San Antonio Missions: Visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas

I’ve loved visiting missions all my life and started with the California missions where I grew up. I thought missions were a “California thing” but, eventually I realized that the Spanish and the Catholic priests were active in other areas of what is now the United States. The San Antonio Missions were established in the 1700s by the Spanish in what was then Mexico.

The beauty of these missions and the history of the area now known as Texas, draw visitors from around the world and in 2015 the San Antonio Missions were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, quite an honor. So, take a break and travel a short distance out of the city center to visit these beautiful and historic missions. And, the last mission we’ll talk about may just surprise you!

Mission Angel

The architectural detail of the San Antonio Missions is surprisingly artistic and beautiful when compared with simpler country mission churches. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

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Four of the five San Antonio Missions are located in what is now a national park. It’s a short 5-mile drive from central San Antonio out to the National Park. You can catch a bus, drive, or even walk or bike via the 10-mile Hike & Bike Trail. Entrance to the park is free.

You’ll be visiting four missions. From north to south: Mission Concepcion, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Espada. Each mission is about 2.5 miles from the next mission. There is parking at each. Mission Road along the San Antonio River takes you from one to the next. There are different operating hours and services at each mission so it’s best to check the National Park website before you visit.

Mission Arches

The missions were community complexes with the church as the center of mission life. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

The mission churches, established by Spanish Catholics, are still active spiritual centers today with regular services, holding weddings (you might happen on one if you are lucky), and celebrating religious holidays. Some of the families who attend services there have generations of history in the area.

Mission Concepcion

Dedicated in 1755, this mission, with its 45-inch thick walls, is actually the oldest non-renovated church in the United States. Many think the adobe San Miguel church in Santa Fe, New Mexico is the oldest, but it has been rebuilt.

Mission Concepcion

The oldest non-renovated church in Texas. Photo courtesy NPS

Taking 15 years to build with local Native labor overseen by craftsmen from Mexico, the Spanish Colonial style mission is built into bedrock and is the least restored of the four in the National Park. Mission Concepcion is the only one with painted designs both on the outside and inside.

Mission Painting

The only mission of the four with painted designs both inside and outside. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When you visit, look up at the convent room ceiling for the most famous fresco. It is said to depict God as a mixed Spanish-Native person and is known as “the eye of God.”

Eye of God

Look up to see the Eye of God or Ojo de Dios. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Mission San José

Mission San José, over 300 years old, is the largest of the missions. It is an active parish and visitors can attend Mass there. The mission was restored in the 1930s by workers from the WPA (Works Project Administration), a successful social program serving to lift workers out of poverty caused by the Great Depression.

Mission San Jose was beautifully restored in the 1930s. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Mission San Jose was beautifully restored in the 1930s. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

When you visit the mission, you’ll notice that it is more of a community than a church. Surrounding the large church, you’ll see buildings that housed Native workers, farm animals, and travelers in a secure compound. Storerooms, a kitchen, and a granary are part of the complex. It’s easy to imagine mission life when you stroll from room to room.

kitchens and granary in Mission San José

You can visit the kitchens and granary in Mission San José. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

The most impressive architectural feature is the mission’s baroque Rose Window, sculpted in 1775. There are legends behind this beautiful window including a love story—Rosa was the fiancé of the window’s sculptor. But no one knows for sure!

Rose Window San Antonio Missions

Did the Rose Window have a romantic tale to tell? Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Founded in 1731 (it was moved from a location in East Texas), Mission San Juan Capistrano was named for a well-known 15th-century priest from Italy. This is another community that was self-sustaining through farming and raising cattle. In the mid-1700s the mission community was an agricultural provider to the other missions and traded surplus produce with traders as far away as Mexico and Louisiana.

Mission San Juan Capistrano San Antonio

San Antonio's Mission San Juan Capistrano. Photo courtesy NPS

When you’re there, look for the paved Yanaguana Trail that takes you along a pretty stretch of the original San Antonio River. It’s a nice place for birding and for exploring a quiet, shady area.

Yanaguana Trail

Pick up the Yanaguana Trail at San Juan Capistrano. Photo courtesy NPS

Mission Espada

Mission Espada, with its impressive bell towers, was established in 1690 and relocated to the area in 1731. It was the first mission established in Texas. The Native people at this mission complex farmed and wove cloth. When you are there, you can see a working loom. The indigenous people eventually learned carpentry and masonry skills as well.

Mission Espada

I especially liked the bell tower at Mission Espada in San Antonio. Photo courtesy NPS

Just north of the mission, look for the Espada Aqueduct built to bring water from the river to the farmlands.

Misión San Antonio de Valero

Back in central San Antonio, close to the RiverWalk, is a very famous mission. You may not recognize the name. But most will “Remember the Alamo!” The Mission, known as the Alamo, is not just a fort. It is one of the historic Spanish mission complexes—a community with walls and secured against outside aggressors. The mission is famous because of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

Alamo San Antonio Missions

The church at the mission complex is what we “remember as The Alamo.” Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Very popular with visitors, the Alamo requires free advance reservations to space out the crowds. You’ll find interpretive exhibits and scheduled reenactments. But if you try, you can still find peaceful places on the grounds to wander and think back to the time of mission life.

Alamo Walls

The mission complex is actually a peaceful place to wander. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Those who are fans of military history will want to sign up for the one-hour Battlefield Tour for an extra charge. A knowledgeable docent will walk you through Alamo Plaza, recreating the story of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. On the tour, they will point out important battlefield locations where the Mexican soldiers attacked the Texans’ positions at and around the Alamo.

Alamo Diorama

This diorama shows how the battle took place in 1836 and illustrates the size of the buildings in the mission complex. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Remember the Alamo! is the battle cry in the Texans' fight for independence from Mexico. While the Alamo is the most well-known mission in San Antonio, it’s important to travel the short distance to see the missions in the San Antonio Missions National Park as well.

When You Visit the San Antonio Missions

The Visitors Center and park store are located at Mission San José. The four mission sites are located south of central San Antonio, where you might want to book a hotel on the San Antonio River Walk. Mission Concepción is 3 miles, Mission San José and the park visitor center is 6 miles south, Mission San Juan is 3 miles south of San José, and Mission Espada is another mile beyond that. You can take an audio tour of the San Antonio Missions as you visit. Be sure and find out what else to see and do in Texas by checking out the articles by the travel experts at Wander.

The San Antonio Missions were established in the 1700s by the Spanish in what was then Mexico. The beauty of these missions and the history of the area now known as Texas, draw visitors from around the world and in 2015 the San Antonio Missions were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, take a break from exploring San Antonio and the River Walk and travel a short distance out of the city center to visit these beautiful and historic missions.

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Written by Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose is back again in the Phoenix area after more than a decade living in New Mexico and Washington state. She travels throughout the West and beyond writing about destinations, accommodations, festivals, and restaurants, especially farm to table cuisine. As an expert in cultural tourism, her writing reflects that passion. She has won awards for her photography and accompanies her articles with her own images. She also provides photos for magazine covers, web sites and magazine articles (both print and online).

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