the doors and altar and a complete painted wainscoting. Large paintings flank both walls. Near the formal entrance, a small gated room houses the only original altar and tabernacle in the California mission chain, dating from 1786. After leaving the church, you’ll enter the museum section, which houses old photographs and artifacts from the early services.
Chumash Painted Cave
Mysterious red, black, and white images are concealed in a small sandstone cave at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (CA-154, right on Painted Cave Rd., 805/733-3713). Launch your expedition and navigate the steep path leading to the cave entrance, where Delphian-like images date to the 1600s and earlier. Although the images are known to be the artistry of ancient Chumash ancestors, the subjects depicted in the rock art are open to speculation and interpretation. Many believe the petroglyphs created using mineral pigments depict Chumash cosmology, possibly representing a solar eclipse that happened in November 24, 1677, but some images are thought to date back 1,000 years or more. The cave was discovered in the 1870s. The iron gate that blocks passage was placed at the cavern mouth in 1908 for the purpose of preservation.
The cave is accessed from the very narrow and winding Painted Cave Road (north) off of CA-154, about 11 miles (18 km) northwest of Santa Barbara. Look to the left side of the road for the cave. There is a small parking shoulder and an interpretive sign about the site. Flash cameras will harm the images and are prohibited.
Stearns Wharf (intersection of State St. and Cabrillo Blvd.) is Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark. Santa Barbara has no natural harbor, and the wharf was built in 1871 to allow ships to off-load supplies for the bourgeoning town. The current iteration is a favorite for tourists. Frankly, there are a lot of typical tourist shops selling seashells, small, personalized license plates, and gift items you can find most anywhere, but if you walk to the end, you get some of the best views back to the city. There are no railings at the end of the wharf, so keep an eye on little ones.
In addition to the views, there are a few restaurants, an ice cream store, and the Ty Warner Sea Center (211 Stearns Wharf, 805/962-2526, 10am-5pm daily, $8 adults, $7 seniors and teens 13-17, $5 children 2-12). A branch of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, this two-story building is devoted to giving you a better understanding of how our oceans work. There are touch tanks on the lower level and staff to answer questions.
El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park
Founded on April 21, 1782, El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park (123 E. Canon Perdido St., 805/965-0093, 10:30am-4:30pm daily, $5 adults, $4 seniors, admission includes Casa de la Guerra) can rightfully be called the birthplace of Santa Barbara. The presidio was the last in a chain of four military fortresses built by the Spanish along the coast of California. The whitewashed buildings were constructed of sun-dried adobe bricks laid upon foundations of sandstone boulders. Timbers from the Los Padres forest supported roofs of red tile. The buildings of the presidio form a quadrangle enclosing a central parade ground.
Today, only two sections of the original presidio quadrangle remain: El Cuartel (the second-oldest building in California, dating from 1782), the family residence of the soldier assigned to guard the western gate into the Plaza de Armas; and the Canedo Adobe, named after the presidio soldier to whom it was deeded when the presidio became inactive. El Cuartel is small, with tiny doors and windows reflective of the time, but the massively thick walls still stand as they have for more than 200 years, with only cosmetic touch-ups to the plaster that covers the original adobe bricks. The presidio is just a block off State Street downtown and can easily be worked into your downtown sightseeing plans.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Covering an entire city block, the still-functioning Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1100 Anacapa St., 805/962-6464, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 10am-4:30pm Sat.-Sun., free docent-led tours 10:30am and 2pm Mon.- Fri., 2pm Sat.-Sun.) is a stunning example of Spanish and Moorish design. William Mooser designed this courthouse to replace the earlier 1872 version, a colonial-looking thing with a massive domed cupola. When the courthouse was completed in 1929, it was unlike anything in the city.
Lush grounds, including the copious lawn and Sunken Gardens, lay the foundation for the sandstone building with arabesque windows, archways, hand-painted wood ceilings, walls with intricate designs, and pueblo tile inlays nearly everywhere flashing brilliant colors and native designs. Of particular note is the Mural Room, once used by the county board of supervisors. The huge room is covered in a mural depicting the early Chumash Indians and following the history of the area leading up to California statehood. All tours of the building meet in the Mural Room and are approximately one hour.
The clock tower, known as El Mirador, juts out of the top of the courthouse, making it one of the tallest structures in the city, though the tower is a mere 85 feet tall. But it is here that you’ll get the best views of downtown, the mountains, and the ocean from a downtown perspective—it’s a must for photo ops.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
See the power of the visual arts at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State St., 805/963-4364, 11am-5pm Tues.-Sun., $10 adults, $6 seniors and students, free children under 6, free Sun.). Santa Barbara has one of the most impressive art museums and best collections for a community of its size and showcases pieces in many styles and from various eras. Their notable Asian holdings contains more than 2,600 objects representing 4,000 years of history and include Japanese woodblock prints and the 19 Chinese robes that started the collection.
Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail
Catering to the affections of crushed-grape aficionados, the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail ($10-20 for 4-8 wines) leads to about 25 premium tasting rooms, all within blocks of downtown and the beach. Most are open 10am-6pm, with some last pours offered as late as 8pm. Most belong to the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, whose membership is made up of only licensed growers with a winery facility in the Santa Barbara County and at least 75 percent annual production in Santa Barbara County. Seventeen tasting rooms are located in Santa Barbara’s up-and-coming Funk Zone neighborhood, which offers plenty to see and do beyond wine, including galleries and shops.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.