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 artefacts 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 that stand out, 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 at 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 wild flowers 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.
San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano). Visit the dramatic ruins of the mission’s great stone church, originally designed in the shape of a cross and topped by seven domes and a soaring bell tower, but severely damaged by an earthquake in 1812. On St. Joseph’s Day (19th March), the mission holds a lively fiesta to celebrate the annual return of migratory cliff swallows.
La Purisima Concepción (Lompoc). This expansive, carefully restored compound, now protected as state park, is staffed by volunteers in period costume. In the garden, water flows through 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. Open air painters love propping their easels in front of the two-towered main building. Acres of lush gardens feature fruit-producing orchards.
Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.
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