Old Mission Santa Barbara: Tips & Photo Tour


This post offers a photo tour and review of Old Mission Santa Barbara Mission in California, north of Los Angeles. This was the tenth of twenty-one California Missions that was founded by the Spanish Franciscans on December 4, 1786. That’s right–this mission has been around for some 230 years. Pretty impressive stuff.

Before we delve into the Old Mission Santa Barbara itself, and whether it’s a spot worth visiting, let’s talk a little about Santa Barbara, California for those who have never been or are unfamiliar with it. As mentioned, it’s a city in California that’s 90 miles north of Los Angeles, making it a 1 hour (if you have a souped-up minivan and drive with reckless abandon) to 6 hour (if you catch traffic on the right day!) drive.

Santa Barbara proclaims itself “The American Riviera.” Others seem to agree. Personally, I think this was a genius marketing idea, and whomever thought up that tagline probably got a big raise. The Hollywood crowd loves them some Spanish Riviera. Being able to boast that they have a weekend house in California’s version of it, while not as impressive as a place in Costa del Sol, might earn them some points.

Good marketing or not, there’s definitely something to the tagline. Santa Barbara is a beautiful, quaint city with a dominant Spanish colonial design influence that makes it reminiscent of some pockets of San Diego (if that helps by way of comparison). What I have found most striking about Santa Barbara is that it’s a decent-sized city (population of ~100,000), but has an intimate, small town vibe. Several moderately-sized coastal communities in California manage to convey this same atmosphere, and it baffles (and impresses) me.

This article isn’t meant extol the virtues of Santa Barbara, though, so I’ll save further praise for a future post.


Old Mission Santa Barbara, known as “Queen of the Missions,” is a historic landmark and arguably the crown jewel of Santa Barbara. It’s far from a tourist hot-spot (Santa Barbara isn’t exactly crawling with the fanny pack or selfie stick set), but it’s fair to say this is one of the top single draws for tourists.


Not only is Santa Barbara Mission a draw for visitors, but it’s a functioning mission for a variety of purposes, which I found to be fairly impressive. Old Mission is home to a community of Franciscan friars, a stunning church with an active parish, a museum (and the obligatory gift shop), a cemetery and mausoleum, and 12 acres of manicured gardens.


Visitors can access all of this via self-guided tours of the Mission and its grounds from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with the last tickets being sold at 4:15 p.m. At the time of our visit, tickets cost $12 per adult. There are also guided tours certain days of the week. For more info and to plan a visit, you should go directly to Old Mission Santa Barbara’s website.


I visited Old Mission Santa Barbara on a road trip with my parents and made the decision to go because the tour was inexpensive, an easy stop along our route, and I figured they might appreciate the history. In my itinerary, I viewed it as little more than a diversion–certainly not one of our “main” stops.


The three of us have varied interests (to put it mildly), but we all very much enjoyed the Santa Barbara Mission. It’s cliched to claim that an attraction offers “something for everyone” but the degree of variety, from the architecture to the gardens to the church to the museum provides enough range to give the Mission relatively broad appeal.


I write “relatively” broad because you still need some appreciation of history to get something out of Old Mission Santa Barbara. If you rate attractions based upon their “selfie worthiness,” I’d hazard a guess that this is not for you. The three of us, however, all agreed that Old Mission Santa Barbara delivered more than we were expecting, and it proved to be one of the highlights of the road trip.


It’s hardly fair to anoint Old Mission Santa Barbara a hidden gem since I just called it the crown jewel, but it’s something that could easily be overlooked when planning a California road trip because it’s not even as remotely popular as many of California’s road trip hot spots. Virtually everyone reading this has probably heard of Hollywood, Yosemite, or Napa Valley. I’m guessing the same is not true of Old Mission Santa Barbara.


As far as California road trip destinations go, I can’t confer “must visit” status on Old Mission Santa Barbara; it’s simply not at that scale, and I think it would be unfair to create such lofty expectations for it. If you aren’t already planning on heading north, I would not recommend making the ~2 hour drive from Los Angeles just to visit. I view it as a spot that, if you are driving north along the Pacific Coast Highway, you should strongly consider making a stop to tour.


It’s definitely more than a diversion, and the self-guided tour is a satisfying way to spend 45 to 90 minutes. If you are able, I would recommend visiting in late afternoon, when the glow of the fading sun gives added texture and a beautiful glow to the Mission. We purchased our tickets minutes before the 4:15 p.m. deadline, and by the end of our visit had the place almost entirely to ourselves.


