Spanish Missions in the Bay Area


If you went to school in California, chances are you learned about the mission system in California. The missions comprise a series of 21 religious outposts, established by Catholic priests of the Franciscan order between 1769 and 1833. They were built along El Camino Real, each a days’ worth of journey apart. The purpose of these missions was to expand Christianity among the Native Americans northwards into what is today the US state of California.

The Missions were built from San Diego to North of San Francisco. Bay Area has four of them-two in San Francisco and three in the greater Bay Area. Back in my crazy traveling days, I had the pleasure of visiting two missions-Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Carmel also known as San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Since my cousin is visiting, I decided to take him to a couple of missions in the Bay Area so he could learn a bit about California history.

If you are in the Bay Area visiting or even just a resident, then you don’t have to travel far and wide to see these historical and cultural buildings. To be honest, if you are visiting and want to add a little historical angle to the journey, it is a good idea to explore somethings outside your interests and touristy spots. The California Missions are beautiful options to visit and learn about the state. San Francisco de Asis, also known as Mission Dolores is a charming, authentic place with a small cemetery and limited grounds. The second one is a little north-about 40 miles from San Francisco. It’s called San Francisco Solano also known as Mission Sonoma. It’s a well-restored mission in the beautiful town in the wine country. According to their website, they have a collection of paintings of all the missions. Mission San Rafael is also in the Bay Area although a little northeast of everything.

Because we didn’t want to travel so far and wide, we opted to stay close to our house in Mountain View and sight-see the nearest missions. So we visited Mission San Jose in Fremont and Mission Santa Clara de Asis in Santa Clara. The former is about 35 minutes from Mountain View and the latter about 15 minutes.

We began the day with Mission San Jose since that was the furthest from us. You drive through a cute residential area and then a sort-of-downtown area where there are shops (and Starbucks!) to browse in. If you want to go straight to the Mission then that’s ok, you won’t miss anything. We parked our car and made our way inside the mission. As we walked in the gift shop, which was also the mission entrance, we were greeted by two elderly women. They were so inviting and charming and most importantly welcoming. As a Muslim, I am not sure, how religious people from another religions view me in their place of religious history so it was quite re-assuring. I got one adult and one student ticket that set us back $8 dollars. They took credit cards, but had to take time to make a call to my credit card company. Apparently, they do that to any customer paying that way. So I suggest using cash. There were no drinks allowed so I was pretty bummed out because I would have liked to drink my mocha in that cold building.

The mission is pretty well-preserved or restored, I am not sure which. I do wish they had some docent-led tours going on. I would have learned more. School trips are encouraged and you get a guide then. The living quarters are at one end and the cemetery is on the other end, the church is in the middle. The church was quite gorgeous and I am sure rebuilt again after all the earthquakes California experiences. I can’t confirm it because like I said there were no guides. The cemetery is quite nice too with a walkway designed for you to stroll on. I could tell that this mission is great for those people who have seen other missions, but to get a good feel of the mission life and lay of the land, go to San Juan Bautista, which is about an hour and a half south from Mountain View.

After our journey in Mission San Jose, we had lunch at Café Mirchi (Fremont). I have recommended this place to my readers before so they already know I didn’t need an excuse to come eat there today. I made it happen!

After lunch, we drove south to Santa Clara University to see Mission Santa Clara de Asis. Now, in a clearly developed area, it’s hard to imagine life on this mission back in the day. Today, Mission Santa Clara de Asis sits in the middle of Santa Clara University. Parking on the streets is difficult on weekdays, when school is in session. They have visitors’ parking if you come from the main entrance so I recommend taking that route. We found parking and made our way to the church. It is right in the center so it is difficult to miss. As I approached it, I saw a little bit of California and Silicon Valley with palm trees, university buildings and brick walkways. While taking pictures, one can’t help but notice how well-preserved this mission is also leading me to think that this mission was probably rebuilt.

If you go on a weekday, you get to see student life as well, which was nice. We walked to the still-working church and noticed it be grander and more well-preserved than Mission San Jose.  Think Stanford University’s church. There was an aura of peace inside the empty church. As you make your way through the wooden doors with mysterious wave-like patterns (a common observation of the mission architecture), you are surprised by how large the inside is. The interior is full of religious images and relics with an impressive alter to the front. I sat down for a few minutes just to soak it all in. When you exit there is a cute rose garden on the left side, which you can view from the locked gate. I didn’t see a cemetery here.

Overall, an enlightening experience to have near my home. As I said earlier, if you are an out-of-towner, these missions shouldn’t be an introduction to the mission system. The one in Carmel and San Juan Bautista are much more catered to tourists then these two we saw today. However, if you are a mission fiend and would like to visit all the mission or missions just near your home, then by all means you won’t be disappointed after coming here. Happy travels!

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