Skip to main content

How to Plan a Trip to the California Missions

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

San Francicso de Asis- Mission Dolores

Are you planning a trip to one of the California missions with your family? Are you curious to explore the rich history behind these beautiful Spanish missions? This guide will give you comprehensive information about the missions and tips to efficiently plan your trip! The following are advice on how to get the best experience out of your trip back in history.

As your tour guide for today, I will take you through the missions from the northern region to southern California. Of course, you can start the opposite if you live near the San Diego area.

So pack your bags, grab your camera, and let's get going! We have a lot to see and not much time. Don't forget the kids!

Mission San Diego (2 min.)

Mission San Juan Capistrano (3 min)

Additional Resources:

  • Study the Map of California Missions to get an idea of how you would want to route your trip. Learn more about the interesting historical stories from early California and the Missions.
  • This interactive timeline walks you through the important events founding and development of the Alta California between 1768 and 1853.
  • Click here for a free printable map of the 21 California Missions.

Tips to a Successful Trip to the Missions in California

  1. Which mission do you want to visit? The best thing to do before starting your trip is to research the missions on the internet. There are many websites dedicated to providing facts, history, and images of the different missions. Even the official city websites have a lot of information on the missions. All the missions have different visiting hours. I suggest you call each mission and verify the hours.
  2. How many days do you have available to reserve for the trip? There are a total of 21 missions in California! To really get an understanding of the earlier times of American history, you should plan to spend 6-8 days. You can break it up into shorter segments and mix it up with other attractions in the major cities, such as San Diego.
  3. You need a map! You need to know where you’re going. Familiarize yourself with the route to minimize time wasted. With today’s advanced technology available, you have the option of using map services on the Internet such as I like to use the good ‘ol physical map as well, such as the Thomas Bros. Map. I use the physical map to plan out my trip, highlight or draw certain areas of interest. While I’m on the road, I use my iPhone’s Google map.
  4. What is your mode of transportation? Take a road trip with your car and drive down the coast of California. All the missions are located in the popular cities California. The string of missions became popular pit stops for travelers and tourists among these big cities.
  5. What to bring to the trip? Don't forget to bring your camera! You will have the opportunity to take pictures of the building structures. However, some missions do not allow flash photography inside the churches. Remember there are old documents that date back to over 200 years ago, and the light from your flash might cause damage.
  6. Gift Shops. If you want to buy souvenirs of your trip, bring your wallet!
  7. Accommodations. There are many hotels that you can stay at, as well as nearby restaurants.
  8. Fourth graders! Since history is being taught as early as 4th grade level, you may see group tours being given to fourth grade kids. Join their excitement and enthusiasm!
  9. What is the climate like? Dress comfortably, but be ready for unpredictable changes to the weather. While the climate in San Diego may be cooler, San Jose can reach up to 90’s in the summer.
  10. Wedding Bells. Don’t be surprised to see a wedding ceremony, funeral services, or church services during your visit. Since most missions are still being served as a church, you might encounter these functions, especially if you go during the weekend. You don't necessarily have to avoid the services. It actually enhances your experience at the missions!

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission San Jose, Fremont

Mission San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest of the Spanish missions in California.

Mission San Juan Bautista is the largest of the Spanish missions in California.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Carmel, California

Moorish Fountain @ Mission Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara

Scroll to Continue

Mission San Gabriel

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, San Diego County

Le's take a quick tour of the 21 California Missions!

There are a total of 21 missions along the coastal highway of California. Many of the original missions were restored and renovated into churches or museums.

  • You can start by visiting the most northern mission in California, the Mission San Francisco Solano, located in the wine country of Sonoma. It was the last of the 21 missions to be built. Neighboring that is the San Rafael Arcangel. The chapel is currently used for special events and is part of the Roman Catholic Archiocese.
  • The most authentic of all the 21 missions is the old church in Mission Dolores in San Francisco. It was found by Father Junipero Sera, the driving force behind the religious influence in California during his era. It is the oldest standing building in the city of San Francisco and has survived one of the biggest earthquakes in 1906.
  • Drive down 45 miles and you will be at Mission San Jose (locate in Fremont) and Mission Santa Clara (about 30 miles apart from each other). Mission San Jose was named after the husband of Mary, Saint Joseph. Mission Santa Clara was built from the traditional quadrangle layout, enclosed in a four sided structure. Make sure you look for the four bells, one of which was donated by King Carlos IV of Spain!
  • If you want to see an authentic adobe, make sure to stop by Mission Santa Cruz Stat Historic Park. Adobe is the type of housing that earlier Indians used to build their mission.

