My 5 Favorite California Missions

Fun Fact: I’ve visited all 21 of California’s Missions. It took three trips up and down the coast of our state, but my family did it!

The California Missions were founded in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s by Franciscan Padres who wanted to share their religion with the Native Americans and lay a “solid” religious foundation for the new Spanish Colony that California was supposed to become. The missions’ structures were built of handmade adobe bricks. (Adobe is basically a fancy word for mud.) Controlling land belonging to the Catholic church, each mission had agricultural objectives or trades, allowing the Native Americans to learn skill sets, received education, and better standards of living.

That’s a simple introduction to my state’s historic missions. Now, I’ll share my five favorites!

Mission San CarlosMission San Carlos (Carmel)

Gorgeous and regal, this mission is beautifully restored. It was Father Serra’s favorite mission and home for many years. (Father Serra founded many of the California Missions.) Not far from Monterrey Bay, Mission Carmel has unique architecture and beautiful gardens.

I am especially fond of the star shaped window in the church and the huge pink blossoming bougainvillea in the courtyard.


Mission San Luis ReyMission San Luis Rey

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from my hometown, Mission San Luis Rey stands in Oceanside, California. Called the “King of the Missions”, this mission has many well preserved features. Parts of the original aqueducts and clothes washing area still exist. The Church is very beautiful.

One of my favorite features is the original arches at the front of the building; if all is quiet and you can imagine the sounds of traffic are wind in the fields, then it’s almost like it might have been two hundred years ago.

Wedding musiciansMission San Juan Capistrano

Located in the town which bears it’s name, Mission San Juan Capistrano wins the prize for most beautiful gardens. The courtyard and surrounding grounds are gorgeous, especially during the spring.

On special days, volunteers present living history programs at this mission. One time we were fortunate to witness a re-enactment of a Spanish wedding and the music and dancing of a wedding fiesta.

Mission La Purisima 1Mission La Purisima

La Primisma – located near Lompoc –  is actually a California State Park and it’s been restored to a “working” mission. You can wander through the buildings, explore the gardens, fields, and animals, and maybe even interact with a living historian.

This mission is on my favorites list because it helps us understand the agricultural and trade importance of the mission system…and you get to see it, up close!

mission san antonioMission San Antonio de Padua

San Antonio is far off the well-traveled path. It’s actually located on a U.S. military base. If you chose to visit, I highly recommend entering by the main road and leaving by the main road – highway G18 looks like a short cut, but it is a horrifying drive with steep cliffs…just trust me!

Anyway, back to the mission. San Antonio is pretty, but the architecture and little museum are similar to many other missions. What makes this mission a destination is it’s surroundings. There’s nothing but golden hills and oak trees as far as you can see…and only the little dirt road and your car remind you that you haven’t time traveled.

Interior of MissionMission Miguel Arcangel

The first time I saw Mission San Miguel it was surrounded by a chain link fence with warning signs. A recent earthquake had damaged the structure. A few years later I went back; the repairs were complete and it really is a charming little building.

One of the unique things about this mission is it’s artwork. The interior of the church was painted by the Native Americans who lived there. They incorporated Spanish influenced borders with images of their prized sea shells to make an impressive blending of cultures in fading pastel paint.

My Thoughts

I’m so glad my parents incorporated visiting the 21 California Missions into our family vacations. We’re not Catholic, but we learned to appreciate the unique history, architecture, and features of each mission.

Oh, and one other thing we learned (and mother insisted I should mention it), if you want to slow down and enjoy the historical value and details of the missions, don’t visit on a festival day. It tends to be a carnival atmosphere and it’s hard to imagine Colonial California at that time. 🙂

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Have you visited some of the California Missions? A mission elsewhere in the American Southwest? Tell us in a comment!


6 thoughts on “My 5 Favorite California Missions

  1. Sarah….. la Purisima is very much my favorite because it is simple and peaceful. I’ve visited many times and always leave refreshed. San Miguel could be next, but then there’s San Juan Baptista and San Antonio de Padua. I tend to favor the simpler, more work-a-day missions. I have made several trips specifically to see them and photograph the architecture. The nearby San Juan Capistrano also belongs on my list of favorites. Thank you for this article.
    Barbara Demory

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