In terms of what you need to know before deciding whether to go, I think that about covers it. Since I have a lot of photos of Mission Santa Barbara that I’d like to share, I’ll weave some history about the Mission that I learned while there among the photos that follow. If you’ve already made up your mind to visit, you might as well gloss over the text, so it’s all an exciting surprise! If you’re unlikely to visit, this photo tour is just as good as being there!!! Uhh…maybe?

Let’s start with the tour and history…


Established on the Feast of St. Barbara on December 4, 1786, Mission Santa Barbara was the tenth of the California Missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans.


The original purpose of the Mission was the christianazation of the Chumash Native Peoples. Padre Junipero Serra, who founded the first nine missions, had died 2 years prior to the establishment of Santa Barbara Mission.


Padre Serra had planned to build this mission, raising the cross at the presidio of Santa Barbara in 1782. Ultimately, his successor, Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen established the Mission, and placed Padre Antonio Paterna in charge. Padre Paterna built Santa Barbara Mission’s first buildings and made the first converts.


Old Mission Santa Barbara’s original buildings were humble structures made of adobe, the insides of which have been reconstructed in the museum at the Mission. They are fascinating because they demonstrate that here, “humble” really is an understatement.


Over time, subsequent adobe churches were built, gradually increasing in size (all prior to the construction of the current church). The third of these was destroyed in 1812 by an earthquake in 1812, which led to the present church being planned and built, opening in 1820.


The friary that exists today at Old Mission Santa Barbara was thereafter built gradually, concluding construction around 1870. Then, another earthquake in 1925, which caused extensive damage that had to be repaired for the next few years.


Prior to the Spanish arrival in the area stretching from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, the Chumash People inhabited the land, sea, and outlying Channel Islands. Some of their basketry and other handiwork is detailed in the museum at Old Mission Santa Barbara, and the succession of the Mission is often attributed to their high-quality creations.


Many of the Chumash People were converted to Christianity and joining the church at Mission Santa Barbara and bringing with them their native customs, arts, and beliefs. Or so the museum at Old Mission Santa Barbara claims.


I find this to be a particularly fascinating time in California history, and the Mission itself presents a slanted view of what is widely considered a controversial period. (I can’t speak to Mission Santa Barbara, but in reading about other California Missions, the words “slavery,” “genocide,” and “assimilation” are used. This article is particularly interesting.)


Regardless of the actual history concerning the native peoples, there is no denying that Mission Santa Barbara became a thriving agriculture-heavy community.


By the early 1800s, there were tens of thousands of cattle and sheep. Those at the Mission, the Indians made products and learned trades, while also learning to play instruments.


After the goal of introducing Christianity to the Chumash People was considered accomplished, the Mission’s Chumash population began decreasing and a slow deterioration of the lifestyle and buildings followed.


Thereafter, Old Mission Santa Barbara was used for a variety of different purposes, ranging from an all-boys high school to a seminary. Today, the Mission is used by the Parish of St. Barbara.


The church itself is beautiful (as demonstrated from the photos), but I found the museum, detailing the timeline of Old Mission Santa Barbara and anecdotes therefrom, to be more captivating.


One such anecdote from the museum I found particularly fascinating: that of Juana Maria, or the “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” If you read Island of the Blue Dolphins as a child in school, you’re familiar with her story.


There’s a more thorough account here, but the basic gist of her story is that San Nicolas Island was being evacuated, and Juana Maria, at the time a child, was accidentally left behind. Some 18 years later, fur traders found evidence of someone–presumed to be the young girl who was left behind–living on the island, living in a shelter made of whale bones.


Once discovered, she was taken to Old Mission Santa Barbara, where no one–including the Chumash People–could understand her language. The story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, as she caught dysentery and died only seven weeks after being on the mainland.


It’s still a really intriguing story. How did she manage to survive for 18 years by herself? Did she single-handedly kill a whale, Chuck Norris style, and make her hut?


It’s all quite mysterious, and we’ll never know her full story, which is probably why she’s such an intriguing historical figure and one of the most popular “characters” of all time in children’s literature.


I really can’t top that story and I’ve covered just about everything I recall from the museum, so I think this is probably as good of a place as any to end the history lesson. Suffice to say, not only is Old Mission Santa Barbara a fun place to visit, but it’s an educational experience. So, if you pull your kids out of school for your California road trip, you can feel a little less guilty about that fact with a stop at Old Mission Santa Barbara!

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

Your Thoughts…

Have you been to Santa Barbara, California? Would you describe it as “The American Riviera”? Did you see Old Mission Santa Barbara? Any thoughts on it?Any other tips to add? I love hearing from readers, so if you have any questions or other thoughts, please share below in the comments!

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