Left: The Ablitt tower (left), a beautiful multi-floor home, and El Andaluz (center), a hybrid between Spanish and Moorish architectural styles, were designed by Jeff Shelton. Right: John Ummel’s historical photos illustrate his free walking tours. | Credits: Amanda Marroquin; John Ummel

Exploring the historically rich Old Town of Santa Barbara is a great way to spend a Saturday morning. As guided by John Ummel, a new free walking tour through the heart of downtown will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the city’s cultural and historical center.

Ummel has curated tours for three different parts of Santa Barbara and said he was inspired by the walking tours that are common in Europe. The newest one explores the city’s deep roots in history and architecture along the 400, 500, and 600 blocks of State Street, the Brinkerhoff district, and the modern masterpieces from the awe-inspiring mind of architect Jeff Shelton. Fifteen stops and an hour and a half later, I was ready to learn more about all of Santa Barbara thanks to this extremely walkable tour.

At 10 a.m. sharp, I met Ummel and the other four members of my tour group on the 700 block of State Street. My excitement grew as we walked and made frequent stops, listening to Ummel’s fascinating descriptions. As a student at UC Santa Barbara, I was often in Santa Barbara but had never paid attention to the many places Ummel showed us. The buildings and architecture I saw but didn’t really notice were now lit up before my eyes with history, culture, and stories. I developed a new desire to dine at Joe’s Café, the longest-running restaurant in Santa Barbara, and to stay at the historical Hotel Santa Barbara, which has been rebuilt but has remained a hotel from its early days as the Mascarel Hotel in 1856. With every stop along the way, Ummel showed us old photographs and images of the very places we were seeing, which brought a deeper understanding of the times in which they were created.

The history of the architecture in Santa Barbara was a huge feature of this tour and a point of interest. I learned about the Spanish colonial style seen throughout the city and its beginnings when Bernhard Hoffmann and Pearl Chase teamed up to create a uniform architectural style and designated zones where the streets should look like ones you would find in Spain. Ummel pointed out that this style has been re-coined to “Santa Barbara architecture,” serving as a blueprint for many other cities, such as Sacramento.

Among the highlights of the tour were three of Shelton’s elaborate and picturesque buildings, which are now wonders of Santa Barbara and truly eye-magnets. Also magnificent were the homes of the Brinkerhoff district, erected during the Victorian era and fascinating to learn about.

As the tour concluded on the corner of Haley and State Streets, I asked Ummel what had inspired him to organize this tour. He answered that he wanted to “incorporate these lower blocks of State Street that a lot of people avoid” and that about 600 hours of research had gone into the facts and images of the past he had made into a fun and engaging experience. Thanks to him, these and other destinations in Old Town are now places of significance to me and places to appreciate for their culture and deep-roots in Santa Barbara.


Learn more about free tours of Santa Barbara through John Ummel’s tour groups at FreeWalkingTourSB.com, or call (650) 675-4145 and leave a message. Waterfront and Funk Zone tours are also on offer.

Guests enjoy a walking tour with John Ummel, who focuses on stories of the historical oddities that add to Santa Barbara’s unique history. | Credit: John Ummel


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