The Best (and Worst) of California’s Missions

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Mary and I have now seen and photographed every California Mission, some of them more than once.  We have many blogs on this site about individual missions and two popular blogs about how to photograph the missions, in general.  Herewith, is our summary of the very best (and not so good) of these sites (please discuss):

Here is our absolute forced-ranking of the Missions:

Top Five Must See

1.  La Purisima Concepcion in Lompoc, CA – best “traditional” grounds

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2.  Santa Barbara – The “queen” has the best interior

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3.  San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel, CA – most beautiful grounds


4. San Juan Bautista – great location and grounds

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5.  San Antonio de Padua near Jolon,CA – off the beaten path and unique

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And the Rest

6.  San Juan Capistrano – the old ruins are a must see.  Great chapel.


7. San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside, CA – huge church and grounds


8. San Diego de Alcala – pretty facade

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9. Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in Soledad, CA – a humble little church

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10.San Jose in Fremont, CA – great “re-build”

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11. San Miguel Archangel – pretty little farm community church

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12. San Francisco Solano de Sonoma – simple and beautiful


13. San Francisco de Assi – very busy area, but a must see

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14. San Luis Obispo – completely new and rebuilt parish church

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15. San Gabriel Archangel – nice little museum

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16. San Fernando Rey – pretty grounds and church

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17. San Buenaventura – newer parish church


18. Santa Ines in Solvang, CA – love the altar

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19.  Santa Clara – new church on college campus


20.  San Rafael Archangel – new cathedral with a replica of a small mission

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21.  Santa Cruz – 1/3 size replica

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Getting There From South to North

Most of the missions are right on the “El Camino Real” which for most of the state is CA Highway 101.  South of Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, and San Diego are not far off of the Interstate 5 freeway.

San Gabriel is in the middle of “nowhere” in Los Angeles between the I10 and I 210 in the San Gabriel Valley.  Likewise, San Fernando is just off of the I5 near the I5 and I405 merge at the northwest end of the San Fernando Valley.

Beginning with San Buenaventura, the following are right along the 101 – Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, La Purisima, San Luis Obispo.  San Antonio de Padua is about 30 miles west of 101.  Soledad is off of the 101 as well as San Juan Bautista.

To get to Carmelo and Santa Cruz, you will have to go west onto CA 1 and the Monterey Bay Peninsula.

Santa Clara, San Jose, San Francisco, and San Rafael are all along the 101.  Finally, you will have to go to the city of Sonoma to see Solano which is about 20 miles west of the 101 and the northern most mission.

Hardest to see

San Antonia de Padua is 30 miles west of CA 101 in the middle of the Fort Hunter Liggett Army base.  There is nothing else around here.  This is truly a “destination mission.”

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Best Location – Santa Barbara

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Best Museum – San Fernando Rey

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Most Authentic – La Pursima

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Most Beautiful Church – Santa Barbara

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Best Facade – Carmelo


Best All Around – Santa Barbara

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Best Grounds – La Purisima

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Best Fountain – Carmelo


Best Camino Real Bell – Padua

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Best Father Serra Statue – Most of them – Padua

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Photographing CA Missions Number 1 and Number 2 describe how we photograph the missions and there are many more mission blogs on this site.  Just search for the one you want to see,

To see (and buy) more of our photos, please go to


  1. pamphotography

    I’ve been trying to think about how to reply to your question, and I honestly can’t come up with a “best”. The Santa Barbara Mission is stunningly beautiful. Mission San Juan Capistrano has so much variety including the old ruins. The La Purisima Mission is true to history, its like walking back in time. The mission in Soledad was so special in its small understated simplicity.

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