Meet the Missions
Meet the San Antonio Missions
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Established between 1718 and 1731, San Antonio Missions sit along a nearly 8-mile stretch of the San Antonio River and are the most complete and intact example of the Spanish crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize and defend the northern frontier of New Spain.
During the 18th century, they were self-sustained and buzzed with construction, agriculture, activities, trades, and worship. Today, each Mission church remains an important part of South Texas heritage and U.S. history; hosting an active parish to serve a vital part of the community.
Home to the only functioning Spanish Colonial aqueduct in North America
Over 265 years old, this aqueduct, acequia system is a prime example of how impressively well-built the San Antonio Missions really are. The system and dam still feed privately owned farm fields, making this Mission home to the oldest continuously operating aqueduct in the U.S.
The stone walls and structures at Mission Espada reveal the building stages the Missions underwent during the colonial and post-colonial periods, with phased-in perimeter walls and expanded living quarters.
While brilliant engineering is evident in the sturdy dam that feeds the acequia, there’s also an apparent knowledge of astronomy and geometry. On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in early October, morning sun is directed through a small window above the façade, illuminating a statue of St. Francis on the wall behind the altar. A similar solar illumination exists at Mission Concepción and can be seen today.
As the southernmost mission, Espada appears remote, yet it’s easy to imagine the busy lives of its inhabitants… farming outside the mission walls, milling their grains, attending school, learning various skills and trades onsite, and worshipping inside the beautiful limestone church.
Rancho de las Cabras, located 23 miles south of Mission Espada, is a nearly 100-acre ranch. Mission vaqueros watched over the large herds of cattle, sheep, goats, horses and oxen which ranged freely. Today, ruins of the walls and evidence of the corrals, pens and feed-corn fields remain, as do signs of the daily life of the people who tended these animals. Rancho de las Cabras is part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and limited guided tours are held periodically throughout the year.
Mission San Juan
Explore the farm-to-table mission
Mission San Juan retains much of the rural feel it had when it was established in 1731. This Spanish Mission made the most of its site directly along the banks of the San Antonio River, using a dam and an acequia to irrigate the cultivated farm lands called labores.
Today, the Spanish Colonial farm is once again a critical food source, and a testament to the interconnectivity that remains between the Missions and San Antonio. The San Antonio Food Bank farms about 45 acres adjoining the 5-acre Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm. The produce grown on the 45-acres will nourish thousands of needy Texas families. The Food Bank also operates the Demonstration Farm using water from the acequia, planting crops prevalent in the 18th century, and using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
While here, explore the remnants of the living quarters, workshops, and perimeter walls, or walk the interpretive nature trail that parallels the acequia. Go inside the small white-stucco church that dominates the mission landscape, and think about the labor it took to place the large wooden beams that support the clay tile ceiling. Across the plaza are the remains of an unfinished late-Colonial period church, indicating the residents had bigger plans for their community.
Mission San José
Immerse yourself in 18th century daily life
Called the “Queen of the Missions,” Mission San José drew praise as far back as 1778 when Fray Juan Agustin Morfi noted it in his journal. “It is, in truth, the first mission in America,” he wrote. "In point of beauty, plan and strength … [none] along the entire frontier line that can compare with it.”
That beauty and strength is evident today in the walls along the grand open plaza, the workshop areas, granary, living areas and water wells interspersed throughout the spacious landscape of this largest Spanish Mission in Texas.
Mission San José is often the starting point for visitors to the mission trail in San Antonio because it is home to the modern Visitor Center. A small museum, interpretive center, gift shop, and theatre where a short film is shown every 30 minutes, all welcome guests to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Eighteenth century technology can be seen at the grist mill where mission residents once milled the grains grown in their fields.
The façade of the impressive church is punctuated by an array of intricate floral and shell carvings. The famous Rose Window on the otherwise bare sacristy wall draws curious visitors, not only for its groundbreaking pattern of four carved arches protruding from a centered rectangle, but also for its mysterious origins. Considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in North America, the iconic shape, known as a quatrefoil, can be seen in logos and signs throughout the United States, an homage to the colonial craftsmen who called the Missions in San Antonio home.
Journey to New Spain as it once was
Mission Concepción, dedicated in 1755, is the only mission church in the Western Hemisphere that has not sustained major damage to its walls and roof. Visitors are amazed by the solar geometry and interior acoustics. A barrel-vaulted masonry roof and 44-foot high dome dominate the interior of the church, and the impressive carved stone portal and symmetrical twin bell towers outside are prime examples of the more austere late-Baroque style of New Spain.
A double solar illumination in the Mission Concepción church takes place in August, on the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The setting sun shines through the west dome window, illuminating the Virgin Mary's face in a painting located over the altar. At the same time, a second shaft of light streams through the west wall's round window, crossing on the floor beneath the dome, and continues towards the east wall of the sanctuary.
The durable construction has protected original carvings, stenciling and paintings inside which incorporate pre-Columbian and Catholic iconography. One of the most unusual pieces earlier known as the "Eye of God," a red and yellow sun containing a face with a mustache. It is sometimes interpreted as a representation of the mix of Spanish and indigenous people who brought this Spanish Mission to life.
While mere fragments of the original perimeter walls are buried, it is easy to understand the society that thrived within them. The prominent and well-preserved church, a living link to the past, takes you on a journey back in time.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Travel to the 18th Century
Set aside a full day or just a few hours to explore the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park at your own pace. Use our interactive map to plan your trip, starting at the southernmost Mission Espada, and heading north to Mission Concepción, with stops at Missions San Juan and San José along the way.
- The VIVA Missions Route provides a dedicated, direct bus route between each of the Missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and The Alamo downtown. Route schedules are available at the VIA Metropolitan Transit website.
- Bring your bicycle or rent one at San Antonio B-cycle rental stations located at each Mission. Biking is a great way to enjoy the eight-mile hike and bike trail that runs from Mission Espada to Mission Concepción.
- If you choose to drive, there is free, convenient parking at each Mission in the Park.
Park Operating Hours
SAN ANTONIO MISSIONS NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
9 am to 5 pm daily
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year's Day