Best American Landmarks to Visit with Kids: California Missions

America’s historic and natural landmarks may not be as ancient as those found in other parts of the world, but their more recent origins add a tangible quality that may inspire a child’s learning. Whether seeing firsthand the documents our nation was built on, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places are an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your back yard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.

Long before the Gold Rush and centuries before Hollywood became a cultural institution, a different breed of settler was establishing a way of life in California.

Seeking to confirm its claim to the West Coast wilderness, the King of Spain ordered the colonization of California with communities and forts to defend the land and protect Spanish interests. Those missions were established by priests or padres who offered a different perspective, seeking to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Ultimately, the Native Americans—who built and maintained the missions—were forced to give up their culture and language.

Twenty-one Spanish missions were built between 1769 and 1833. Stretching more than 500 miles from San Diego and Mission San Diego de Alcala in the south, to San Francisco and Mission Solano in the north, all the missions are located along or near Highway 101.

Each mission is highly unique. I was ten years old when I participated in the rite of passage known to millions of California schoolchildren as the fourth grade Mission Project. I wrote a report and built a model of the beautiful Mission San Luis Rey de Francía. Founded in 1798, this mission became one of the most prosperous with a population exceeding 2,800 in 1825. A leader in grain production, it boasted 27,500 head of cattle and more than 26,000 sheep in 1932. With its iconic white façade, Mission San Luis Rey was also the site of the TV series Zorro in the 1950s. Nestled in a picturesque valley on 56 acres in Northern San Diego county, the lush gardens and historic buildings around this mission allow visitors to imagine life in Alta California.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, known as the “Jewel of the Missions,” was founded in 1776. A massive earthquake in 1812 destroyed the Great Stone Church and killed 40 residents. But four bells from the original bell tower have survived to this day. Immortalized by the Leon Rene song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” the mission does indeed host the swallows on their annual trek from their wintering grounds 2,000 miles away.

San Juan Bautista is known as the “Mission of Music” and became home to the renowned Indian boys choir, founded by Father Estevan Tapis. With 30 buildings surrounding its Spanish Plaza, the mission walls border part of the original El Camino Real and enveloped the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1957 classic Vertigo.

Visiting one or more missions with your children provides an opportunity to explore California’s roots—an experience that invariably includes the positive and negative aspects of that history.

Most of the missions display art and historical artifacts, and many expand on the history and offer other special events. Some missions feature demonstrations in basket weaving, adobe brick making, gold panning, and Native American storytelling. Some missions, such as San Juan Capistrano, include information about the Indian tribes who once inhabited the land. As parents, we have an opportunity to help our children develop critical-thinking skills and have meaningful conversations about this important part of our nation’s history.

Resources for Your Visit to California Missions

Too far for a visit? Take a virtual tour

California Department of Parks and Recreation

California Missions Foundation

California Missions Native History

Questions for Discussion

  • Why is it important to learn about early California history and the people who lived there?
  • What information and viewpoints are missing?
  • Which Missions still have active tribal members living in the area? What languages do they speak?

Educational Places to Visit near Each Mission

San Diego

Mission San Diego de Alcala

Old Town, San Diego
Living history activities are held every Wednesday and Saturday in Old Town State Historic Park.

Mission San Luis Rey

Orange County

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Bowers Museum

Los Angeles

San Gabriel Mission

Olvera Street – the birthplace of Los Angeles

California Science Center – Get an up-close look at the Space Shuttle Endeavor!

Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits


Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Cannery Row

San Francisco

Mission San Francisco de Asís/Misson Dolores

The Exploratorium

Featured Image – Ed Bierman / CC by 2.0

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