When it comes to interesting places to visit in the United States, travelers have more than their fair share of sensational options. From majestic national parks, to sprawling urban centers teeming with art and culture, the USA has a robust list of worthwhile places to see and experience. And undoubtedly, San Antonio is just such a place.
Now, lest we be accused of bias, the Alamo city was just named one of the 23 best places to go in the US in 2023 by Condé Nast Traveler. So clearly, we aren’t off base in our opinions. What makes SA so special is that it offers the traveler’s trifecta of unique culture, delicious food, and a comprehensive list of things to do and see. Chief among this list, the San Antonio Missions National Park. As the only UNESCO world heritage site in Texas and a significant part of Texas history, the missions are an absolute must-do for any visitor to San Antonio.
History of the San Antonio Missions
While the history of the Alamo - where famed frontiersmen like Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett perished in defense of the outpost - is known the world over (thanks for that, John Wayne), the history of the other missions is not nearly as familiar. The other four missions – Espada, San Juan, San Jose, and Concepcion – share a common story. Each was settled in the early 1700s by Franciscan Spanish missionaries looking to convert the Coahuiltecan native tribes that lived throughout south Texas to Christianity. These missions were responsible for not only spreading Catholicism, but propagating the skills required for survival such as farming, ranching, and masonry.
For years, these missions rose beyond the settlement of churches to become thriving communities of native Americans working and living together. But sadly, each of these missions also share a common tale of demise. Famine, disease, and enemy tribes ultimately spelled disaster for the missions, and each was secularized and ceased operations by 1824.
At the heart of each mission was its church and it is these churches that draw visitors year-round to learn about the 300+ year history of San Antonio. Today, each church is still used for regular religious services, some by congregants who can trace their ancestry back to the formation of the missions.
How to Visit the Historical Missions
A visit to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is often a highlight of peoples’ trips to San Antonio. Depending on travel styles and energy levels, guests can choose from a few different ways to tour the missions.
By car: All of the missions are accessible by car and have dedicated parking lots that are free of charge (with the one exception of the Alamo which is downtown and requires parking in a nearby garage). Each of the missions is also easily accessible for those with disabilities as the walking paths and grounds are flat and paved. As the missions stretch from north to south, we suggest starting with the southernmost mission (Espada) and working your way north into the city.
By bus: San Antonio’s metropolitan VIA transit company offers two routes to those who are interested in seeing the missions. The VIVA bus routes are dedicated routes to cultural and tourist destinations throughout greater SA and the VIVA line #40 will deliver riders to all four of the missions that are south of downtown. Be aware that they only stop at select cultural destinations and not typical city blocks.
The second option is the VIA bus #42 which will take visitors from downtown to missions San Jose and Concepcion, but they do not travel to San Juan or Espada. Information on routes and fares can be found on the VIA Metropolitan Transit website.
Can you bike the San Antonio Missions?
The most adventurous, albeit strenuous, way to see the missions is by biking or hiking. Each mission sits along the banks of the San Antonio river and can be accessed from the river mission trail that runs along the River Walk. This trail is approximately 10 miles long and winds its way from the Alamo, south to Mission Espada. Those who choose to have a go at this trail will not only get to see the missions but will enjoy the views of the picturesque San Antonio river as well as the local plant and wildlife.
Can I rent a bicycle in San Antonio?
Basic Info About The San Antonio Missions
Visits to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Parks are a fun and informative way to learn about the history of Texas, and in particular, San Antonio.
- The parks are open every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- Admission is completely free of charge to see the grounds, structures, churches, and visitor centers.
- While most of the parks do not offer guided tours (exceptions will be noted), free audio tours are available at all missions on your cell phone. Links to each tour will be included below.
- The National Park Service is your go-to for all things SA missions related, so be sure to visit their website to get the most up-to-date info on operating hours, current conditions, and events.
1. Mission Espada
Mission Espada, the southernmost mission, was established in 1731 and is the smallest of the historical missions. Located in a rural neighborhood, Espada’s characteristic Spanish features – including the intricate arched church doorway, the belltower, the Espada aqueduct, dam, and acequia (an irrigation system that is the oldest in the United States) – lend themselves to a particularly peaceful feel as you stroll around the grounds of the enclosed mission. Head into the museum to see relics from the life of the mission such as an operational loom, farm tools, and a variety of boot spurs.
2. Mission San Juan
Mission San Juan Capistrano, also established in 1731, lies just 5 minutes up the road from Espada. San Juan got its start in East Texas in 1716 with a mission to serve the Nazonis Native Americans. The mission, which was largely unsuccessful, saw everything contained within it that could be moved, decamped to the banks of the San Antonio river where it stands today.
Mission San Juan is unique among the missions for its clean, white stone church building, which was constructed in the 1750s, as well as for its greatest contribution, the development of agriculture and farming. Visitors to Mission San Juan can still see the original farm fields that were worked in the 1700s.
Bonus Info: If you’re heading to Mission San Juan and are up for some light hiking, don’t miss the Yanaguana Nature Trail. This paved and ADA-accessible trail is a short 1/3 mile and takes guests through lush greenery along a channel of the San Antonio river where it’s not uncommon to run across local wildlife including owls, turtles, snakes, and herons.
3. Mission San José
Just three miles up the road from San Juan lies the largest and most commanding of the missions, Mission San Jose. San Jose was the first mission in SA, established in 1720, and given its imposing size (at its peak, the mission housed 350 native people in 84 two-room apartments), was dubbed in 1777 as the “Queen of the missions.”
And queen it certainly is. The absolute must-see at San Jose is the limestone church, crafted in Spanish baroque architectural style. The surviving stone detail on the façade of the church is unmatched among the missions and definitely worth laying eyes on. Today, San Jose has been almost fully restored to its original layout which means that there is much to explore as guests wander the grounds and learn about the community that once lived here.
Protip 1: Mission San Jose is the only mission (besides the Alamo) where guests can take a live guided tour by a National Park Ranger. These free tours are packed with information and history and provide great context for what you will see as you visit San Jose. Daily tours begin at the visitor center and are offered at 10 am and 11 am and last for approximately 45 minutes. All tours are ADA and wheelchair accessible.
Protip 2: Mission San Jose is not only the biggest of the missions but also happens to be the busiest, second only to the Alamo. San Jose is a common stop for many local school fieldtrips, so if noisy, bustling students might detract from your experience of the historical site, simply plan to go on a Saturday or Sunday.
4. Mission Concepción
Mission Concepcion, also established in 1731, is about three miles north of San Jose and located smack dab in the middle of an urban, residential neighborhood just south of downtown San Antonio. Concepcion boasts the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Extensive preservation work on the mission has uncovered a treasure trove of color from the original frescos that were painted in the 1700s and faint hues can still be seen today throughout the surviving structures.
5. The Alamo
Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known by the popular moniker “the Alamo,” stands right in the middle of San Antonio’s buzzing downtown area, right next to the San Antonio River Walk. The mission dropped anchor in SA in 1724 and operated until 1793 when it became a Spanish military outpost.
The iconic church façade and a few small structures (the long barrack and Convento courtyard) are all that remain today from the original compound. Guests can tour these structures and learn about the Texas Revolution and the 13-day siege of the Alamo in 1836 by famed Mexican general Santa Anna where 180+ men made their final stand, losing their lives in the cause of Texas freedom.
Visits to the Alamo are free of charge but do require a timed entry. To reserve your tickets, click here.
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