Santa Barbara’s Mission-era buildings, with their white stucco, red-tile roofs, thick wooden beams and arched doors, bear a striking resemblance to the architecture in parts of the Côte d’Azur. That is one of the many reasons why this stretch of the Southern California coast is often referred to as the American Riviera. One almost forgets that the Mission period, when Spaniards ruled and these structures were built, only lasted from 1780 to 1822. The era was followed by a stretch where ranching and agriculture were prioritized, and then, at the end of the Civil War, the Victorian period took hold. The architecture of the city changed, and maritime transport became the focal point of all trade and industry.
Surprisingly, Santa Barbara owes its Mission-era appearance and Mediterranean ambiance to the devastating 1925 earthquake that shook it to its core. The Victorian structures burned leaving only the Spanish colonial buildings, which were designed using indigenous building techniques and materials to shield against all elements. On this trip, we visited the city’s famed Mission, but also gained a better understanding about Santa Barbara’s shipping history, environmental preservation initiatives and military past.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Set on 13 acres, Old Mission Santa Barbara is still owned by the Franciscan order. The best way to explore it is to book a 90-minute tour led by one of the friars, which provides more of a behind-the-scenes introduction than a self-guided itinerary. Founded in 1786 to convert the native Chumash Indians, the mission, known as the “Queen of the Missions,” was the 10th to be established in California. The original church building was a simple adobe structure, but due to earthquake damage over the years, much of it has not survived. The present church, the fourth and by far the grandest, is set amid gardens and features double bell towers, an elaborate façade, floors embedded with stone plaques and walls festooned with 18th- and 19th-century artwork. We also spent a significant amount of time in the marble-clad Historic Mausoleum. Surrounded by 200-year-old sandstone walls, the mausoleum is the final resting place of some of the wealthiest of the early Spanish families.