It’s not a household name. Few travelers come to California solely to visit it. But nearly halfway between glitzy Los Angeles and the gorgeous coastlines of San Diego lies what’s called the “Jewel of the Missions”—Mission San Juan Capistrano, a late-18th century Spanish settlement in excellent condition. And everybody who steps foot in Southern California should see it.
I had never heard of it, and would’ve likely never stopped to visit. But my wife, who had visited the site several years earlier, convinced me otherwise during a recent trip to San Diego. Mission San Juan Capistrano turned out to be the highlight of our trip, a true California gem. Here’s what I loved about it:
Great Stone Church
We took Interstate 5 from Los Angeles, a drive with plenty of congestion, traffic, and noise. I’m ashamed to say I was developing a little road rage. But when I arrived at San Juan Capistrano, the first thing that jumped out was how quiet it was. It felt like a spiritual experience, with a meticulously landscaped courtyard, gardens teeming with flowers, and swaying palm trees.
The Mission seemed tailor-made for a pleasant afternoon or early-morning stroll, a meditative place to soak up the California sun and clear your mind. It doesn’t surprise me that the MIssion recently offered a special “Stretch and Strength” series of yoga events–the setting is ideal.
A corridor surrounding the courtyard.
Founded by Franciscan Missionaries from Spain during the late 18th century, Mission San Juan Capistrano was literally being constructed out on the West Coast while the American Revolutionary War was being fought to the East.
Since then, the Mission has become a legend of sorts. Ever heard the song, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”, performed by Elvis Presley, among others? That refers to the “miracle” of the cliff swallows that return from Argentina every year on March 19th to nest at the Mission. It’s a happy tradition that the locals celebrate annually, and as a result, the swallow has become the unofficial symbol of the Mission.
The campanario, featuring two of the original bells.
You know that Spanish Mission Revival architecture you see all around Southern California? You could say that started right here. Mission San Juan Capistrano is home to Serra Chapel, considered California’s oldest surviving building, completed in 1783 and still offering mass services today. And what’s inside is even older than the Mission itself–its golden altarpiece comes from Barcelona, Spain, and is more than 330 years old.
That there is anything left of the 18th-century Mission is something of a miracle. A devastating earthquake in 1812 destroyed much of its other chapel, the Great Stone Church. All that survived were the Mission’s four original bells–two of them are still on display today (along with two replicas of the remaining bells). The four bells hanging atop its belfry have become one of the most enduring images of the Mission, a lasting icon of California’s Spanish Colonial history.
The Mission offers several different ways to experience its history. To start, comprehensive audio tours are available in four different languages, while live guided tours take place twice daily from Monday through Saturday. On Fridays, a docent leads a tour of the site’s religious art, including many plein air paintings of the Mission throughout the centuries. And when they’re in town (spring and summer) there’s a cliff-swallow tour every day at 1 p.m.
Founded in: 1776
Size: About 10 acres
Named after: St. Giovanni da Capistrano, an Italian priest who led a crusade against the Ottomans in the 16th century.
Magnitude of 1812 San Juan Capistrano earthquake: Between 7.5 and 6.9 on the Richter scale.
Number of annual visitors: About 300,000