Contrary to what most people think, the Spaniards in California have long kept an eye in the area longer than the existence of the missions – from the first encounter and subsequent discovery of California in 1542 by one Juan Cabrillo to the establishment of their first settlement in the region through the founding of San Diego.
The founding of San Diego was then followed by subsequently establishing fortifications such as the presidios, the cities called pueblos, and finally, the missions, which were set up to ostensibly “civilize” and “educate” California’s native inhabitants, the American Indians, about the good news of Catholicism and of the Pope. These three institutions became part of Spain’s plan to colonize the West and establish itself in the quickly-spreading scramble for America, which saw the Russians, Spaniards, and French competing for their own interests at the expense of its native inhabitants.
Regardless of the circumstances in which these institutions were established (as well as the documented atrocities that happened in the missions themselves), they serve as a great reminder of the legacy left by the Spanish in the West – and remain an excellent place to learn about history and tradition. Hence we came up with 5 of the most essential missions that you ought to visit the next time you come to California.
There are a lot of tour operators that offer guided tours to the missions – some of which can be quite grueling which means that you’ll need to bring stuff that’s important for hiking, too. But you can save a load of time and money by seeking which ones are the most important to visit at the comfort of your home and taking a nice drive out to them in your own time and leisure. Research your mission destinations beforehand though, over the powerline, and don’t count on having mobile data available to double check your destination on the internet – you often can’t get online in these distant areas.
1. Old Mission Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara, CA.
The Old Mission at Santa Barbara isn’t called the ‘Queen of the Missions’ for no reason. The ancient mission offers breathtaking and spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean as it looked several centuries ago, to the delight of history buffs and artists who could simply plop down and sketch or paint the views on canvas right on the grounds. The mission also has a lawn for outdoor sport, camping and picnics, while a short walk from the mission will take you to a garden of fruit-bearing trees that seem to have not been touched by time. Truly an essential place to start from.
2. San Luis Obispo De Tolosa: San Luis Obispo, CA.
A 90-minute drive from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa stands as one of the most beautiful missions, with the stunning detail on the roofs of the mission itself, and stands as one of the most storied missions due to the repeated skirmishes and outright battles that the native Chumash tribes fought tooth and nail for. Not surprisingly the mission also offers a museum of ancient arts and crafts as well as rare photographs of what California looked like during the time.
3. San Miguel Arcangel: San Miguel, CA.
San Miguel Arcángel’s most recognizable feature are its ornately-designed walls and ceilings which were handcrafted by the native tribes who were inhabitants of the mission: namely, the Chumash tribe of California. Another sight to behold is its ancient bell – the same one that rang out in the West centuries ago. The best time to come is on the third Sunday of September, which sees it come alive with festive joy in celebration of St. Michael’s fesat day, from which the mission was named.
4. San Juan Capistrano: San Juan Capistrano, CA.
San Juan Capistrano has long been part of mainstream consciousness as the quintessential mission experience – not least due to its impressive ruins of its ancient church made from stone almost created at a level of which the Romans would have been proud of; which was unfortunately heavily damaged by a terrible earthquake in 1812. Its fame has seen it on TV shows, cartoons, and movies.
5. La Purisima Concepcion: Lompoc, CA.
One of the best preserved vestiges of the Spanish era in California remains in La Purisima Concepcion, which is also now recognized and thus preserved as a state park. Featuring workers and guides dressed in the fashions of the era, it shows pueblo and mission life at its most realistic, with true-to-life scenes of daily living and lifestyle as it was then. A great way for children to visually experience what it was like, and a great way to celebrate history in itself.