Santa Barbara: downtown and beyond

Santa Barbara: The name alone conjures up visions of Spanish architecture, palm-lined streets and balmy weather. All of it is true. Few places in California, possibly in the entire country with the exception of Hawaii, have a more pleasant climate. No wonder the wealthy have been seeking out the “American Riviera,” as Santa Barbara is sometimes called, since the early days. Pick up any of the free real estate magazine and you’ll see that living in Santa Barbara is not for people with an average-sized bank account.

I’m not going to go into the long history of Santa Barbara. There is plenty of information available on the web if you want to delve deeper. As always, Wikipedia is a good jumping-off point.

One of the most spectacular building in Santa Barbara is the County Courthouse located right in downtown. Lovingly called the “most beautiful public building in the U.S.,” it attracts both tourists and locals who enjoy sunbathing on the extensive lawn. It is also a popular wedding venue; in fact, we witnessed a wedding from the top of the clock tower!


Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Speaking of the clock tower: The 85-ft. El Mirador offers the best views anywhere in town. It’s open to the public every day from 9am to 5pm. Even if you’re just driving through Santa Barbara on your way to Los Angeles, you should stop and either walk or take the elevator to the top of El Mirador.


View to the southeast from Courthouse clock tower (El Mirador)


View to the northeast from Courthouse clock tower


View to the northwest from Courthouse clock tower


View of the jail wing (no longer used for its original purpose)


Front façade with clock tower


Front façade with arches


View of Rotunda from clock tower


Mural Room, originally the assembly room for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors


Mural Room ceiling


Clock tower ceiling seen from ground floor

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LEFT: Mural Room ceiling
RIGHT: Suspended light in staircase


Clock tower staircase


Rotunda at night


Rotunda, clock tower and arches at night


Lavender growing in nothing but a crack in a wall across the street from the Courthouse

Now that you’ve had your fill of local architecture, let’s take a quick stroll through Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden. I caught a glimpse of the large agave in the next photo while driving and simply had to pull over. At the time I didn’t know that Alice Keck Park is much beloved by locals, otherwise I would have spent a little more time exploring. But my family was waiting in the car, and everybody was hungry. Next time!


Variegated Agave sisalana or tequilana? I can’t tell, but it was HUGE!


Fan aloe (Aloe plicatilis)

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LEFT: Aloes and palm tree
RIGHT: Senecio grandiflorus


Senecio grandiflorus


Spear lily (Doryanthes palmeri), a stunning Australian native


Spear lily (Doryanthes palmeri)


Kaffir lily (Clivia miniata)

While palm trees are a dime a dozen in Santa Barbara, they are particularly impressive along the waterfront. The final set of photos in this post was taken at the beach next to Stearns Wharf. According to an informal 2004 count, there are close to 1,300 palm trees along the 3-mile stretch of beach—1 tree for every 4 ft. of waterfront. The trees are Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta).


Mexican fan palms in parking lot off Cabrillo Blvd


Mexican fan palms lining the beach


Backlit Mexican fan palms at the beach

A common sight along the California coast, from Sonoma County north of San Francisco all the way down to San Diego, is the hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis). Most people simply call them ice plants. This South African native was brought to California in the early 1900s to stabilize soil and since then has naturalized to the point of becoming invasive. Massive efforts have been underway since the 1980s to eradicate it, not only because it crowds out native plants but because it actually speeds up erosion.


Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis)


Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis)


Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis)


Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis)

As I mentioned previously, the foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) has got to be the most common landscaping plant in Santa Barbara. Almost impossible to grow in Davis, it thrives in Santa Barbara’s frost-free climate. My heart still goes pitter-patter at the sight of a mass planting of Agave attenuata!


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) in downtown


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) in downtown


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) flower stalk


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) creeping along the sand near the beach


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) inflorescence near the beach

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Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) inflorescence near the beach


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) inflorescence

Looking at the flower spike of an Agave attenuata, it’s easy to see why where its common name, foxtail agave, comes from!



  1. It's a wonderful tour, and the architecture is superb and full of character!

    1. I'm glad you liked it. When you come to California, you should definitely visit Santa Barbara. It's my new favorite place. Hard to believe I hadn't been there in 27 years when it's only 5 1/2 hours from home.

  2. Santa Barbara is my favorite city, has been for many years. I try to go down every spring but it was not to be this year ..I'm glad to have your visit to experience through photos.

    1. I'm trying to convince my daughters (11 and 14) to go to UC Santa Barbara so we can visit them often, LOL.

  3. Certainly I was stolen away from my rightful place as an heiress to some Santa Barbara fortune? This is where I was meant to live...

    1. You and me both! I'm trying to prove that I'm actually Madama Ganna Walska's undocumented son and that Lotusland is MINE!

  4. I havent been since last February, miss this place so much! Mom grew up there and I believe it is truly one of the most beautiful places ever,

    1. Wow, growing up in Santa Barbara must have been so wonderful!

  5. Senecio grandiflora (one with big velvety leaf and yellow flowers. Thanks for sharing . As always, I feel like I was on vacation with your family Gerhard.

    1. Thank you for the ID, Laura. Senecio is one of those eternally confusing genera because it includes so many completely different-looking species.

  6. What a beautiful place! I can smell the warm, dry fragrant air. So many gorgeous plants and that building with it's mural room is exquisite!


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