A mere hour and a half south of Los Angeles, en route to San Diego, Mission San Juan Capistrano is 7th of the state's 21 missions and often referred to as the Jewel of the Missions. People throughout the world know it as the place that the swallows return to every year, and parents of fourth graders (the California missions year) come to know it as a great family outing to support school projects. The buildings and gardens are particularly lovely and well restored, and the admission fee includes an audio tour: one for adults and another called “Saved by the Mission Bell" geared specifically for fourth graders. In fact, San Juan Capistrano has enough entertainment for kids of all ages to make it a solid LA kids bucket list item.
The town of San Juan Capistrano is a small, walkable center, with the mission at its heart. When you enter, be sure to let the people at the desk know if you are visiting with kids working on a mission project; fourth graders get a special package with a passport explorer, a resource book, a 4th grade Q&A session (3pm on the weekends), and access to study kits for each of the other 20 missions. It's also a good idea to pay up front if your kids want to feed the koi fish ($1), because there is a limit to how many cups of food are doled out in a day; once the fish daily diet has been reached, no more cups are sold.
But school projects are just the beginning of the mission's activities for kids of all ages. The Clubhouse has information about mission life and what it was like for members of the community who lived and worked there; young visitors can try their hands at building archways or making leather and candles. Basket weaving is offered on the first and third Wednesday of each month, and on Saturdays and Sundays kids can pan for gold and mold adobe bricks in the outdoor courtyard. During the summer, extra activities include daily crafts like corn husk dolls, jewelry, and clay pots. The mission even runs a summer camp program and family sleepovers.
Other family events take place throughout the year as well. The gardens fill up for Music Under the Stars on Saturday evenings all summer long, and the Battle of the Mariachis is a big attraction in May. Christmastime brings tree lightings, caroling, concerts, and Father Christmas.
But there is one event for which San Juan Capistrano is world renowned, and that is the annual migration of the swallows, who arrive like clockwork on March 19th and leave again on October 23. A Swallows Walk and Talk tour showing where and how these migrant birds build their nests is offered daily. And if you time your visit right, you could catch the annual parade that greets the birds' return each March (with more than a few rounds of the song made famous by Pat Boone).
If you follow canonization news, you might be aware that the mission's founder, Friar Junipero Serra, is up for sainthood at the moment. The mission bells ring in his honor daily at 9am.
Be sure to check the Mission San Juan Capistrano website prior to visiting, as there are special activities and discounts listed throughout the year. The website also has a great educational resource for 4th graders and teachers, with multiple links to articles about specific mission themed topics (among them The Acjachemen Nation, The Spanish explorers, agriculture, and all aspects of mission life).
While it is possible to spend several hours at the mission, you won't want to miss the Los Rios Historic District, which is the oldest neighborhood in California. Just across the train tracks, hidden behind the Capistrano Depot, Los Rios is populated by historic residences and a charming place to shop or dine. There are three adobes, two of which continue to be occupied today and another, The Montanez Adobe (circa 1794), that is open to the public. Behind the Montanez Adobe is the Los Rios Playground, which continues the historic western theme and is a rustic place to picnic and play. Other sites to take in include an old jail and a petting zoo.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
26801 Ortega Highway
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Admission: Adults $9; Children (4-11) $6, (under 4) free