El Camino Real - Itinerary among the Spanish missions in California

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Joel Fulleda

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

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The Californian coast is a beautiful place that, in addition to offering wonderful views, has a significant amount of history. In this case we refer to Franciscan missions which grow all along the coast of the Golden State. The road that connects them all is known as The real way which winds largely along what is now the U.S. Highway 101.

The distinctive sign that recurs to indicate that you are on the right path is a representation of a Franciscan walking stick surmounted by a bell.

If you have already been to California it is very likely that you have already noticed it along your route, if instead you are about to organize an itinerary it is likely that after reading this article you want to add some further stops!

The main protagonist in the construction of these Franciscan missions is the father Junipero Serra who in 2015 was canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis.


  • Some useful information
  • Mission San Diego de Alcalá
  • Santa Barbara Mission
  • Mission of Santa Inés
  • Mission La Purisima Concepcion
  • Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
  • Mission San Francisco de Asís
  • The other missions
    • Saint Louis King of France (Contea di San Diego)
    • San Juan Capistrano (Orange County)
    • San Gabriel Arcángel (outskirts of Los Angeles)
    • San Fernando King of Spain (Los Angeles)
    • San Buenaventura (Venture)
    • San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (San Luis Obispo)
    • Saint Michael the Archangel (Saint Michael)
    • Saint Anthony of Padua (Monterey)
    • Our Lady of Solitude (Soledad)
    • San Juan Bautista
    • Santa Cruz
    • Saint Clare of Assisi (Saint Clare)
    • San Jose
    • Saint Raphael the Archangel (Saint Raphael)
    • San Francisco Solano (Sonoma)

Some useful information

Before continuing, some indications may be useful. Most of the missions offer an experience similar to the others, you can in fact, in addition to the churches, visit a small museum (for admission, a payment that can vary from 5 to 10 dollars is required) which collects historical evidence relating to the construction and the life that took place in the missions, take a walk in the garden and in the internal cemetery and visit the gift shop which is almost always present.

For this reason, if you are traveling along the California coast, the advice is to visit those missions that remain more comfortable along your itinerary or that are located in the cities where you have decided to stop or in their vicinity.

With rare exceptions almost all the churches they are still in operation for this reason, at certain times of the day it may be appropriate to wait for the end of the liturgical celebration before continuing on one's visit. Given the high number of missions present along the Camino Real to start by proceeding from south to north we have decided to offer you what we think are the most significant and closest to the most interesting places on the Californian coast, postponing the complete list of all the sites at the end of the article.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

San Diego is there before of the twenty-one Franciscan missions that will be built along what will become the Camino Real. Father Junipero Serra founded this mission in 1769 and it is from here that Christianity began to spread throughout the California region. The structure was destroyed twice in both 1803 and 1812 due to earthquakes and was subsequently rebuilt in the form you can see today. To underline the further one historical importance inside the mission are the remains of Father Luis Jayme who was the first Christian martyr in California.

The small museum offers visitors a collection of liturgical vestments and tools used during the mission's period of activity although the most important thing is a document dating back to 1862 signed by Abraham Lincoln which returns the property of the mission to the Catholic Church after the land had been confiscated starting in 1834 by the Mexican government first and subsequently by the American one (once California was annexed).
The city of San Diego also offers the opportunity to visit a museum dedicated to Junipero Serra located inside the San Diego Presidio Park.

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Santa Barbara Mission

One of the largest and most beautiful missions among those you will encounter along the camino real so much so that it deserves the nickname of queen of the mission. Founded on 4 December 1786 by Father Fermín de Francisco Lasuén, the successor of Junipero Serra, it was named in honor of the Christian martyr whose memory was celebrated on that day and then gave its name to the city that developed nearby. To underline the importance that the construction of this mission meant for the subsequent development of the area, it should be noted that some parts of the water system are still used today by the inhabitants of the city.

It is certainly worthwhile, in addition to the interior of the church, to visit the museum, the cemetery and enjoy the peace that the cloister reserves. A peculiarity concerning the cemetery is that the remains are buried there Juana Maria best known as the last woman on the island of San Nicola, a Native American who lived completely isolated for nearly twenty years on the Californian island, finding herself the last representative of her Nicoleño tribe. Her story became very famous in the United States thanks to the children's book Island of the Blue Dolphins written by Scott O'Dell.

