San Antonio is one of the top tourist destinations in the state of Texas. Offering delicious Tex-Mex food, a fabulous river walk, world-class theme parks, and an interesting history, there truly is something for everyone in San Antonio.
Part of the city’s interesting history is encompassed in one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city as well, the world-famous Alamo. While most visitors to San Antonio include the Alamo on their itinerary, many miss out on the other fabulous missions that San Antonio has to offer.
There are actually 5 missions in San Antonio, including the Alamo, that make up the San Antonio Mission Trail. As the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas, you would be remiss to not pay a visit to the other four San Antonio missions.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish colonial government financed the building of missions throughout Texas, California, and Arizona. These missions served to not only allow Spain to stake claim of the land, but they also helped to convert Native Americans to Catholicism.
The missions weren’t churches as many people believe. They were like small communities that worked together to serve a common purpose. It was around these missions that many great cities blossomed, like San Antonio!
As a Native Texan, I have visited the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park numerous times. I find that each time I visit these amazing missions I learn new information about the history of San Antonio and its surrounding areas.
Since the missions are conveniently connected by the San Antonio Mission Trail, a popular hike and bike trail that runs alongside the San Antonio River, it makes visiting them easy and fun! Just take note that the trail is over 10 miles long, so you decide if you want to bike or walk it. If you prefer, you can drive to the missions, or take the free public transportation that picks up right in front of the Alamo.
When planning your visit, it is important to note that each of the major sites at the parks are partially wheelchair accessible. As these are historic sites, there are several areas of uneven terrain. Walking is required between the sites, and there are some stairs at a few of the sites as well.
1. Mission Concepción
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísma Concepción de Acuña (Mission Concepción for short) is located just south of the Alamo, about 3 miles outside of downtown San Antonio.
The mission that you see before you today looks almost like it did back in the 1700s. The unrestored stone church was once adorned with colorful geometric designs. Unfortunately, these have faded, revealing the plain stones that you see today.
Mission Concepción was relocated to this area in the mid 1700s to escape the French soldiers that were beginning to move into the Texas area from Louisiana. Like other San Antonio missions, its home along the banks of the San Antonio River ensured that the residents had access to water for drinking and irrigation purposes.
The beautiful stone mission has 45-inch-thick stone walls and its beautiful design boasts two bell towers framing the entrance to the church. Once inside, be sure and take note of the beautiful frescoes depicting mission life in the 1700s. The images of the Franciscan friars interacting with the Indigenous People illustrates the relationship that came to be between the native Coahuiltecan Indians and the Spanish friars.
Feel free to explore the grounds during your visit as well. Notice the remnants of the stone walls that once protected the mission and the land that provided a homesite to the people living at Mission Concepción.
Pro Tip: Mission Concepción is still an active Catholic church today. You are welcome to plan your visit during service times and join in if you would like.
2. Mission San José
Located approximately 3 miles south of Mission Concepción is Mission San José. The largest of the four missions south of the Alamo, Mission San José is lovingly nicknamed “The Queen of the Missions.”
Mission San José was meticulously restored in the 1930s to its beauty and grandeur of the 1700s. Upon laying eyes on the mission’s massive stone church that incorporates beautiful Texas limestone with brightly colored limestone, it is easy to see why Mission San José is a favorite among visitors.
A visit to Mission San José truly feels like you are stepping back in time. One of the most popular attractions here is the Rose Window. The window was said to have been carved by a carpenter whose fiancé, Rosa, was lost at sea on her way from Spain to San Antonio.
Mission San José is also where you will find the visitor center for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The visitor center offers several exhibits, an informative film, and ranger-led tours of the mission which are on paved paths.
The unique thing about a visit to Mission San José is that visitors get to truly see a complete example of what life was like behind mission walls thanks to its extensive renovation.
As this mission was once home to hundreds of Native Americans, don’t miss the opportunity to see their living quarters. The Native Americans that called San José home lived in the 84 two-room residences that are built into the walls of the mission. These Native American families contributed to the community providing skills such as farming, ranching, carpentry, and more.
Also on-site are the convent, a granary, and a gristmill. The convent on-site served as the missionary’s residency and also provided lodging and shelter for guests visiting the mission. The on-site granary held the supply of wheat and corn until they were ready to go to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal and flour.
Like Mission Concepción, Mission San José is also an active church. You are welcome to visit and join during service times.
Pro Tip: There is a restaurant located down the street from Mission San José that serves up delicious, authentic Tex-Mex. Nicha’s is a family-run restaurant that is the perfect place to have lunch while you are out exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail!
3. Mission San Juan Capistrano
While this location feels a little more remote than the others, it was still a valuable mission significant to San Antonio’s history. The fertile land that Mission San Juan sits on helped to establish this mission as one of the agricultural suppliers of the region. Evidence suggests that Mission San Juan grew numerous fruits and vegetables both inside and outside the mission walls. Their production of melons, grapes, peppers, beans, and squash even helped them to establish a trade network reaching into Louisiana and Mexico.
Today, visitors can see the land still at work thanks to the on-site demonstrations that are held here and that benefit the San Antonio Food Bank. It is really a sight to behold when you see the crops still being irrigated by the original aquifers that were built on-site.
The beautiful white adobe church with its towering bell tower and Spanish embellishments stands out against all of the farmland surrounding it. If the church is open, take time to step inside and explore the historic structure.
The farm area at San Juan Capistrano is an uneven dirt path. In addition, the paved trail leading to the dam is steep and there are no safety barriers. If you would like to view the dam without going down this path, you can do so from the parking area.
Pro Tip: For a little respite from the city, walk the 0.3-mile Yanaguana Trail that hugs the San Antonio River. The trail is a nice place to enjoy the shade and relax for a few minutes.
4. Mission Espada
Mission Espada is the southernmost mission on the San Antonio Mission Trail, located approximately 10 miles south of the Alamo.
As the first mission founded in Texas, Mission Espada holds a special place in Texas history. Originally named San Francisco de los Tejas and located in Weches, Texas, Mission Espada was moved to its current location in 1731 and renamed at that time as well.
Like the other missions, Spanish friars converted the Native Americans in the area to Catholicism and taught them trades so that they could contribute to the mission. These skills included farming, carpentry, weaving, and masonry.
Today, visitors can see evidence of these trade skills when they visit Mission Espada. One such artifact on-site is the loom that was brought to Mission Espada to spin wool from sheep. Today, live demonstrations of the loom take place on Tuesdays at the mission.
Mission Espada also housed a residence for the priest, a blacksmith shop, a kiln, and other tradesman-type workrooms. Unfortunately, a fire erupted on the site in 1826 that destroyed much of the property. The granary, chapel, and a couple of the original walls still remain.
If you are interested, you can join a ranger-led tour of Mission Espada’s ranch that is located about 30 miles south of San Antonio in the small town of Floresville, Texas. Please see the National Park Service website for current tour offerings.
Pro Tip: During your visit, don’t miss the historic aqueduct and dam that are a short drive away. Constructed in 1745 by the Franciscan friars, this aqueduct brought water from the San Antonio River to Mission Espada. Not only are they the oldest in the United States, but they are still functioning today! These aquifers are an incredibly preserved piece of history.
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