San Juan Capistrano, a charming treasure of Orange County, California, is home to a wealth of olden charm.
Located north of San Diego and south of Los Angeles, this city is dotted with history hailing back to the founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776, established by St. Junipero Serra.
The Mission San Juan Capistrano was the 7th of 21 California missions, and it became the cultural, economic, and religious center of the region: a neighborhood sprouted up around it from the mission builders and ranchers who made their home there.
San Juan Capistrano originated as a Spanish mission village then was secularized into a Mexican town.
Following the American conquest of California, it evolved to a small rural town, joining the United States in 1848.
Time spent in San Juan Capistrano reveals intriguing remnants of California history – it is known as the 'birthplace of Orange County,' and the footprints of its past are all over the city.
Today it is a place of historical sights, singular heritage, one-of-a-kind attractions, and bustling businesses, with an impressive amount of visitors who walk the streets and tour the Mission every year.
Take a leisurely trip into the heart of this city today and read on for a list of the best things to do here.
See Where It All Began at the Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is a mission in the city's heart, its crown jewel for which it was named.
It is named after St. John of Capistrano, a town in Abruzzo, Italy, and it dates back to 1776 and is part of a broader collection of missions throughout California intended to spread Spanish territory and convert the natives to Catholicism.
Originally built by the Spanish padres and Native Americans, it served as the city's center for agriculture, industry, education, and religion.
The Mission is a landmark attraction embracing its roots: a multifold European, Spanish, Mexican, and Native American heritage.
You can stroll its beautiful grounds and find rare treasures of 18th and 19th-century colonial life, such as paintings, artifacts, weaving looms, vats to make candle tallow, stone wheels for extracting olive oil, blacksmithing tools and furnaces, and more.
Visit the religiously significant structures, such as the Great Stone Church, the Serra Chapel (named after the Mission's founder), and an iconic replica of the bell wall on the grounds.
Learn to Cook at Farm School
Turn back the clock to a simpler era of a warm community gathering in the kitchen!
Farm School offers hands-on cooking classes at a picturesque 1903 cottage built in the board and batten style.
The area also comprises a brick terrace, a lush lawn area, a kitchen garden, an organic garden, fruit trees, and a rose-covered lawn – you will feel right at home as you explore the unique setting and enjoy classes with your loved ones.
They teach you to whip up dishes for all seasons: 'rainbow' preparations made of fruits and vegetables of varying shades, fun meals for a romantic evening, and adventurous food for individuals and small groups.
The Farm School is proud to have a full commercial kitchen and skilled staff that celebrates culinary knowledge and cultivates a place where anyone can indulge in the simple pleasure of gathering and cooking.
See the Sights at the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano Church
The Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano Church is the home of the local parish where masses take place.
It was constructed in 1986, designated as a minor basilica in 2000, and considered a national shrine by 2003.
It is a stunning work of architecture, with a monumental 85-foot dome, a 104-foot tower, the Basilica silver bell on the right side, and the papal crest over the entrance.
Inside, you can see the Basilica ombrellino or processional umbrella; gorgeous interior motifs that took artist Dr. Neuerberg 18 months to complete; and the Grand Retablo, a 42-foot high cedar altar adorned with gold leaf in the baroque style, designed by 84 artisans in Madrid.
Historical paintings and religious artifacts were collected at the Basilica by the padres who resided there in the 18th century.
There is also a room with Native American art and portraits, with an amazing series of religious artifacts like chalices, vestments, and tabernacles.
Have a Cup of Tea at Tea House on Los Rios
If you want to relax in a cozy homelike spot while in the city, you've come to the right place at The Tea House on Los Rios!
It is the finest destination for al fresco dining and the lovely British tradition of afternoon tea.
Find it in an adorable historic home perfect for sipping a cup and relaxing on the pretty patio while admiring the whimsical vintage adornments and lovely florals.
One can treat their kids to a specially designed tea package or choose from 5 tea packages: Traditional Black, Flavored Black, Green, Rooibos Teas, and Herbal Teas.
The menu has delicious options such as grilled salmon, roasted rosemary chicken, Bombay chicken curry, and English dishes, like Shepherd's pie and Queen Mum's spring salad.
It is the creators' hope that your visit to The Tea House will be soul-soothing and nurturing and leave you with beautiful memories.
Visit the Past at the Montanez Adobe
In 1794, citizens constructed 40 adobe structures at what is now Los Rios Street to shelter the Native Americans working on the Mission.
