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Can't-Miss Northern California Missions

Can't-Miss Northern California Missions

By California.com
March 06, 2021

As California mitigates health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, some travel restrictions may remain in certain communities. Call the local and regional tourism offices to learn more about the restrictions in your intended destination. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.

There are plenty of Northern California historic missions worth visiting whenever you find yourself on El Camino Real. No matter what your views on religion are, there’s no denying the beauty of these historic, architectural wonders. Brush up on the missions’ history and add the following NorCal missions to your itinerary. 

A Guide to Northern California Missions

A wooden frame outside Mission San Francisco Solano's entrance holds one of the original bells cast in 1829.

Mission San Francisco Solano

This Northern California mission is located in the historic city of Sonoma. The 21st and northernmost mission in Alta California, it was the only one built after Mexico gained independence from Spain. Located in the heart of Sonoma Plaza, Mission San Francisco Solano is a rustic structure among boutique stores and upscale restaurants.

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What used to be the dining room now has Chris Jorgenen’s mission paintings on display. Right across from the mission, you’ll see the two-story Sonoma Barracks—a wide-balconied, adobe building that housed Mexican soldiers back in the day. 

Three of Mission San Rafael Arcángel's original bells are displayed in the mission museum.

Mission San Rafael Arcángel

Many Northern California missions ended up serving entirely different purposes. Mission San Rafael Arcángel started out as a hospital and was the first sanitarium in Alta California. Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of the original chapel.

However, it was renovated exceptionally with masterful replicas of mission-era chandeliers. Visit the mission in the afternoon when the sun rays fill the area and highlight the golden interior. 

Mission Dolores is the oldest intact building in San Francisco, having survived the great fire and earthquake of 1906.

Mission Dolores 

In the middle of the bustling City by the Bay stands Mission Dolores, the oldest intact building in San Francisco. The 13th of California’s Spanish missions, the religious outpost is also known as Mission San Francisco de Asís. Observe the intricate and almost entirely original artwork of the mission.

Feast your eyes on the patterns on the redwood ceilings and the embellished Mexican altars. Then, head towards the wonderful rose garden with traditional native trees and shrubs. 

Mission San Jose was renowned for its orchestra and choir.

Mission San Jose 

This white Spanish mission with rust-colored tiles stands tall, contrasting the blue sky of Fremont. Mission San Jose was renowned for its choir and a 30-piece orchestra, assembled and led by Father Narciso Duran. At its peak, the mission was a self-sustaining village. Unfortunately, the original structure was ruined by natural disasters like many others. Luckily, renovations helped Mission San Jose regain its glory—it’s a near-perfect replica of the original church.

Mission Santa Clara de Asís was the first California mission to honor a female saint.

Mission Santa Clara de Asís

Whenever you find yourself in Santa Clara, pay a visit to Mission Santa Clara de Asís. What makes this mission so fascinating is that it’s the first of its kind to be named in honor of a woman. Similar to most Spanish missions in California, this one also met its demise due to floods, fires, and earthquakes.

The current remodeled chapel, situated on the campus of Santa Clara University, is as close to the original as possible. Mission Santa Clara de Asís features fascinating paintings and a beautifully painted ceiling. The lovely sculpture-dotted garden is the ideal place to go for an afternoon walk.

Mission Santa Cruz

Mission Santa Cruz has possibly suffered the most. The 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake entirely destroyed its front wall. The current replica of the original mission is one-third its size and has only one bell in its tower compared to the nine or ten in the past.

An 1876 painting by Léon Trousset served as the inspiration behind the mission’s reconstruction in 1930. Now, all you see are the remains of the wall across the street where the mission initially stood. Despite the renovations, there are a few original paintings and statues worth seeing in the museum. Admire the mission’s enchanting garden fountain with vivid floating lily pads.

The 15th to be built in California, Mission San Juan Bautista has been in continuous use since 1812.

Mission San Juan Bautista

Named after Saint John the Baptist, Mission San Juan Bautista is the 15th to be established in the mission chain. The area surrounding the mission is modeled after a quaint Spanish town. As the only three-aisle church among all California missions, Mission San Juan Bautista once acquired the largest collection of apostolate paintings.

The religious outpost was even featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Enjoy the many plants, compelling sculptures, and beautiful crimson roses as you explore this mission's grounds.  

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is the only one that has its original bell and bell tower.

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, also known as Mission Carmel, is one of the best preserved, larger missions in the Golden State. Back in the day, it served as the headquarters for the mission chain. Upon entering the courtyard, there’s already a lot to admire—the beautiful fountain, two bell towers, and statue of Junipero Serra, the mission’s founder. 

Here, you’ll also find the Orchard House, one of the oldest private residential dwellings in California. Mission Carmel hosts art exhibits, lectures, concerts, and a number of other community events.

Mission Soledad's grounds still contain the ruins of its adobe walls, a haunting reminder of how difficult life must have been at the remote mission.

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad

Located in Soledad, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad has faced many challenges throughout its history. However, it continues to stand proud. Tastefully restored in the 1950s, the mission was one of the most isolated ones in the chain. Visitors can still peek at the ruins of the original adobe building.

Check out the mission museum to learn about this mission's fascinating history. A statue of Father Serra stands among the fragrant roses and lush greenery in the backyard. The koi fish fountain is a modern addition to the mission grounds that beautifully complement Mission Soledad. 

The first Alta California mission with a fired-tile or teja roof was Mission San Antonio de Padua.

Mission San Antonio de Padua

Mission San Antonio de Padua is nestled among old-growth oaks and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Other than the quaint mission-era surroundings, the building itself boasts architectural intricacies and gorgeous fired-tile roofing. The mission features a grand bulto of the archangel San Miguel and the church patron San Antonio.

Several scenes from the 1965 horror movie Incubus were filmed on these grounds. While this religious monument is no longer active in mission work, it’s one of the designated sights of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

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