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California Day Trip: Santa Barbara in One Day

We made a day trip to Santa Barbara, California and explored this pretty Spanish-style city on the Californian coast. What did we see in Santa Barbara in one day? Purple trees and whitewashed houses, a lot of them.

I can guess Santa Barbara looks good at all times of the year but in May jacarandas in flower make the city look like something out of a fairytale, or like the painter had lost all other colors.

Santa Barbara in one day

A jacaranda-lined avenue in Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara, California in one day: the historic Santa Barbara Mission, the Spanish style downtown and the palm-fringed sandy beach.

Santa Barbara in One Day: the Map


This is Santa Barbara on the map. If you zoom out the map you can see that Santa Barbara is located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, less than a hundred miles from LA.

You can also see our Santa Barbara driving route on the map. As we came from San Francisco we started exploring the city from the north. The Mission of Santa Barbara on the hill slopes above the city was for us the place to start.

Santa Barbara Mission

Santa Barbara Mission


Santa Barbara Mission quietly stands on the hills behind the city. It’s not easy to find it without a map or navigation, the mission is located in the middle of a residential area in the outskirts of the city. Even if Santa Barbara is not a big city it has grown a lot since the mission was built.

Yet this is the most visited mission in California and the tenth in the row of 21 missions that the Spanish built in the 18th century. You can read more on California missions in my other post Exploring The Historic Sonoma Plaza.

Santa Barbara Mission public park

Public park in front of Santa Barbara Mission

Like the 20 other missions the Mission of Santa Barbara was built in a Spanish style that they creatively mixed with Roman and Moorish styles. White walls, tiled roofs and long arcaded corridors to provide shade and shelter.

Earthquakes and Rebuilding

But since California is an earthquake zone the mission has been destroyed by earthquakes ,time after time.

The mission was originally built in 1786 and destroyed the first time only less than 30 years later after which it was built again. Until the 1925 earthquake destroyed parts of the mission and again some rebuilding was needed. Now the mission has been in its present form for decades, since the 1950s when the last rebuilding phase was finished.

Visiting Santa Barbara Mission

Santa Barbara Mission visitors

The mission’s Neo-Classical church has a high facade towards the square. Inside the arcaded building were the living quarters that have now been made a museum. You can also visit a restored 19th century kitchen that was used by the missionaries.

Santa Barbara Mission inner court


These photos show the cemetery gardens behind the mission church. Simple vegetation and high palm trees decorate the gardens where thousands of native Americans were once buried.

Santa Barbara Mission succulents


These church stairs would be useless without the flower pots. As far as I can understand these stairs don’t lead anywhere.

Santa Barbara Mission flower pots


The inner courtyard contains a garden, the Sacred Gardens, with roses and a fountain. The fountain is surrounded by very high palm trees that are so typical of this area.

Santa Barbara Mission rose garden

Santa Barbara Mission rose garden


After the mission it’s time to see the white and purple.

Central Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara in one day


Santa Barbara is a rarity. Everything is built in a single style, the Spanish style. If the streets were not this straight and wide I could imagine I was in Spain.

And even more: unlike many other American cities the downtown doesn’t contain any skyscrapers at all. It’s all low white Spanish-style buildings. And like in Europe they have made it easy to walk in Santa Barbara (provided you first find somewhere to park). They have built so good sidewalks!

Santa Barbara Spanish building and jacaranda


We were visiting Santa Barbara in May when the Jacarandas were in bloom. Even if the skies are not always clear in May it’s a beautiful time of the year to walk around in the purple city.

Santa Barbara looks old but it’s not. The city got its present look after the 1925 earthquake that destroyed most of the city. Everything was rebuilt according to strict rules. That’s why all buildings look the same.

To the left is the Presidio that like everything else was built by the Spanish. The Presidio served as one of their fortresses along the coast.

To the right is the colonial-style County Courthouse. Inside is a mural room that presents Californian history. Climb to the courthouse tower and you’ll get great views of the Spanish-style inner city.

Santa Barbara girl

A little lady walking in front of the courthouse.

Santa Barbara Spanish house

No parking on this pretty courtyard 

Santa Barbara jacarandas

Santa Barbara pedestrian zone

Santa Barbara in one day, jacarandas

Whitewashed walls and tiled roofs

Pedestrian areas and Shopping Malls

Within the blocks you can find beautiful pedestrian areas and outdoor shopping centers, and of course outdoor dining areas. This is Southern California!

Santa Barbara street

Paseo Nuevo pedestrian area

Santa Barbara street life

Santa Barbara street cafe

Enjoying a light meal


For us Santa Barbara appeared as a city with a nice, relaxed atmosphere. Santa Barbara in one day is not enough and I’d like to come here again!

Santa Barbara Paseo


No wonder this Spanish city with its cafes, boutiques and art galleries is a popular holiday resort that both Americans and overseas visitors like to visit. But look at these tiled stairs!

Santa Barbara tile stairs

Decorated stairs, Paseo Nuevo pedestrian area

 So most tourists also think a holiday destination also should have a beach.

Santa Barbara Beach

Santa Barbara beach walk


Yes, there is one. Santa Barbara has a fine, long sandy beach with tall palms behind. And a mat of yellow ice flowers on the dunes!

Santa Barbara beach park


This is the Cabrillo Boulevard that follows the seashore. No parking problems here, might be because it’s not really a beach weather today.

Santa Barbara ice flowers

Santa Barbara Beach ice flower 

Have a look at the long historic Stearns Wharf, a historic pier with dining and shopping and the harbor behind the pier, and take a short ride along Shoreline Drive to the cliffside Shoreline Park for this kind of views.

Santa Barbara has a postcard-pretty setting, backed by mountains and Los Padres National Forest.

Santa Barbara beach

Santa Barbara from Shoreline Park

If you got inspired you can learn more on Santa Barbara on the Santa Barbara Tourism website.

How to Get There

Santa Barbara is 95 miles north of Los Angeles, a 1,5 h drive with usual traffic. A good alternative is the train, there is a train every 2 hours and the journey takes about 2 hours.

The distance from San Francisco is 325 miles which means 5 hours driving.

Santa Barbara in one day, Spanish building and jacaranda

More to See in the Area

North of Santa Barbara is the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley wine country with the picturesque villages of Solvang, Los Olivos and Los Alamos. I have been touring that area too and written a post on it:

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