California’s 21 missions situated along Highway 101 are historical reminders of the state’s early days. Starting in San Diego, going all the way up to Sonoma, these structures are reminders of the Spanish missionaries that had a strong influence in the building of the state, including the names of the major cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. Here’s a complete California missions lists that highlights the features of each one, plus additional activities for those located near or in cities or larger towns.
During the heyday of the missions the main road was called El Camino Real (the royal road) in honor of the Spanish monarchy who financed the mission. Nowadays, the missions are situated on Highway 101, as well as Interstate 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles, Highway 82 from Santa Clara to San Francisco, and Highway 37 from San Rafael to Sonoma. For those who want to see some (or all) of the missions, the California’s Historic Mission Trail makes a great road trip starting either in the north or south.
Let’s start at where it all began at the very first mission in San Diego, and make our way up the state to the last one in Sonoma.
The Complete California Missions List
San Diego De Alcala
Located next to San Diego State University, California’s very first mission is still in use for daily masses. The mission’s massive bell tower has bells that are rung every Sunday before mass. The courtyard has a large, beautiful fountain and the gardens have some of the first olive trees in the state. The grounds also are home to one of the state’s oldest cemeteries.
Things to do in San Diego:
- Balboa Park – the city’s largest park that houses numerous museums, as well as the famous San Diego Zoo.
- Coronado Island – an idyllic island that’s an easy drive from downtown and house the Hotel Del Coronado.
- La Jolla – an upscale neighborhood that boast some of the city’s best coastline and beaches.
San Luis Rey de Francia
Known as the “King of Missions,” this mission was named in honor of King Louis IX of France. It’s located half an hour north of San Diego in the seaside town of Oceanside, and is often seen as one of the most architecturally beautiful of all the missions. It has an impressive cross-shaped chapel (a unique feature), and a stunning Spanish baroque and colonial style interior.
San Juan Capistrano
Known as the only mission where Father Serra (founder of the first nine missions) gave mass, this mission is worth stopping just for the ornate Serra chapel itself. There are also the remains of a great stone church, which used to hold a bell tower that could be seen from 10 miles away. Every March 19th, the mission celebrates the return of the famed cliff swallows from Argentina with performances and presentations.
San Gabriel Arcangel
This mission features five-foot thick walls and narrow windows that are characteristic only of this building. It’s one of the smaller missions, though in the past it contained several thousand acres. You can still view the original wineries, along with the kitchen gardens. This mission is the closest to Los Angeles in San Gabriel, and makes for a great day trip from the city, including nearby Pasadena.
Things To Do in the Pasadena Area:
- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens – cultural center with art galleries, rare-book collections, and well-maintained gardens.
- Rose Bowl – home to the famous New Year’s Day college championship game, as well as a monthly flea market.
- Cal Tech – a private research university that is known for its engineering and natural sciences departments.
San Fernando Re de Espana
Named for King Ferdinand III of Spain, this mission is known for historically having the largest freestanding adobe convent that was originally used as a hospice for travelers. The church, school, convent and workshops have all been restored to their original state. There is also a great museum with a lot of interesting artifacts from the mission days.
Founded on Easter Sunday in 1782, this mission is located in the Southern California beach town of Ventura. It was the last mission that Father Serra would christen before he passed away. The chapel is worth seeing, as it’s 90 percent of the original structure. Make sure to also check out the wooden bells that are the only one of its kind in California.
Things to do in Ventura:
- Ventura Pier – classic pier that’s great for people-watching and has great views of the ocean and city in the background.
- Ventura Botanical Gardens – scenic pathways for walking, with excellent aerial views of the city and coastline.
- Channel Islands – technically off the coast of Ventura, this national park is popular for day hiking and camping.
Nicknamed the “Queen of the Missions,” this mission’s design is inspired after an ancient Latin chapel in pre-Christian Rome. It’s located on a hill overlooking the ocean and the city of Santa Barbara, making it one of the missions with the best view. The scenic and sprawling gardens and courtyard are worth checking out, even if you can only see them from the outside pathway.
Things to do in Santa Barbara:
- Funk Zone – a revitalized area of downtown that is part of the Urban Wine Train with lots of tasting rooms and restaurants.
- Stearns Wharf – one of the oldest working piers in California.
- East Beach – a quiet and clean beach at the end of State Street (the main street that goes through downtown).
This mission is named in honor of Saint Agnes who refused to be sacrificed to pagan gods. The colorful alter décor is from the original mission and is different than the typical gold centerpieces at the other missions. This mission is historically significant because it was the location of the Chumash Revolt, one of the largest Native American rebellions during the mission era. The gardens are not to be missed with a covered walkway overgrown with vines and an array of vibrant flowers.
