Visiting California’s Spanish Missions

A few years ago, when our boys were learning about California history at school, we decided to try to explore more of our home state with them.


Since California only became a state in 1850, it doesn’t generally have the centuries-old monuments like the old world. But, as most 4th-grade California school kids learn, some of the oldest buildings in California are the 21 missions built by the Spanish between 1769 and 1823. Covering a distance of nearly 600 miles (1000 km) between San Diego and Sonoma, mostly near the coast, they were built each roughly a 30 mile journey apart.

The missions were part of Spain’s strategy for colonizing California. Each mission had a prominent church, and often had large ranches and workshops. The colonial history naturally has its dark aspects, which we’ll skip here. After Mexican independence from Spain, the missions were secularized and fell into disrepair. But then after statehood, the missions were given to the Catholic Church, though many had to be significantly restored.

Our snowballing plan

Somehow we ended up seeing all 21 of the missions in 2017, but we didn’t quite start out with that plan. Initially, we decided to visit a few nearby missions when our oldest boy was learning about them in school.

The first ones were interesting enough, and as we looked at the map, we realized that the 8 missions between Carmel and Sonoma were within a reasonable day-trip range from our Bay Area place. So, on some Saturday mornings over the following months (sometimes with our boys’ rolling eyes), we’d visit them, one or two at a time.

Since we were on a roll, we decided to try to see the rest, which was a bit more challenging due to the distance. To make it easier,  we did this over the course of two long weekends:

  • A Central Coast trip between Santa Barbara to Soledad
  • The Southern California stretch between San Diego and Ventura

We did slightly bribe the boys by combining the Southern California trip with a visit to Universal Studios. We also added in a Hearst Castle stop (also very worth seeing).

Logistics and Comments

If you do live in California, we recommend seeing some of these – some are really quite beautiful (e.g. San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, Carmel), while others are good for an interesting sort of day-trip. A few others are less worth writing home about. Be aware that some have little of the original left (e.g. San Rafael) or are somewhat small (e.g. Soledad), but in aggregate, they’re an interesting aspect of the state to explore.

Logistically, if you’re trying to visit several on a trip, it’s worthwhile paying attention to hours of each mission – often roughly 9am to 5pm, but Sunday morning services impact hours. Also, be aware of Saturday afternoon weddings – in our case, this impacted a couple of our visits, and this is hard to predict.

Unfortunately, we didn’t end up taking too many pictures when doing this – we have some, but can’t write up super-detailed posts. That said, we’ll write up some highlights and thoughts in a couple of followup posts.

Keep reading our travel blog for more adventures in California!

Here are some more blog posts from this trip:


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