Northern California Missions: From San Juan Bautista to San Francisco Solano de Sonoma

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 northernmost missions out of California’s 21, from San Juan Bautista to San Francisco Solano de Sonoma.

Featured Photo: Mission Santa Cruz courtesy of Matt314 via Wikimedia Commons

Mission San Juan Bautista

Iglesia_Mission_San_Juan_Bautista_norcal missions_800x450_Miguel Hermoso Cuesta
Photo: Courtesy of Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1797, Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest church in the mission chain and the only one in continuous service. Located just off Highway 101 between Salinas and Gilroy, the town of San Juan Bautista retains a 19th-century village feel with cute shops and restaurants. The mission complex, a short drive or easy walk from town, sits above a picturesque farming valley, surrounded by the restored buildings of the original city plaza. oldmissionsjb.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Pma03 via Wikimedia Commons

A two-mile walking trail encompasses both the State Historic Park where the mission is located and Downtown National Historic District. One highlight: The Plaza Hotel, built five years before the mission was founded, once housed Native American converts and laborers for the project and was recently restored.

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 Jardines de San Juan

Seek out the daily specials at Jardines de San Juan to enjoy on the colorful, well-shaded patio. Sunday means tacos al pastor where three double tortillas are layered with braised pork and pineapple. Any day of the week, the combination plates, like a tamale with shredded beef taco arrives with heaps of beans and rice. You won’t leave hungry.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Sanctuary Beach Resort

Perched in the dunes just north of Monterey and steps from Marina State Beach, The Sanctuary Beach Resort is a pet-friendly hotel and spa boasts a heated pool and nightly bonfires. Dont miss the onsite restaurant Salt Wood. Its Monterey seafood-focused (sustainable, of course) and dishes like steamed mussels and chilled local oysters are highlights, though the steak frites is damn good, too.

Fun Fact

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will recall that the mission was featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958. However, the bell tower in the movie is pure Hollywood.

La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz

Mission_Santa_Cruz_norcal missions_800x450_Don DeBold
Photo: Courtesy of Don DeBold via Wikimedia Commons

Now part of a California State Park, the church that is named for the Holy Cross was rebuilt in 1931 after the original 1791 adobe church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1857. Note that the only original building that survived is a single-story residence where mission staff and California Indian residents lived. The current mission includes a gift shop and museum that houses a collection of antique silk vestments sewn with silver and gold thread. holycrosssantacruz.com/mission-santa-cruz/

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Ryo China via Unsplash

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is just two miles downhill from the mission. The Boardwalk hosts California’s best-known and best-loved roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. Get your ya-ya’s out as you whoosh down the coaster before heading to the beach. For a “curiouser” experience, try The Mystery Spot where a tour of the gravitational anomalies is pure infotainment — campy, schticky and punny — that you will either love or gag at. 

Where to Eat Nearby

It’s possible the whole bowl craze started with Charlie Hong Kong, which opened in Santa Cruz in 1998. Many dishes are vegan to which meaty or fishy options can be added. You can’t go wrong with Charlie’s Chow Mein or King Salmon Teriyaki Rice Bowl. Ask for extra sauce — so good.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Dream Inn

Located on the quiet side of Santa Cruz Beach, Dream Inn Santa Cruz is within easy walking distance of the boardwalk and is steps from the beach. The pool has beach views, too.

Fun Fact

The history of the bells and the bell markers on el Camino Real, the walking route between the missions of Alta California, can now be experienced online. 

Mission Santa Clara de Asís

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Photo: Courtesy of Eugene Zelenko via Wikimedia Commons

The first mission named for a woman, Claire of Assisi, is also the last mission founded by Father Junipero Serra, who died in 1784, a few years after Santa Clara was founded in 1777. Reconstructed after a fire in 1926, the mission sits on the University of Santa Clara campus and serves as the university chapel. Wander its garden to see a massive 150-year-old wisteria, antique roses and a cork tree, the mission’s source for wine bottle corks. (It’s a renewable resource.) scu.edu/missionchurch

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Computer History Museum

Want to know how the Silicon Valley went from being known for its lemon and orange groves to becoming a hub for technological innovation? Stop in at the Computer History Museum. Innovations from the past 2000 years are on display or take a stab at being a hacker in the demo lab where an IBM 1401 mainframe awaits your challenge.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Din Tai Fung

Westfield Valley Fair Mall in Santa Clara welcomes an Eataly in June. Until then, head directly to Din Tai Fung and order some xiao long bao ASAP.

Where to Stay

Park James-SouthBay-Luxury-800x450-credit Park James
Photo: Courtesy of Park James

Expect the comforts of home and more in the heart of Menlo Park at Park James. There’s an emphasis on tasteful, peaceful, and comfortable — well-appointed with luxury Frette linens, plush robes, in-room pour over coffee from local roasters, a safe. A suite turns into a meeting space when the bed folds into the wall. There’s a patio for drinks and bites, a fitness studio, and a pet-friendly policy. Free Wi-Fi, of course. Honor bar and room service from Oak + Violet, a California craft kitchen.

Fun Fact

A gift from King Carlos IV of Spain, Santa Clara’s mission bell has rung faithfully every evening since 1798.

