Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano, California

If you are looking to learn about California history, no place is better than San Juan Capistrano. And thankfully, the Spanish-style town has more to offer, making it a perfect day trip from San Diego or Orange Country. Plan your perfect day with things to do in San Juan Capistrano.

Things to do in San Juan Capistrano, California

What to Do in San Juan Capistrano, California

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Why Visit San Juan Capistrano Mission?

The mission is in the cute and upscale town of San Juan Capistrano and surrounded by so much history. I definitely agree with the motto of the mission above! At the mission, you will find gorgeous gardens, reverence and native American, Spanish, and early California history. It is so rich in California history that almost every kid raised in the state comes here on a field trip. I think is one of the 75 Best Spots to Visit in Southern California.

The History of Mission San Juan Capistrano is the History of California.
Springtime at San Juan Capistrano Mission in California.
The array of rainbow-colored flowers against the walls at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Spain wanted more territory and to spread Catholicism to the native people, so they built a series of missions in Alta California. In total 21 missions were built. The missions were colonial forts that would train the natives on how to become good Spanish citizens, which is much different from the colonization that was happening on the east coast of the US. The missions had churches and schools. If natives chose to be part of the mission, they had to become baptized and then could live in the mission. In return, they would be protected and taught skills such as farming.

San Juan Capistrano Mission was opened on All Saint’s Day in 1776 after a year of unrest in San Diego. It flourished for 30 years growing to have a population of over a thousand people.

After Mexico gained control of Alta California, it ended the mission system and the land was sold off in 1845.

In 1850 California became a state, which I am quite grateful for! Many people were sad that the missions had been destroyed and asked the government to return them to their previous state. In response, President Abraham Lincoln gave the missions back to the Catholic Church.

What will you see at the Mission San Juan Capistrano?

What to do in San Juan Capistrano, California
You can imagine how the original priests lived by visiting the recreated Mission-era rooms in the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Near the entrance is a museum with the history of the area and the mission. There are also tools, wells and other artifacts throughout the property. Be sure to tour the recreated living quarters.


I really adore the uniquely Californian gardens at the mission including some gorgeous fountains. Although they are not accurate to the original gardens, when the vegetation was mostly utilitarian food crops, they are so lovely for us flower-lovers. Set among the adobe walls of the mission you will find cacti, Bougainvillea, guava trees, and lavender among many other plants. Most of the varieties in the present gardens are not indigenous to the area.

Serra Chapel

Named after Saint Junípero Serra, the Spanish father who was in charge of starting the missions, this is the only chapel standing that he worshiped in and is still open for services.

Things to do in San Juan Capistrano

Saint Peregrine Chapel

This prayer room dedicated to the patron saint of illness is still frequented by parishioners seeking healing.

Great Stone Church
Ruins of the Great Stone Church, California.
The ruins of the Greco-Roman Great Stone Church which fell just forty years after it was built.

Although tragic, I always love touring remains. This church crumbled in the 1812 earthquake killing 40 congregants. The Basilica in town is modeled after the original.

Mosaic of Mary at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The property has a museum featuring items owned by the mission through the years including iconography, but also photos, colonial and Spanish art.

The Annual Return of the Swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

When do the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Swallows nests on the walls of Mission San Juan Capistrano.

As a child, we went to the mission every year on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, to see the swallows as they migrated north from Argentina. The celebration of the swallow’s return has been celebrated since the 1930s. You can read about the swallow’s legend here.

What is the best way to tour the mission?

You can do a guided tour, an audio tour, a family tour or just wander around.

What Are Other Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano?

Los Rios Historic District

oldest California neighborhood

Los Rios, located right across the train tracks from the mission, is the oldest continually settled neighborhood in California. There are still the remains from three adobes, The Montanez, the Rios, and the Silvas, that were a few of the houses built for the mission’s builders and ranchers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Set among these buildings are the homes built by European immigrants in the late 1800s. Set among the residential houses underneath the Eucalyptus trees on the quiet lane are shops and cafes which are worth exploring. It has quite a different feel from the souvenir shops and glamour of Camino Capistrano.

Day trip to San Juan Capistrano, California
There are many great restaurants to choose from in the area. We chose Trevor’s because we love trains and the windows are right along the track.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano

Only a few miles away is SJC’s modern basilica which is just gorgeous on the inside. The church is uniquely modeled after the Great Stone Church in the mission, but not a copy. Although much of the church is noteworthy, the large Trinity-themed retablo, or altarpiece, is really the breath-taker.

Enjoy your day in the southern California sun. For more ideas on how to enjoy the area, check out A Local’s Guide to Orange County.  Let me know in the comments what you think of the mission or if you have any other questions.

If you are staying in the area and need a hotel, be sure to look for one here. Anything you book will provide a small commission to this site, at no cost for you. This will help me bring more spots to visit for you to read about. Thank you.


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3 thoughts on “Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano, California”

  1. This is right in my area and I never thought to visit. I will definitely be taking a trip and exploring with the things you suggested. I tend to just ride through on my way to LA from San Diego.


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