San Juan Capistrano is a beautiful town located in Orange County along the Orange Coast. It was founded by the Spanish in 1776, and houses a Mission started by Father Junipero Serra. The 1812 Capistrano earthquake caused extensive damage to the Mission and the community went into decline. San Juan was a rural town until after the 20th century, when the Mission was restored in 1910-20s, and it transformed the town into a tourist destination, and was also used as a backdrop for Hollywood films. This town is rich with history, and provides the visitor with wonderful restaurants, gardens, shopping, and historical buildings in which to explore with wonderful architecture which tell a story of times passed. Let’s explore together my favorite things to see in San Juan Capistrano.
While close to the ocean, San Juan Capistrano is not a beach town. Instead, it is a very small historical town with a beautiful old town which exudes old California vibes. We loved wondering the back alleys around the train station area and take in the laid back California feel. So, put on some comfortable walking shoes and let’s explore together some of the charming things to see in San Juan Capistrano.
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My Favorite Things to See in San Juan Capistrano
The main things to see in San Juan Capistrano are all centered around Mission San Juan Capistrano and the train station, which are both within walking distance. The area between these two main tourist attractions has been filled with restaurants, shops and is dotted with old buildings.
Walking map of San Juan Capistrano
Yellow: Park, Red: See, Green: Walk
With our map in hand let’s take a stroll through old town San Juan Capistrano and explore this beautiful historical in Southern California.
1. Los Rios Historic District
Charming old building in San Juan Capistrano Los Rios Historic District
See my photos from San Juan Capistrano
Los Rios Historic District is the oldest residential neighborhood in California, and its history dates back to the 1700s. The District has many historical buildings, and visitors can take a walking tour of the area to explore the many restaurants, shops, Victorian-style buildings, and learn about California’s history in the process. It is really cool to walk around the Metrolink station where the old town is located.
You can cross the railroad tracks on Verdugo Street, and most attractions are located where Verdugo St. intersects with Los Rios St. Visiting Montanez Adobe, which was built in 1794, will be eye opening, as it is one of 40 adobes built to house Mission Indians, and is also one of the oldest structures in town.
Stopping in the Los Rios Historic District while touring around town, will be one of the interesting things to see in San Juan Capistrano. It is charming, quaint, contains plenty of history and will leave its visitors with an added sense of what life was like in the 1700s in this part of California.
2. Mission San Juan Capistrano
Water fountain and old bells in the San Juan Capistrano Mission courtyard
See my photos from Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is part of the 27 California Missions that run along the beautiful state. This location happens to be one of the favorite Missions to visit, and is one of the historical things to see in San Juan Capistrano. This Mission has been described as a magical experience. The chapel is beautiful with amazing artwork and architecture. The museum had a lot of fascinating history to learn about. The gardens are home to vibrant colors with the flowers showing off their beauty to visitors. A bonus that is free with admission is the audio tour. There are also shops and places to eat around the Mission to complement the visit.
Across the street from the Mission is Ortega’s Capistrano Trading Post, which was built in 1947 by former Hollywood director Henry Oliver but was sold to Mr. Ortega in 1987. The store offers an array of souvenirs, artwork, Native American jewelry and turquoise, plus crafts from local San Juan Capistrano artists.
3. Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano
The bell tower of the new Mission Basilica
See my photos from Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano was modeled after The Great Stone Church and is a national shrine which offers regular masses and parochial school. The Great Stone Church was built in 1797, and the cathedral style church took nine years to construct. In 1812 an earthquake collapsed the church, leaving it in ruins. People love visiting the current beautiful church and historical ruins, which are right nearby. Located next to the old Mission, Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano is one of the quaint things to see in San Juan Capistrano. The architecture is of great interest, and it also appeals to those wanting to worship in the serenity and beauty it offers. It has been honored as a basilica, which makes it a special gathering place, or pilgrimage center. On the right side of the sanctuary is a silver bell called the Tintinabellum or Basilica Bell, which is a symbol of papacy and pilgrimage.
4. Eat at San Juan Capistrano
Charming chalkboard sign in front of small cafe in San Juan Capistrano
See my photos from San Juan Capistrano
Filled with wonderful places to eat, this quaint town has some stand out places to nosh at which are part of the delectable things to do in San Juan Capistrano. Ramos House Café has a beautiful ambiance with lovely scenery and birds chirping. The beignets are said to be amazing, and the Scotch Quail Eggs worth trying, the staff are friendly, and the atmosphere is classy.
Ellie’s Table at Egan House has both a charming atmosphere and mouthwatering food. The location is in the historic park area, and the food ranges from breakfast burritos to omlettes to pastries and sandwiches.
The Tea House on Los Rios is said to have outstanding and attentive service, is a great place to meet up with friends and makes fantastic in-house currant scones and raspberry jam. Please make sure to book ahead, as it can be a popular and busy place. Living up to its name, the choice of teas is superb. This restaurant is a lovely location to have high tea, with visitors coming from near and far to experience its charm.
Plan Your Trip to San Juan Capistrano
Our family enjoyed the charming things to see in San Juan Capistrano and we found it very easy to plan our trip. San Juan is located right off the 5 freeway, right off Ortega Highway. Once you park your car, you can easily walk everywhere.
Where to park in San Juan Capistrano? If you want to stroll around the Los Rios Historic District you can park right off Verdugo Street in the large parking lot serving the area. From here you can easily walk both to Los Rios but also down Camino Capistrano to the Town Park and the Blas Aquilar Adobe Museum. In addition, this parking area is right across from the Mission San Juan, making it very central to all things to see in San Juan Capistrano.
However, during the weekends when we visited, we couldn’t find parking here and we parked in the Metrolink parking lot on the other side of Verdugo Street.
Another option, with lots of parking is to stop in the Los Rios Parking on the other side of the train tracks.
Is San Juan Capistrano Worth Visiting?
San Juan Capistrano is a lovely place to visit. The town has a history dating back to the 1700’s, with an entire district to explore and see what California looked like so many years ago, how it felt, and the energy it created. The picturesque Mission is one of 27 to explore along the entire state of California. Mission Basilica offers the visitor the chance to see old ruins, and newer construction, with both containing the serene spiritual presence and beauty the visitor may be drawn to. This lovely town also boasts of fun places to shop and contains many eateries that have a variety of foods, service and ambience sure to match that of each visitor’s desired wish. San Juan Capistrano is a town that provides enjoyment for a day visit and possesses enough intriguing activities to extend to an overnight visit and beyond. Along with San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano is a favorite stop along the California coastline.
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