Mission San José de Guadalupe

Mission_San_Jose_church_interior_norcal missions_800x450_king of hearts
Photo: Courtesy of King of Hearts via Wikimedia Commons

Named for Saint Joseph — thee of Joseph and Mary, parents of Jesus — the mission is not in San Jose but further to the northeast, in Fremont. Take a self-guided tour of the reconstructed mission building (the 1797 original was leveled in an 1868 earthquake) and check out the antique Spanish pipe organ. A small museum has fascinating exhibits on the California rancho period and the mission’s fruit and olive oil production. missionsanjose.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Oleg Alexandrov via Wikimedia Commons

Go for a hike in Mission Peak Regional Preserve. It’s a three mile hike to the top of Mission Peak but there is ample ambling in the park’s 3,000 acres.

Where to Eat Nearby

Papillon is a classic French bistro — think duck breast in pinot noir reduction sauce or chicken cordon bleu — and the wine cellar offers an extensive by the glass list, plus cocktails and every variation of martini you can think of.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Newark - Fremont

Located between San Jose and Oakland, this AAA Three-Diamond Newark hotel is near many corporations and is just 20-30 minutes from the San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland International airports. A fresh, warm chocolate chip cookie welcoming guests is an added bonus. hilton.com/en/hotels/nwkbddt-doubletree-newark-fremont/

Fun Fact

After Father Serra died in 1784, leadership of the Franciscan missionary effort in Alta California passed to Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén. Lasuén founded San Jose de Guadalupe in 1797, the fourteenth of the 21 Spanish Missions in Alta California. Although Mission San Jose was founded nearly 225 years ago, it was previously the Ohlone village of Oroysom.

Mission San Francisco de Asís

Mission Dolores, oldest surviving structure in San Francisco
Photo: Courtesy of LesyaCA via Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco’s oldest standing structure, the Mission San Francisco de Asís (known to locals as Mission Dolores), has somehow withstood two major earthquakes relatively intact. Built in 1776, it was the sixth mission built and the city of San Francisco grew up around it. The mission’s small, simple chapel 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.

What to Do Nearby

A few blocks from the mission, Urban Putt is a miniature golf course packed into the first floor of an old Edwardian home. The holes are designed to look like San Francisco landmarks with intricate gear works to move your ball around. The centerpiece is a replica of Sutro Tower.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: AL's Place courtesy of Molly DeCoudreaux

There are tons of food options in the City by the Bay, and we’ve done the homework for you. Here are all our favorite places to eat in San Francisco.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Emblem

No city in the world is quite like San Francisco and when you visit you’ll need a place to stay. We’ve also sifted through the many options to find the City’s best lodgings, including top choices for a romantic getaway, a wellness stay or a group gathering, as well as the best hipluxury and good-value hotels.

Fun Fact

The basilica’s dazzling stained glass windows depict all 21 missions.


Mission San Rafael Arcángel

Chapel Mission_San_Rafael_norcal missions_800x450_Kristie Lauborough
Photo: Courtesy of Kristie Lauborough via Wikimedia Commons

Built in 1817, San Rafael was, at first, a sub-mission to San Francisco, used to support ailing Native Americans and workers from Mission San Francisco. The building is a 1949 replica of the original, but its museum contains historic artifacts, including three of the original mission bells. saintraphael.com

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Stepheng3 via Wikimedia Commons

Facing San Pablo Bay on the eastern side of San Rafael, China Camp State Park is named for a former shrimping village and its inhabitants, many of whom were Chinese immigrants. There is a small history museum at the beach where the village once was and abundant hiking and biking on the many trails. 

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Pizzahacker

There is no shortage of amazing food options within the vicinity of the Mission. Here are all our favorite places to eat.

Where to Stay

The-Inn-Above-Tide-NorthBay-Luxury-800x450-credit-The-Inn-Above-Tide.jpg
Photo: Courtesy of Inn Above the Tide

Here are the North Bay’s best lodgings, including top choices for a group getawaywellness stay, as well as the best luxury and good-value hotels and condos all within driving distance of the mission.

Fun Fact

John C. Fremont used the mission as his headquarters during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 during the Mexican-American War.

Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma

Mission_San_Francisco_Solano_norcal missions_800x450_Rennett Stowe
Photo: Courtesy of Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

California’s world-renowned wine industry was started in the Sonoma Valley by the fathers who planted the state’s first vineyards at the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma in 1823 and harvested the grapes to make sacramental wines. Located on Sonoma Plaza in downtown Sonoma, the Sonoma Mission is the northernmost and last of the 21 missions built. Be sure to visit the small but informative history museum located in the former padres’ quarters.

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of WALT Wines

Wine tasting, of course! Stroll the Sonoma Plaza — the mission occupies most of its northern side — before landing at WALT Wines or any other of numerous wine tasting opportunities.

Where to Eat Nearby

best-dinner-winecountry-flamingoresort-wildbird-Scallion-pancake-v2.jpg-800
Photo: Courtesy of Lazeaway Club

From internationally recognized Michelin-star restaurants, to arm-sized taco truck burritos and everything in between — Wine Country has it in spades. Here are our top food picks in the region.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of the Lodge at Sonoma

In Wine Country you’ll find some of the world’s best lodgings, including top choices for a group gathering, as well as the best luxury and good-value hotels in both Napa and Sonoma. 

Fun Fact

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.

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