Visiting San Juan Capistrano Mission in California
Surprisingly, the annual arrival of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano mission in Southern California was a bust when I recently visited, but no worries the rest of the visit to San Juan Capistrano and the city was a wonderful experience. Of all the California Missions on my ongoing travel to California and touring the missions, this has to be one of the most colorful and pretty missions that I have toured in the state. Each of the missions are unique and have their own historic monuments and ruins, but San Juan Capistrano has all these wonderful attributes and support from a strong volunteer base and community efforts.
San Juan Capistrano located in Orange County, Southern California, consists of the mission complex, the city surrounding the mission area and the old town neighborhood called Los Rios. Los Rios is considered one of the oldest neighborhoods in alta California. There are plenty of areas to explore in the city for a day trip or even an overnight visit to the area.
Here are highlights to visiting San Juan Capistrano Mission
History and touring the mission grounds
I didn’t time a visit with a docent giving a tour of the area so I opted to doing an audio self tour which is a better option so you can wander anywhere around the mission and just click on the device if you want to learn more about a particular section or other fascinating stories about the mission and mission life. It’s fun to explore on your own and use the device to give more details to what you are seeing and fun facts or any other interesting stories related to the history and culture of the mission and early missionaries.
San Juan Capistrano is the 7th built mission of 21 missions created in Alta California. Established in 1775 by Father Serra who lead a contingent to establish a mission in the area and help convert the local native Indians into the Catholic faith. In 2016, the mission has been in existence for over 240 years and still called the “Jewel” of all the California missions.
The stone basilica of San Juan Bautista
The ruins of the great stone church of San Juan Bautista have been wonderfully preserved in its condition with the entire community opting to preserve versus recreate the original in a remodeled state. The stone church constructed in 1797 was the largest church in the mission chain created in Alta California by the local community, converted local Indians over a nine year period. While in operation for only six years, the church was ruined by severe early morning earthquakes that killed forty people buried alive in an early morning service with the collapsing walls and ceiling trapping many inside the church.
Today, the site ruins still contain the exterior foundations and side walls and main altar vestibule. The audio guide gives a good explanation to the layout, building of the church and the day when the earthquake struck and most of the church collapse to the congregation. Two of the large bells are on display at the main entrance to the church and the grounds surrounding the church are filled with colorful annuals and other plantings to create a lush environment around the ruins.
San Juan Capistrano mission gardens
The gardens at San Juan Capistrano mission are support by a whole slew of volunteers, master gardeners and a full time staff of gardeners. The colorful and well maintained gardens are one of the most beautiful and well laid out landscapes in the mission system with a variety of garden rooms that create vibrant settings around the historic buildings and ruins. Unlike the early gardens of the mission era which were used basically to grow crops for food and trade, todays gardens are mostly ornamental with a small garden section that displays the various crops grown during its timeframe as a display/educational garden. Many of the traditional plants and herbs are incorporated into the garden rooms along with native California plants, Mediterranean varieties and semi tropical flowers to beautify the surrounding areas of the mission walls and Mission style architecture.
At the time that I was visiting, it seemed like everything was in bloom including gorgeous roses, California native poppies, agave and penstemon along with exotic birds of paradise, jasmine and bougainvillea blooms.
Mediterranean and flower gardens at San Juan Capistrano
The Serra chapel at San Juan Capistrano
The Serra Chapel was named in Father Serra’s honor and mass celebrated at this chapel at its dedication. A beautiful gold altar called a retablo was placed in the church in 1920 and is over 400 years old. The beautifully crafted hand made baroque altar made originally in Barcelona, was too large for the altar area which was enlarged to fit all the details into a complete presentation.
Tip – check out all the beautifully painted details on the walls, ceiling beams and surrounding the entire church, along with the small side chapel dedicated to St.Peregrine – the patron saint of sufferers.
Close up detail to the golden altar at Serra Chapel
The Sacred garden and bell courtyard
I loved visiting the Sacred garden where the remaining church bells are hung in a wall with a small fountain sitting in the center of a brick patio. It is a quiet and spiritual space with the church bells hanging at a lower level for you to be able to see them better than the original tower they were placed in.
Mission buildings and interior rooms
Treasures of San Juan Capistrano Mission
Los Rios historic district of San Juan Capistrano
One of the oldest neighborhoods established in California, the Los Rios district is within walking distance to the mission and is located just on the other side of the main railway station. In this quiet and colorful neighborhood, you will find a variety of architectural styles encompassing adobe, Victorian, Spanish Revival, craftsman to other eclectic styles. Many of the homes have been turned into galleries, cafes and other gift related stores for you to enjoy visiting and taking home a souvenir. The downtown area close to the mission also has a variety of antique stores, restaurants and galleries worth visiting if you are on the look out for something interesting to purchase from the area.
Abundant annual blooms in the Los Rios district
Details to visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano
Tours are self guided with free audio guide
Admission – $9 for adults, $8 for seniors,$6 for children ages 4 – 11
Hours – 9:00 – 5:00, seven days a week, but closed on certain holidays
Docent tours are available, check in the visitors center
Check out their website here for more details and a calendar of events
Hotel accommodations around Mission San Juan Capistrano
There are some nice accommodations around the city of Mission San Juan Capistrano if you want to stay over night in the area. You can find a range of hotels in historic inns, beautiful haciendas and affordable motels. Here are a sample of places for you to check out below.
San Juan Capistrano hotels
Best Western Capistrano Inn – Located in the city, this quiet and centrally located inn is the perfect spot to visit the city and mission with comfortable rooms, eating venue options and clean rooms
Best Western Marina shores – located 2.9 miles to San Juan Capistrano and close to the beaches and coastline at Dana Point this is a great location with comfortable rooms and amenities. Check here for reviews and latest prices.
For more hotel options in the area, check out this other Trip Advisor reviews and prices here for details and availability.
Car rental for exploring San Juan Capistrano
You definitely need a rental car to get to and visit different parts of San Juan Capistrano. Depending on where you start (Los Angeles, San Diego or other location) your vacation, you can find car rental agencies available throughout the region. You can check out the following car rental agencies below for current prices and car availability based on when you go.
Priceline car rentals – name your price for 40% off car rentals
Travelocity – search for car rental deals
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