However, Santa Barbara does not end only with a visit to its mission but it is a city that can offer much more both for its historic buildings and for its picturesque waterfront, you can discover all its attractions in our article in which we deal specifically see in Santa Barbara.

Interior of the church

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Mission of Santa Inés

Located in Solvang (a small Danish city in the middle of California!) is one of the last missions built in order of time, its foundation dates back to September 17, 1804. Visiting the garden which is one of the most pleasant in which I have had the opportunity to walk , you will find numerous varieties of plants and some evidence of the mission's past including the original seminary floor.

Inside the museum, if you are interested, you will find a remarkable collection of liturgical vestments, missals and manuscripts of Gregorian chants of the time. Along the internal path there are small loudspeakers which, in case you need more information, can be activated and will describe the place you are visiting.

Interior of the church

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Mission La Purisima Concepcion

This mission is part of the California state park La Purisima Mission State Historic Park and it is one of only two cases in which the complex is not owned by the Catholic Church. You can reach it by taking the Purisima Road north of the city of Lompoc about twenty minutes by car from Solvang.
It is worth a visit because it is one of the few cases in which they have been restored, both externally and internally, ten of the original buildings that characterized the life of the mission including the church, the blacksmith's shop, the monastery and the cattle sheds. It is thus easier to understand what it meant to live and work in a mission in the early nineteenth century.

If you want to visit it in its entirety, pay attention to the opening hours: in fact, I personally arrived in the area only around four thirty in the afternoon to discover that it would close at five. Then refer to the official website to better plan your stage.

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Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo

Located on the southern outskirts of pretty Carmel-By-The-Sea it is one of the older missions, in fact, dates back to 3 June 1770 and is the second in chronological order to have been built.

Much visited by both tourists, given its happy location, and by Pilgrims, as the church houses the mortal remains of San Junipero Serra. Also referring to the saint, particularly interesting is the cenotaph in marble and bronze created by the artist Jo Mora in 1924 which depicts Junipero Serra in life size and three other friars whose remains are also kept inside the church.

Inside the complex there is also a large original wooden cross dating back to the construction period of the mission and a plaque commemorating the visit in 1987 of Pope John Paul II who in his apostolic mission in the United States decided to go to the mission church.

Furthermore, in nearby Monterey, if you decide to walk the path of history, you will reach the Cathedral of San Carlos, which was also founded by Serra as a chapel of the mission.

Interior of the church
Mission rooms

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Mission San Francisco de Asís

This is the San Francisco Mission. Founded on June 29, 1776, it was built so well that the chapel was one of the few buildings in to survive to the terrible earthquake of 1906 so much so that today it is considered theoldest building all over San Francisco.

The complex is also known by the name of Mission Dolores because at the time of its foundation a stream called Arroyo de los Dolores flowed nearby.
Although most of the liturgical celebrations take place in the basilica next door, on some special occasions, the mission chapel continues to be used.

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The other missions

After having treated in more detail what we believe to be the most important and most beautiful missions to see, we leave you with a brief description of the remaining ones (always listed from south to north) so that if you are organizing a tour of the Californian coast you can consider some stops plus to see even just one of the most important historical testimonies of the region.

Saint Louis King of France (Contea di San Diego)

Built in 1798 as a thirteenth mission. Given his greatness he was given the nickname of king of the mission. The peculiarity is that in its internal garden it houses what was the first pepper tree in California.

San Juan Capistrano (Orange County)

It dates back to November 1, 1776 and was the seventh mission, the small whitewashed chapel remains original today where you can admire interesting frescoes (it is considered the oldest church in all of California) and the evocative remains of the large main church. The more modern part is still very interesting and it is worth investing some time in visiting the gardens, strolling under the arcades and exploring the more recent buildings.

San Gabriel Arcángel (outskirts of Los Angeles)

Located in the great suburb of Los Angeles it is the fourth mission and was founded on September 8, 1771 by Junipero Serra and the thing that most characterizes it are certainly the six bells on the side overlooking Plaza Park.

