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The 6 Best California Missions to Visit this Summer


Every one of the 21 California Missions has their unique charms, special sights to see, and reasons to visit.  From the funky bell towers of San Miguel Archangel to the lovely gardens and fascinating historic park of San Juan Bautista, each mission is worth a visit. Here’s a few noteworthy missions to work into your end-of-summer travel plans:

Most beautiful – Mission San Borromeo de Carmelo

While all the missions are lovely, with their heavy old Spanish architecture accentuated with graceful arches and peaceful colonnaded courtyards, the most beautiful is what has been nicknamed “the Jewel of the Missions” (pictured at top).  This was also Father Serra’s favorite mission, and is the one in which he was buried.  The buildings, the courtyard, the gardens, and even the ocean side setting on the Monterey peninsula are all spectacular.  When you’ve had enough of admiring the buildings and landscaping, take a drive on nearby Scenic Road (aptly named) and of course the deservedly famous 17 Mile Drive.

Most authentic – Mission San Antonio de Padua.  Runner up – Mission La Purisima Concepcion

Both of these missions are still set of sprawling land that gives the visitor a much better sense of what pastoral mission life would have been like before the cities sprang up and enveloped the ranch and farm land on which each mission was born.  Both missions also both have an extensive number of buildings intact or rebuilt, which also helps with the impressions of how the missions were built and run in their heyday.  La Purisima in Lompoc is the only mission that maintains a small mixed herd of livestock (albeit certainly not a working herd).  San Antonio in Jolon is marginally more authentic, even without livestock, though, by its extensive original irrigation works, vast undisturbed fields (in the middle of a military base where they are safe from development), and remote setting that feels like you really stepped back in time.   Plus, at San Antonio, you can rent one of the padre’s rooms for the night, and enjoy the unrefined, simple lodging just like a mission monk.  It truly deserves its nickname “the mission that time forgot.”

Most interactive – Mission San Juan Capistrano

If looking at dusty museums and old adobe buildings aren’t your cup of tea, San Juan Capistrano is the mission for you.  It’s perhaps no great surprise that this well-kept mission within easy commute of Disneyland has an almost theme park-ish experience ready for visitors.  Each admission (which is well above the cost of any other mission in California) comes with an audio tour, and tourists can be seen dialing in and listening intently to their audio tour guide at key points of interest around the grounds.   There are numerous activities for visiting kids (usually for an extra fee), such as pan handling for gold, as well as touch-tables to feel a pelt, an animal skull, an arrowhead, and other such naturalist objects.  There are several themed docent guided tours available (for an extra fee).  And, while many of the other mission have “Mission Days” or other celebrations a few times a year, none have quite so many, and few so elaborate, as San Juan Capistrano. 

Most touristic – Mission Santa Barbara

While San Juan Capistrano is certainly a hot tourist destination, even it falls short of the incredible volume of tourists at Mission Santa Barbara.  Or perhaps it is just more efficient.  In any case, Santa Barbara seems to always have several tour buses parked out front (a sight I did not see at any other mission).  “The Queen of the Missions” deserves being on every tourists’ agenda, though, so don’t let her popularity keep you from joining the masses (so to speak, yuk yuk).  Santa Barbara’s iconic twin bell towers, pure white stucco and red tile roof are worth the visit.  And don’t forget to take your picture with a friend in the monk habits by the entrance.

Most unusual museum – Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana

Mission San Fernando’s museum is not just the most unusual of all the missions, but also one of the most unusual of any I’ve ever visited.  The curator (if they even have one) has packed several of its buildings with the most varied array of knickknacks and bric-a-brac, and in no discernable order.  Coffee mugs that seem to have been left over from the gift shop are displayed with the same care, and on the same shelf, as one of Father Serra’s own cherished belongings.  Mission objects from recent decades are grouped with a genuine peace offering from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (which, if you’re rusty on your history lessons, was several decades before the mission era, and never entered the area that would become California).  Most items are poorly labelled, if at all – is that a real Remington statue, or a replica? Who knows? Probably not the curator.  This museum must be taken in slowly, with a fine toothed comb and a sense of humor, or else you’ll miss out on some truly great things – not the least of which is the adventure that comes from “discovering” the nearly hidden treasures scattered through the displays.

Most welcoming – Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad 

All of the missions are staffed by wonderful volunteers and employees that love sharing the mission history with visitors.  Yet of all the missions, none have such a welcoming, friendly community of volunteers as Soledad.  In this little farm community, the old mission has only recently begun to be reconstructed from the near-total ruin to which time had reduced it.  The staff of volunteers are all lifelong residents of the small town, and take great pride in their mission.  While many missions still have active parishes, Soledad IS the community church.  Visiting the mission and talking with the volunteers is less about the past as it is about the present.  Soledad is perhaps the least visited of the missions, but it deserves to be as well-loved as the missions of Santa Barbara and Carmel. 

For the ultimate travel guide to the missions and all places worth visiting in between, don't forget to bring "Along the King's Road: A Guide to Touring the California Missions by Bicycle" (also good for driving and walking vacations!)

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