Central California Missions: From Mission Carmel to Mission Santa Inez

Looking for a whopping dose of California state history? There’s likely no better entry point than the missions. Here’s a look at seven of the central missions out of California’s 21, from Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang to Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo.

Featured Photo: Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo courtesy of Dsdugan via Wikimedia Commons

Old Mission Santa Inés

Santa_Ines_Marker_Solvang_central cali missions_800x450_Ken Eckert
Photo: Courtesy of Ken Eckert via Wikimedia Commons

Though the town of Solvang is better known for the gabled roofs, four windmills and “Little Mermaid” fountain establishing the vibe of later Danish settlers, the mission was founded in 1804. Not far from its similarly retro downtown, the mission’s manicured gardens and well-preserved paintings and wall frescoes are charming and colorful. The museum also houses a large collection of 1800’s silk vestments. missionsantaines.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum

The Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum attracts motorheads keen to see the bikes, ranging from a 1910 FN to Norton and Triumph bikes. There’s also a museum dedicated to the author of The Snow Queen, Hans Christian Andersen. Wineries have tasting rooms in town, including Royal Oaks Winery. Or head up the road a piece to sample the wines of Sanford Winery and Foley Estates Vineyard. And you really cannot leave town without trying Denmark’s most famous pastry, the aebleskiver, at a local bakery.

The mission was badly damaged in the 1906 earthquake that famously decimated San Francisco. Turns out the notorious San Andreas Fault is responsible for the damage in both communities. Look for the historical marker on the mission’s grounds commemorating the Fault’s impact here and in other parts of California.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of peasants FEAST

Michael and Sarah Cherney, owners of peasants FEAST, recently opened peasants DELI & MARKET. If you aren’t there on one of the days they make caviar cones, try the pastrami smoked salmon.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Alisal Ranch

Privately owned and operated since 1946, the Alisal is a working cattle ranch and full-service resort. This historic ranch is one of four original Spanish land grants on the West Coast given to conquistador Raimundo Carrillo in the late 1700’s. Set on a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch, this one-of-a-kind resort blends the best of nature with exceptional golf, horseback riding, tennis, fishing on a 100-acre private lake, fitness center and spa, children’s activities, barnyard activities and fine dining.

Fun Fact

The mission is named for Saint Agnes of Rome, martyred in 304 A.D. at the age of 13 for refusing the advances of a rich young man.

Misión La Purísima Concepción De María Santísima

La Purisima Mission Lompoc_central cali missions_800x450_Jsweida
Photo: Courtesy of Jsweida via Wikimedia Commons

Now a state historic park set on nearly 2,000 acres, this mission, founded in 1787 but rebuilt in the current location after the 1812 earthquake, is the most completely restored of the chain. Ten of the original buildings were rebuilt, including the church, blacksmith shop, and living quarters. It is the most complete example of a complete mission complex. lapurisimamission.org

What to Do Nearby

Lompoc is studded with wineries, including the so-called Wine Ghetto, a tightly-knit group of urban wineries and tasting rooms. Lompoc Murals are easily visited on a self-guided tour and depict scenes of the town’s heritage, historic sights, ethnic diversity, scenic beauty and more.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Leong via Flickr

Hoptions Taproom & Eatery, Solvang Brewing Company’s Lompoc location, means pulls of Pale Ale and Raspberry Wheat at the on-site taproom have an undeniable freshness. The Reuben is the go-to sandwich order.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Embassy Suites by Hilton Lompoc Central Coast

This Embassy Suites is close enough to local restaurants for walking and 10 minutes’ drive from Vandenberg AFB and the mission. Plus, astings at Santa Rita Hills Wine Center and the Wine Ghetto are within three miles of the door. Made-to-order breakfast and Wi-Fi are included on the house.

Fun Fact

The mission’s tallow vats stored fat rendered from cattle which was then shipped around the Cape Horn of South America to be sold on the East Coast.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission_San_Luis_Obispo_central cali missions_800x450_Rennett Stowe
Photo: Courtesy of Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

Founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1772, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is California’s fifth mission. The former padres’ quarters are now a museum chronicling Native American and missionary life through all eras of the mission’s use. The mission is integrated into the fabric of the town. Mission Plaza, a strollable garden with brick paths and park benches, still functions as San Luis Obispo’s town square.

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Tolosa Winery

The region surrounding San Luis Obispo is studded with wineries and Tolosa Winery, named after the Mission, offers a 1772 flight, itself named for the year the mission was founded. Nearby, Rod & Hammer’s SLO Stills is one part beer brewery, one part whiskey still. Downtown San Luis is packed with restaurants and bars that are frequented by the town’s university students. The west side of Mission Plaza San Luis Museum of Art focuses on works by Central Coast artists.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of La Esquina

A few blocks west of downtown, a former dairy known as The Creamery is now a charming open-air marketplace with stores and restaurants. La Esquina is the place to try artisanal mezcals and tequilas. For modern Peruvian, Mistura is a hot spot. For dessert, try the Pineapple Picante with Chimoy sauce at Nite Creamery. On the other side of the mission, Park 1039, a new hub for international wines and gourmet food, is also a restaurant with a farm-to-table menu that changes daily.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Hotel SLO

The three-story 78-room Hotel SLO, a block away from the 1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa that gives the town its name, opened shortly before the pandemic shut it down. When it rebooted, its indoor/outdoor public spaces — two street-access restaurants with generous outdoor rooms, a dining courtyard and pool sheltered within the U-shaped building, and a rooftop bar — intended to capitalize on the areas warm weather, were exactly where people felt safe.

