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Practically any day of the year is a good day to be vacationing in Santa Barbara, but my favorite time of the year to return to my hometown is the first week of August. That’s when the city hosts its biggest family friendly party of the year, Old Spanish Days Fiesta. During Fiesta, families can enjoy the culture and history of Santa Barbara with all five senses– from watching the colorful dresses of the Flamenco dancers twirling together in unison to smelling the tri-tip roasting on the grill at El Mercado.
During Fiesta week, children and adults of all ages perform their traditional dances at just about every plaza in town from El Paseo Nuevo to El Mercado de la Guerra. However, the true highlights of the week are the flamenco and Mexican folklórico dances performed during the evening hours at La Fiesta Pequeña and Las Noches de Ronda. La Fiesta Pequeña, held Wednesday night on the steps of the Mission Santa Barbara, marks the beginning of Fiesta and is arguably the marquee event of the week. While there are no tickets for this free event, spectators start reserving their places on the lawn for La Fiesta Pequeña up to eleven hours before the performance begins at 8PM.
It is hard to imagine a more remarkable backdrop for these festive displays of dance than the “Queen of the Missions,” but the Santa Barbara Courthouse’s Sunken Gardens, the site of Las Noches de Ronda, is certainly just as spectacular. Despite having enjoyed dozens of tacos and tamales at El Mercado over the years, I had never experienced Las Noches de Ronda until my sister and I decided to bring my four-year-old, ballet-loving daughter a couple of years ago. I was a bit concerned that it would be a little too late at night or a bit too close to the Lower State Street adult, party scene, but I needn’t have worried. We all had a great time at the family friendly performance; indeed, there were children of all ages enjoying the festivities while snacking on treats from the nearby food vendors. We were even able to leave quite easily when my daughter tired of the show after about 90 minutes, only a couple of performances before intermission.
Our Grand California Road Trip includes Santa Barbara as one of the must-do stops.
4. History and Horses
The El Desfile Histórico, the Historical Parade, and the Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo, including the Competencia de los Vaqueros, are two of the hallmark events of the Old Spanish Days festival. Both of these events celebrate the local history of the Ranchos, the land-grants given in the early 19th century by Spain and Mexico to those settling the land for the purposes of cattle and sheep farming. Families with older children that love horses will enjoy the daytime rodeo events held out at Earl Warren Showground; make sure you plan ahead for rodeo events as some require tickets.
Friday afternoon’s El Desfile Histórico is one of the nation’s largest equestrian parades featuring over 600 horses. But it’s not just a parade of cowboys; there are also floats depicting the history of Santa Barbara and telling the tale of Native Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans who lived in the area two hundred years ago. Of course, the parade is led off by the Spirit of Fiesta, the teenage dancer picked in an annual competition leading up to the festival, and El Presidente, the local dignitary and symbolic head of the celebration.
3. Children’s Parade
I have been to the Children’s Parade, also referred to as El Desfile De Los Niños, more times than I can remember. This event, held annually on the Saturday morning of Fiesta by the Santa Barbara City Parks and Recreation Department, is more of a local community tradition than an impressive, commercialized event. Nonetheless, it holds a certain place in my childhood memories because it was customary for the dancers and children marching in the parade to throw candy to kids on the sidelines. Rest-assured, modern parents, the candy has now been replaced with flower petals and fortunately, your kids won’t even know the difference.
My kids enjoyed the colorful Children’s Parade just as much as I did when I was a kid. Watching all the kids dressed up in their red, green, and white, Fiesta is at its finest when dancing down the street and yelling “Viva la Fiesta” on a bright Saturday morning. With all of Santa Barbara’s beautiful landscaping, the curb along the parade route fills up fast. Be sure to get to the parade route early, send someone off to buy some cascarones, and enjoy this Santa Barbara experience.
Read more about exploring Santa Barbara with kids.
My favorite part of Fiesta as an adult has become the food, specifically the torta sandwiches traditionally sold in the corner of el Mercado de la Guerra by the entrance to the News Press Building. (Look for a long line and follow the smell of the tri-tip roasting on the grill.) Since many Fiesta goers are locals or at least frequent the festival as a family tradition year after year, food stalls with longer lines are typically worth the wait. From the fresh fruit drinks to the Mexican-style grilled corn on the cob, there’s something here even for the pickiest of eaters.
There are two primary locations to go for Fiesta food: El Mercado de la Guerra and El Mercado del Norte. El Mercado del Norte is located outside of downtown on upper State Street at Mackenzie Park and has carnival rides in addition to the entertainment and food while El Mercado de la Guerra is located less than a block from the El Paseo Nuevo Mall in de la Guerra Plaza adjacent to Santa Barbara City Hall (not to be confused with the famous courthouse) and the Santa Barbara News Press building. Crowds flock to the much more scenic and convenient de la Guerra location, but if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of ambience, the food is just as yummy at the del Norte location.
Enthusiastically voted by my children as the best part of Fiesta, cascarones are confetti filled eggs that can be smashed to make tiny pieces of paper fly everywhere. While Papa was by far my kids’ favorite target, no one in the family was safe from having a cascarone hit their head at just about any point of our Fiesta experience.
Cascarones can be bought anywhere Fiesta is being celebrated in Santa Barbara, but the largest concentration of people selling their handmade cascarones is along State Street where the tree-lined walkway from de la Guerra Plaza meets the sidewalk of State Street. There is no set price for cascarones, so plan to shop around a bit before buying. Some eggs are carefully painted to resemble cartoon characters while others are just spray-painted festive colors. Bring cash or even better, give kids a cash allowance for the day; smashing cascarones can be quite addictive.
Fiesta in Santa Barbara is indeed a tradition and celebration that should be enjoyed by the whole family. Viva la Fiesta!