It is believed that the Montanez Adobe was one of these original 40 homes constructed.
The Montanez Adobe was the home of Doña Poloninia Montanez, daughter of early mission carpenter Tomas Gutierrez.
Doña Montanez created a small chapel in the adobe, which became a sanctuary for the whole village.
She served as the village midwife and nurse, as well as its spiritual community leader and the "Captain of the Pueblo" in charge of religiously instructing the village children.
In between 1886 and 1910, the Montanez Adobe became spiritually significant following the secularization of the Mission.
Today the adobe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and symbolizes the growth of an 18th-century California village.
Taste Wine at Rancho Capistrano Winery
The Mission San Juan Capistrano is possibly the first Mission to grow grapes and produce wine in the state.
It then follows that San Juan Capistrano holds the largest winery in Orange County, the winner of several 20 Best of San Juan Awards, including best lunch, best dinner, best patio dining, and, naturally, best wine.
The winery features a lovely 3,000-square-foot patio, a trellis, heaters, a blazing fireplace, and rustic teak tables, often with live entertainment, all creating a magical setting where anyone can enjoy their wine.
It has created more than 40 different wines from some of the most renowned grape-growing places in the world, like Napa, Paso Robles, and Walla Walla.
It also has one of the top restaurants in San Juan Capistrano, with hearty portions and a flavor-forward profile to complement the wines.
Stop Over at San Juan Capistrano Depot
One of the standout features of San Juan Capistrano is its gorgeous train depot, established in 1894.
Today, it still has its beautiful features crafted in the past, such as a 40-foot-high dome, a delicate old-time ticket office, an old-fashioned fireplace, and finely-wrought arches.
It references the Mission Revival architecture through its corner domed tower, deep arcades, and red Spanish roof tiles.
For years, it was considered the most attractive depot in southern California, created when such structures were hoped to lure East Coast and Midwest residents to the state.
People ride the trains to use them in touring the Mission and soaking in the history that the area offers.
Its Amtrak route wraps around the California coast, revealing picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean, the wetlands, the beaches, and the coastal bluffs.
Explore the Flavors at Trevor's at the Tracks
Across the railroad tracks is the longtime restaurant favorite, Trevor's at the Tracks, a San Juan Capistrano icon.
It describes itself as globally inspired, bringing the people dishes from all over the world, but with locally sourced ingredients to be sure the food tastes freshest.
Trevor's at the Tracks is known for its beautiful patio rounded out by a gorgeous fountain, letting you indulge in the beauty of Old San Juan as you sit and enjoy your favorite meal or beverage.
Their produce is fresh California-grown, and they are committed to using locally-acquired vegetables and fruits ripe in their season.
They work with vendors to make sure they acquire western-caught seafood grown on a sustainable farm or sustainably raised.
They also source cage-free chicken and eggs, grass-fed beef, and ethically raised livestock.
And their all-California beer and wine list is the perfect complement to your ideal meal.
Stroll through the Los Rios Historic District
The Los Rios Historic District is the oldest neighborhood in California that contains the remaining 40 homes, including the three adobe structures that housed the ranch workers and builders of the mission.
Today, most homes are private residences, but many have been converted to shops, restaurants, and other businesses open to the public.
You can stop at the cute Hummingbird House Café and taste their brunch and Greek dishes, or the Ramos House Café for their amazing Southern-inspired food.
Drop by Nest, a boutique selling fashionable pieces in an old-time 1880s cottage, or The Cottage Gallery, which exhibits photography, acrylic, watercolor, oil painting, glass wood, and ceramics from Orange County artists.
Go to Hidden House Coffee to pick from a selection of seasonal baked goods and a South American or African cup of coffee, then head on to Las Catrinas, which sells Mexican, Central American, and Southern American ornamental gift pieces.
Understand History at O'Neill Museum
The O'Neill Museum used to be the residence of saloon owner Jose Garcia, built for his wife between 1870 and 1880 and one of the first frame houses in San Juan Capistrano.
It has a bit of a spooky reputation as Garcia was unfortunately murdered in 1896, and there are stories about his ghost still patrolling the streets looking for the murderer.
Later owner Albert Pryor also died from a stroke, and people claimed to see his ghost still sitting on the porch.
At the museum, you can see rooms preserved to what they originally looked like in the 19thcentury and even spy parts of the wallpaper preserved under glass.
The Museum now also serves as the headquarters of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society.
Its center archives books, documents, maps, photographs, genealogical records, oral histories, and more, which anyone can peruse.