Fun Fact

In 1776, several Native Americans hostile toward the mission shot flaming arrows onto the thatched roof, destroying it and prompting the missionaries to learn to make clay roof tiles. Red tile roofs soon became the mission standard.

Mission San Miguel

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Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Stierch via Wikimedia Commons

This National Historic Landmark houses colorful wall frescoes that were painted by Native Americans in 1821. Walk through the shaded colonnade, which contains 12 arches of different sizes and shapes. An elegant fountain and a Spanish cannon dating back to 1697 are surrounded by 30 species of cacti, roses, and olive trees. missionsanmiguel.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Tin City

The town of Paso Robles is about 12 miles south and is the regional hub. Check out the makers’ market at Tin City, a hot spot for craft beer and locally-made wine and spirits. Wine tasting is a cinch with wineries clustered in the East and in the West. Check out Light at Sensorio, which features two installations by internationally acclaimed artist Bruce Munro.

Where to Eat Nearby

thomas-hill-organics_central cali missions_800x450_thomas hill organics
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Hill Organics

Thomas Hill Organics is regularly recognized as having the best outdoor seating in town and a farm-to-table menu that ranges from house made chicken liver pate to a Hippie Bowl loaded with veggies and topped with black sesame tahini.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Stables Inn

The Stables Inn, Paso Robles’ only boutique motel, is located just 3 blocks from the historic Downtown City Park and town center, where shops, restaurants and tasting rooms abound.

Fun Fact

The Mission church’s colonnade has 12 arches, each a different shape and size, unique among the California missions.

Mission San Antonio de Padua

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Photo: Courtesy of Robert Stokstad via Wikimedia Commons

A land donation from William Randolph Hearst and the Missions’ remote location between San Miguel and King City means this mission’s countryside setting is largely untouched. Its pristine location and well-curated museum make it one of the best to visit. Listen to mission-period music and visit the fruit orchard and grape-crushing vat. missionsanantonio.net

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Binksternet via Wikimedia Commons

The Hacienda was completed in 1930 by William Randolph Hearst. He built the structure to serve as temporary housing for his employees and guests. It was a central headquarters for activities taking place on the surrounding land. The lodge building, designed by architect Julia Morgan and houses guests for very very reasonable rates.

Fun Fact

The Mission is named for Saint Anthony of Padua, who, notable given this Mission’s remote location, is considered the patron saint of lost things.

Nuestro Señora de la Soledad

Mission_Soledad_central cali missions_800x450_MARELBU
Photo: Courtesy of MARELBU via Wikimedia Commons

Named by Father Lasuén to glorify Our Lady of Solitude, one of the sacred names for the Virgin Mary, the “Solitude Mission” was known for years as the “hard-luck mission” as the site has a history of epidemics, floods, and crop failures. Like all Missions, the walls at Soledad are adorned with the 14 Stations of the Cross. However, Soledad’s are rare originals. missionsoledad.com

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Junlin Chen via Alltrails

Visitors to the Mission often stop before a visit to Pinnacles National Monument, known for its hiking, climbing and condor recovery program. Further afield are Monterey and its aquarium and waterfront canneries and Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Restaurant Plaza Garibaldi

At Restaurant Plaza Garibaldi you can expect chips and six salsas — six. (Plus cucumbers, to cool the salsas.) Each salsa has unique flavor, the burritos are large and the food is affordable.

Where to Stay

PinnaclesCampground_central cali missions_800x450_DavidPrasad_visit california
Photo: Courtesy of David Prasad/Visit California

Immerse yourself at the Pinnacles Campground. The campground offers tent and group camping, along with RV sites. Oak trees provide shade at many campsites and the swimming pool is typically open from middle of April through the end of September, depending on the weather trend.

Fun Fact

Left in ruins for nearly a century, the building was beautifully restored in 1954. Take a moment to see the small rustic chapel and tidy rose garden.

Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo

Mission_San_Carlos_Borromeo_de_Carmelo_central cali missions_800x450_Burkhard Mücke
Photo: Courtesy of Burkhard Mücke via Wikimedia Commons

Known as the Carmel Mission, Mission San Carlos Borromèo del Carmelo was founded in 1771 and serves as the headquarters for the missions. The vine-covered baroque church boasts an 11-bell Moorish tower considered one of California’s architectural treasures, its curved walls covered with a lime plaster made of burnt seashells.

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Central Surf Lessons

Carmel’s town center is home to many historic cottages and the town has done a terrific job of connecting them with strollable pathways. Amble until the soft tinkle of wind chimes creeps into your consciousness. It is the first hint that you have stumbled across a secret garden. Sit for a moment, close your eyes and enjoy the sound of the wind. It’s easy to doze off for a moment or two, dreaming of gnomes.

Or hit the beach at the bottom of the town’s hill. You can book a surfing adventure at Carmel Surf Lessons in advance.

Where to Eat Nearby

Big Sur River Inn-Monterey Peninsula-Lunch-credit @bigsurriverinn-feature-800x400
Photo: Courtesy of Big Sur River Inn

California’s Monterey Peninsula offers beautiful vistas along the Pacific Coast Highway and countless amazing restaurants. Here are our top food picks for the region, from Monterey and Carmel to Big Sur.

Where to Stay

Photo: Cypress Inn courtesy of Michael Troutman

We’ve sifted through the many options to find the best lodgings on the Monterey Peninsula, including top choices for a group gathering, as well as the best luxury and good-value hotels.

Fun Fact

Carmel Mission is the burial site of Father Junípero Serra, the founder of Alta California’s mission system — he is buried beneath the floor of the sanctuary. The mission also houses three extensive museums and the first library in California. 

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