Southern California Missions: From Old Mission Santa Barbara to Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

From San Diego to Sonoma, Spain built a chain of 21 missions across the length of what was once called Alta California. Father Junípero Serra, a member of the Franciscan order, was dispatched to lead the effort in the years after Spanish Jesuits set up 17 missions in what was once called Baja California. California’s mission era began in 1769 with the first mission at San Diego and ended in 1823 when Sonoma was completed, but thanks to rebuilding efforts, you can still see the architectural legacy of Father Serra’s and, subsequently, Father Fermín de Lasuén’s vision for California.

When all of the planned missions were completed, each was approximately 30 miles from the next, a distance that took a day on horseback. Serra and Lasuén’s projects ranged over 650 miles.  Strung along El Camino Real, or “The Royal Road,” missions are often still on streets called el Camino Real or simply “Mission Street.” Bells often mark their entrances or approaches. Despite earthquakes, fires and the ravages of time, all 21 missions are open, offering mass and religious sacraments to all visitors. Most serve as small museums, offer gift shops and a window into California’s history, positive and negative. Individually built, each mission boasts unique features yet, when taken together, are a unified presence in what was once the wild frontier.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of Zane Persaud via Unsplash

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego

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Photo: Courtesy of Prayitno via Wikimedia Commons

Known as the Mother of the Missions, the first of Serras missions was built in 1769 and fully restored in 1931. It has a striking 46-foot-tall tower (campanario) holding five bells, the largest weighing 1,200 pounds. Information signs guide visitors through the bougainvillea-covered buildings and immaculate gardens. Mass is held daily; guided tours are available by advance request. missionsandiego.org

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Photo: Courtesy of Dietmar Rabich via Wikimedia Commons

Downtown San Diego is at your doorstep — that means Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, the USS Midway Museum, the walkable downtown Gaslamp Quarter, and Liberty Public Market. You can even take a street car from downtown San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico and eat all the tacos there, too. Don’t forget your passport!

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Photo: Courtesy of Animae

Puesto Mission Valley is one of nine Puestos in greater San Diego (they started in La Jolla). They are known for their signature taco — it’s wrapped in crispy cheese. For something a little spiffier, elegant Animae, is a must-dine destination. Executive Chef Tara Monsod showcases a menu that is a personal reflection of her upbringing as a first-generation Filipino-American against the backdrop of the luxurious restaurant space that has attracted 2021 Michelin Plate honors and an Eater Award for Best Reinvention.

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Photo: Courtesy of Mission Pacific Hotel

There’s no shortage of hotels for every type of traveler in San Diego. Check out a curated list here.

Fun Fact

Named for Saint Didacus — a.k.a. San Diego — of Alcalá, Spain, the mission inspired the name of the town that grew up nearby.

Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Oceanside

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Photo: Courtesy of Nandaro via Wikimedia Commons

Named for St. Louis IX, King of France in the 13th century, San Luis Rey is, naturally, known as King of the Missions.” Set within a six-acre central square, the church is marked by an octagonal wooden dome and cupola atop the spire. A massive lavandería, or open-air laundry, is now an ornate sunken garden. Check out the tiled stairs, stone pools, and carved gargoyles that once spouted water from their mouths. sanluisrey.org

What to Do Nearby

Hit the water and learn how to surf at Oceanside Surf School. Or head to the California Surf Museum nearby instead.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Communal

Communal is an all-day café with a toast bar (tahini avocado, anyone?), a pastrami melt and salmon carpaccio among other items. Harbor Fish & Chips has been slinging baskets of the Captains catch of the day and fish tacos with coleslaw for more than 50 years.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of The Green Room Hotel

Guests will find hundreds of unforgettable — in a good way — hotels in the area. Here are some of our favorites, including the Green Room.

