If you consider yourself a Californian then you owe it to yourself to discover the roots of your identity, and ground zero on this journey are the historical Spanish missions of California. The original chain of 21 missions stretched from Baja California to Sonoma Valley, and all were situated a day’s travel apart on horseback along El Camino Real, or “The Royal Road.”
Today you can retrace this historic route far more leisurely with a cruise along Highway 101 while visiting five of my favorite missions, as well as some of the finest towns and cities on the coast. It’s a great excuse to pack an overnight bag and spend a couple of days on a historical (and possibly spiritual) journey filled with fascinating factoids and stories of our past.
MISSION SAN CARLOS BORROMÈO DEL CARMELO
The restored Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo—better known as the Carmel Mission—was founded in 1771 on a site overlooking the Carmel River and is one of the largest and oldest of California’s 21 Spanish missions, as well as the headquarters for the entire chain of coastal missions. The vine-covered baroque church with its 11-bell Moorish tower is one of California’s architectural treasures, particularly the main altar, with its Gothic arch and elaborate decorations, and the 11-bell Moorish Tower with its curved walls covered with a lime plaster made of burnt seashells.
Its adjacent cemetery is the burial ground for Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who is considered the “Father of California Missions,” as well as more than 3,000 Native Americans who worked and lived in the mission. The mission also houses three extensive museums and the first library in California.
MISSION SAN JUAN BAUTISTA
Located just off Highway 101 north of Gilroy, San Juan Bautista is a mission town that best retains the flavor of a 19th-century village and is home to one of the most beautifully restored missions in California. Founded in 1797, Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest church in the mission chain and the only one in continuous service.
Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will recall that the mission was featured prominently in the 1958 production of Vertigo (however, the bell-wall pictured here was actually a “bell tower” staircase in the movie, constructed on a studio lot). The mission complex sits in a picturesque farming valley, surrounded by the restored buildings of the original city plaza. The padres here inspired many Native Americans to convert, creating one of the largest congregations in California.
MISSION SAN FRANCISCO DE ASÍS
San Francisco’s oldest standing structure, the Mission San Francisco de Asís (a.k.a. Mission Dolores), has withstood the test of time, as well as two major earthquakes, relatively intact. In 1776, at the behest of Father Junípero Serra, Father Francisco Palou came to what is now the Bay Area to found the sixth in a series of missions that dotted the California coastline.
From these humble beginnings grew what was to become the city of San Francisco (and, accordingly, the Mission District). The mission’s small, simple chapel, built solidly by Native Americans who were converted to Christianity, is a curious mixture of native construction methods and Spanish-colonial style. A statue of Father Serra—looking rather forlorn—stands in the mission garden.
MISSION SAN FRANCISCO SOLANO DE SONOMA
California’s world-renowned wine industry was started in the Sonoma Valley by Franciscan fathers who planted the state’s first vineyards at the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma in 1823 and harvested the grapes to make their sacramental wines.
Located on Sonoma Plaza in downtown Sonoma, the Sonoma Mission is the northernmost and last of the 21 missions built by the Spanish fathers. It has an interesting history: Mexican General Mariano Vallejo used the mission as a northern outpost to protect Mexico’s territory from Russian fur traders, while also establishing peaceful relations with the Native Americans of the region. Be sure to visit the small but informative history museum located in the former padres’ quarters.
MISSION SAN LUIS OBISPO DE TOLOSA
Like several other Central Coast towns, San Luis Obispo began life as a Spanish mission outpost. Founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was built with adobe bricks by Native American Chumash people.
California’s fifth mission remains one of the prettiest, most interesting structures in the Franciscan chain. Here the traditional red-tile roof was first used atop a California mission, after the original thatched tule roofs repeatedly fell to hostile Native Americans’ burning arrows. The former padres’ quarters are now an excellent museum chronicling both Native American and missionary life through all eras of the mission’s use. Mission Plaza, a pretty garden with brick paths and park benches, still functions as San Luis Obispo’s town square.
And if you have your own tips and recommendations on visiting Spanish missions throughout Northern California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.