If you want to learn about the history of California, you should visit at least one of the 21 Spanish missions in the state. Not just for school field trips, these beautiful buildings will clue you in on the people who helped create and shape the California we know today. Take a drive along I-101, which follows El Camino Real, the travel route used by the Spaniards who built these 21 missions.
Each mission was designed to be about a day’s walk from the next, which is about 30 miles. Today, you can still visit replicas of these original missions, and because they’re only 30 miles apart, you can choose a centrally located California vacation rental and visit a few in a single day. Listed from south to north, here are the missions in California, just in case you want to see them all in one road trip.
1. Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Address: 10818 Mission Rd., San Diego, CA 92108
San Diego de Alcala was the first mission of 21 missions built in California, or Alta California, as it was called during the era in which it was constructed. This mission founded in 1769 is California’s first church. At the time the mission was restored in 1931 only the facade was still standing, but today, it’s fully restored and looks brand new. The mission is located off the same exit as Qualcomm Stadium in the north part of San Diego. There is a small parking lot below it and a few street spots near the mission as well. Admittance is $5. A popular stop on the mission tour is a re-creation of Fr. Serra’s cloister or living quarters. It is well kept and is a great way to get a better understanding of what life for the Padres was like.
2. San Luis Rey De Francia
Address: 4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside, CA 92057
While Mission San Luis Rey is located fairly close to the first mission, Mission San Diego, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is actually the 18th of 21 California missions. Even though the original church is no longer standing, the current church was built in 1811, and it is a fantastic combination of Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican designs. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is located on Highway 76 in Oceanside and it is on a big piece of property, so it is hard to miss. It’s one of the largest outposts and almost as big as two football fields! Entry to the museum is $7, and the rest of the site is free.
3. San Juan Capistrano
Address: 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
San Juan Capistrano, with its beautifully landscaped grounds and with the ruins of the Great Stone Church and adjacent bell wall, is one of the most picturesque sites in California. Come early in the morning to take part in one of the mission’s traditional ceremonies. Every morning at 9 a.m., the bells are rung seven times, in honor of Father Junipero Serra, who was born 300 years ago this year, and reflecting that Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of the 21 missions to be established in California. Mission San Juan Capistrano is located off the 5 freeway about 25 minutes South of Irvine.
4. San Gabriel Arcangel
Address: 428 South Mission Drive, San Gabriel, CA 91776
Mission San Gabriel Arcangel was the 4th of 21 Spanish missions built in California, constructed in 1771 just after San Antonio Mission on the Central Coast of California. It’s also California Historical Landmark #161 and has the Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award for the oldest building in Los Angeles County. The original mission was located in what is now Montebello, but it was relocated South of Pasadena due to devastating floods that wiped out the mission crops and destroyed building structures. The mission is located off the 10 Freeway’s Ramona Street exit. Heading North from the freeway till it ends on Mission Road and the mission is on the right. Entry is $6.
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5. San Fernando Rey De Espana
Address: 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd, Mission Hills, CA 91345
This simple mission church is an exact replica of the 3rd church completed in 1806 and destroyed by an earthquake in 1971. It’s located less than five minutes off the 5 Freeway’s San Fernando Mission Blvd exit. After you pay the $5 fee in the gift shop, they will give you a map that recommends a route you should use to visit the mission. One of the highlights is the Convento or Long Building, built in 1822, which served as the padre’s quarters and as a guest-house.
6. San Buenaventura
Address: 211 E Main St, Ventura, CA 93001
The Ventura Mission, 9th in the chain of California missions. It’s perched on a hill above the Pacific Ocean with a view of the Ventura California beaches in the distance. Mission San Buenaventura is located on Main St, which is the popular downtown area in Ventura. To enter the mission, you need to walk into the store right next door and pay the $4 fee. From there, walk up the stairs into the small museum before entering the mission.
7. Mission Santa Barbara
Address: 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Many consider Santa Barbara the Queen of the Missions. The 10th of the California missions, the Santa Barbara Mission was founded by Franciscan Friar Fermin de Lasuen on the Feast of St. Barbara, December 4, 1786. You can visit the grounds for free on any day except holidays, but you must purchase an $8 tour ticket to gain admission to the gate portions of the property that include Mission Gardens, a Cemetery, Church and Museum. Mission Santa Barbara is located about 5 minutes off the 101 Freeway. There is a large parking lot with lots of room so you shouldn’t have trouble finding parking.
8. Mission Santa Ines
Address: 1760 Mission Drive, Solvang, CA 93464
Mission Santa Ines was the 19th of the 21 California missions to be created, and it resides in the small Danish town of Solvang only a few miles off Highway 101. Solvang is also a great place to explore, so this is a great place to find a vacation rental and stay the night. The mission was founded by Father Estevan Tapís in 1804, and it is most famous for being the start of one of the largest Indian rebellions during the mission period. If you’re looking for an inspiring place to reflect, be sure to check out the Mission garden of the Resurrection. Mission Santa Ines is located on Highway 246 right past the town of Solvang. It has a large parking lot that can accommodate lots of visitors. The site is open daily from 9 am -5:30 pm with an admission fee of $5.
9. La Purisima Concepcion
Address: 2295 Purisima Road Lompoc, CA 93436
La Purisima Mission is the best restored California mission and one of the top visited California missions for student trips. The current structure and grounds are an excellent recreation of the original building built in 1787. To get here, exit Interstate Highway 101 north of Santa Barbara and south of Santa Maria near Solvang / Buellton at Highway 246. Proceed west on Highway 246 for approximately 18 miles, and the mission is on the right-hand side. Entrance is $6.