Fun Fact

The first pepper trees in Alta California were planted here using seeds brought to San Luis Rey in 1830 by a sailor from Peru.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano

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Photo: Courtesy of Dorian Wallender via Wikimedia Commons

Famous for the Annual Return of the Swallows, celebrated annually on March 19 when the mission welcomes the return of migrating swallows from Argentina. The mission has an extensive collection of artifacts and presents them to the public in exhibitions that are regularly updated. missionsjc.com

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of @i_photovisions

Across the railway tracks from the Capistrano Depot is California’s oldest neighborhood: the Los Rios District. Comprised of about 40 houses that date to 1794, the neighborhood is studded with historical landmarks, shops, and restaurants. The O’Neill Museum, which recreates how people lived in the 1800s, is in one of the old houses.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Trevor's at the Tracks

There are a few small cafes in Los Rios. Not far from the mission and right on the train line is Trevor’s at the Tracks with ahi poke nachos and fig and fungi flatbread. Or try newly opened The Rooftop for plates of crab tagliatelle and an heirloom tomato caprese.  

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of @InnAtTheMissionSJC

Stay in hacienda style guest rooms and suites at the Inn at the Mission SJC, take in views of the ruins of the Great Stone Church from our patio, or embark on a tour of the Mission San Juan Capistrano nearby. Or lounge by the pool or rejuvenate in our onsite spa with treatments that tap into the healing spirit of the surrounding landscape — you can have it all here.

Fun Fact

The mission is named for Saint Giovanni da Capistrano, a.k.a. ‘the Soldier Saint’ and Franciscan Friar, who in 1456 at age 70, led the last Crusade.

San Gabriel Arcángel, San Gabriel Valley

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Photo: Courtesy of Robert A. Estremo via Wikimedia Commons

The mission suffered a fire in July, 2020 and is currently closed for repairs. (Scheduled to open late summer, 2022.) When it is open, the stone, brick and mortar mission boasts an altar handcrafted in Mexico City in the 1790s, its wooden statues hand carved in Spain. The hand hammered copper baptismal font was a personal gift from King Carlos III of Spain. The ministry, 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is the oldest in Los Angeles County. sangabrielmissionchurch.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Huntington Library dome courtesy of Tim Street Porter

Go check out the nearby Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Known as The Huntington, is a collections-based educational and research institution established by Henry E. Huntington and Arabella Huntington.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of @dintaifungUSA

Blossom Market Hall has 13 vendors, including sushi, sandwiches and burgers. So, yeah, something for everyone. Alhambra is home to a large and diverse Asian community and there is an abundance of choice including Yang’s Kitchen, which made the cut for the LA Times’ Top 101 Restaurants in 2020, and Din Tai Fung, beloved for their xiao long bao.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of @LanghamPasadena

Step into a world of luxury at the Langham Huntington in Pasadena. The refined rooms and stylish suites feature unique offerings for an unforgettable stay. Guests of Executive Rooms and Suites enjoy complimentary access to The Langham Club, a serene retreat with personalized service. 

Fun Fact

The mission is named for the Archangel Gabriel, one of three messengers from God found in both the Old and New Testaments. The mission is often referred to as the “Godmother of the Pueblo of Los Angeles.” 

Mission San Fernando Rey de España, Mission Hills, San Fernando Valley

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Photo: Courtesy of Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

Located in Los Angeles’ northern reaches, not far from the Angeles National Forest, San Fernando Rey is named for Saint Ferdinand, a.k.a. King of the Spanish regions of Castile and Leon in the 13th century.  The church’s altar, reredos, and pulpit, hand carved from walnut, date to 1687 and were brought over from Spain. Don’t confuse the Convento — the long, colonnaded building with 19 arches that once was where the Fathers were housed — with the mission. missionscalifornia.com

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Jules Marvin Eguilos via Unsplash

With Los Angeles just to the south, perhaps a visit to Universal Studios to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is in order? Or check out the Nethercutt Museum which houses over 250 perfectly restored antique cars.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of @ucrave

Truman House Tavern has shareable plates of carne asada fries, pastrami sliders and mac n’ cheese and a house sangria with fresh juices. Close by, UCrave Grill has something for everyone — a full range of Mexican fare like burritos and tacos, a Mideast gyro plate, plus pasta and burgers.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of @utazomajom

The Best Western Plus Carriage Inn in Sherman Oaks is the perfect, affordable base of operations that’s a 10 minute drive down the 405 from the mission.