San Fernando King of Spain (Los Angeles)

Seventeenth mission finished building in 1797, it is not uncommon to meet some beautiful peacocks that roam nearby. The grave of the famous American comedian Bob Hope is located in the adjacent cemetery.

San Buenaventura (Venture)

Built on Palm Sunday in 1782 as the ninth mission. Its construction had a very troubled history due not only to earthquakes but also to a fire that in 1793 almost destroyed the recently completed mission. Unfortunately today we can only admire a small part of the original complex.

San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (San Luis Obispo)

Located practically in the middle of the Camino Real this was the fifth mission in order of time to be built dating back to 1772. The peculiarity lies in the church since it is the only one to have been built with an atypical "L" shape with a nave. central and one that develops to the right of the altar.

Saint Michael the Archangel (Saint Michael)

Sixteenth mission, founded in 1797. The detail that manages to distinguish it most from the others is to be found in the internal decorations of the church dating back to the period of construction still very well preserved which, despite the various earthquakes that have occurred, have been able to resist the passing of years.

Saint Anthony of Padua (Monterey)

One of the oldest you will encounter along the Camino Real. It was founded as third mission in 1771 and is the only one to be a little out of the way compared to the others. It is in fact located inside the Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation practically halfway between US 101 and California Highway 1. Despite numerous restorations, it has managed to maintain a large part of its original charm and houses one of the most well-kept museums of all. missions.

Our Lady of Solitude (Soledad)

All that remains of the thirteenth mission in chronological order is a small adobe chapel and a wing of the quadrilateral that made up the complex where the usual museum is now located. Built in 1791, in addition to earthquakes, it had to endure three serious floods. However, the ruins can be visited and give a good idea of ​​what this mission must have been originally. Pay attention: there are not many services in the surrounding area, so if you decide to visit the area, be sure to have everything you need for a stop.

San Juan Bautista

Famous for being the mission with the larger church; in fact, two side aisles are added to a large central nave and the impression once you enter is that you are faced with something exceptional and unique, especially if we use any of the other churches as a term of comparison. It was built in 1797 as the fifteenth mission.

Santa Cruz

This mission from the city of Santa Cruz has also not had much luck throughout its history. Originally built in 1791 near the San Lorenzo River, the site was moved to the top of a small hill nearby due to a flood but two earthquakes caused the structure to be destroyed. In 1931 a smaller replica of the church was built which is not used for liturgical celebrations.

Saint Clare of Assisi (Saint Clare)

One of the last missions built under the leadership of Junipero Serra built as an eighth in 1777. It too has been destroyed several times due to floods, fires and earthquakes that hit the area. What you see now is the result of the sixth reconstruction completed in 1929. It is still used as the chapel of the nearby University of Santa Clara.

San Jose

It houses one of the larger museums among the missions of the Camino Real (there are eight rooms that can be visited) inside which you will find testimonies and numerous finds concerning the Native Americans who lived in the area, the construction of the mission and the life that took place inside it. Originally built in 1797 as the 1985th mission, the one you can visit today is the result of a reconstruction dating back to XNUMX.

Saint Raphael the Archangel (Saint Raphael)

Penultimate mission founded in 1817, initially it was not independent but was used as an asistencia of the mission of San Francisco de Asís where the sick who needed care were taken, since the climate in this place was milder than that of San Francisco . The one you will visit is not the original, destroyed due to various vicissitudes that occurred during the years of secularization, but a reconstruction of 1949. It is also worth visiting the church in the immediate vicinity which with its peculiarly shaped facade is one of the distinctive signs of the city.

San Francisco Solano (Sonoma)

We have reached the last mission (at least in chronological order) of our journey. Built in 1823 it no longer hosts religious celebrations and is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park, which celebrates the memory of the revolt of the inhabitants of the area against the Mexican government which in 1846 led to the birth, even if only for 26 days, of the Republic of California.

It is the only one of the missions along the Camino Real to have been built after the independence of Mexico from Spain and was wanted by the newborn Mexican governorate mainly to prevent the Russians (yes), who had created an outpost of Fort Ross on the Pacific coast, they further expanded their zone of influence in the region.

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