Strung like Spanish pearls along an 824-mile trail from San Diego to Sonoma, California’s 21 historic missions offer a wealth of treasures, from priceless artifacts to gloriously restored architecture. Some of the best preserved compounds are found along the Central Coast (a total of 11 once graced the region)—and all are worthy stops not only for their beauty but for their historical significance and fascinating features.
Here are some standouts, listed north to south:
San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (Carmel). Father 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.
San Miguel Arcángel (San Miguel).Look walls and ceilings decorated with ornate designs—the handiwork of Native Chumash artists. San Miguel had no bell tower, its 2,000 lb. bell rang out from a wooden platform in front of the mission and now sits in its own campanario behind the church. An annual fiesta on the third Sunday in September celebrates the Feast Day of patron Saint Michael.
San Antonio de Padua (Jolon). Nestled in grasslands and oak trees, this carefully restored mission, dedicated in 1771 and topped by archway bells, has an especially beautiful setting. It gets even more spectacular in spring, when California poppies, lupine, and other wildflowers carpet the fields and hillsides.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (San Luis Obispo). The tile-topped roof of this mission may look like an attractive detail, but these hard tiles had a purpose: fend off the repeated attacks by native Chumash Indians who used flaming arrows to ignite the original thatched roof. The museum features early California photographs and Native American crafts.
La Purisima Concepción (Lompoc). This expansive, carefully restored compound, now protected as state park, has staffed by volunteers in period costume. In the garden, water flows through a pools and a fountain before passing through the lavandareas where mission women once washed clothes. Look for eye-catching four-horned Churro sheep grazing in surrounding pastures.
Old Mission Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara). The “Queen of the Missions,” boasts sweeping Pacific views and a broad lawn perfect for picnics and tossing Frisbees. Plein air painters love propping their easels in front of the two-towered main building. Acres of lush gardens feature fruit-producing orchards.