Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail

It’s no secret to anyone that I do love a good UNESCO site so was quite excited to hear that a site I had so enjoyed visiting back in 2014 was added to the list in 2015 (and is the only UNESCO site in Texas no less). I knew then that I’d have to go back to for another visit, especially so I could have some photos to share it here with you.

The UNESCO site encompasses a group of five frontier mission complexes situated along a stretch of the San Antonio River and are an example of the blending of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures. All of the missions, except the Alamo, are also part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park that was established in 1978.

If you are visiting San Antonio (or maybe as the reason to visit San Antonio), the missions are a fantastic way to dig in to Texas history and I’d definitely recommend adding them to your itinerary.

You can start with the famous Alamo and work your way to each mission heading out of town, or start at the Mission San José with the visitors center to kick of your learning, or as we decided to do (both times)- start at Mission Espada, which is the furthest one out and then make your way back towards the Alamo. This will leave you smack dab in the middle of town for dinner on the River Walk.

If you’re feeling really energetic you could opt to bike or hike the Mission Reach trail which is a well marked path along the river with picnic areas, pedestrian bridges and pavilions. I just wouldn’t recommend that option if you’re visiting in the summer unless you can handle the heat!

Whichever way you decide to explore them I’d highly recommend the IMAX movie about the Battle of the Alamo to learn about its history and enhance your visit.

And now a little taste of the missions along the trail…


Mission San Francisco de la Espada

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

The southernmost of the four missions in the San Antonio National Historical ParkMission Espada has kind of a cozy feel to it that makes it a great mission to ease into your day of exploring.

It was established in 1731 and included the priest’s residence, a church, blacksmith’s shop, kiln, and other workrooms with spinning wheels and looms. Unfortunately much of it was destroyed by fire in 1826 and only the chapel, granary, and a couple of the walls remain. But oh how lovely the little church is.

What sets this mission apart from the others is it has the best preserved segment of acequia (an irrigation system) that was used to bring water in to the fields. Today it operates the Espada aqueduct and dam and is worth the short drive away from the mission itself to see it. The route from the mission is marked to help find it and there is a parking area at the site so you can get out and wander around.

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

 

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com


Mission San Juan Capistrano

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Established in 1731 with a church and priest’s quarters, and later a granary completed in 1756, today the chapel and bell are still in use at Mission Capistrano. There is another church on the site but that was only partly constructed when it was abandoned in 1786 when the population declined.

In its day it was a self-sustainable community that was surrounded by such fertile farmlands that the mission had excess and shared with its neighbors. Today it sits quietly near the river giving visitors a serene place to explore the church and other buildings, or take the self-guided nature trail that leads to the river.

For a neat photo opportunity there are some openings in the stone walls opposite the church which work well to frame your photos.


Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Hands down Mission San José is my favourite of all the missions partly because there are so many beautiful images to capture in photos. The Spanish designers used Texas limestone and brightly coloured stucco that they incorporated with elements such as flying buttresses, quatrefoil patterns and the wonderful “Rose Window“. It is really a feast for your camera out walking around the grounds with great angles and features that work as instant frames for you photos. Oh those stone arches and foliage.

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Considered the “Queen of the Missions” it is the largest and was established in 1720 and took over 60 years to complete. It provided sanctuary and a cultural community for about 300 people and was surrounded by fields and herds of livestock. Its gristmill and granary have been preserved so there is lots to explore at this mission.

This mission is also home to the Visitor’s Center for all the missions in the Mission National Park and includes a museum, short film about life on the missions and a gift shop. Definitely give yourself at least an hour for this stop on the Mission Trail.

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com


Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

If you happen to be in San Antonio on a Sunday don’t hesitate to visit the missions thinking they’ll be closed due to church services. Oh no, they’ll be open and they will welcome you in! We happened upon this mission during their service and the gentleman at the door must have sensed my hesitancy to go in during their service because he welcomed us in even though I told him we weren’t staying for the service and had just wanted to see inside. It’s no problem at all he told us so we stepped inside and stood quietly at the back for a few moments to take in the beautiful interior and listen to the congregation as they sang.

When visiting you’ll be pleased to discover the Mission Concepción looks much like it did back in 1755 because in 2010 it was renovated to bring back the rich colours inside. The exterior originally had geometric designs but those have faded, leaving behind the beautiful stone.

Learn More: The Day Tripper visits the four missions in the National Park in this quick five minute video.


Mission San Antonio de Valero {The Alamo}

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Definitely the best known of the missions in San Antonio, and perhaps even the only one known by most people (myself included until I dug a little deeper into things to do in and around San Antonio), the Alamo is right in the heart of the city. On my first visit I actually found this quite surprising because I had seen many photos of it and assumed it must be out of town as I didn’t ever see any other buildings and such around it.  Boy was I wrong. It’s not out in the middle of the desert with tumbleweeds blowing around it at all!

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Founded in 1718 as the first mission in San Antonio it served as a way station between East Texas and Mexico, but it is definitely better known for its use many decades after the mission closed when it was the scene of a battle in the Texas Revolution in 1836. For 13 days about 200 Texas defenders held the Alamo from over 1000 of General Santa Anna’s troops from Mexico but they ultimately lost and many of the names you might have heard (especially if you visit Texas) – William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett- were among those that died in the Battle of the Alamo.

Today the Alamo is free to visit to learn about this important part of Texas history. On a visit there may be reenactments in the courtyard like on one of our visits, which are very interesting to stop and watch and ask people more about the history and the role they are playing. You can also pay for additional services like audio guides and battlefield tours.

Also Visit: IMAX Theatre to view Alamo:The Price of Freedom to relive the Battle of the Alamo

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

When visiting do give yourself an hour or two, partly because there is likely to be a queue to get in. Everyone is guided to enter through the main church doors and once inside people tend to follow a path in one direction in the relatively small space. There isn’t a lot to see in that building so you won’t take long and then you’ll follow the people out in to the courtyard where you can wander where ever you want from there.

The vegetation in the courtyard is wonderful, so very Texas, and photogenic to boot! There are also barracks to explore, and of course a gift shop if you fancy stopping for a very Southern treat- pecan pralines (well worth the almost instant toothache because they are so sweet), or books and such about the history of the Alamo, San Antonio, and Texas.

Learn More: History and everything you need to know to visit the Alamo

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

Once you’ve finished your visit to the Alamo you’ll likely come back out in the little square where you entered and will just be a short walk across the street to some stairs that will take you down below street level to the River Walk. There you will find oodles of options for dinner and some reminiscing about your day exploring the Mission Trail.

Learn More: San Antonio Dining and Nightlife guide (includes map of locations- most are around the River Walk)

Want to add the San Antonio Mission Trail to your list of places to see?

Pin this post so you won’t forget it for your own San Antonio itinerary. 

Beyond the Alamo: Exploring the San Antonio Mission Trail || www.onetripatatime.com

 

2 Comments

    • San Antonio is definitely my favourite city so far in Texas. I’ve lived in Houston for almost 20 years and every time friends or family come to visit I always head straight to San Antonio with them. :-) The River Walk is so much fun and I love strolling along, or taking the little boat ride ‘just one more time’.

      I’m glad Texas worked out better than you had anticipated. :-)

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