California's ‘Queen of the Missions’ reigns above the city on a hilltop perch over a mile north of downtown. Its imposing Ionic facade, an architectural homage to an ancient Roman chapel, is topped by an unusual twin-bell tower. Inside the mission’s 1820 stone church, notice the striking Chumash artwork. In the cemetery the elaborate mausoleums of early California settlers stand out, while the graves of thousands of Chumash lie largely forgotten.
The self-guided tour starts in the pretty garden before heading to the cemetery (where Juana María, the Chumash girl made famous in Island of the Blue Dolphins, was buried). Next up is the church itself, followed by a series of rooms turned into a museum and exhibiting Chumash baskets, a missionary’s bedroom and time-capsule black-and-white photos showing the last Chumash residents of the Mission and the damage done to the buildings after the 1925 earthquake. Docent-guided tours are usually given at 11am on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10:30am on Saturday, and 12:30pm on Sunday; no reservations are taken.
The mission was established on December 4 (the feast day of St Barbara), 1786, as the 10th California mission. Of California’s original 21 Spanish-colonial missions, it’s the only one that escaped secularization under Mexican rule. Continuously occupied by Catholic priests since its founding, the mission is still an active parish church.
From downtown, take MTD bus 6 or 11, then walk five blocks uphill.