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Up The Road: Where To Now? Santa Barbara

Rennett Stowe
Flickr Creative Commons

Soon we’ll be able to travel—really travel, to places where other people are part of the point. Including cities large and small.


Queen of California’s small cities is Santa Barbara, beautiful, rich, and mysterious. (She goes by the name “Santa Teresa” in the works of mystery writers Sue Grafton and Ross MacDonald.) Her story hints at good fortune almost as incredible as her good looks, rarely dimmed by disaster.

Yet disaster made Santa Barbara the beauty she is today. 


Aristocratic Spanish families basked in Santa Barbara’s gentility, creating the social capital of Alta California even as Monterey served as the official one. Mexican independence from Spain led to the missions being sold off, and Santa Barbara high society became landed gentry—briefly.



Credit Craig Stanfill / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Doorway, Mission Santa Barbara.

Their ranchos dried up, littered with cattle bones throughout the 1860s drought. Upstart Americans grabbed the land, and local political power. Then came the industrialists, bringing old money, banks, brokerage houses, and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Montecito’s mansions and Santa Barbara power palaces had barely settled when they were shaken loose—shockingly—in June of 1925. A massive earthquake left the city in ruins. But, the best thing that ever happened here, folks say, because the city’s review board then decided all buildings would have a Mediterranean style, in keeping with the area’s climate and Hispanic heritage. Which is how Santa Barbara’s old Spanish-California adobe look came to be—cream-colored stucco, red-tile roofs, colorful tilework, wrought iron.

Start your visit at Mission Santa Barbara, California’s 10th Spanish mission, founded in 1786, still an active parish church and Franciscan community. Known as “Queen of the Missions,” Santa Barbara is still regal, presiding over the city and sea below. The queen is the only California mission to once feature a cathedral, which explains the two squared towers, arcades, and domed belfries. Ionic columns, an arched entrance, and double-paneled doors add to her grace.

Upcanyon from the mission, 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a treasure people often miss. Native plants are the main event—all the more appreciated once you realize most trees and plants in town are not native. On the way to the botanic garden, stop by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to enjoy the antique nature prints.

Lace up those walking shoes again to stroll through the Santa Barbara story on the self-guided downtown Red Tile Walking Tour—starting with the stunning Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a Spanish-Moorish castle with Tunisian tilework and handworked wood and iron, quite possibly the most beautiful public building anywhere in California.

Credit Anna Irene / Flickr Creative Commons
Flickr Creative Commons
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Get oriented to regional history at the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum, everything from antique toys to vaquero-style saddles. Also appreciate El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, preserving the site of the last military outpost imperial Spain established in California. 

Oh, and did I mention Santa Barbara’s beaches? And the wharf? And Channel Islands National Park, just offshore?

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel


Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:


Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.