Lush gardens frame Carmel Mission, one of the most faithfully restored of the 21 missions that lead from San Diego to Sonoma. Father Junipero Serra, the leader of the Spanish padres when they headed north from Mexico in the late 1700s, chose this peaceful, garden-trimmed mission overlooking the Pacific as his final resting place, which comes as no surprise considering its elegant Moorish architecture and spectacular coastal setting.
Outside, lush gardens of bougainvillia frame pretty views of the buildings, making it a popular destination for plein-air painters. Known as one of the most beautiful of the California missions and one of its most active—as a working parish, it has daily services (check the site for mass times)—Carmel Mission also offers a deeper dive into its history than most. Informational plaques are located throughout the basilica and grounds, including ones that point out the site of the first library in California and the bible used to swear President Ronald Reagan into office.
Visitors enter the mission through the gift shop; after browsing its many rosaries, crucifixes, and statues, take a self-guided or docent-led tour once inside the basilica to learn about life here centuries ago. Take a stroll by the graveyard to get a tangible sense of just how far back the history here goes (2021 marks its 250th anniversary). Small museums and a chapel gallery showcase such items as Father Junipero’s vestments, period art pieces, artifacts, and historical photographs; a short film provides an overview history of the mission and the role it played in the development of the region. Perhaps the most vivid historical display here, though, is simply the sparsely furnished cell where Father Serra slept. It serves as a sobering reminder of how he lived.