10. San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Address: 751 Palm Street, San Luis Obispo CA, 93401
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa serves as a parish with an active church attendance and services, but tourists can wander into the chapel and onto the grounds. It’s the fifth mission founded by Father Junípero Serra and the only mission to have an L-shaped chapel. Located right in the heart of San Luis Obispo, a bustling college town, the mission is only minutes from the Broad Street exit off Highway 101. There is parking along the street that is $1.25 an hour, and admission is free.
11. San Miguel Arcangel
Address: 775 Mission St, San Miguel, CA 93451
Beautiful Mission San Miguel was founded more than 200 years ago in San Luis Obispo County 8 miles north of Paso Robles. Considered one of the top 5 missions to see, San Miguel has been artfully restored while still maintaining the realism of living history. Mission San Miguel is located right off Highway 101 on the Mission St. exit. You can see the mission right when you get off the freeway, and there is a small parking lot in front of the mission for visitors. Admission is $3.
12. San Antonio de Padua
Address: End of Mission Road, Jolon, CA 93928
Mission San Antonio de Padua was the third of the Spanish missions founded in California and is the least visited of the California Missions because it is the hardest to get to at about 26 miles off Highway 101. It’s also one of the most historically intact missions, complete with an old tannery and water mill, so it’s a great mission to visit if you’re a fan of California history. After getting off I-101 at Jolon Road, drive for about 26 miles. This mission is located in a military compound but still accessible to the public for a fee of $4.
13. Nuestra Senora de la Soledad
Address: 36641 Fort Romie Rd, Soledad, CA 93960
Located in the town of Soledad, about 45 minutes South of Monterey, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad was the 13th of the 21 Spanish missions in California. October is a great time to visit this mission for the annual Mission Nuestra Senora de Soledad Grape Stomp Festival and BBQ with Mariachi Bands, or in June for the Soledad Community Parade and Fiesta. Mission Soledad is located about 3 miles off the freeway in the town of Soledad, and there’s a large dirt parking lot. Admission is free.
14. San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Address: 3080 Rio Rd, Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA 93923
Located in beautiful Carmel, we highly recommend staying in a vacation rental over night to experience the other local sites. The mission buildings have been restored except for the very first buildings which were destroyed in the mid-19th century. The original bell tower dome still exists, however. After paying the $6.50 fee, you will walk into the small courtyard and see the Basilica, which is one of the most beautiful of all the missions.
15. San Juan Bautista
Address: 406 2nd St, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
Located in the main downtown square of the charming town San Juan Bautista, Mission San Juan Bautista is a beautiful example of a California mission as it has many some 30 historic buildings for you to explore. It’s also part of the California State Parks system. One of the mission’s highlights is the original adobe manjerio (nunnery), the only original one remaining in the state.
16. Mission Santa Cruz
Address: 130 Emmett St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791 and was the 12th of the 21 Spanish Missions founded. Unfortunately, nothing remains of the original mission today other than a crumbling wall, but across the street is the rebuilt mission based on a painting of the original mission. Mission Santa Cruz is located right off Pacific Coast Highway on the North end of the main downtown drag. Street parking and visiting the mission itself are free.
17. Santa Clara de Asis
Address: 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053
Mission Santa Clara de Asis is the only mission to be part of a school. The mission itself was founded in 1777, and in 1851, the mission became the site of Santa Clara University, the oldest university in California. Admission is free, but you must first go to the main school entrance to get a visitors parking pass. After walking down the main road of the campus, you will see the mission in front of you.
18. Mission San Jose
Address: 43300 Mission Blvd, Fremont, CA 94539
The 14th of 21 missions and the living quarters for the padres were unfortunately destroyed by an earthquake in 1868. Several phases of restoration have created a true monument to celebrate, visit and appreciate and is still a wonderful representation of what once existed. Mission San Jose is located right off Highway 680 on Mission Blvd. It’s technically in the city of Fremont which is just North of San Jose. Admission is $5.
19. San Francisco de Asis
Address: 3321 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94114
Mission San Francisco de Asís is the 6th mission established and is one of the oldest intact missions. If you’re staying in a vacation rental, try taking public transportation as there is no parking lot and street parking can be difficult to find. Make your way to the older of the two churches where you can pay the $5 fee to visit the mission. This chapel is one of the most unique out of the bunch with a beautiful mixture of both Catholic and Indian designs. The two side altars are from Mexico and were installed at the mission in 1810.
20. San Rafael Arcangel
Address: 1104 5th Ave, San Rafael, CA 94901
We’re almost to the end of our 21 California mission road trip! Mission San Rafael Arcangel is the second to last mission you will visit if you are heading north like I did on the El Camino Real. Admission is free and there is ample street parking. Mission San Rafael Arcangel is located in the town of the same name, about two blocks up from 3rd Street, the main downtown road. This is still an active church, but visitors are free to explore the mission chapel.
21. San Francisco Solano de Sonoma
Address: 363 3rd Street West, Sonoma, California 95476
The Sonoma Mission was the final of 21 missions established in “Alta” California, and the final and most northernmost destination on this list. The mission property has passed through various hands and owners and was eventually purchased by a historical preservation group around 1903. It is now run by the state parks just like La Purisima in Lompoc. Mission Sonoma is located right in the central downtown area of Sonoma, at the north end of the town square. Most of the surrounding street parking is free, and there is a $3 fee to visit the mission.
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