Exploring Mission San Juan Capistrano

By Jessica Harrison (Macaroni Kid Folsom.EDH Publisher & Editor) March 23, 2024

Embark on a family-friendly adventure to Mission San Juan Capistrano, conveniently situated just 25 minutes south of Irvine, right off the 5 Freeway. The accessibility of this historical gem caters to the needs of families seeking an enriching experience. However, our Tuesday afternoon escapade revealed a parking challenge, with street parking and overflow lots at full capacity. After a brief 10-minute search, luck smiled upon us as we secured a spot next to the mission. Keep in mind, the weekend and the bustling times when the swallows return might demand a bit of parking persistence. As a family travel enthusiast, navigating these details ensures a smoother journey for your tribe.


Mission San Juan Capistrano was a Spanish mission in Southern California, located in present-day San Juan Capistrano. It was founded on All Saints Day November 1, 1776, by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order. Named for Giovanni da Capistrano, a 15th century theologian and “warrior priest” who resided in the Abruzzo region of Italy, San Juan Capistrano has the distinction of being home to the oldest building in California still in use, a chapel built in 1782; known alternately as “Serra’s Chapel” and “Father Serra’s Church,” it is the only extant structure where it has been documented that the padre Junipero Serra celebrated mass. One of the best known of the Alta California missions, the site was originally consecrated on October 30, 1775, by Father Fermín Lasuén, but was quickly abandoned due to unrest among the indigenous population in San Diego. The prestigious World Monuments Fund placed “The Great Stone Church” on its List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2002. The most recent series of seismic retrofits at the Mission were completed at the cost of $7.5 million in 2004. About half a million visitors, including 80,000 school children, come to the Mission each year.”

The Mission Now

For the past few decades, Mission San Juan Capistrano has warmly welcomed visitors of all ages, inviting them to immerse themselves in the richness of history. Upon entry, a complimentary audio tour accompanies your exploration of the expansive grounds, offering insights into various historical facets. Perfect for history enthusiasts, allocating a half-day allows for a thorough exploration of the myriad wonders within. Our family, with four kids in tow, opted for a more leisurely approach, strolling through points of interest that captured our collective curiosity. Amidst the captivating array of attractions, a delightful surprise awaited us—a super bloom of wildflowers adorning the mission grounds, adding a touch of natural beauty to our historical journey.

The Great Stone Church

Right when you enter, you will immediately notice the most historic part of the mission, the remains of the great stone church. This area has been maintained for over two centuries, and even in its crumbling condition is an impressive view of America’s past. We spent a good amount of time just wandering around the area and envisioning what it would have been like when it was in its prime.

The Gardens

They are beautiful gardens with an extensive collection of different plant life. From flowers to cacti and even some vegetable plants, the mission is overrun with the beauty of the vegetation that climbs every old broken wall. Our kids were mainly fans of the fountain right in the middle of the central area that had all sorts of plant life growing on it along with Koi swimming in the water.

Insider tip: The Spanish Room and Native American Room are air-conditioned because they contain very old artifacts. Pop in here to learn about them...and cool off on hot days.

Hands on at the Mission 

At Mission San Juan Capistrano, they offer a variety of guided tours and educational programs curated specifically for student groups, creating an immersive journey into the Mission's history. Keep in mind that details for onsite tours and education programs may change, so refer to the list below for available options throughout the school year. Make sure to check out the self-guided audio tour titled "If These Walls Could Talk." Crafted with California students in mind, this tour has 23 stops, unraveling the early history of the Mission. Three of our kids enjoyed the tales of indigenous builders, soldiers, padres, and more.

For those seeking a hands-on experience for your kids, head to the customer service desk for information on guided tours where trained Mission guides and docents, lead your family through the  history of the Mission. Explore the Ruins, Serra Chapel, original buildings, and gardens, gaining a firsthand understanding of life at the Mission. 

Insider tip: Look at their event calendar when planning your visit. 

Mission San Juan Capistrano

26801 Ortega Hwy
San Juan Capistrano, CA

The reviews shared here reflect my personal experiences and perspectives during our family travels. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, always check the official website of each location before planning your visit.

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