Sometimes a town can be so full of things to do that the city becomes a destination in and of itself. The town of San Juan Capistrano is a perfect destination city that can make you feel as if you’ve travelled into another time or place. Just 55 miles south of Los Angeles and 65 miles north of San Diego, it sits almost exactly in the middle of Southern California’s two largest metropolitan areas.
Go by Train to the Historic Train Depot
Getting to San Juan Capistrano by train is probably one of the easiest things to do. Both Metrolink and Amtrak stop at the historic downtown station approximately once or twice every hour, sometimes more. The scheduling is different on the weekends than it is on the weekdays, since more trains generally run on the weekdays to accommodate commuters, however they run often enough on the weekends to make travel easy. On the weekends, Metrolink is running a special called the Weekend Day Pass, where for just $10, you can go anywhere, at anytime. This special runs on both Saturday and Sunday. In addition to being able to ride the Metrolink to unlimited destinations on the weekends, the ticket includes free connections to most rail and bus lines throughout Southern California. The trains stop at the historic train depot, located at the front of the Los Rios District. The trains pass so often that it can be an amusing way to pass the time just watching the gates go up and down so many times.
For the Metrolink Orange County schedule, click here.
For the Amtrak Surfliner schedule, click here.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
The most popular destination to see in the city is the mission. Considered the “jewel of the missions” for its architectural masterpiece of the Great Stone Church, as well as the overall beauty of the site. It is also considered to be the “birthplace of Orange County” since it is the first area to be settled and developed within Orange County. The mission was founded on November 1, 1776. It is the 7th of the 21 California missions. See my post about Mission San Juan Capistrano to see more photos and learn more about this magnificent place. Allow yourself at least a couple hours to explore the mission, if not more. Admission includes a free audio device that allows you to hear descriptive information, available in 6 languages, that helps you to learn more about this historical site. Cost is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $6 for children 4 and over, however there are discounts that you can use. There is a $1 off coupon, available on the back of the mission program, found at the welcome kiosk by the train station or online at the mission website. Also, if you take the train, kids can enter free with each paid adult ticket on the weekends. Take a look and explore, and you will learn why the Mission San Juan Capistrano is “worth a visit”.
See the Basilica of San Juan Capistrano
Sitting on the back of the mission’s 10 acre site is the Basilica. It is outside the mission walls, so I recommend taking a look after you are done at the mission. After exiting the mission, you would take a right and walk up Camino Capistrano, alongside the mission walls until you get to the Basilica. After seeing the ruins of the Great Stone Church inside the mission, the sight of the Basilica will be more impactful, since it is a replica of what the Great Stone Church used to look like, although built to a slightly larger scale. Technically it is not an exact replica, because there were some details that they were unable to recover since the original Great Stone Church is in ruins, however, extensive research was done in other similar architectural era churches within California and Mexico to put together the missing links. Not only is this church unique because of its similarity to the original Great Stone Church, but also because it holds the title of Basilica, a rare title as a pilgrimage site given to churches throughout the world that comes from decree of the Holy See, the universal and international government of the Catholic church that operates in Vatican City in Rome. Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano received its title from Pope John Paul II in 2000. In addition to being a Basilica, in 2003, the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the church as a National Shrine, therefore emphasizing even more the special place this has in historical context and the Catholic faith. It is a center of pilgrimage that people of the Catholic faith all over the world visit to connect deeper into their faith and for those seeking spiritual renewal.
Visit the Michael Graves Designed Library
Across the street from the Basilica is the San Juan Capistrano Library. It was designed by Michael Graves, a contemporary American architect that is known for his unique postmodern design style. Michael Graves has designed numerous projects, both large and small, including work for Disney, various educational institutions, libraries, and hotels, just to name a few. As an architecture aficionado, I have always enjoyed the whimsical style of a good Graves designed building. I have had the chance to see a few of his works across the country, and always appreciate the fun style. The library opened its doors in 1983 and has been named a historic site since then. In addition, the library has received an honorary award from the American Institute of Architects. A plaque at the entrance states that the building “speaks the traditional language of the place without using all the same words”. Take a look around, perhaps take your children to a reading in the children’s library, or visit the bookstore.
Take a Stroll Through Los Rios District
The Historic Los Rios District is considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest, neighborhoods in California. Some of the structures include 3 original adobe structures that date back to the days of the mission, around 1794, as housing for families that were connected to the mission. Other homes were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, some of the homes are still occupied as residences, while others have become museums or businesses. Walking down this tree lined street has a tranquil charm, with many gems to discover. Enjoy the many businesses, the beautiful foliage, and see some butterflies along the way. Take your time, relax, and let the slow pace take you back to a place before the hustle and bustle as life as we know it today.
Enjoy a Local Brew
Being the coffee lover that I am, I couldn’t help but stop at Hidden House Coffee to have a cup of that delicious magical beverage. Just walking up to it, you see a quaint coffee shop that has relaxing patio seating in the shaded trees. Even the American flag hanging out front gives that inviting Americana feeling, welcoming you to come in and take a sip. What you will find inside is a hip vibe that is anything but commercialized. The beans are roasted in house, making a fresher, more flavorful cup. Their local roast is a mild, smooth blend that will please the palate of almost any coffee lover. Hidden House Coffee is family owned, both father and son were US Marines, and proudly hang the US Marine Corps flag on the porch. There is also a Wall of Honor inside, posting pictures of military service men and women. I always love to support a local business, and can honestly say that they make it easy to love what they do. Semper Fi!
Visit Zoomars Petting Zoo
If you have kids, this is a must see for your San Juan Capistrano visit. Even if you don’t have kids, you really should walk down the small path and check it out, and even pet a llama on the head. Located inside the Los Rios District, there are signs pointing down a small path to get to the zoo. It is very close to the train crossing gates and Hidden House coffee. The first to greet you will be the llamas, which you can say hello to without having to pay admission to get inside. They aren’t shy and will instantly make friends with you if they are in the mood, and especially if they think you may have food. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 children 17 and under. Rides and activities are extra. Extra fee activities include horse and pony rides, a mini train, gemstone mining, and feeding baskets for the animals. Visiting with animals is free. There are goats, chickens, llamas, donkeys, bunnies, and a guinea pig pen where you can hold and feed them. One of my daughter’s favorite activities was playing in the corn, which is similar to a sand box, but instead substituted with corn instead of sand. Zoomars runs a popular coupon on Groupon, so check for deals. I recommend making sure your kids go to the restroom before, since the only restroom is an outhouse.
A few other notes…
On Saturdays and Sundays, there is a free trolley service that runs through town. All locations listed above are within a short walking distance to each other, but this may also be a relaxing way to see a glimpse of the town before tackling the sightseeing. For more information on the trolley, or to see an updated events calendar, click here.
The mission has their own calendar of events, click here to see the latest happenings going on at the mission.
Don’t forget to check out my post about Mission San Juan Capistrano to learn more!
Below are pictures of some scenes from the town.