Six Historical Sites and Museums in San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano is a town filled with a rich history. From the considerable influence of the town’s mission to the area’s vibrant cultural backgrounds, you can easily get lost in the story of this longstanding place. At Capistrano Volkswagen, we love to learn more about the things that make our town special, and we want to share those unique places and moments with you. Read on to learn more about six local historical sites and museums that allow you to step back into the past.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Arguably one of the most influential spots nearby, Mission San Juan Capistrano is a must-visit for locals and tourists alike. In fact, it’s even the influence behind the town’s name. A mission is a location that Christian missionaries sometimes use to complete their work. These sprawling locations often have a distinct, Spanish architectural style that includes vibrant gardens, warm-colored stone structures, and various bells, churches, and chapels. This particular mission is no different. Stop by for the day to marvel at the beauty of this current museum and garden and immerse yourself in history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano dates all the way back to 1776. It was created as part of a collection of California missions intended to spread Spanish territory and convert the native inhabitants to Catholicism. In its time, this mission served as the city’s center for agriculture, industry, education, and religion. Today, you can explore relics from this 18th- through 19th-century colonial life, including paintings, tools, and furnaces. Want to feel like you’re really part of San Juan Capistrano’s past? This is the place to do it.

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano Church

This working parish is a great connection to the town’s history. Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano Church still runs regular masses, with its grounds earning the designation of National Shrine in 2003. When you visit, you can look up in wonder at an 85-foot dome, 104-foot tower, and an iconic silver bell. The inside of this building is just as impressive. Explore interior artwork and motifs that took over 18 months to complete.

There are historical paintings and religious artifacts, along with a special collection of Native American art, portraits, and artifacts, celebrating the town’s unique history as a collection of religious and Native influences. Whether you want to stop by for a mass, or would simply like to take a walk through this basilica’s halls, this is an important place for those who want to respect the town’s historical heritage.

Montañez Adobe

To get a different perspective on San Juan Capistrano’s unique past, check out Montañez Adobe. In 1794, the town’s citizens created 40 adobe structures to house the Native Americans working in the mission. The Montañez Adobe is one of those structures. 

Belonging to Doña Polonia Montañez, the daughter of one of the mission’s carpenters, this home was an important part of the town’s religious life at the time. Polonia Montañez created a small chapel in the adobe, which became a village sanctuary. Today, the adobe sits on the National Register of Historic Places as a living relic of a village filled with the Native workers who made San Juan Capistrano possible. 

San Juan Capistrano Depot

Established in 1894, this train depot is more than just a stop in between destinations. Although it’s still a working transportation hub, the San Juan Capistrano Depot is also a great place to spend the day like San Juan Capistrano residents of the past. Many original features still stand, including a 40-foot-tall dome, an old-time ticket office, a cozy fireplace, and finely detailed metal arches.

If you look carefully, you can even spot mission architecture standards like domed towers, arcades, and red Spanish roof tiles. If you’d like to make a full adventure of this stop, check out the depot’s Amtrak routes into and around the California coasts. Alternatively, you can stop for a brief snack and imagine yourself as a traveler of the past.

Los Rios Historic District

The Los Rios Historic District is a great place to mix the past with the present. It’s the grounds for the adobe structures, like the Montañez Adobe, that housed the mission’s ranch workers and builders. While many of these original adobes have transformed into private homes and residences, while others became shops, restaurants, and other businesses open to the public.

Enjoy food from all over the world while you peruse the area’s boutiques and galleries, many of which stand in cottages from the 1880s. You can even look for shops that specialize in Mexican, Central American, and South American gift pieces. Connect your modern day out on the town back to the city’s most important influences in this important public district.

O’Neill Museum

The O’Neill Museum is both a period of history preserved for modern enjoyment and the headquarters for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. In the past, the museum was a residence for saloon owner Jose Garcia, built for his wife between 1870 and 1880 as one of the town’s first frame homes. For those who’d like to revel in a bit of haunted history, you’ll be happy to know that this location has a bit of a checkered past. In 1896, builder Garcia met an untimely end, and some visitors claim to see his ghost patrolling the local streets looking for justice. Another late owner, Albert Pryor, also allegedly makes a ghostly appearance.

Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, this spot is worth a visit to see rooms preserved in their original 19th-century appearances. The observant visitors can even enjoy small historical touches like original wallpaper preserved under glass. If you’d like to find out even more about our town’s history, you can explore the historical society’s collections, which include books, records, maps, photographs, and oral histories of San Juan Capistrano’s past. 

So, there you have it. Capistrano Volkswagen just listed six of our favorite historical stops in our beautiful town. What did you think of our list? Did we forget anything? Contact us today to let us know. Together, let’s celebrate the beauty and history that is San Juan Capistrano.

Trellis, Mission San Juan Capistrano by Sharon Mollerus is licensed with CC BY 2.0