The city of Santa Barbara has a rich history, dating back to the Chumash Indians who had lived on the land for thousands of years prior to the area’s discovery by Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542. In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino would name the area for Saint Barbara, whose feast day fell on December 4, the day Vizcaino first sailed into the Santa Barbara Channel.
This period of discovery would be followed by the development of missions at the hands of Franciscan monks, along with the influence of American settlers in later centuries. Together, the accumulation of architecture and cultural traditions help make Santa Barbara a historic city with a distinct local flavor. Because of the early historic preservation efforts undertaken by the city, many of Santa Barbara’s most important sites remain intact and open for visitors.
The following five sites located in the city pay homage to a past steeped in many cultures, and provide visitors with an excellent way to spend a day exploring and learning about the city’s history.
1. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
Established on 5.5 acres of land, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park is the site of the city’s fourth and final military outpost constructed by the Spanish. Erected in 1782, the Spanish word “presidio” translates to “fortress” in English, an accurate word for the quadrangle, which is surrounded by an outer wall equipped with two cannons.
|Image courtesy user Al R on Flickr|
Within the walls of the Presidio, visitors can independently explore restored replicas of buildings such as the Chapel, Padres’ Quarters, and Comandancia, as well as El Cuartel, a guardhouse that is the second-oldest surviving structure in the state of California. The park is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and charges a $5 admission fee for adults.
2. Old Mission Santa Barbara
The Spanish Franciscans orchestrated the construction of 21 missions in the state of California, and the Old Mission in Santa Barbara was the tenth to be established. The registered historic landmark received a special designation among the 21 as “Queen of the Missions,” and is the only mission in the state that has continuously been run by Franciscans since its foundation.
|Image courtesy Wally Gobetz on Flickr|
Settled on a hilltop downtown, the mission complex encompasses gardens, a historic cemetery, and a museum, as well as the church itself. The external architecture of the church retains a Spanish colonial style, and the inside is decorated with original paintings and artistic pieces created by the Chumash people. Visitors can choose between self-guided or docent-guided tours of the mission between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. daily.
3. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
Outside of the city, a cave carved into massive limestone boulders offers locals and tourists the opportunity to see paintings of the ancient Chumash people firsthand. Though the exact age of the paintings is not known, academics estimate that that they were created sometime around the early 17th century. The colorful pictures were drawn with paint made from minerals found in the area. After being mixed with a binder, they were then applied to cave walls using fingers or animal-tail brushes.
|Image courtesy David Seibold on Flickr|
Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is located about half an hour outside of the city, three miles south of the San Marcos Pass. The cave is open from sunrise to sunset each day, and is accessed via a steep and narrow road unfit for RVs or trucks with trailers. Layered clothing is recommended, as the cave’s location within the canyon can make the climate cool year-round.
4. Stearns Wharf
Built by John Peck Stearns in 1872 to help make cargo transfer from ship to land easier in the Santa Barbara Channel, Stearns Wharf is the oldest wooden wharf in the state still in operation. Because of the wharf’s construction, incoming ships were able to anchor offshore at low tide, which effectively solved the problem of Santa Barbara’s inaccessibility due to being surrounded by water and mountains.
|Image courtesy user Brian on Flickr|
At first, the wharf served predominantly as a transportation hub, but today functions as a popular merchant center, complete with restaurants, museums, and specialty shops. This historic site is a necessary visit for anyone looking to eat fresh seafood, learn about marine life, and pick up local souvenirs.
5. Casa del Herrero
A sweeping historic estate designed by George Washington Smith, Casa del Herrero was home to George Fox Steedman, the owner of machine shop and foundry Curtis & Co. Translated from Spanish, “Casa del Herrero” means “house of the blacksmith.”
This local landmark is a testament to the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries when estate owners took it upon themselves to express their artistic tastes through the construction of elaborate homes and gardens. Completed in 1925, the home took four years and multiple architects to finish, with antique pieces such as tiles and furniture imported directly from Spain.
The house is done in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, and features white stucco walls, many arches, intricate tiles, and ornate ironwork. Additionally, the lush gardens that extend behind the main house are among the most breathtaking in the city, punctuated by tiled pools, outdoor rooms, and decorative benches.