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 visiting San Juan Capistrano Mission in Southern California has all these wonderful attributes and support from a strong volunteer base and community efforts.




Arcade in San Juan Capistrano Mission in California


Highlights visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano

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.

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. Check out a map of the California missions here along with where this mission is located in the chain of missions throughout California.



San Juan Capistrano ruins and Mission in California


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.


Where is Mission San Juan Capistrano located

Located in between Los Angeles downtown and San Diego and located on CA I-5. The mission and historic town makes a nice weekend getaway from San Diego which is about one and a half hours to San Diego.  You can also visit San Juan Capistrano as a day trip from Los Angeles which is approximately one and a half hours from downtown LA.



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.





San Juan Capistrano ruins and fountain in California



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 gardens in California


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.



Visiting San Juan Capistrano Mission and outdoor gardens


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.



Water garden at San Juan Capistrano Mission

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.


Flower gardens at San Juan Capistrano Mission

Mediterranean and flower gardens at San Juan Capistrano



Flower gardens at San Juan Capistrano Mission




Flower gardens at San Juan Capistrano Mission



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.


Serra Chapel at San Juan Capistrano Mission

Close up detail to the golden altar at Serra Chapel


Serra Chapel altar at San Juan Capistrano Mission




Entering the Serra Chapel at San Juan Capistrano Mission

Entering the Serra Chapel from the rear





The bells of San Juan Capistrano Mission

The bells of San Juan Capistrano Mission



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.



Sacred garden at San Juan Capistrano Mission




Arch arcade of Serra Chapel at San Juan Capistrano Mission


Mission buildings and interior rooms


Mission interiors at San Juan Capistrano Mission



Personal chamber at San Juan Capistrano






Treasures of San Juan Capistrano Mission


Treasures of San Juan Capistrano Mission



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.



Old town at San Juan Capistrano

Abundant annual blooms in the Los Rios district


Old town at San Juan Capistrano




Private home Old town at San Juan Capistrano





Old adobe home in Old town at San Juan Capistrano




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



For more posts about places to visit nearby, check the following:

Exploring Laguna Beach

Things to do in La Jolla

Weekend getaway to Escondido

Exploring Balboa Park in San Diego

Top 40 things to do in San Diego

A visit to Queen Califia’s Magical Garden

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Visiting San Juan Capistrano Mission in California

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