How to spend a day in San Juan Capistrano California

Located on the southern end of Orange County, San Juan Capistrano lies adjacent to the beach towns of Dana Point and Laguna Beach, but offers families something different than sand and sun. One of the oldest communities on the west coast, visiting San Juan Capistrano adds a layer of history to your Southern California vacation. Here’s what to explore in one day.

san juan capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano:

Start here, at the central attraction of San Juan Capistrano. The crown jewel of the California missions, Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the only standing missions that can still be visited. Plan to spend a few hours here, and I recommend doing it in the morning, before the day gets too warm, as there’s little shade.

There’s an nominal entry fee to the mission ($9 for adults, $6 for kids), which is well worth it, given the scope of all there is to see here. I recommend upgrading to get the audio tour materials (which comes in an adult version and kids’ version), or scheduling your visit to coincide with one of the guided tours. Tours open up so much more of the history of a place like Mission San Juan Capistrano.

san juan capistrano

The main attraction here is arguably the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which was once the main cathedral, destroyed in an earthquake in the 19th century. Care has been taken to preserve the ruin and honor the 40-some lives lost. Along the far side of the cathedral, check out the swallow nests on the eaves, and learn about the swallows that still return to the mission each year (though in fewer numbers, due to a number of factors discussed at the mission).

san juan capistrano

After looking at the ruin, step around the back of the mission to peek in to various small courtyards and gardens, then enter the Serra chapel (tours can be had here, too). For those who are not Catholic, Father Serra, the founder of the mission, was recently granted sainthood, a big event for the mission and its faithful. Much care has been taken to not only preserve the mission, but tell the stories of its people, both the Catholic priests and workers who arrived here as well as the Native Americans whose way of life and personal lives were impacted (for good and bad) by the mission. Both sides of this history is now being told, which is a healing and important step.

great stone church

Kids will enjoy the barracks of the mission, with 19th century weapons and guns on display, and the mission bookstore and shop sells authentic items and locally-made products. It’s worth taking some time to simply walk through the courtyards and gardens, check out the lily pads and Koi fish and mature fruit trees. A small museum is housed in the interior of the mission on the far side from the chapel and ruins.

Los Rios:

After visiting the mission, head across Camino Capistrano toward the railroad tracks, and cross them at the train station to enter Los Rios. The oldest neighborhood in California, Los Rios looks like a residential neighborhood, because it is: shop and restaurant owners in this district must live on premises. A stroll down Los Rios Street will take families past many small restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, and eclectic shops. It’s fun to poke into the stores, but just as lovely to walk the quiet streets and allow kids to stretch their legs.

los rios

Dining in San Juan Capistrano:

On Camino Capistrano, families will find many options, including El Adobe, Ellie’s Table, and Mission Promenade, which features many different dining venues to pick from.

About the author

Pit Stops for Kids AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly at a number of travel publications, and contributes to OutdoorsNW magazine as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




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