Last Updated on March 4, 2023
Charming, historic, captivating. Just some of the words to describe one of my favorite Southern California towns. I’m here to tell you what to do in San Juan Capistrano, California.
Though most renowned for its famous Mission, this lovely place is filled with history, culture, intimate galleries, boutiques, unique cafes, and some great places to celebrate nature. It’s also a rail stop for Amtrak and Metrolink, a popular way to travel the California Coast and inland regions.
Because everything in town is close and walkable, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll leave your car parked during your visit and explore on foot.
For a small town, San Juan Capistrano packs a punch. Here are my recommendations for what to do in San Juan Capistrano, California.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Tops on the list of what to do in San Juan Capistrano, California is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, for whom the town is named. It’s also the crown jewel of California’s 21 historic missions the Catholic church established along the California coast in the 1700s and 1800s.
Originally built as a self-sufficient community by Spanish Padres and Native Americans in 1776, the Mission was a center for agriculture, industry, education, and religion. In 1812, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake collapsed the bell tower destroying the Mission’s massive Great Stone Church.
Thanks to restoration efforts throughout the years to preserve the remains, visitors can walk the Mission’s picturesque grounds and be awe-inspired by the magnificent ruins and sounds of its melodious bells. Other portions of the Mission remained intact, and today Serra Chapel is the oldest standing church in California. For 240 years, this place of worship has held a daily celebration of the Eucharist.
Celebrate the Swallows
In San Juan Capistrano, it’s all about the birds—the cliff swallows, and they are famous. The Miracle of the Swallows takes place each year at Mission San Juan Capistrano on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. These faithful little cliff dwellers migrate from Argentina in large flocks each year to nest in the eaves throughout the mission grounds.
This tradition, celebrated since the early 1930s, attracts visitors around the globe to witness the Return of the Swallows. The swallows disappeared for years after the renovation and stabilization of the Ruins of the Great Church disturbed their nesting, but biologists initiated a vocalization program recording courtship calls, and a nest re-enactment project.
Much to the joy and delight of the locals and bird lovers throughout the world, the swallows dutifully returned and continue to remain the town’s beloved stars. Miracles do happen in San Juan Capistrano.
Los Rios Historic District
A fascinating historic district just beyond the railroad station, Los Rios represents a perfect blending of the past and the present. This oldest neighborhood in California contains 40 original homes along with three adobe structures dating back to the Spanish and Mexican Colonial periods.
Many of these original buildings have been repurposed into charming boutique shops, galleries, eateries, and private residences. Strolling through the district is like recapturing the tranquility of the slower pace of life that existed in the past.
Willow trees grow among eucalyptus and palms. Cactus and wildflowers bloom beneath sprays of colorful bougainvillea.
The sounds of train whistles echo from the nearby depot.
The Capistrano Depot
Originally opened in October 1894, the railroad station represents one of the earliest examples of Mission Revival style architecture and is one of the loveliest train depots in Southern California. In 1974, Amtrak added San Juan Capistrano as a flag stop on its Los Angeles to San Diego line.
Today, the depot has been converted into a restaurant fittingly named Trevor’s at the Tracks. Much of the original architecture remains, including the iconic 40-foot tower with its four arched openings, decorative bells, and weathervane topper. The original station had ticket and telegraph offices and a small waiting room with a fireplace. These are still part of the private event spaces within the restaurant.
San Juan Capistrano’s New Mission Basilica
You can see it from quite a distance. The tall church with its two red-domed roofs and basilica bells was completed in 1986 and designed after the Mission’s Great Stone Church. An exact replica could not be built due to the massive destruction of the original structure. In 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the church a Basilica, granted due to its special religious, cultural, and historic significance.
The inside of the basilica is magnificent, with a grand altar carved in cedar and covered in gold leaf. This altar is reminiscent of the 17th and 18th century Spanish and Mexican colonial retablos with the Trinity as its main focus. Mass is celebrated in both the basilica and the picturesque outdoor courtyard.
Cedar Creek Inn
Though San Juan Capistrano boasts a large number of eateries for a small town, one of my favorite standouts is Cedar Creek Inn, serving happy patrons for over 50 years.
With unparalleled views of the historic Mission along with patio fountains and a fireplace, this is one of the most picturesque settings for outdoor dining you’ll find. It’s family-owned and operated, service is top-notch, and their twist on California cuisine is fresh, creative, and extremely tasty.
The restaurant has been rated among the top 100 Al Fresco dining locations in America by Forbes and awarded the Traveler’s Choice 2020 by TripAdvisor. It’s no surprise, for once you dine here, you’ll be planning your return visit.
Nestled in the historic Los Rios district, this delightful gingerbread home was originally built by Jose Garcia, a saloon owner for his wife, Refugio Yorba, between 1870 and 1880.
Unfortunately, tragedy befell Garcia, who was murdered in 1896. In 1903, Albert Pryor purchased the house but later suffered a serious stroke. His ghost has reportedly been seen sitting on the porch he so loved, smoking a cigar.
The house was donated to the historical society in 1976, restored, and furnished with period future. The building became known as the O’Neill Museum in honor of Marguerite O’Neill. She kept beautiful nearby Rancho Mission Viejo from being sold for urban expansion. The museum now houses old photos, books, maps, documents, genealogical and historical town records.
Bike to Doheny State Beach
For those into biking and the outdoors, and I certainly am, one amazing trek extends six miles from San Juan Capistrano to picturesque Doheny State Beach in nearby Dana Point.
San Juan Creek Trail is a well-maintained asphalt-paved path great for biking and jogging. The scent of orange trees is intoxicating, and the mountain and beach views are incredible. You’re also likely to see horseback riders as the area consists of numerous ranches and an equestrian center.
Hike in a Wilderness Park
An 8,000-acre protected wilderness preserve encompassing river terraces and sandstone canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains, Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park is a way to claim you’re truly a member of the “get lost club.”
Individual campsites are available for those who love sleeping in the great outdoors. Hiking and horseback riding are the main attractions here due to seasonable wildflower displays, a creek (dry in the absence of rainfall), groves of native Coastal Live Oak, and magnificent stands of California Sycamore. Trails lead through classic California riverine, desert, and rolling foothills terrain.
Word of warning, however, mountain lions frequent the area. It is, after all, their habitat. As the rangers advised, don’t venture off the marked trails. And remember to take everything back with you that you brought into the park, including your trash.