Explore California’s Historic Missions Along the Camino Real
Two and a half centuries ago, Catholic missionaries sent by the Spanish Crown built 21 missions along the 600-mile Camino Real. The road and the missions along it went on to shape California’s infrastructure, architecture, and history. From San Diego to Sonoma, here are some of the best California missions to visit while road-tripping California’s first highway.
San Diego de Alcalá
California’s first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769 and restored in 1931. In 1976, Pope Paul VI named the mission a basilica (a church of historical, cultural, or religious significance). One of the mission’s most distinguishing features is a striking 46-foot-tall companario (bell tower) housing five bells, including an original bell bearing the mark of the King of Spain. Today, mission priests still bless the bells that ring each Sunday before mass. Bougainvillea cascades over the mission’s adobe walls, which surround immaculate gardens and California’s first historic cemetery. Inside the walls, visitors will find centuries-old hibiscus, succulents, and olive, citrus, and avocado trees.
Where to stay
Less than 15 minutes from the mission, Hillcrest House Bed & Breakfast Inn is the ideal base camp for exploring San Diego’s history. Located in a vibrant uptown neighborhood known for its restaurants and craft beers, the historic inn boasts a welcoming front porch and a private side yard patio.
San Luis Rey de Francia
Known as the King of the Missions, San Luis Rey de Francia (often shortened as “Mission San Luis Rey”) is perhaps the most architecturally graceful of California’s missions. Marked by an octagonal dome, a stately church, and a long corridor with 32 Roman arches, the mission has been carefully restored. The mission complex once extended over six acres. During the mission era, bullfights were held in the quadrangle. Today, the mission gardens include a fruit orchard where California’s first pepper tree—planted in 1830—still grows. Fired-tile steps lead down to sunken gardens and the ruins of the old lavandería (outdoor laundry), where two springs provided water that sprouted from the mouths of sculpted gargoyles.
Where to stay
An intimate oasis near the beach in Encinitas, Inn at Moonlight Beach was the first lodging property in the world to be recognized as a WELL™ Certified hotel building. Every detail of the property was intentionally designed with wellness and environmental responsibility in mind.
San Juan Capistrano
Named a basilica in 2000 and designated the “Jewel of the Missions,” Mission San Juan Capistrano is known for its special and recurring events. The most famous is The Return of the Swallows in March, which celebrates the migrating cliff swallows that will later fly 6,000 miles to Argentina for the winter. As visitors enter the mission grounds, they’re greeted by the ruins of the Great Stone Church, the largest among all the missions. Designed in the shape of a cross, the church collapsed in a massive earthquake in 1812. A free-standing bell wall still houses four original bells from the Great Stone Church. The Serra Chapel, with its gilded altarpiece, is the oldest building still in use in California and the only surviving church where Father Serra said mass. Nearby is California’s oldest neighborhood, the Los Rios District. Houses there, constructed to house mission builders and ranch workers, date back to 1794.
Where to stay
Located on a bluff above the Dana Point Yacht Harbor, Blue Lantern Inn is a four-diamond inn with ocean views from just about every window. Atop a hill with a view of the ocean and the hills of San Clemente, the newly constructed North Beach Villa is a short walk to beaches, restaurants, and bars.
San Gabriel Arcángel
Still an active Catholic Church, Mission San Gabriel Arcángel at one time covered several hundred thousand acres and was responsible for one-fourth the agricultural wealth of all California missions. The mission sports a Moorish fortress-like appearance, inspired by the cathedral and former mosque of Córdoba, Spain. With five-foot-thick walls and narrow windows, Mission San Gabriel has a design not found in any other mission. The façade features a picturesque espadaña (bell wall), with the oldest bells cast in 1795. One bell, which weighs a ton, can be heard from eight miles away. The grounds are filled with artifacts of historical significance, including Native American paintings of The Stations of the Cross dating to the 1820s, a restored mission-era kitchen, a room displaying historic wine-making equipment, and six priceless altar statues brought from Spain in 1791.
Where to Stay
Built in 1887, The Bissell House is a historic Victorian mansion in South Pasadena. With six antique-adorned guest rooms and an inviting pool, this romantic getaway is less than two miles from Pasadena’s Old Town shopping and dining district.
San Fernando Rey de España
Named in honor of King Ferdinand III of Spain, San Fernando Rey de España was founded in 1797. It is still an active Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The grounds include a convent, winery, gardens, and a colonnade with 20 arches. Originally housed in the Chapel of St. Philip Neri in Ezcaray, Spain, the church altar, reredos, and carved walnut pulpit date back to 1687. Two large, well-landscaped gardens feature a sculpture of the mission’s founder, Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén, and the old mission plaza features the original flower-shaped fountain. The Archival Center for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is located on the mission grounds. Actor Bob Hope and other Los Angeles notables are buried in the cemetery.
