California Coastal Meets Spain in Santa Barbara

This week, as part of’s #HipmunkCityLove campaign, I’m highlighting my favorite college city, Santa Barbara.

katie SB mission

My sister in front of the Santa Barbara Mission

I spent what I’d consider the best year of my life (so far!) studying abroad my junior year of college in Granada, Spain. When I returned to Santa Barbara for my senior year at UCSB, I was surprised that I hardly experienced withdrawal, or reverse culture shock. Sure, I missed my weekend trips around Europe, the views of the Alhambra from my apartment’s terrace, and the 1.50 euro glasses of wine that came with mountains of free tapas. However, truth be told, the city I was returning to was reminiscent to the one I had just left. Santa Barbara retains much of its Spanish heritage, making it both a desirable travel destination and a handy stepping-stone upon returning from life abroad.

The Santa Barbara Mission

The Santa Barbara Mission underwent construction in 1786. It was the tenth built by the Spanish Franciscans, and is often considered the most impressive. The structure is primarily neoclassic, and sits on a hill overlooking the city and the sea, with the Santa Ynez mountains draped in the background. The Mission itself may be the star of the show, but the grounds are stunning as well, with a rose garden and expansive lawn ready-made for picnics, a weekend stroll, or a pick-up game of bocce ball.

Spanish Architecture

Santa Barbara is in part such a well-known destination because of the sheer beauty of the place. Besides the ocean and mountains, its downtown is visually stunning, with Spanish-style white stucco buildings and red-tiled roofs. It channels the white pueblos of Andalucia in southern Spain, although it certainly has its own distinct feel. Throughout the city center, there are hidden passageways, or paseos, concealing upscale shops, restaurants, and alfresco dining.

In addition, some of the old Spanish haciendas, or estates, are still preserved. While you may need Oprah Winfrey’s income to actually afford one, it doesn’t cost a penny to admire the Spanish architecture from the outside.

Fiesta Festival

Every year in August, Santa Barbara hosts Fiesta, a weeklong party celebrating the city’s Spanish, Native American, and Mexican heritage. Traditional dancing, food, markets, a parade and lots of confetti eggs make for an epic yearly festival. While every Thursday through Saturday was Fiesta for us in Granada, I appreciated Santa Barbara’s interpretation; it soothed my withdrawal from flamenco dresses and sangria.

Note: You can buy tickets to some of the Fiesta events beforehand. The price of accommodation can go way up during Fiesta, so make sure to book early and scour ahead of time to find cheap hotels in Santa Barbara

Spanish Language

I worried that after striving so hard to become fluent in Granada, I’d quickly lose all my Spanish upon return. However, I’d naively forgotten that my state’s past, present, and future is brimming with Spanish and Latino influence. In fact, in 2014 the demographics flipped: Latinos became the largest racial or ethnic group in California, composing 39 percent of the population. (Making learning Spanish not only a linguistic hobby, but also highly valuable in the workforce.)

While it wasn’t full immersion like my time in Granada, I still found Spanish to be everywhere in Santa Barbara, beginning with the very street and city names. I lived in the tiny beach community of Isla Vista, and for three years rented rooms on Sueno, Cordoba, and Del Playa roads. Friends resided on Sevilla, Madrid, and Camino Corto. I was practicing my Spanish just by asking if the party that night was on Pasado or Embarcadero.

Isla Vista and Santa Barbara have large Latino populations, and heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. It was common for me to hear snippets of Spanish conversation on campus, or right outside my house. Sometimes with neighbors, I’d start my day with an “Hola!” instead of a hello. I worked for six months at the university dining hall, and almost every single cook there came from Mexico, El Salvador, or Guatemala. My daily conversations with them not only allowed me to keep up my Spanish, but also use language as a way to connect. Most of the cooks didn’t speak English. Without studying abroad and becoming comfortable in a second language, I wouldn’t have heard their stories of uprooting their lives to move to the United States, or their tips on how to make the perfect pulled pork tacos.

The linguistic diversity in Santa Barbara reiterated for me how intertwined language, culture, and travel really is. Learning language abroad was the best souvenir I took back to Santa Barbara, and unlike a key chain or a little figurine, it didn’t gather dust once back home.

Back to Spain

Santa Barbara’s Spanish roots and mix of cultural heritage may not have come about in the most peaceful of ways. However, the city channels so much of what I love about Spain, while still maintaining a uniquely Californian coastal feel. I got the best of both worlds in Granada and Santa Barbara, so I guess it’s only natural that I kept chasing the great Spanish adventure after graduating.

Previously: The perfect Saturday in Santa Barbara, and the best cheap things to do in Santa Barbara

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  • I spent a lot of time in Santa Barbara as a kid, but my last visit there was a few weeks after returning from my stint Spain, and I really enjoyed all of the Spanish heritage found there. Plus, it’s just a beautiful city.

  • Now I really need to get their and visit my neice!

  • Anne

    “While you may need Oprah Winfrey’s income to actually afford one, it doesn’t cost a penny to admire the Spanish architecture from the outside.”
    That may be the best thing ever written about Santa Barbara.