  • San Juan Bautista is a beautiful mission that contains authentic plaza and historical buildings. This mission was used as the setting in Alfred Hitchcock's production of Vertigo. There are 30 historical buildings surrounding the Spanish Plaza, which is the only original structure in California. The mission's original adobe manjerio was formerly known as Plaza Hotel. The adobe Roman catholic church has been used since 1812 and is still active today.
  • Continue your drive down south to Mission San Carlos Borremeo de Carmelo. Mission Carmel is very charming and has a lot of original artifacts and beautiful artwork.
  • Continue on to Highway 101 and you will hit Mission Soledad and San Antonio de Padua, which offers more opportunities to capture beautiful pictures. San Antonio de Padua was known for music, as seen from the music notations on the walls of their museum.
  • Mission San Miguel has been damaged from the 2003 earthquake, so most of the mission is closed. It is now considered an endangered place by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
  • The Mission San Luis Obispo still has the Central church and has been active for over 60 years.
  • La Purisima, in Solvang was rebuilt in 1942; however was not built as a quadrangle. The church has been restored, but is currently not active.

  • Visit Santa Ines and notice its traditional quadrangle housing area. This is a wonderful mission with well preserved grounds. The Santa Ines catholic church is still active.

  • You're almost at the end of the trip! Keep driving to the city of Santa Barbara to see the Mission Santa Barbara, which has an excellent museum and a beautiful Moorish fountain located in the front. The mission church has significant paintings and statues.
  • Drive down the coast and stop in Ventura to visit San Buenaventura. The interior of the mission church has been nicely restored and there is a small museum.
  • San Fernando Rey is a big complex and you should not miss the Convento, or Long House, the museum and the spectacular church.
  • Mission of San Gabriel looks like a beautiful fortress with an enormous church. It is built in the original quadrangle, with soldier's barracks and neophyte housing.

  • Go south into Orange County and visit the Old Church in Mission San Juan Capistrano, the most visited mission. This mission contains the original Serra Chapel, and extensive displays and lovely gardens.
  • Visit San Luis Rey and San Antonio de Pala Asistencia, some 30 miles east of San Luis Rey.
  • At last, you've arrived in San Diego! Here you can visit the Serra museum at San Diego de Alcala, the original site of the first mission and presidio in California.

That wraps it up! You've been introduced to the 21 beautiful missions in California, each with its unique details and story behind the buildings. I hope this guide has shed some light on which California missions to consider visiting! Have a wonderful trip!


Deborah Minter from U.S, California on December 28, 2018:

Beautiful places to visit!

Kim Lam (author) from California on April 22, 2012:

Kitty- Isn't it beautiful? There are so many other things to do in the city of SD too. I hope your family can make a trip down there to see the mission. Thanks for your vote. :)

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on April 21, 2012:

I have been to some of these Missions in the Bay Area because of my kids' school field trips. I will love to visit Mission San Luis Rey de Francia on our next family trip to San Diego. It looked gorgeous on the picture you showed here. Great hub! Voted up and useful.

Kim Lam (author) from California on April 19, 2012:

adkjp25- wow you have been to a lot already! It's interesting that I didn't think much of the historical structures when I visited the missions in 4th grade. It wasn't until I took the students on a field trip a few years ago when I started to understand it and appreciate it more. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

Tirelesstraveler- I'm glad you found out about them through my hub. Thank you for stopping by!:-)

Kim Lam (author) from California on April 19, 2012:

Tahoedoc- building models of the mission sounds like a fun project to do with your kids! I think they will enjoy visiting the missions as well. I visited the one in San Diego when I went to college down there. So much history! Thank you for reading, take care.

Kelley- Thank for your vote, it's always good to hear from you. Hopefully you and your family will

make it out here this summer!

Judy Specht from California on April 19, 2012:

Have lived in the SF bay area for forty of the last 50 years and have never visited Mission Delores, but have been to San Jose, Carmel and San Juan Baptiste. Nice servey of California Missions.

Judy Specht from California on April 19, 2012:

Even though I grew up in Oakland and still live in the Bay area I have never visited Mission Delores. Great servey

David from Idaho on April 19, 2012:

Another perk of living in California are the missions. We have been to about half of them and each one is unique and beautiful. I also appreciate how much work is put into them to keep their historic value and repair them after our darn earthquakes.

Loved the location by location guide.

Our favorites are Carmel and Santa Barbara.

kelleyward on April 19, 2012:

I've never heard of the California Missions before. I'm hoping we can get to California this summer with our kids. If we do we will certainly visit the Missions. Voted up and useful! Take care, Kelley

TahoeDoc from Lake Tahoe, California on April 19, 2012:

Great article. This will be a very useful reference when my kids have their lesson on missions in the 3rd or 4th grade. They have a project where they build models of one of the missions. Many parents use that as a time to visit one or more of the missions. Several are within a few hours drive of us, and our visits to San Diego (and nearby areas) will let us see a couple more. I will definitely be coming back to this hub. Thanks.

Kim Lam (author) from California on April 19, 2012:

Thank you Vellur and Nare, I appreciate the comments.

Nare Gevorgyan on April 19, 2012:

Ohh this is excellent!!! So nicely formatted and so informative. Great job!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on April 19, 2012:

Informative and useful. The photos are great. Excellent tips to plan the trip. Voted up.

Related Articles