Where to stay
A new upscale boutique hotel near top Los Angeles attractions, Hotel Mariposa has a contemporary interior with nature-inspired ambiance. In addition to spacious rooms, the hotel boasts an elegant garden courtyard with a beautiful fireplace, waterfall, and hot tub.
Old Mission Basilica San Buenaventura
Known as “The Mission by the Sea,” Old Mission Basilica San Buenaventura was founded on Easter Sunday in 1782. It was the last mission Father Serra christened. The mission fronts Ventura’s main street, just three blocks from the ocean. The church’s high altar and reredos (ornamental altar screen) originated in Mexico, and The Shrine of the Crucifixion on the left side of the church contains a 400-year-old bulto (a carved image of a saint). An on-site museum exhibits artifacts that include two old wooden bells, the only ones of their type known in California. The church facade has an unusual triangular design, with a picturesque side entrance that opens into the well-tended palm tree-lined gardens for which the mission is known. The gardens and courtyard feature a grotto, a mission-era olive press, an ornate tiled fountain, and an asymmetric bell tower.
Where to stay
Be lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean at Inn on the Beach, the only oceanfront hotel in Ventura. Each of the inn’s 24 rooms looks out over the sand and waves. Each room also features a gas fireplace and a private patio or balcony for enjoying the views.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Established in 1786, Old Mission Santa Barbara endures as the city’s cultural and historic center. Known as the “Queen of the Missions” for its well-preserved grandeur and beauty, it’s the only California mission continuously occupied since its founding. Major features include a distinctive church with a Neoclassical façade, a stunning Moorish fountain, a 12-acre garden, and a 10-room museum. The garden showcases California’s botanical heritage. The museum—one of the largest among the California missions—features a unique collection of historic artifacts and interpretive displays, including a reconstruction of an original mission kitchen and the two largest religious paintings housed in all of the missions.
Where to stay
Simpson House Inn is a luxury boutique hotel in a historic mansion nestled on an acre of meticulously manicured English gardens. Palihouse Santa Barbara is a hip, coastal hideaway in the heart of downtown’s historic Presidio neighborhood. The historic Hotel Santa Barbara on State Street places guests just steps from downtown shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Old Mission Santa Inés
Old Mission Santa Inés, or the “Mission of the Passes,” was the 19th of California’s 21 missions. It commands a superb view of the Santa Ynez Valley, along with the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges. The church was inspired by neoclassical design and completed under the direction of skilled artisans. Santa Inés is known for the number and quality of its mission-era paintings, as well as its extensive collection of church vestments dating from the 17th Century. The mission museum also contains rare manuscripts and artifacts. A telescope is available for viewing the ruins of the mission’s old mills (which are not yet open to the public).
Where to stay
On a stretch of highway between Solvang and Santa Ynez, Hotel Ynez is a classic California motor lodge that has been reimagined as a rustic-chic wine country escape. ForFriends Inn places guests within walking distance of Santa Ynez restaurants, shops, and wineries. Intimately set amid lush gardens, meandering pathways, and brick fire pits, The Genevieve boasts a whiskey library and a world-class spa.
La Purísima Concepción
La Purisma Concepción was the 11th mission established by the Franciscan Fathers. Now a California state historic park, it is the most completely restored California mission and the only “living museum.” Docents in period costumes walk the grounds and perform living history demonstrations of mission life (like candle making and weaving), while period-accurate live animals roam inside a corral. A five-acre garden shows native and domestic plants typical of a mission garden, one of the finest collections of early California flora in existence. Around 25 miles of hiking and equestrian trails crisscross the nearly 2,000 acres of grounds, which also include picnic areas.
Where to stay
With hand-carved doors, century-old stonework, hand-troweled walls, and artisan-crafted woodwork, the Inn at Zaca Creek transports guests from the rustic charms of the Central Coast to the ethereal beauty of pastoral Provence.
San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa began as a humble log chapel dedicated in 1772 to St. Louis, Bishop of Tolosa. One of its distinct architectural features is a colonnade of 11 round columns fronting the former convent, now a museum and gift shop. The extensive museum has a room dedicated to Chumash art, craftsmanship, and historical artifacts. Notable in the mission’s history are the late 1700s attacks on the mission by the indigenous Chumash people. The mission’s thatched roofs were no match for flaming arrows, prompting the missionaries to learn to make clay roof tiles. This soon became the standard for all missions and set a trend in California architecture. White siding and a steeple were added to the church in 1868 in an attempt to modernize it. In 1934, it was restored to a near-perfect mission-era appearance.
