A Hidden Gem: Free Walking Tours in Santa Barbara

John Ummel leading a free walking tour in the Funk Zone (courtesy)

When John Ummel and his wife Vicki took a free, tip-based, walking tour in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2016, a light bulb went off. Upon returning to Santa Barbara, and having recently retired, Ummel looked into whether anyone was offering similar tours here. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Ummel, “there were food tours, wine tours, mission tours, courthouse tours, hot rod tours, architectural tours, land shark tours, and ghost tours but no one was offering a historical walking tour; at least not any on a regular basis and certainly none that were modeled after the free, tip-based tours we encountered in Europe.”

Little did he know at the time that what started out as a hobby would turn into something much bigger. Ummel started with the Waterfront Tour in 2017 and ran them by himself.  When he added the Funk Zone tour in 2019, he brought on another guide. During the COVID-19 pandemic he developed a third tour, Old Town, and added two more guides. 

Ummel, the son of longtime Santa Barbara educator James Ummel, followed in his father’s footsteps and started out as a high school teacher. He enjoys the educational elements of the tours while also seeing his hometown from different perspectives.

He said approximately 600-900 hours were spent curating the history for each tour and its these historical elements, interlaced with fascinating facts and storytelling, that make their tours so good.

John Ummel leading a free walking tour in Santa Barbara (courtesy)

Each guide carries a binder with old photos, some of which took six months to locate, helping place people back in time.

“It’s common for long-time locals to remark ‘I never knew that,'” said Ummel.  

A few examples he gave was a building in the Funk Zone where portions of the B-17 bomber were assembled during World War II. Or that Hollywood actor James Cagney purchased Stearns Wharf after World War II for purposes of turning it into a Queen Mary tourist attraction.  Or, that the rooms at the Hotel Santa Barbara were converted into office space in 1959 for research scientists working for General Electric’s TEMPO division, a military think-tank working on nuclear missile testing strategies.

Ummel said he consulted with local experts when developing the narratives of his tour such as former mayor Sheila Lodge, architects Jeff Shelton and Clay Aurell, Greg Gorga of the Maritime Museum, architectural historian Nicole Hernandez, Dr. John Johnson of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and Michael Redmon of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Finally, Ummel attended classes and lectures by Neal and Erin Graffy, the City’s distinguished local historians.

John Ummel leading a free walking tour at Santa Barbara’s waterfront (courtesy)

The three other guides who join Ummel are David Babbott, a retired financial advisor; Mandi Dossin, a former teacher; and Craig Smith, a semi-retired lawyer.

“We are now the number one walking tour in Santa Barbara County, and of the nearly 300 reviews on TripAdvisor we’ve achieved a 5-star rating 98% of the time,” said Ummel.

The three tours vary in length from 90 to 120 minutes and cover a little over a mile. 

The Waterfront Tour is ideally suited for those that are new to Santa Barbara. That tour, with 11 stops, includes points of interest like the construction of the breakwater, how Santa Barbara got its name, Los Banos del Mar bath houses, 1969 Oil Spill, Potter Hotel, history of Sambo’s, Chumash Indians, and Stearns Wharf.  The Waterfront tour starts at the Maritime Museum and ends at the Amtrak Station.

John Ummel leading a free walking tour at Santa Barbara’s waterfront (courtesy)

The Funk Zone Tour – also with 11 stops – covers an eight square block area and starts and ends at the Goat Tree restaurant (120 State Street). Exploring the nooks and crannies of this former warehouse district, you’ll learn about the founding of Lockheed aircraft, history of the Hotel Californian, the old Weber’s bread plant, how Santa Barbara became a premier wine producing region, the local history of surfing, Plant 59, art in the Funk Zone, The Lark, Validation Ale, and McConnell’s ice cream.  The tour also talks about current proposed developments for the Funk Zone.  Finally, all tour goers receive a copy of their Funk Zone map (created by Ummel) containing more than 60 nearby restaurants, brew pubs, wine tasting rooms, and art galleries.

The Old Town Tour – with 13 stops – starts in the 700 block of State Street.  Combining history with architecture, we cover the lower blocks of State Street, the transition of Old Town from 1850 to the present day, the events that ushered the Spanish-Colonial style of architecture, the historic Brinkerhoff Victorian District, and finally, three of Jeff Shelton’s residential buildings: Pistachio, El Andaluz, and Ablitt.

Ummel is quick to point out that the Shelton buildings were the impetus in putting the Old Town tour together. “I didn’t know who Jeff Shelton was but when I saw his architecture, I knew I could put a tour together in and around lower State Street and when I inadvertently stumbled upon the Brinkerhoff Victorian district, I knew I had a winner,” he said.

The public tours, scheduled on set days and times, are free though a gratuity is graciously accepted.  Ummel can also arrange private tours on a day and time convenient to the tour goer.  A private tour is $30 per person. 

Additionally, Ummel provides “step-on” tour guide services for tour vans or buses.  All tour goers receive “2 for 1” wine or beer tasting vouchers redeemable at Santa Barbara Winery or Validation Ale.  Reservations are required. 

Visit https://freewalkingtoursb.com/ or text/call John at 650-576-4145 for more information.

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Edhat Staff

Written by Edhat Staff

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