Exploring the Missions of San Diego

By: Giverny Tattersfield

July 10, 2015

Years before the city of San Diego was officially founded, intrepid padres had sailed from Spain to bring Catholicism to Native Americans and to colonize the land that the Spanish had first set foot on two centuries earlier. The first “mission” was founded in 1769 in the area we now know as San Diego, and over the years, 21 missions in total were established throughout California before eventually succumbing to the vicissitudes of time, war and hardship and falling into disuse. Now, hundreds of years later, visitors can walk in the footsteps of early-American history and explore the area’s Spanish heritage in the preserved missions of San Diego and beyond.


Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá 

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá © Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

When exploring the missions of San Diego, it makes sense to start with not only the first one founded in the area, but the first of all the 21 Californian Missions, established in 1769. Over its history, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá has been burned down, rebuilt, moved to a new site, occupied by the United States army, left to ruin, and used as a school. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, who signed the mission back over to the Catholic Church in 1862, it’s now an active parish and centre of faith in San Diego. Visitors can attend mass, listen to the bells, stroll around the centuries-old gardens, and enjoy the historic buildings. There is also a small but charming museum on the site displaying historical artefacts from the Mission era, including old photos and handwritten documents.


Santa Ysabel Asistencia

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | Santa Ysabel

Santa Ysabel Asistencia © Omar Bárcena/Flickr

Continue your exploration of the missions of San Diego by taking in an asistencia or two. These so-called “sub-missions” were built to house the converts, but not the missionaries. Built in 1818 to the east of San Diego, Santa Ysabel was founded to be the asistencia of Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Nicknamed the “Church of the Desert”, Santa Ysabel was a remote but peaceful spot, which eventually fell into disrepair; its bells mysteriously disappeared in the 1920s and the church itself was replaced. Although the asistencia is gone, you can still visit the active chapel on the original site, built in 1924.


Junipero Serra Museum

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | Junipero Serra

Junipero Serra Museum © San Diego History Center

Up next is the Junipero Serra Museum, built in 1929 on the original site of Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. Found on top of the hill in Presidio Park, this spot is considered by many to be where California began, earning it the nickname of “Plymouth Rock of the West Coast”. Visit Junipero Serra to explore the artefacts in the Museum, many of which were unearthed on this very site, and to enjoy views across the Park and Mission Valley.


Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | San Luis Rey

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia © Brent Hellickson/Flickr

No tour of the missions of San Diego would be complete without a trip to the “King of Missions”, Mission San Luis Rey. Founded in 1798 and considered the largest of the 21 Californian Missions, San Luis Rey had over 50,000 animals and a population of over three times the mission average at its peak. Today, San Luis Rey is home to Franciscan Friars who have opened the mission and the grounds to the public.


Open year-round, the Friars at San Luis Rey host a wide variety of events and activities from behind-the-scenes tours of the mission every weekend to pop-up events like craft beer and food tastings. There are also mission-era art and artefacts to enjoy in the on-site museum and a beautiful sunken garden.


Asistencia de San Antonio de Pala

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | San Antonio de Pala

San Antonio de Pala © Konrad Summers/Flickr

Originally founded as the sub-mission for Mission San Luis Rey in 1816, San Antonio de Pala is a must-visit when exploring the missions of San Diego; it’s the only asistencia left intact. Today, the Mission is an active place of worship and the only mission in California that still serves the local Native American population, as it was originally intended. It’s a little off the tourist track, but its welcoming atmosphere and great little museum make it a lovely place to visit, just half an hour’s drive from Mission San Luis Rey.


Mission San Juan Capistrano

Exploring the Missions of San Diego | MSJC Central Courtyard

Mission San Juan Capistrano © Mission San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano – the so-called “Jewel of the Missions” – is a little over an hour’s drive along the picture-perfect Californian coast, the ideal day trip from San Diego. Originally founded in 1775, this was the seventh Mission established on Californian soil. Mission San Juan Capistrano has been preserved, allowing visitors to enjoy the beautiful gardens (watch out for the orange Birds of Paradise) and historic buildings, as well as a packed calendar of events, tours and exhibits running throughout the year. From the summertime concert series “Music Under the Stars” and the annual “Battle of the Mariachis Festival”, to family sleepovers in the Mission grounds, there’s always something happening here. One of the most popular events is the annual St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows Celebration, a tradition which was started in the 1920s and is still going strong today.


Thanks to our partnership with Delta, booking a trip to discover the missions of San Diego is a breeze.


Have you visited any of the Missions of San Diego? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Giverny Tattersfield


Giverny Tattersfield

A lover of food, fun, and following her feet, Giv is a travel and food writer currently living and working in London. More than likely to be found planning her next trip/meal or with her nose in a book… You can follow her on Twitter @GivernyT.

Categories: Our Places