Among the first California missions to capture the public imagination, Mission San Juan Capistrano (and its swallows) have been immortalized in song and film.
A walk through San Juan Capistrano makes it easy to see why the site has remained a popular tourist attraction for generations.
Wandering through Mission San Juan Capistrano
As was the case originally, there is one entrance into the mission. Passing through that gate brings visitors into a beautiful plaza surrounded on all sides by graceful arches. A large fountain murmurs in the center of a colorful garden. Gently sloping red tile roofs rest below a smattering of deep green palm trees in a perfect contrast to blue skies.
Off to the side another large fountain provides a dreamy foreground for the un-restored ruins of what was once a massive stone church.
The Great Stone Church
Mission San Juan Capistrano was a thriving community by the end of the 18th century. With this growth, the community was in need of additional worship space.
But not just any worship space would do. Rather than build a larger version of the flat-roofed adobe churches found at other missions, the priests at San Juan Capistrano hired a talented stone mason to design and build a truly magnificent church. An earthquake and the death of the mason before repairs could be completed led to tragedy when another earthquake struck during Sunday worship on December 8, 1812.
The ruins only hint at how beautiful the church must have been during its six years in use.
The Priest’s garden
The church bells were removed from the rubble of the collapsed bell tower and hung in a newly built campanario (bell wall) between the ruined church and the old chapel. That wall still holds the mission bells today and forms the wall of the serene Priest’s garden.
Inside the Serra Chapel
This garden leads to the Serra Chapel, probably the oldest surviving building on the site and the only remaining building in California where Father Serra (now Saint Serra) once held mass.
(Very little of the interior is original, as the chapel was abandoned after the roof collapsed in the 1890s. It was used to store grain for many years and then modified during “restoration” to accommodate a larger altar and allow natural light to enter.)
The chapel provides access back into the quadrangle and its gardens.
Back in the quadrangle and gardens
The buildings surrounding the quadrangle once held rooms for priests and novices, workshops, a kitchen, and storage areas – everything needed for a self-sufficient community to prosper. Today they house museum exhibits, visitor services, and offices. Nonetheless, the shaded walkways retain the feel of times gone by.
Reality vs imagination at San Juan Capistrano
As beautiful and historic as San Juan Capistrano is, it feels a bit like a movie set; everything is just a little too pretty and too perfect. It seems an idealized setting for what was in reality a very difficult way of life.
Although it was initially among the largest and most successful missions in California, San Juan Capistrano was already struggling to survive when an 1812 earthquake brought down much of that enormous new church. The situation worsened in the following years, as the mission continued to decline until sold to private landowners. With little incentive to maintain more than needed for their personal use, most of the mission was left to crumble. And, while efforts to stabilize and restore the mission were made after it was returned to the Catholic Church in 1865, it remained largely in ruins for decades.However, the ruined mission’s graceful arches, crumbling adobe, and collapsed church always attracted attention. As the mission period became an increasingly popular bit of California’s mythology, San Juan Capistrano’s picturesque ruins became a popular tourist stop.
The turning point for the mission came in 1910 with the arrival of Father O’Sullivan, the Landmarks Club decision to restore the mission (previous work simply preserved the ruins from further decay), and the mission’s role in the Mary Pickford film The Two Brothers.
Father O’Sullivan was critical to this reversal of San Juan Capistrano’s fate. He encouraged artists to visit the mission, enthusiastically supported restoration of the mission, and sought to bring the same bright and airy Impressionistic aesthetic then in vogue in vogue with California artists to his restoration of the mission and its gardens.
The result is as much a work of art as a historic site, but it certainly is beautiful.
Plan a visit to Mission San Juan Capistrano
Today Mission San Juan Capistrano is a popular tourist site south of Los Angeles in Orange County, California. The mission itself is located in the heart of downtown San Juan Capistrano.
San Juan Capistrano is just inland from Laguna Beach and Dana Point. It’s an easy day trip from anywhere in Orange Country or even Los Angeles itself.
Visiting the mission
Mission San Juan Capistrano is open to the public most days. Mass is regularly held in the Serra Chapel and the mission is a popular concert and event venue, so it is always a busy place.
The Catholic Church owns this beautifully maintained site, but it is operated by a private non-profit. (Apparently neither the Catholic Church or government entities provide funding to maintain the site.) An admission fee is charged to enter the site. (The fee includes access to the museum.) Expect a higher fee on days when special events and activities are underway.
As a privately-operated entity, Mission San Juan Capistrano hosts a full range of activities and events. That means there are a variety of ways to visit and engage with the past at this lovely site. Plan to spend a couple hours just to see the mission. Allow more time if you are also plan to attend a festival, concert, class, or other event.
Although services are still held there, the Serra Chapel no longer serves as the parish church. In the 1980s a new church was constructed just beyond the mission compound to serve the mission’s growing congregation. That church (built to look a bit like an old mission church) is clearly visible just beyond the mission.
About those swallows
Mission San Juan Capistrano is most famous for the annual return of its swallows on March 19, which is Saint Joseph’s Day.
The tradition celebrating the return of the swallows started in the 1920s when Father O’Sullivan was trying to draw artists, tourists, and money for restoration to the mission. At the time, the mostly ruined mission provided excellent nesting sites for cliff swallows.
Sadly, few swallows make the mission home anymore, so their return is not the great event it once was. However, there is always a lively festival to celebrate the occasion.
Visiting the historic mission district
Because Mission San Juan Capistrano was so successful in its early days, a substantial community developed beyond the mission’s quadrangle. Today San Juan Capistrano’s historic downtown retains a large number of historic buildings. With a mix of historic homes, commercial buildings, and civic structures – most of which house shops and restaurants – it’s a pleasant place to explore.
A map of the historic district is available on the Heritage Tourism Association’s website.
We visited San Juan Capistrano as a day trip while staying with friends in Orange Country.
While the town of San Juan Capistrano seemed like a pleasant place, there don’t seem to be any hotels or Airbnb options within walking distance of the historic downtown. However, both TripAdvisor and Airbnb identify lots of options further afield – particularly as you move toward the coast.
(Using this TripAdvisor link may provide a small commission to me at no charge to you. If you don’t already have an Airbnb account, using this link will save you money on your first booking and provide me with a credit.)