After the devastation of the 1925 temblor, the town was rebuilt in a style that has a distinctive Spanish flair, epitomized by the County Courthouse building. Although linked by the ubiquitous freeways of Southern California to the Los Angeles metropolis, that prevailing architectural culture has not completely overtaken the city, which still has a distinctive character that is immediately recognizable.
The city makes an excellent base to explore and rest prior to heading out for a visit to the Santa Ynez Valley and its famous wineries, or before heading up the coast to see Hearst Castle, still elegantly preserved in its unique splendor. The area has been labeled the American Riviera for its Mediterranean seasons, and is a terminal for voyages to the Channel Islands National Park, home to rare wildlife.
One of the better-known landmarks in town is Stearns Wharf, which juts into the sea where State Street ends. Originally erected in the 1870s, the wharf has survived several disasters, and today is home to shops, restaurants, the Natural History Sea Center, and other attractions. Visitors come for the fine dining, but also enjoy seeing the churning surf on one side framed by mountains on the other.
Lovers of nature will not want to miss seeing the Botanic Garden, a world-class display of both exotic and native vegetation. While tours are readily available, visitors can enjoy this oasis on their own, wandering the well-maintained pathways among specimens of plants unique in California. Portions of this garden are currently designated as a County Historical Landmark.
Fans of history will not want to miss seeing the Old Mission, first established by Franciscans in 1786. It was the tenth one in a series, and the beautiful interior was crafted by Native American artists. Although there has been widespread restoration work to repair earlier earthquake destruction, the well-reinforced facade provides an accurate representation of the building in its prime.
Other historic landmarks include the Casa de la Guerra, which was originally a community center for many purposes, and which today is part of the El Pasea complex, modeled after an original Spanish street. The original Presidio, or fortress, became less significant after the Americans arrived in 1846, but soldier quarters and some original rooms still exist, and are located in the downtown area.
Within a relatively short driving distance is the Chumash Painted Cave Historic Park, the transplanted Danish community of Solvang, and the craggy central coastline. There are numerous award-winning restaurants, and a wide range of hotels and motels for nearly any taste. Whether visiting for a weekend or in town for an extended stay, there is always something to see.
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