people walking through a garden

When it comes to historical landmarks in Southern California, there is none more fascinating than the Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County.

This former Spanish colonial mission is considered the birthplace of Orange County and is known for its 200-year-old architecture and stunning chapel.

people walking through a garden

But what exactly is the San Juan Capistrano Mission? In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know, from its history to what you can see and do there.

What is San Juan Capistrano Mission famous for?

people walking next to stone building ruins

But first, what exactly is the Mission San Juan Capistrano? To cut a long story short, the San Juan Capistrano is a mission that was built by Spanish Catholics in the late 1700s.

If you’re not entirely clued up on your history, a mission is defined as a commune of missionaries, or military personnel, who formed settlements known as missions during the reign of the Spanish Empire.

In the days between 1769 and 1833, there were 21 Spanish missions created across the state of California. They were used primarily as a way to preach the Catholic belief to locals and to expand the empire.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, was one of the oldest.

History of San Juan Capistrano Mission

American flag draped over the wall inside a mission

Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 and was the 7th mission out of 21 to be built in the state. It was named after Saint John of Capistrano, and the church that features a Spanish-Baroque style still stands today.

It was founded by Junipero Serra and was built to increase the territories of the Spanish missionaries who wanted to preach Christianity to the indigenous people across California.

But Mission San Juan Capistrano was not just a place for the Spanish to preach their gospel, they also taught agriculture and farming techniques, as well as introduced new clothing, technology, and ways of doing things.

If the indigenous people, known as Acjachemen, wanted to join the Catholic faith, then they could be baptized and join the Mission.

But this meant they had to change everything about their way of life, including their language, work, culture, food, and even their daily routine.

The Spanish brought horses, mules, ox, and sheep, but they also upset the indigenous plants and animals.

Because they bought many plants and animals over from Europe, these new species upset the balance, and largely influenced the landscape that we see of California today, from the shapes of the hills to the barren dry desserts.

The change in landscape also meant that many indigenous people were forced to move to the missions, whether they wanted to or not.

palm trees and gardens inside the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, California

While today when you walk around the Missions you are greeted with examples of stunning Spanish-baroque architecture and a chapel filled with beautiful artwork – it wasn’t always the beautiful place we see today.

In its prime, the missions meant living in close quarters, which meant exposure to viruses, illnesses, and germs.

Without knowing it, the Spanish exposed the indigenous people to diseases such as pneumonia, measles, tuberculosis, and syphilis. And there was little knowledge of how to prevent or help those who got sick.

Many times the missions were ridden with plague, and because the European settlers had developed more immunity to the diseases, it proved more fatal for the indigenous people.

In 1812, people started to leave the Missions. This was catalyzed by a devastating earthquake causing The Great Stone Church to fall, but also because the mortality rate was declining due to illness and low birth rate.

girl standing beside fountain with bells in the background at Mission San Juan Capistrano

By 1821, the Mission was almost empty, after Mexico gained independence from Spain. The Mission was later sold in 1834 to John Forster, who operated it as a private ranch for his family until 1849.

When California became a state in 1850, the state’s Catholic bishop, Joseph Alemany, petitioned to have the Missions returned to the Catholics. In 1965, the U.S. government under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln returned the Missions to the church.

The Mission has been restored several times over the years and now operates as a museum.

Story of the Swallows

stone walls and archways of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange

One of the reasons why Mission San Juan Capistrano is so famous is for its swallows.

Every year, the migratory American cliff swallow, which spends the winter in Goya, Argentina, flies for 6,000 miles in the spring to nest in Mission San Juan Capistrano.

There is a legend about the swallows, who have been known to visit the mission every summer for centuries.

The legend has it that they first took refuge at the Mission during a time when an angry innkeeper started destroying their nests in a nearby inn.

The pastor, noticing the distress of the swallows, told them they could seek refuge in the church, and now they visit every Spring until Fall, where they nest in the eaves of the Mission.

Interesting facts about Mission San Juan Capistrano

people standing next to a large bell
  • The Great Stone Church has been recognized on the List of 100 Most Endangered Sites by the prestigious World Monuments Fund in 2002
  • The most recent series of seismic retrofits at the Mission was completed at $7.5 million in 2004.
  • It receives 500,000 visitors per year – 80,000 of which are schoolchildren
  • Although the exact number is unknown, it’s believed that 65,000 indigenous people moved to the missions, but more than 70% lost their lives due to illness and diseases.
  • The Simpsons Movie features a scene paying homage to the tradition set out by Mission San Juan Capistrano by referring to the annual “Swallows’ returning to Springfield.”
  • It was used as a backdrop for the 1910 western film The Two Brothers, which was the first film ever to be shot in Orange County
  • Silent film star Mary Pickford secretly wed actor Owen Moore in the Mission chapel.

What to See at San Juan Capistrano Mission

lavender flowers in front of stone wall of Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, California

Although the history is fascinating, the Mission has more to see than just the remains of a once bustling community. Visitors should make sure to check out the beautiful gardens, as well as the ruins of the Great Stone Church.

You can also see the Serra Chapel and the Bell Wall.

Inside the Mission is a museum, housing thousands of objects dating between the 18th and 20th centuries. Most of the artifacts in the permanent collection are religious objects, paintings, and items used by Missionaries.

Some notable pieces are a saddle, dating back to the 19th century and used by ranchers, which was thought to have been purchased by Juan Forster when he acquired the property.

girl standing in a church
Inside the church

There are also some old Mexican coins, a map of the grounds from 1845, and the patent signed by Abraham Lincoln declaring the Mission property of the Catholic Church.