La Purisma Conception
Located in the town of Lompoc, near Santa Barbara, this mission is considered to be one of the greatest examples of mission-era architecture, where 37 rooms from the original were restored and furnished. The impressive garden was slowly created from plants brought from the other 20 missions once all of them were complete. There’s lots of land, along with sheep and goats that still reside on the property. Make sure to stop by the informative visitor center.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
This mission was the first to use tiles on the roof instead of the previous thatched roofs. On the land there was an array of crops and two water-powered grist mills that allowed for advanced technological production that was otherwise done by hand. This San Luis Obispo mission is the only one that has an L-shaped chapel. It received an extensive renovation in the 1930s that put it nearly back to its original structure.
Things to do in San Luis Obispo:
- Madonna Inn – an eccentric hotel with themed rooms and a waterfall in the men’s bathroom.
- SLO Creekwalk – a scenic pathway through downtown along a tranquil creek.
- Thursday Farmer’s Market – a local favorite gathering where you can sample the BBQ.
San Miguel Arcangel
With some of the best-preserved Native American murals in the state, this mission is worth stopping by. It also contains a massive bell tower with 5 bells that distinguish it from the other missions. The museum is worth stopping by to learn an in-depth account of Native American history, as well as daily mission life.
San Antonio de Padua
The least visited of all the missions due to being furthest away from the highway, this mission is still worth a stop. It’s located in a military compound in the small town of Jolon. It is known for its archway bells that are mostly restored to their original condition. Every spring the grounds are especially decorative with colorful wildflowers all through the grounds.
San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Located in the beautiful seaside town of Carmel, this mission was the favorite of Father Serra, who is buried here. It was the mission headquarters where he worked and the museum has interesting artifacts from his time here. One of the first things that you will notice is the beautiful exterior of the Basilica, which is arguably one of the grandest of all the missions.
Things to do in Carmel:
- Carmel Beach – a picturesque main beach located at the end of Ocean Avenue.
- Ocean Drive – an Instagram-worthy main street downtown that is filled with bakeries, dog stores and boutique shops.
- Point Lobes – scenic state park to wintertime whale and year-round sea lion watch.
Nuestra Senora de la Soledad
Fitting the isolated location of Soledad, this mission is named after Our Lady of Solitude. There’s only one main building remaining as most of the other buildings were destroyed. The property itself grew a lot of wheat and had a lot of livestock since it needed to be self-sustaining.
San Juan Bautista
A popular field trip location for nearby schools (you’re almost guaranteed to see school buses if you come on a weekday), this mission is located above the San Andreas Fault in the small farming town of San Juan Bautista. This mission has one of the largest churches with three aisles. The mission owned many musical instruments and taught musical arts within its walls.
The story goes that this mission was abandoned since it was located near a community of ex-convicts and safety was not the best. It was completely rebuilt across from the site where it originally stood, and all that remains of the original is part of the stone wall. It’s one of the smaller missions, though worth a stop to see a historical sight in town.
Things to do in Santa Cruz:
- Santa Cruz Boardwalk – a classic boardwalk with rides and arcade games.
- Mystery Spot – a natural phenomenon spot that seems to defy gravity.
- UCSC – one of the prettiest schools in the state with views of the ocean.
Santa Clara de Asis
This mission is located in the center of Santa Clara University, which was built around this historical building and is the oldest school in the state. You will spot the mission right as you come down from the main road. The beautiful chapel is used for mass, concerts and other school events. Not much is left of the original mission, except some adobe walls located across from the chapel.
Technically located in neighboring Fremont, this mission was one of the most recent ones to have its working chapel restored to showcase its beautiful vintage interior. In its heyday its lands reached north to almost present day Oakland and eastward to the Sacramento Delta. This mission is another popular one with nearby grade school students for their fieldtrips, so if you want to beat the crowds go towards the end of the day.
Things to do in San Jose:
- The Tech Interactive – a family-friendly science museum with a eight-story tall IMAX dome screen.
- Winchester Mystery House – an eccentric mansion built by the widow of gun magnate, Sarah Winchester.
- Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum – one of the largest collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts in the country
San Francisco de Asis
One of the oldest buildings in San Francisco, much of the original chapel is still in tact. The vibrant wall paintings are great examples of early California art. There are many of the earliest founders of the city buried in the cemetery, including the first Mexican governor, Luis Antonio Arguello. The gardens are worth checking out with native plants from the 1790s.
San Rafael Arcangel
This mission was originally purposed as a hospital for Native Americans before being granted mission status. If you’re in San Rafael, it’s worth checking out to see the city’s oldest building. There’s also an active church that is worth stopping in right next to the mission.
San Francisco Solano
The last mission that was built was up in Sonoma, just a few feet from where the town square is located. The original was washed away in a thunderstorm, although much of the courtyard remains intact. It is run by the California State Parks and thus noticeably well preserved. The museum has numerous mission paintings by the famed watercolor painter Chris Jorgensen.
Things to do in Sonoma:
- Sonoma Plaza – the town center that has shops, restaurants and wine tasting rooms.
- Sonoma Overlook Trail – a three-mile path that has panoramic views of Sonoma Valley.
- Vella Cheese – part of the California Cheese Trail, this is a cheese-lovers paradise.