Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, has presided over the town from its lofty knoll-top perch for centuries. The “queen” of the 21 California missions, also called Old Mission Santa Barbara, is one of the most gorgeous buildings on the Pacific coast, and therefore also one of the most photographed.
The Franciscan order has operated the Catholic church since the mission founding. Many Santa Barbarans marry there, and the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta opens with Fiesta Pequeña on the mission steps.
Absolutely take the self-guided tour, which leads you through eight rooms, gardens, the chapel, cemetery and a courtyard with fountains. Map guides are available in eight languages.
Look for fascinating art along the way — the mission holds one of the most extensive Spanish/Mexican colonial art collections around. Don’t miss the rare Native American-made altar and tabernacle in the chapel — the only ones left in the California mission system.
Docent tours (about 90 minutes long) are offered Tuesday through Friday at 11 am and Saturday at 10:30 am. The docent-guided tour fee is $13 per adult.
Also ask about joining a docent-led tour into La Huerta — recreated Spanish-era gardens with native and heirloom plants, next to the main mission buildings, and other tours that focus on art treasures and architecture.