You can also see photographs of the Mission in the late 1800s/early 1900s, a marriage registrar from the 1700s, and an old book used for preaching.

Do not miss the interpretive exhibit dedicated to Native American art, which details the story of the Acjachemen people and their way of life before the Mission.

Another fascinating exhibit is in the South Wing Padres Quarters, which contains artifacts owned by the padres who lived there in the 18th century.

Visitors will find other galleries containing artworks by Jan and Honorable H. Warren Siegel, as well as another gallery dedicated to the Mission’s founder, Junipero Serra.

Things to Do for Kids at Mission San Juan Capistrano

kids looking at fish in pond and walking under covered arched walkway

If you are traveling with kids, be sure to let them get hands-on and build some crafts at the San Juan Capistrano Mission Clubhouse. They can take part in basket weaving like the indigenous people, spin the job wheel, learn about architecture, or play with a word play.

There’s also a scavenger hunt and swallow sticker hunt to get kids interactively interested in history.

Kids may also enjoy seeing the koi fish feeding every day at 12.45 pm in the garden.

Opening Hours & Entrance Fee

The Mission San Juan Capistrano is located on 26801 Old Mission Road, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675.

The museum opens every Tuesday – Sunday from 9.00 am – 5.00 pm and is closed on Mondays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. It closes early on Christmas Eve and Good Friday.

The museum exhibits close at 4.00 pm each day, but the grounds remain open until 5.00 pm.

It also closes every year on the 22nd of September for the Annual Gala.

Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for 60+, and $10 for students and children aged 5+. Children under 5 can enter for free.

Bell Ringing Dates

bells in a line in stone arches at San Juan Capistrano Mission

One of the longest traditions of the Mission is the ringing of the bells, which has happened several times a year since the late 1800s.

There were initially four bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano, but after the 1812 earthquake, only two of the smallest bells remain.

The original two bells, named San Antonio and San Rafael, are still rung today and it’s an esteemed honor to be a bell ringer at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The bells ring every morning at 9.00 am to honor the legacy of Saint Junipero Serra, but they also ring ceremonially on the following dates:

  • March 19th for Feast Day of St. Joseph
  • July 1st for Feast Day of St. Serra
  • September 11th for Patriot’s Day
  • September 17th for Constitution Day
  • September 23rd for St. Serra’s Canonization Day
  • October 23rd for Feast Day of St. John of Capistrano
  • November 1st for Founder’s Day
  • November 24th for St. Serra’s Birthday
  • December 8th for the Day of Remembrance of the victims of the 1812 earthquake

FAQs About Mission San Juan Capistrano

Here’s what people usually ask us about the San Juan Capistrano Mission…

Is Mission San Juan Capistrano worth visiting?

The Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the most important historical landmarks in Orange County, not only for its Spanish colonial history but because of the impact Spanish settlers have on the landscape of the region. For this reason, it’s worth visiting.

Why is San Juan Capistrano Mission the Birthplace of Orange County?

It is named the birthplace of Orange County because it housed the earliest settlers in the region, whose way of life and European technology and agriculture changed the landscape of the area dramatically.

What is Mission San Juan Capistrano used for today?

The mission grounds are a museum, but the Serra Chapel is still operated as a chapel for the mission parish.

While here Visit the Los Rios Historic District

people looking at colorful historic home in Los Rios Historic District,
Time for more history

Across the train tracks from Mission San Juan Capistrano is the Los Rios historic district, a pleasant place to stroll, eat, enjoy tea, and boutique shop.

There are 31 homes along Los Rios Street, the earliest dating to 1794, and they look as they did two centuries ago.

Many of the homes are still owned by the original families.

people walking up to small home in Los Rios Historic District,
Los Rios Street

In the middle of the Los Rios District is an historic adobe that you can walkthrough. There are only two rooms, but there are a lot of artifacts and information about the area. 

Browse the items that match the rooms they are displayed in. Tea Towels and oven dishes sit in the kitchen, clothes hang up in the wardrobe and outside are all your garden goods.

It was cute!

Many of the other homes have art for sale and various antiques and eclectic housewares. There’s also a petting zoo and cafes for food and coffee.

You don’t need a lot of time here, making it an easy addition to your visit to the mission.

orange domed roof and white tower with purple flowers in front

The streets around the Mission display a variety of architectural styles.

Adobe, Victorian, Spanish and Revival, all of which house galleries, bookstores, boutique stores (Wildfire Mercantile is fun), restaurants and taverns.

Where to stay

View of Huntington Beach from the Kimpton Shorebreak Resort, Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach’s location makes it an ideal place to stay when exploring Orange County and even most of Southern California. It’s also our favorite beach in California. Read our tips on things to do in Huntington Beach.

It’s also 35 minutes to Anaheim, an hour to Hollywood, 30 minutes to Buena Park, and 90 minutes to San Diego. We absolutely love the Kimpton Hotel. You can’t beat its beach views, fun design and communal atmosphere. It’s also pet friendly!

Before You Go

So, there you have it, this is everything you need to know about the Mission San Juan Capistrano, and as you can see, it’s a truly fascinating place to visit in Southern California.

It’s easy to combine in a longer Southern California Road trip, incorporating popular places like Disneyland, Los Angeles, and San Diego!

Check car rental here.

Whether you’re looking to learn more about the state’s Spanish-colonial roots, or you’re just looking for a peaceful thing to do in Cali, the Mission San Juan Capistrano is a great place to learn about local history and do something a little more cultured on your California trip.

Don’t miss these Southern California Travel Ideas

Have you been to Mission San Juan Capistrano? Let us know what you think in the comments!