Santa Barbara – History and Illusion

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I’m standing outside the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and I’m impressed. With its lofty tower and a Spanish inscription carved above its entry archway, I assume it must be a relic from the 19th century.

I later find out it was built in 1929. That’s one of the interesting things about this Californian city; you can never tell how old anything really is.

It some ways though, it makes sense that Santa Barbara resembles a Hollywood set. The attractive city is only two hours northwest of LA, and a popular place for Los Angelenos to take a break.

There’s a suitably cinematic reason that Santa Barbara has such a wealth of buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

After a major earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1925, the beachside holiday town decided to rebuild entirely with this distinctive look.

A tribute to Santa Barbara’s early years within the Spanish Empire, adherence to the style has produced a harmonious city centre distinguished by white walls, red tiled roofs and graceful arches – spotted on everything from hotels to high-rise car parks.

A great way to explore the city’s architectural highlights is to follow the Red Tile Walking Tour, downloadable as a PDF from the Santa Barbara Car Free website ( An easy stroll through the Downtown, it wanders through arcades and past major public buildings.

Beyond the courthouse with its free observation platform, other attractive landmarks on the tour include the Museum of Art and the Public Library.

On a less imposing scale, the route also passes through the ambient open-air shopping arcades known as La Arcada and El Paseo.

After passing through the latter, I decide to take a break from the hot weather with a wine tasting. As Santa Barbara is situated near the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley, many of them have set up their tasting rooms here.

The one I choose, Jamie Slone Wines (, has an attractive and mercifully air-conditioned interior with chandeliers and armchairs. Perched at the bar, I work my way through tasty samples of its output (particularly liking the 2014 Lozier, a blend of reds).

Then I’m back on the walk, admiring the nearby Casa de la Guerra. Completed in 1827, it was the home of Presidio comandante José de la Guerra. Set around a shaded courtyard with benches on which to sit, it’s a remarkably tranquil place for somewhere so central.

Across the street is Plaza de la Guerra, with Santa Barbara’s imposing City Hall. The tour then passes a number of historic adobe houses, to arrive at the most impressive historical remnant of the lot: El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park (

El Presidio is a restored section of the Spanish fort which guarded the town from 1782. It was laid out along a different axis from the later street grid, its dusty forecourt angled to the street and brightened by Mexican and Spanish flags.

As it’s near the end of the tour, I decide to finish here and pay the $5 entry fee to enter the complex. After examining archaeological relics within its rooms and chapel, I end up in the open air among orange trees in the rear courtyard.

It’s a quiet day at El Presidio, so I’m alone with a statue of Spain’s King Carlos III. Him, and the ghosts of Santa Barbara’s eventful past.

Tim Richards was assisted by Visit California.

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