Fun Fact

San Fernando Rey was founded by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén in 1797. A sculpture of Lasuén as a young missionary, carved by Stephen Zakian in 1955, is in the west garden. The views of the mission church are best from here. And Hollywood notables, including Ritchie Valens, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, are buried in the mission cemetery.

Old Mission San Buenaventura, Ventura

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Photo: Courtesy of Inger Al Haosului via Wikimedia Commons

A mission named for the13th century Italian saint Bonaventure and founded in 1749 is also the last to be consecrated by Father Serra in 1782. The mission is most famous for the hand-built masonry aqueduct that carried water seven miles from the Ventura River to the mission. English navigator George Vancouver described the well-watered gardens as the finest he had ever seen. sanbuenaventuramission.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of @sanbuenaventurasb

Ventura is recognized for its Botanical Gardens and its long, sandy State Beach.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of Rumfish y Vino

Beach House Fish is right on the beach and offers an extensive menu of seafood, like ceviche and seafood mac n’ cheese and peel and eat shrimp. About three blocks away in downtown  Ventura, Rumfish y Vino has not to be missed conch fritters and house made chorizo flatbread that can be paired with selections from their extension list of by-the-glass wine, beer and cocktails.

Where to Stay

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Photo: Courtesy of @clocktowerventura

Originally built as a firehouse in the 1940s, the Spanish-style Clocktower Inn in Ventura is also a part of the city’s history, and is perfectly placed to help you get the most out of it. 

Fun Fact

Even though most missions are approximately 30 miles apart, it is 60 highway miles from Mission San Fernando Rey and Mission San Buenaventura.

Old Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara

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Photo: Courtesy of Elisa via Wikimedia Commons

The only California mission under continuous guidance by Franciscan Friars, or brothers, Santa Barbara was established by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén in 1786. Recognized as being the most beautiful and well-preserved of the missions, the “Queen of the Missions“ features a nine-room museum, a magnificent Moorish fountain, and a series of lush gardens with views of the Pacific Ocean. santabarbaramission.org

What to Do Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy of @805foodbeerlife

Check out the Funk Zone, an arts, culture and business district not far from the mission. The visitor’s center is here along with cute coffee shops and restaurants, a distillery and bakery and the Santa Barbara Bowl, a community entertainment space.

Where to Eat Nearby

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Photo: Courtesy @ofeatsallornothing

Located in Santa Barbara Harbor, Brophy Bros is a lunch and dinner spot known for its fresh seafood. Start with an oyster shooter before a plate of garlic baked clams or sesame crusted tuna.

Where to Stay

Santa Barbara

Lodging options range from camping to roadside inns, short-term rentals, super opulent hotels and homes fit for royalty. High-end properties like The Ritz-Carlton Bacara and the now-shuttered Four Seasons Biltmore reinforce the town’s uber-luxe reputation, however, value can be found throughout the county. We’ve done ample “value” exploring on upper State Street and can highly recommend the Lemon Tree Inn and the Pepper Tree. Check out more options here.

Fun Fact

The Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. The group works to reveal the meaning of the Gospel through reverence, care and joy for all of creation through service to others, especially the poor. Franciscans also take a vow of poverty. Though there is not a specified color for the Franciscan robe or habit, most Franciscans wear a simple brown robe with a rope cord that is in keeping with their vows. Franciscans first began evangelizing in New Spain (Mexico and later, parts of western North America) in 1523. Father Serra first arrived in New Spain in 1749.  

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