Mission San Juan Capistrano

Once a religious and agricultural community of a thousand, this mission is now an Orange County historic cultural hub.

More than 200 years ago, Mission San Juan Capistrano was built as a self-sufficient community focusing on agriculture, industry, education and religion. The historic landmark is one of 21 missions established across California. Many consider it the birthplace of Orange County.

The mission was founded in the late 1700s to expand the boundaries of Spain and spread Christianity to Native Americans in the area. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination that educates visitors about California’s multicultural history.

The mission was at its peak at the turn of the century, and by 1806 it had a population of more than 1,000 people and their farm animals. The centerpiece was — and still is — the architectural triumph, the Great Stone Church.

Explore museum exhibits, 10 acres (4 hectares) of beautiful gardens, and fountains and preserved architecture, including the original chapel. Children will enjoy the Koi Fish Feeding, panning for gold and adobe brick making, while everyone can try the Native American Basket Weaving, which is held twice a month.

If you’re visiting in March, don’t miss the remarkable Return of the Swallows on St. Joseph’s Day. The birds flock to the mission in large numbers every year and begin building their mud nests directly in the ruins of the church. To celebrate their return, festivities take place at the mission, including live mariachi music, performances and presentations.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is open daily, excluding some public holidays. Try to allow for a full day here to get a good look around and take part in some of the daily activities. If you’re stretched for time, a one-hour tour is available on weekends. You can also take a self-guided audio tour any day of the week. (Free with admission.)

It takes about 25 minutes to drive to Mission San Juan Capistrano from downtown Santa Ana or the South Coast Plaza, and there’s plenty of free public parking. Public transport also services the area.