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California’s Spanish Missions
Over an era that spanned more than 50 years, Spanish missionaries devoted themselves to spreading Christianity and expanding Spain’s influence in the New World by establishing a string of missions along California’s El Camino Real (the Royal Road).
Between 1769 and 1823, they established 21 of these missions, all of which have been restored or rebuilt. These architectural gems span from San Diego to San Francisco and are located on or near the state’s scenic Highway 101. Each one welcomes visitors to learn more about the role it played in this significant chapter in California history, and many still serve as active parishes.
Here are some of the most notable missions to visit, in order from south to north:
San Diego de Alcala (1st Mission)
This is where this historic era began when the first mission in California was established by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. The mission was rebuilt in 1931 and now serves as an active parish and cultural center where visitors can also tour the grounds and gardens, attend services and view the mission’s historic bell tower.
San Juan Capistrano (7th Mission)
First of all, if you’re wondering if the swallows really do still return to Capistrano, the answer is yes, and the mission celebrates their return each year by hosting a Mexican fiesta on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th.
Founded in 1775, the mission was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1812, and the original ruins can still be viewed on the property. There’s plenty for visitors to explore, including museum rooms and exhibits, gardens, fountains and arched walkways. One sight not to be missed is the Serra Chapel which contains a massive baroque-style hand carved altar from Barcelona that is covered in gold leaf.
Santa Barbara (10th Mission)
Known as “Queen of the Missions” for its beautiful architecture, Santa Barbara Mission was founded in 1786 and has served as the local parish church ever since. The mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1925, but has been fully restored and offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mission features acres of beautiful gardens and contains a museum filled with historical art and artifacts. Visitors can choose to take a self-guided tour or one led by a docent.
La Purisima Concepcion (11th Mission)
Considered to be the best example of mission architecture, La Purisima Concepcion Mission is located 50 miles west of Santa Barbara in La Purisima Mission State Historical Park. Guided tours are offered, and the mission also schedules living history days where visitors can learn about mission life. According to California State Parks, plants were brought to La Purisima from the 20 other missions to create one of the finest collections of early California flora in existence. The park also contains 25 miles of hiking trails and pastures where horses, cattle, burros and sheep graze.
San Antonio de Padua (3rd Mission)
Set on land that was once part of the Hearst Ranch, the picturesque San Antonio de Padua Mission is located 40 miles north of Paso Robles in the San Antonio Valley. It was dedicated in 1771 by Father Serra and is located in a peaceful setting, making it a popular choice for weddings and retreats.. A picnic area is also provided for those who come to learn more about this beautiful mission and to enjoy the natural beauty it is surrounded by.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (2nd Mission)
Founded in 1771 and also known as Carmel Mission, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission was considered to be Father Serra’s favorite, and it’s easy to see why. It’s set in the beauty of picturesque Carmel amid mountains and the ocean, 115 miles south of San Francisco. The mission features elegant Moorish architecture and a quadrangle courtyard, along with tranquil gardens. Its scenic setting makes it one of the most popular with visitors.
San Juan Bautista (15th Mission)
Located 90 miles from San Francisco, San Juan Bautista Mission was founded in 1797 and is the largest of the 21 missions. It is also known as the “Mission of Music,” because when Father Estevan Tapis arrived to lead the mission, he shared his love of music with the Indians who lived there and established a choir that brought fame to the mission. It contains a beautiful campanario (bell tower) and the church, constructed of adobe walls that are three feet thick, features intricately painted designs on the interior. Due to its location near the San Andreas Fault, the mission is raising funds to retrofit the structure to protect it from future earthquakes
San Francisco de Asis, Mission Dolores, (6th Mission)
Dedicated in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by Father Serra in 1776, the mission takes its second name from a small lake that was once located nearby. The mission is located in the heart of San Francisco and is the city’s oldest structure, having survived both the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the California Gold Rush. Today the site includes both the Old Mission and the larger Mission Dolores Basilica which was completed in 1918.