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Picture of Santa Barbara beach Photograph of Santa Barbara Mission Picture of Junipero Serra statue Picture of arcade at Mission Santa Barbara

Although Chumash-speaking Indians were the original inhabitants of Santa Barbara, the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo officially “discovered” it in 1542. Santa Barbara remained nameless until 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaíno arrived on 4 December, the feast day of Saint Barbara. The pious Vizcaíno named his “discoveries” along the California coast, including San Diego, San Pedro, and Catalina Island, for the Catholic saints on whose feast days he arrived there. Unfortunately, Barbara was one of the saints the Vatican removed from its calendar in 1969, due to the lack of evidence that she ever existed.

A century and a half after Vizcaíno, both the Spanish king and the Catholic Church got serious about consolidating their respective empires in California. As the Spanish built military and administrative outposts, a group of Franciscan friars originally led by Father Junípero Serra founded 21 missions. The Catholic version of history says that the missions brought the gifts of civilization and salvation to the heathen Indians, achievements that earned Serra a place (1 July) on the calendar of saints. But the Indians didn’t always appreciate those gifts, which often came at the price of enslavement, eradication of their culture, and decimation from smallpox and measles.

Serra personally established the first nine California missions. Although he planned his tenth mission for Santa Barbara, he did not live to see it built. Construction was delayed because of a disagreement with the Spanish governor about whether the military or the Franciscans had priority on Indian slave labor. Serra had been dead a year and a half when the mission was finally dedicated on 4 December 1786. The Franciscans must have found the Chumash Indians particularly amenable to conversion (or perhaps particularly good slaves), since they built two other missions nearby. Santa Inés is near Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley, and La Purisima is near Lompoc. Picture of fountain at Santa Barbara Mission

In addition to being a museum and tourist attraction, the mission is an active parish church. I took these pictures just after 8 o’clock on a clear weekday morning. The worshippers who attended morning Mass had driven away, and the first tour buses had yet to arrive. This is probably the ideal, quiet time to appreciate (and to photograph) the mission.

Picture of Santa Barbara Mission detail Photograph of Santa Barbara Mission detail

The original 1786 building was a nondescript adobe that was expanded until an earthquake destroyed it (and the other two nearby missions) in 1812. The current building dates from 1820. While its layout is similar to many early 19th century churches in Mexico, the Mission’s distinctive facade has earned it the sobriquet “Queen of the Missions.” Father Antonio Ripoll, who supervised the construction, copied the design of a temple from a Roman book on architecture written in 27 BCE by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. The facade includes pink columns with Ionic capitals. Replacing Vitruvius’ original goddesses are a statue of Saint Barbara, along with representations of Faith, Hope, and Charity inspired by the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Picture of Santa Barbara Presidio

Father Serra lived long enough to consecrate the church at the Presidio. Begun in 1782, the Presidio was the military and administrative headquarters for the region between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. It was left to decay when the Spanish lands became Mexican, and construction of the subsequent American street grid tore down much of what was left. A state park in the middle of downtown, the Presidio complex is a reconstruction based on archaeological research ongoing since 1963.
View from Santa Barbara Courthouse Picture of Moreton Bay fig tree

After a 1925 earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Barbara, planners rebuilt it with the distinctive adobe, stucco, and red tile roofs of the “Spanish Colonial Revival” architectural style. Perhaps the finest example of this architecture is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The tourism promoters who came up with “the American Riviera” appointed it “the most beautiful government building in the United States.” This time it’s hard to argue with them.

It’s worth spending a morning or afternoon exploring the unique fusion of Spanish adobe and red tiles, American ironwork, and thoroughly whimsical design touches inside and out. All that, along with the landscaped grounds and the great view from its clock tower, makes the Courthouse reason enough to visit Santa Barbara— and to merit its own page.

Also downtown, across from the Amtrak train station, is the Moreton Bay fig tree. Planted in 1877, it is reputedly the largest example of its species in the United States— 51 meters across and 23 meters high, with a trunk nearly four meters in diameter.
Picture of beach at Stearns Wharf

One thing “the American Riviera” genuinely has in common with its French namesake is kilometers of popular beaches, all along a south-facing coast that maximizes the hours of sunlight (except when the all-too-common “marine layer” of clouds blankets the coast).

Photograph of boats in Santa Barbara marina Picture of boats in Santa Barbara marina

Also in common with Mediterranean beach towns, Santa Barbara has a busy harbor for small boats. Although its days as a commercial port are long gone, a small fishing fleet remains. Many of the boats docked in the marina are houseboats. Locked gates officially allow dock access only to boat owners, but those owners apparently aren’t as rigorous as the city about enforcing the restriction. Thanks to one of them, who held the gate open as he was leaving the dock, I enjoyed a leisurely Sunday afternoon wandering around and photographing the colorful boats. Picture of sand sculptures at Stearns Wharf

The waterfront also has the distinctly un-Mediterranean staple of American beach resorts, a wooden pier with a boardwalk. Stearns Wharf was originally built in 1872, making it the oldest working pier in California. Extending 700 meters, it let ships load and unload passengers and cargo even at low tide. Picture of Santa Barbara from Stearns Wharf

The wharf has been repeatedly patched and rebuilt after a seemingly endless series of disasters. It has endured storms, fires, a tornado, the 1925 earthquake, and even a group of Civil War veterans whose enthusiastic marching nearly collapsed it in 1887. Today it is a very popular tourist trap full of restaurants and shops— along with the parking lots that take up most of its 1.5 hectares. Over six million tourists visit the wharf each year, most of whom surely are unaware of its history. Picture of Santa Barbara dolphin statue

At the entrance to the wharf is the Dolphin Fountain, officially called the “Bicentennial Friendship Fountain.” As the name suggests, this 1982 sculpture commemorates the city’s bicentennial (based on the building of the Presidio). It also commemorates three of Santa Barbara’s five sister cities (Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Yalta, Ukraine; and Toba, Japan), where there are similar dolphin friendship fountains.

For all its tourist-tackiness, Stearns wharf offers a great view of the palm-lined beaches, the city, and the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains (beyond which lies the very scenic Santa Ynez Valley).

Santa Barbara Courthouse Santa Ynez Valley
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