San Juan Capistrano offers activities for all ages

BY Suzanna Kincaid

Not far from the beaches and scenic California coastline, you can find centuries-old history and beauty in San Juan Capistrano. This mission town holds a quaint, unique charm that has evolved through the years to provide convenient, relaxing enjoyment for visitors of all ages.  Easily located off the I-5 and Ortega 74 Highway and accessible via Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, the local area also offers historical sites, shopping and parks that provide entertainment for a memorable day trip or weekend stay.

The Mission

Originally founded in 1775, the San Juan Capistrano Mission provides visitors with years of history and culture to explore. Previously housing up to 1,000 people and 10,000 cattle, this settlement offered religion, industry and protection for many local peoples. Today, you can walk through the buildings and grounds with a guided tour or by yourself with an audio guide. Around the mission, you can see remains of leather-making workshops, recreated living quarters and other areas essential for the historical residents and workers. Some rooms have been remodeled for modern galleries and examples of the preservation taking place. You can also learn about the daily life of the local residents, former, prominent religious leaders that lived there and the current uses of the buildings and chapels.

Around the grounds lay impressive ruins from the old Great Stone Church. This building was an architectural gem that provided the largest structure for miles around. Today, countless flowers and plants surround the ruins, where interactive activities like gold-panning also take place. A number of hand-crafted benches and classic furniture and walls allow you to sit and rest while enjoying the koi pond, bell towers and arched pathways around the site.

Scattered around the east corridor and the ruins of the Great Stone Church, you can also see a number of small nests. Each year, 15,000 cliff swallows emigrate from Argentina, returning to nest in San Juan Capistrano. Celebrate their return on St. Joseph’s Day, or March 19th. You can come enjoy the celebrations and view the swallows fly over the mission in impressive numbers as well as learn about ongoing efforts to provide a lasting home for these yearly visitors.

Eating and Shopping

The city of San Juan Capistrano has been built around the focal point that is the Mission. Within a couple of blocks, there are a number of local shops you can enjoy, beginning with the mission’s bookstore. Inside, you can find California goods and wares, pieces by local artists and a number of swallow-themed items to remember your trip. Nearby are also various tourist shops offering more Mission-related trinkets and mementos. The area also offers local antique and consignment shops for you to enjoy at your own pace.
If you prefer more modern shopping options, just over six miles down the I-5 you can find the Outlets at San Clemente. This center offers many discounted and factory stores built with Colonial-style fronts and stores selling high-end brands such as Marc Jacobs, Versace, Prada, Miu Miu, La Perla and many more.

Within a couple of blocks of the Mission, you can also find a number of restaurants and cafés to enjoy a meal or snack. There are a variety of chain options such as Ruby’s Diner, Starbucks and others. You can also enjoy more local fare from restaurants such as the Swallow’s Inn or Mission Grill, or enjoy a steak in a reclaimed train car at the Vintage Steak House. For more unique experiences, you can walk across the train tracks to the Los Rios Historic District, located directly across from the Capistrano Depot. Along the willow-, palm- and eucalyptus-lined Los Rios, you can find a number of traditional houses that have been converted into eateries, including the Tea House and Hummingbird House Café.

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Nearby Natural Wonders

If you are looking to enjoy the local natural California attractions, you have multiple options within a short distance. Approximately five miles from San Juan Capistrano, you can find a number of beaches including 1000 Steps Beach that is reached by a steep stairway and provides areas for sunbathing and volleyball. Aliso Beach is farther north and is popular for swimming and surfing. If you prefer staying dry, you can head inland along Ortega Highway to the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. This 8,000-acre park offers stunning views of natural scenery to explore as well as wildlife sightings. You can make use of easy nature walks and intermediate hikes, as well as more advanced trails for horseback riding or mountain biking. Parking will typically cost $10 per car, but during your visit, you can make use of the camping facilities with full bathroom and shower facilities.

With a range of modern and historical attractions, San Juan Capistrano provides a peaceful getaway for the entire family. Located approximately an hour from both San Diego and Los Angeles, this charming town provides a historic background for modern adventures.