There are a lot of things people think of when they think about a California vacation, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Disneyland, but too often California’s historic Spanish past gets excluded from the mix. Much of the State of California’s historic backbone, though, is its 21 Franciscan missions, along with four presidios and three pueblos connected by El Camino Real. The missions stretch from San Diego de Alcala in the south to San Francisco Solano in the north, and taking a trip to hit all or even some them, you also get to see the best of California.
Founded between 1769 and 1833, the California missions were a major push by the Spanish Empire to spread Spanish values amongst the native populations in the New Spain province of Alta California. Today, the 21 historic sites are mostly open to the public, though most are still owned and operated by the Catholic Church.
Some stand as reconstructions of the old buildings, but most have at least the church and some convent wings preserved. Of particular interest amongst surviving mission features is at the Los Angeles-adjacent Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, where the original interior murals created by the Salinan Native Americans under the direction of California’s last Spanish diplomat are still intact.
Which missions you visit will really depend upon your interest. Early California historians might take particular notice of the first missions, founded by Father Junipero Serra in the late 18th century. Architectural buffs might have greater interest in the San Diego de Alcalá, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, San Francisco de Asís, and San Juan Capistrano missions, all of which have been declared minor basilicas by the Holy See. If you’re looking for the best way to see a bit of everything in California, though, follow the trail through the major cities – San Diego, LA, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco. It’s beautiful coastal driving, some of the best cultural attractions California has to offer, and a lot of history thrown in between.
Between The Missions
In between mission sites, there’s a whole state out there to explore. A road trip to the major missions puts drivers some of the best stretches of coastal highway in the country, following some of the most scenic parts of State Route 1, or “the 1,” as you’ll hear it called there.
Starting in San Diego, you’ll have ample opportunity to enjoy the surf and sun before heading up to LA to live it up like a star. Santa Barbara, nicknamed the American Riviera, is bustling with charming tourist attractions, coastal beauty, and festivals to light up any season, while San Luis Obispo plays host to some of the more rustic charm along the trail and takes you by other points of interest such as the lavish Hurst Castle. Finish it all off in San Francisco, an eternally brisk and endless cool town with some of the best clam chowder you’ll find west of the Mississippi. Just don’t forget to take in the history in between.