21 Iconic California Missions

The California Missions form a chain of 21 picturesque Spanish Colonial buildings along the coast of the Golden State. They are a photographic feature of the landscape, reminding visitors of California’s rich history as a Spanish Colony.

These missions were established by the Spanish between 1769 and 1833 by Franciscan priests of the Catholic church. These missionaries were headed by Padre Junipero Serra with an agenda to convert the Indians of California to the Catholic faith. However, the construction of the Missions was also a geopolitical move by the Spanish Crown to solidify their control of the California Coast in response to Russian movement relating to the fur trade.

The Mission system outlasted the Spanish Empire’s control of California once it became part of an independent Mexico. The Indians of the missions produced animal products like hydes, tallow, wool, and other textiles for export around the world. The Mexican government later secularized the missions and partionied their land as rancheros—but some of the mission buildings themselves remained as functional churches, and most all of them have become iconic and much-visited features of California history.

When the missions were first built, they were lonesome European outposts of an almost Medieval nature against the wide expanse of an unsettled country…or at least unsettled by Europeans. California was already home to a large number of Indians like the Chumash, Pomo, and Miwok tribes. The history of the California Missions in regards to these native peoples in controversial, resulting in a loss of their cultural transmission, forced conversions, and exposure to European diseases which severely reduced their numbers.

Architecturally, the missions have had a huge impact on the styles of buildings in California. They were built of adobe, or mud bricks that dried in the sun. The Mediterranean roof tiles were also made of mud. In many cases, the ceilings were made from wood. This made the missions susceptible to natural disasters like earthquakes and fires, and indeed many of the extant mission buildings are actually historical reconstructions.

The style of every mission chapel was different. Some were simple rectangular buildings. Others had more elaborate facades with bell towers or bell walls and were crowned with scrolling arabesque shapes. Many of the chapel interiors were flat-roofed with timbers, like the basilicas of early Christianity. They are sometimes painted in pastel colors with wonderful frescoes, and some contain elaborate baroque altar pieces.

Many of the missions had Spanish style courtyards with bubbling fountains ringed by a colonnade. These gardens have become one of the more charming and endearing components of the missions that remain.

Some of the missions are now surrounded by urban environs, like those of Missions Dolores in the Mission District of San Francisco. Others, like San Antonio de Padua, still sit like lone sentinels amid the rolling oak-studded hills of California.

The missions were positioned over the course of several decades to be one day’s horse ride apart, connected by El Camino Real, a road that is still marked with bells. In some places, El Camino Real has become a major city thoroughfare, and in others it aligns with major freeways. Whatever the case may be, it is still possible to drive up or down the coast of California and visit these architectural reminders of California’s past.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

This first mission was founded in 1769 and was named after one of the Franciscan priests who had been among the first missionaries to the Canary Islands. It is the burial site of Luis Jayme, a Franciscan priest who was killed in an Indian uprising.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo

This mission sits at the mouth of Carmel Valley and was built in 1797, where it served as the headquarters of the Mission System until 1833. It is the only Spanish mission in the entire chain of California missions to retain its bell tower and bell.

Mission San Antonio de Padua

This mission, built in 1771, sits among the rolling oak-studded hills of inland Monterey County. It was the first mission to use fire-baked roof tiles, the originals now located on the roof of the Southern Pacific Railway Depot in Burlingame.

Mission San Gabriel

Mission San Gabriel was also built in 1771 and is noted for its unique buttresses and narrow windows. Legend has it that the Franciscan party that founded it were confronted by natives. They laid a painting of Our Lady of Sorrows on the ground, and the Indians were so moved by its beauty that they made peace with the priests.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

This mission, founded in 1772, is named for Saint Louis of Anjou. It is unique for its facade, which combines the belfry and vestibule instead of having the bells in a tower. It is also the only L-shaped mission church. Located on the town plaza, it remains part of the urban landscape and functions both as a historical site and an active church.

Mission San Francisco de Asís

Image courtesy of the LA Times

This mission was founded in 1776, and although the current building dates to 1791, it remains the oldest building in San Francisco. It was named after Saint Francis of Assisi, but more commonly known by its proximity to a Our Lady of Sorrows Creek (hence its name, Mission Dolores).

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano was also founded in 1776. The original great stone church building was leveled in an 1812 earthquake, but the rebuild structure is picturesque and has been featured in films. It is also noted for the annual Return of the Swallows on March 19th.

Mission Santa Clara de Asís

Mission Santa Clara de Asís sits in the center of the campus of the University of Santa Clara. The current building is actually the sixth iteration of the mission, which was founded in 1777, but the extant church is noted for its ornate baroque altarpiece.

Mission San Buenaventura

Founded in 1782, this mission could only be founded after military escorts were made available. It was the last of the missions founded by Padre Junipero Serra, though he intended it to be the third mission in the chain. Fires and earthquakes destroyed the original building, of which only a small part remains in downtown Ventura.

Mission Santa Barbara

Founded in 1786 between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Mission Santa Barbara is the only mission to remain under Franciscan administration, and named after a saint who was beheaded by her father. The current building dates from after the 1812 earthquake.

