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!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.