Spend a Day in Los Rios Park
Los Rios Park is tucked in a neighborhood where you can encounter the bustle of the train station, amazing homes aplenty, and the city's rich history.
Located in the heart of the city, it is an ideal spot to take your family for a day under the California sun.
Here, you can find lots of open space, attractive landscaping, native plants and flowers, drinking fountains, shaded benches, designated picnic areas, a stage for community events, and a butterfly garden.
Your children will love the playground, with its Old West-style dark wood and iron accents, gigantic climbing boulders, and saddles atop the telephone pole horses.
If you're seeking peace and quiet, sit beneath the little sycamores shading the benches or enjoy the pretty picnic area with its abundant trellis of grapevines surrounding the tables.
Pet the Animals in Zoomars at River Street Ranch
Zoomars is a one-of-a-kind place in San Juan Capistrano that has been around for 30 years and gives visitors the chance to create amazing memories with lovable animals.
Spend quality moments at the petting zoo, where you will encounter fuzzy guinea pigs, rotund kunekune pigs, sweet sheep, lovable alpacas, lazy goats, affectionate emus, cuddly llamas, mischievous ponies, cute rabbits, docile cows, and more!
Children will also have tons of fun at their playground, which has a bridge and underneath play area, four slides, climbing features, and a Western theme.
To complete the Western vibe, kids will have a chance for rides on well-trained ponies, a panning excavation for fossils, gemstones, treasures, and train rides where they can play conductors and passengers.
They can even drive a mini-tractor around the track and scoop, dig, and pile up sand with a mini excavator.
Pay a visit to The Ecology Farm
Californians have a passion for good food and will naturally seek top-tier ingredients with which to prepare their meals.
The Ecology Farm is one of the places to source these ingredients, a 28-acre organic farm of vegetables, fruit trees, and flowers, surrounded by rolling hills and the California coast.
Host farmer Evan Marks was inspired to create this ecological oasis by a drive to build a sustainable, community-driven future, demonstrated through the center's onsite and outreach programs.
The place has fields and gardens demonstrating the most planet-friendly and healthy ways to grow fruits and vegetables in suburban or urban settings.
These include a green roof, solar panels, an aquaponic garden, rainwater gathering, and drought-resistant planting.
The glorious local Californian produce thrives in this agricultural center, yielding a bounty fit for the many culinary establishments in the region.
Seek Nature's Beauty at Ronald W. Casper's Wilderness Park
San Juan Capistrano boasts plenty of rolling hills and areas of great beauty.
One of these is Ronald W. Casper's Wilderness Park, a natural preserve nestled in the Santa Ana mountains.
The park embraces 8,000 acres of grasslands, streams, and valleys with stunning stands of California sycamore and specimen groves of Coastal live oaks, scattered with seasonal wildflowers and traced by running streams.
There are many opportunities for hiking along the nature trails, mountain biking, and horseback riding along the paths, including the Mesa Loop Trail, West Ridge Trail, and Juaneno Trail.
Wildlife abounds in the park and can easily be viewed from the many nature trails.
This is also one of the rare spots in Orange County to camp inland, and there is even an equestrian campground available.
Ranger-led walks are available on Sundays, and naturalist programs with guided walks and Critter Talks can also be appointed.
Attend the Swallows Day Parade
Every year, the famous cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano migrate to their wintering grounds in Argentina.
And every spring, around mid-March, thousands of migrant swallows return to the mission walls to take their old nests, roost in its walls and arches, and raise their young in the city's shelter.
As these birds make their way back to the city, San Juan Capistrano celebrates their famous return on Saint Joseph's Day, March 19th, in the biggest celebration of the year.
Bells ring, mariachi music plays through the streets, a colorful parade marches, and a huge festival stirs up as tourists and visitors from all over the world flock through the city, all with their eyes on the sky.
Join the city population in celebrating the swallows' return with community presentations, interpretive station tours, a Flamenco dance performance, storytelling about the legend and St. Joseph's Day, the ringing of the historic bells, and more.
This spectacular event full of community, tradition, and festivity is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories of your visit to the city.
San Juan Capistrano is a true hidden gem of sun-soaked beauty, quaint history, delectable attractions, fun-filled escapes, and colorful heritage.
If you ever visit this part of the country, make sure to take this list along so you won't miss a thing.
This truly exceptional corner of California will harken back to the spirit of this great state and is well worth anybody's well-spent time.