Where to stay
The SLO Brew Lofts are a collection of five stylish suites in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo’s entertainment district. An inviting boutique hotel, Garden Street Inn blends classic décor and Victorian charm with a modern sensibility. Hotel San Luis Obispo is a modern urban resort with a spa, onsite bakery, and two restaurants.
Carmel Mission Basilica
Carmel Mission Basilica was California’s second mission and one of only four mission basilicas. It was known to be Father Junipero Serra’s favorite among all the missions; he still lies buried beneath its sanctuary. It once served as the ecclesiastical capital of California. Set against the sea and mountains—and with elaborate Moorish architectural details—the mission is among the most visually striking. Gardens feature cobblestone pathways, flower-filled courtyards, and a massive holy-water fountain, surrounded by culinary and medicinal herbs, citrus and olive trees, roses, Mexican sage, and bougainvillea. Inside, the museum explores the mission’s history, including an impressive collection of original paintings and statues. One of the most popular mission attractions is the elaborate Serra Memorial Cenotaph, a monument consisting of exquisite life-sized sculptures of Father Serra and three other pioneer missionaries.
Where to stay
Inspired by Prague’s Bohemian architecture, L’Auberge Carmel is an enchanting three-story inn that marries Old World charm with modern luxuries. The Carmel Cottage Inn consists of five historic cottages set in a garden, just one block from Carmel Beach. With a heated swimming pool and a range of room configurations, Hofsas House is one of the most family-friendly hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Mission Santa Cruz & Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park
Mission Santa Cruz was founded in 1791 and then moved to its present site on a bluff overlooking the San Lorenzo River in 1793. After the mission church was destroyed in an 1857 earthquake, an ornate Gothic-style parish church was built where the original once stood. In 1931, an authentic one-third-scale replica of the original mission church was erected 75 yards away. On the church’s side wall hangs a 1797 oil painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe, and the mission museum houses a collection of antique silk vestments sewn with silver and gold thread. The only surviving building from the original mission is an adobe structure from the 1820s built to house Native Americans. The restored building is now part of Santa Cruz Mission State Historical Park.
Where to stay
An eco-friendly boutique hotel, Pacific Blue Inn is conveniently located halfway between downtown Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Exuding Old World charm and hospitality, Cliff Crest Bed & Breakfast Inn is a Queen Anne Victorian in the historic Beach Hill neighborhood. Blending vintage glamour and modern comfort, Rio Vista Inn & Suites offers 12 luxurious suites in a handsomely restored Victorian.
San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores Basilica)
In the heart of San Francisco, San Francisco de Asís is the oldest surviving building in the city. The mission was founded adjacent to Arroyo de los Dolores, or “Creek of Sorrows.” The creek inspired the mission’s unofficial second name, “Mission Dolores.” The mission later became the first designated basilica west of the Mississippi River. Mission Dolores is the final resting place for some 5,000 Ohlone, Miwok, and other early Californians who built it and were its earliest members. Gardens are planted with traditional native trees, shrubs, and flowers from the 18th Century. The cemetery and gardens offer a quiet oasis from the bustle of the city. Guided tours are available. A noteworthy architectural feature is the basilica’s stained-glass windows, which depict all 21 of California’s missions.
Where to stay
Nestled between the Mission and Castro neighborhoods, the Parker Guest House is an urban hideaway offering an authentic San Francisco experience. Built in the 1920s to house visiting opera stars, Inn at the Opera features a French ambiance and a prime location near the city’s best arts venues. Just three blocks from San Francisco’s Painted Ladies at Alamo Square, the Chateau Tivoli Bed & Breakfast is a meticulously restored Victorian built in 1892.
Mission San Francisco Solano
Mission San Francisco Solano, the last mission built along the Camino Real, was founded on July 4, 1823. Centrally located on Sonoma’s town square, the mission was masterminded by an overly ambitious padre, who acted without church approval. The restored mission is now part of Sonoma State Historic Park. What was once the padre’s quarters is now a museum with a collection of watercolor renderings of all the California missions. A re-planted 19th-century garden is filled with cactus and olive trees, and a commemorative wall displays the names of mission neophytes. While not an active Catholic Church today, the property includes a restored church that visitors can tour. Directly across from the mission is the site where California was first declared a republic. Much of the original mission vineyard is now part of the world-famous Sebastiani Vineyards.
Where to stay
Just a block and a half from Sonoma Plaza, the Inn at Sonoma blends the luxury of a boutique hotel with the traditional ambiance of a bed and breakfast. The inn features a rooftop deck with an outdoor hot tub and is within easy walking distance of more than two dozen wine-tasting rooms.