Preserved by the National Historic Parks, San Antonio’s four historic missions are not only architecturally alluring, but also offer some of the area’s most interesting attractions. Sadly, many people have never even heard of these missions – eclipsed as they are by the famous Alamo. Here are some of San Antonio’s most beautiful missions to get your family-friendly, cultural adventure off to a great start.
Everyone remembers the Alamo, but how many visitors have seen the other four historic missions in San Antonio?
Visitors who bypass the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park sites are missing out on one of San Antonio’s best-kept-secret attractions. And as an added bonus, admission is free.
A trek to see these lovely under-sung structures is a great way to spend a morning or sunny afternoon in San Antonio. Four stately timeworn medieval missions compounds still stand just a few short miles from downtown San Antonio. As large and impressive as ancient European chapels and forts, these 18th century missions showcase some impressive architecture and teach us a thing or two about their riveting history.
Accessible from hike and bike trails and the newly completed Mission Reach of the River Walk (as well as by VIA trolleys and buses), these ancient Mission fortresses were built by 18th Century Spanish priests and Catholic missionaries in close proximity to one another across a five-mile stretch along the San Antonio River. Centred by Spanish-style chapels, the missions flourished between 1745 and the 1780s.
Today, the missions – including San Francisco de Espada, Mission San José, Mission Concepción and Mission San Juan de Capistrano – still stand in a peaceful rural setting southeast of the city. Free tours, movies and demonstrations are scheduled throughout the week at the different sites.
A fantastic family-friendly day out, children love the missions. They can run and play inside their stone walls, explore garrisons that guarded residents from raiding Apaches and Comanches, see how native peoples lived 250+ years ago, and learn how ancient settlers grew crops, ground corn into meal, and carried water along an ancient aqueduct.
Arguably the most popular of these four structures, Mission San José is the largest of the five missions in San Antonio, including The Alamo. Often called the Queen of the Missions, it was founded in 1720 and almost completely restored to its original design in the 1930s by the WPA (Works Projects Administration). Once home to approximately 350 residents, it was a major social and cultural centre, sustained by large fields and herds of livestock. The large complex of stone walls, bastions, convento, granary and a large church – completed in 1782 – is still home to an active Catholic parish, and visitors can still attend Mass there. One of the best times to visit is on Easter morning. Be sure to see the church’s famous “Rose Window” with its ornate design.
Adjacent to the site is the visitors’ centre/museum – open from 9am-5pm. The centre also offers an award-winning close-captioned film, Gente de Razón, which tells the story of 18th-century life in the Spanish missions.
It would take less than a half-day to hike, bike or drive to explore all the San Antonio Mission National Park sites, and possibly less time if you travel by car. The new 8-mile Mission Reach section of the River Walk also offers a fun way to make your way there.
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Have you visited San Antonio’s secret missions? Share your thoughts with us below.
Written by Janis Turk
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About the author: JanisJanis Turk
Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer and the author of the popular travel guide book, Frommer’s San Antonio & Austin Day by Day. Turk’s travel writing and photography have appeared in magazines such as Hemispheres (United Airlines), Spirit (Southwest Airlines), Pontiac Performance, Chile Pepper, New York City Resident, AAA Texas Journey, and more, as well as popular newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle and others. She also scribes online pieces for popular travel sites such as Frommer’s and GoNOMAD. Turk divides her time between New Orleans, Louisiana, and her home in Seguin, Texas.