Starting in 1769, Spain built a chain of 21 missions across the length of Alta California—from San Diego to Sonoma—as a way of gaining a foothold in the new frontier. California’s mission era ended in 1834, but you can still see the architectural legacy that endures in the state’s red tile roofs, whitewashed walls, arched colonnades, and bell towers.
The missions were built approximately 50 kilometres apart—about a day’s journey by horseback—covering 1050 kilometres total. All 21 missions are open to visitors and feature a gift shop and museum, and most of them hold mass on Sundays (or even daily). Read on to learn the unique features to see at each mission, listed here from south to north.
1. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, San Diego
Built in 1769 and fully restored in 1931, this mission has a striking 14-metre-tall tower (campanario) holding five bells, the largest weighing 544 kilograms. Information signs guide visitors through the bougainvillea-covered buildings and immaculate gardens. Mass is held daily; guided tours are available by advance request.
2. Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, Oceanside
Known as “King of the Missions,” San Luis Rey is set within a six-acre central square and marked by an octagonal dome atop the building. A massive lavandería, or open-air laundry, is now an ornate sunken garden. Check out the tiled stairs, stone pools, and carved gargoyles that once spouted water from their mouths. California’s first pepper tree, planted in 1830, grows in the mission’s plaza.
3. Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano
Every March, the town of San Juan Capistrano welcomes the return of migrating swallows that spend most of the year in the mission before flying 9,500 kilometres to Argentina for the winter. Guided and audio tours are available.
4. San Gabriel Arcángel, San Gabriel Valley
This fortress-like mission boasted a 170-acre vineyard, the largest in the mission chain. Its campanario holds six bells, the oldest cast in 1795. Highlights: the altar framed by a large round skylight and the hand-hammered copper baptismal font from King Carlos III of Spain.
5. Mission San Fernando Rey de España, Mission Hills, San Fernando Valley
In the 1850s, gold-hungry prospectors dug up the church floor several times, certain that treasure was buried underneath. Carefully tended buildings and grounds include a convent, winery, gardens, and colonnade with 20 arches. Actor Bob Hope and other L.A. notables are buried in the cemetery.
6. Old Mission San Buenaventura, Ventura
A hand-built masonry aqueduct brought water seven miles from the Ventura River to “The Mission by the Sea.” At its most prosperous, this small mission had a herd of more than 41,000 livestock. Don’t miss the ornate tiled fountain, asymmetric bell tower with five bells, and palm-tree-framed garden.
7. Old Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara
The only California mission to have twin bell towers, the “Queen of the Missions” features a magnificent Moorish fountain, spectacular rose gardens, and an abalone-encrusted Chumash altar from the 1790s. Part of the original aqueduct is still used by the city of Santa Barbara.
8. Old Mission Santa Inés, Solvang
Manicured gardens and well-preserved paintings and wall frescoes make this one of the most charming and colorful missions. The museum houses a large collection of 1800s silk vestments. Golden grasses and oak-covered hills frame the view from the chapel entrance.
Now a state historic park, this mission is the most completely restored of the chain. Ten of the original buildings remain, including the church, blacksmith shop, and living quarters. Hiking and equestrian trails lace the 1,928-acre grounds, where ranch animals graze. Docent demonstrations and living history events take place frequently.
10. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Obispo
In 1776, several Native Americans hostile toward the mission shot flaming arrows onto the thatched roof, prompting the missionaries to learn to make clay roof tiles. Red tile roofs soon became the mission standard. Surrounded by a bustling downtown plaza and a lush garden of fruit trees and grapes, the mission’s adobe walls are adorned with centuries-old art.
11. Mission San Miguel, San Miguel
This National Historic Landmark houses colorful wall frescoes that were painted by Native Americans in 1821. Walk through the shaded colonnade, which contains 12 arches of different sizes and shapes. An elegant fountain and a Spanish cannon dating back to 1697 are surrounded by 30 species of cacti, roses, and olive trees.
12. Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon, Fort Hunter Liggett
A land donation from William Randolph Hearst left this mission’s countryside setting untouched. Its pristine location and well-curated museum make it one of the best to visit. Listen to mission-period music and visit the fruit orchard and grape-crushing vat.
13. Nuestro Señora de la Soledad, Soledad
Known as the “hard-luck mission,” this site has had an unhappy history of epidemics, floods, and crop failures. Left in ruins for nearly a century, the building was beautifully restored in 1954. Visit the small rustic chapel and tidy rose garden.
14. Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo, Carmel
Wander among the original paintings and statues, massive holy-water fountain, cobblestone pathways, and flower-filled courtyards in this gorgeous Moorish-style mission. Museum exhibits focus on daily aspects of mission life—furniture, tools, and clothing. Father Junipero Serra, who founded 9 of the 21 missions, is buried under the sanctuary.
15. Old Mission San Juan Bautista, San Juan Bautista
Set amid San Juan Bautista’s Old West storefronts, this mission lies right next to the San Andreas earthquake fault. The huge church boasts three aisles and a magnificent altar. Look for the animal paw prints in the floor tiles. Film buffs will recognize this mission from the 1958 Hitchcock thriller Vertigo.
16. La Exaltacion de la Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz
The original 1795 adobe church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1857, then rebuilt in 1931 at less than half its original size. The gift shop/museum houses a collection of antique silk vestments sewn with silver and gold thread.
17. Mission Santa Clara de Asís, Santa Clara
A gift from King Carlos IV of Spain, Santa Clara’s mission bell has rung faithfully every evening since 1798. This reconstructed mission sits on the University of Santa Clara campus. Wander its garden to see a massive 150-year-old wisteria, antique roses, and a cork tree used to make wine corks in the mission days.
18. Mission San José de Guadalupe, Fremont
Take a self-guided tour of the reconstructed mission building (the 1797 original was leveled in an 1868 earthquake) and check out the antique Spanish pipe organ. A small museum has fascinating exhibits on the California rancho period and the mission’s fruit and olive oil production.
19. Mission San Francisco de Asís, San Francisco
Nicknamed Mission Dolores for a nearby creek, this mission is San Francisco’s oldest intact building, dating back to 1776. A 90-minute guided tour explores the mission, museum, rose garden, and cemetery where more than 5,000 Native Americans and California pioneers are buried. Noteworthy: the basilica’s dazzling stained glass windows, which depict all 21 missions.
20. Mission San Rafael Arcángel, San Rafael
Built in sunny San Rafael as California’s first hospital, this mission served ailing Native Americans stationed at damp and foggy Mission San Francisco. The building is a 1949 replica of the original, but its museum contains historic artifacts including three of the original mission bells.
21. Mission San Francisco de Solano, Sonoma
The last mission built in California was masterminded by an overly ambitious padre who acted without church approval. Now part of a state historic park, this rustic mission sits on Sonoma’s downtown plaza next to gourmet eateries and upscale boutiques. Don’t miss the watercolor paintings and the replanted 19th-century garden filled with cactus and olive trees.