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Though Santa Barbara is known for its beautiful beaches and winning wine scene, most visitors overlook the destination’s rich history and cultural offerings. The heritage and authenticity of Santa Barbara is unparalleled to any other California coastal towns and is definitely worth exploring.
Experience the destination on a deeper level and connect with the culture of Santa Barbara by including the below experiences in your Santa Barbara itinerary:
1. Casa Del Herrero
This off-the-beaten-path experience is truly a hidden gem and one of Santa Barbara’s best kept secrets. I’m listing this first, as the tour completely blew me away and was definitely the highlight of my visit.
Casa Del Herrero is a historic estate designed and constructed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture. Completed in 1925, the home (designed by architect George Washington Smith) is noted as one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in America. It is included on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009. Though I’ve never harbored an affinity for architecture, I absolutely fell in love with everything about this house and the beautiful gardens.
The home and gardens are open for public viewing by ticketed reservation only. We participated in a 90 minute tour during which our docent enthusiastically relayed the story of the family and the home. She was extremely knowledgable and gave us the perfect combination of information and freedom to explore the grounds on our own. Most of the original furniture from 1925 is still in the home, so you can actually feel what it would have been like to live their.
I cannot speak highly enough of this beautiful home and gardens, or of the docent and the tour. If you’re in the Santa Barbara area, I highly recommend it!
2. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, the iconic Santa Barbara County Courthouse is open for public viewing by self or docent guided tours. The courthouse’s beautiful Spanish tiles and sunken gardens make it a quintessential Santa Barbara landmark.
Though most visitors go straight for the clock tower, which boasts 360 degree views of the city, mountains and ocean (arguably the best view in town), I strongly recommend joining a docent-led tour. The tours are free and they give you a great back story of the architecture, paintings, murals, tiles and more. The details of the courthouse are absolutely gorgeous, and the hand-painted ceilings, wrought iron chandeliers, imported tiles and giant murals add historic charm to this beautiful building.
You can also bring a lunch and enjoy it on the grass in the courtyard (prior to our tour we got a loaded picnic basket from Isabella Gourmet down the street).
Ganna Walska Lotusland is a globally renowned 37-acre estate and botanic garden hidden away in the foothills of Montecito. This botanic wonder features 13 themed gardens and 3,000+ plants from around the world (including rare cycads, cacti & euphorbias). Touring Ganna Walska Lotusland is a must when visiting Santa Barbara.
During the 2-hour tour, passionate Docents take you through the garden and blend a nice combination of botanical facts with biographical details. It was fascinating learning about the unique collections of plants, and the unique woman who created them.
This garden is absolutely stunning and one of Santa Barbara’s famous attractions. If you hope to visit, reservations are required and it’s recommended you make your reservation in as far advance as possible.
4. The Lobero Theatre
Not only is the Lobero Theatre recognized as one of Santa Barbara’s architectural jewels and iconic landmarks, it’s also California’s oldest, continuously operating theatre. Originally founded as Opera house in 1873 and rebuilt in 1924, the Lobero Theatre has long hosted both local community and professional performances.
In addition to traveling performances, the Lobero Theatre is the home stage to Santa Barbara’s main performing arts groups including: State Street Ballet, Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, Sing Like Hell, and the famous Santa Barbara International Film Festival (just to name a few).
5. SB Art Glass
Experience local art first-hand by taking a glass blowing class at SB Art Glass. Studio owner (and class instructor) Saul Alcaraz is not only a passionate and talented artist, he’s a wonderful, patient and professional teacher. During the two-hour private class, you get to make two pieces of beautiful glass art. And I’m not talking about tiny little glass souvenirs, you actually get to make large bowls and vases that are worth being displayed in your home.
I cannot recommend this experience highly enough. Saul’s passion for his trade shines during the entire class, and you can’t help but adopt his excitement and passion as you learn to create beautiful pieces of art.
6. Old Mission Santa Barbara
No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without a visit to Old Mission Santa Barbara. Known as “Queen of the Missions,” Old Mission Santa Barbara is widely considered the chief cultural and historic landmark in the city. The Spanish mission was founded by the Franciscan order on December 4, 1786 during the Feast of Saint Barbara.
Situated on 13 acres overlooking the ocean the grounds include the Mission church, historic cemetery and Mausoleum as well as multiple lush gardens. Unlike the courthouse or some other historic landmarks, there’s an $8 fee for a self guided tour and $12 fee for a docent guided tour. Despite the cost, the tour is definitely worth it.
The Mission church also offers weekly mass that’s open to the public.
Santa Barbara also plays host to numerous famous events throughout the year. When planning your visit, be sure to check their events calendar for upcoming local happenings. Some events worth planning a visit around:
- Earth Day Festival: Did you know, earth day was actually founded in Santa Barbara? Every year on Earth Day the city throws a big celebration.
- The Santa Barbara International Film Festival
- Old Spanish Days Fiesta