Mission La Purísima Concepción

Image courtesy of California Beaches

The Mission La Purísima Concepción was founded in 1787 in Lompoc and is the only example of a complete Catholic Spanish mission complex. As part of the California State Park System, the annual flock of 200,000 visitors can get a glimpse into the mission life of weaving, pottery, candle making, blacksmithing, leatherwork, and livestock.

Mission Santa Cruz

Founded in 1791, Mission Santa Cruz was named for the Creek of the Exalted Cross, discovered by an earlier expedition of Padre Juan Crespi and the explorer Gaspar de Portola. The nearby Plaza Park was once home to 32 buildings, but the only extant one is dormitory for neophytes—Indians who converted to Catholicism and lived on the mission.

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad

Dating to 1791, this mission sits near sleepy Soledad on the Central Coast of California, a town that is named after the mission. The simple white-washed building is a restoration dating to 1954. One of the Colonial Spanish Governors of Alta California is buried on the grounds.

Mission San José

This mission in the heart of the Bay Area’s most populous area was founded in 1797. Juan Crespi intended to build the mission in the San Ramon area, but the natives were hostile to the idea, and so he settled instead for the rolling hills inhabited by the Ohlone. With 12,000 head of cattle, 13,000 horses, and 12,000 sheep, it was one of the most prosperous California missions.

Mission San Juan Bautista

This mission, founded in 1797, overlooks the Central Valley of California. It is remarkable for its three-bell campanario or wall of bells, but perhaps more recognizable for the role it played in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The steeple in the final scene was recreated in a sound studio, as the original had been previously destroyed in a fire. The mission itself is situated on a plaza with many historical buildings, some of which date to the California Gold Rush.

Mission San Miguel Arcángel

Mission San Miguel Arcángel in San Miguel was founded in 1797 and so chosen for the large number of Salinas Indians living in the area, who the Padres wanted to convert. It is noted for the colorful murals of Spanish artist Esteban Munras, which adorn the interior like pastel frescoes. It is also remarkable for its iconic 5-bell campanario overlooking its grounds.

Mission San Fernando Rey de España

Image courtesy of Pinterest

Founded in 1797 as well, this mission was actually the site of the first discovery of gold in California, six years before the Gold Rush in Northern California. The largest building of the mission complex was a Convento, or 20-room inn for travelers on El Camino Real, the Royal Road that linked the California missions. It is noted for its long colonnade of 19 arches and a courtyard with a fountain modeled after the city fountain of Cordoba in Spain.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

This King of the Missions was the largest in the chain of 21 missions, and named after King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis. The white-washed exterior crowned by a baroque pediment is the third iteration of the mission chapel. It is noteworthy for its beautiful gardens, surrounded by whitewashed colonnades and home to Peruvian pepper trees. 

Mission Santa Inés

This mission was founded in 1804 as a halfway point between Santa Barbara and La Purísima Concepción and to relieve the overcrowding at those mission complexes. It was home to the first school in Alta California and is regarded as one of the best-preserved mission complexes.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel

Courtesy of Mission Tour

This mission sits in the heart of downtown San Rafael, where it was founded in 1817 as a place for the sick Indians of Mission Dolores to recuperate in the sunshine of what is today Marin County. As such, it was the state’s first sanatorium, but eventually it became a mission in its own right. The original chapel was used by John C. Fremont as his headquarters during the Bear Flag Revolt.

Mission San Francisco Solano

Mission San Francisco Solano was founded in 1823 and is the last in the chain of California Missions to be so founded. In fact, it is the only mission founded after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The Mexican governor of California requested that it be built to prevent the encroachment of the Russians, who had built Fort Ross farther north up the coast. This mission was short lived before almost the entire mission system was secularized and its land parceled out as haciendas and rancheros.

Where to stay if you want to see the California Missions

The 21 California Missions are dotted along the California Coast (though some are slightly inland) from north of San Francisco to San Diego. You can always rent a car and take a road trip along El Camino Real to see them all. But you can also make one hotel your home base and explore some of the missions that are nearby, along with other attractions.

If you stay in San Francisco, you will be 60-90 minutes away from Mission San Francisco Solano and Mission San Rafael Arcangel to the North, along with Mission Dolores right in the city. You will also not be too far away from other missions in the Bay Area, such as Mission San Jose, Mission Santa Clara, and even Mission Santa Cruz. Of course, there are also plenty of other incredible things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If exploring the missions of Central California strikes your fancy, you might consider staying in the Monterey Bay Area or scenic Carmel by the Sea, which is home to Mission San Carlos Borromeo. Exploring the other missions in the area will require some car travel, but there are several within a 2 hour journey, including Mission San Juan Bautista, Mission San Antonio de Padua, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, and Mission San Miguel Arcangel, many of which are well worth a visit for history lovers.

Making Santa Barbara your home base will put you within reach of its own namesake mission, Mission Santa Barbara, along with Mission La Purísima Concepción, Mission Santa Ines, Mission San Buenaventura, and and Mission San Luis Obispo, which is near the massive rock looming over the shores of Morro Bay, often referred to as Gibraltar of the Pacific.

Los Angeles and San Diego are sunny and storied destinations for visitors to California, and staying in Southern California will bring you closer to the missions that dot the great expanse of its urban environs, such as Mission San Diego de Acala, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, and Mission San Fernando Rey de España.

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