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10 Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano, CA (the OC’s Historic Gem)

Looking for things to do in San Juan Capistrano? With plenty of historical landmarks and unique local businesses, this charming town offers plenty to do on a perfect day trip or weekend getaway.

When thinking of things to do in San Juan Capistrano, most people immediately think of the famous mission. Obviously, the mission is a fascinating place to explore, but the city has so much more to offer. 

Nestled roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Juan Capistrano is a small community that is easily overlooked when thinking of places to visit in Orange County. After all, the region does have much to offer, whether it’s the beaches of Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, or Newport Beach, the artsy city of Costa Mesa, or Disneyland in Anaheim.

Growing up in Los Angeles, we studied the California missions in the fourth grade and visited the Missin San Juan Capistrano on a school field trip. I didn’t think much of San Juan Capistrano since then, but after moving back to Southern California from San Francisco, I found myself living about five miles away.

Since I’ve been on a quest to explore my own backyard, I finally took a day to fully experience the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano. What I found was a charming little town with plenty to offer, from historical landmarks, Spanish architecture (similar to San Clemente), quaint eateries, unique local businesses, and plenty of natural beauty.

San Juan Capistrano is a bit of a hidden gem in Orange County, and many people don’t know that it has so much to offer. It has a quaint, small-town vibe, but is not located far from the big cities. It is a perfect option for a day trip from LA or other parts of the OC, or even as a laid-back weekend getaway.

Keep on reading for all of the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano!

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About San Juan Capistrano, California

San Juan Capistrano is a small community located in south Orange County, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It is known by some as the “birthplace of Orange County,” and is a town of historical significance in California. 

San Juan Capistrano was originally home to the Acjachemen (later Juanenos) and Gabrielinos Native Americans. Abundant evidence of prehistoric Native American life and several local families trace their ancestry to these tribes.

It is best known to be the home of Mission San Juan Capistrano, the seventh of the 21 California missions. This was the religious, cultural, and economic center of the region. Because many of the builders and ranchers of the missions lived nearby, this also created the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in California.

There are many fascinating remnants of California’s history here, from the mission to the Los Rios Historic District. Today, San Juan Capistrano is a community that celebrates its unique heritage, and is also home to many one-of-a-kind local businesses and restaurants. Over 500,000 people visit the city and mission every year.

When to Visit San Juan Capistrano

There really is no bad time to visit San Juan Capistrano. As with the rest of Southern California, it enjoys pretty much year-round sunshine and mild temperatures.

Summer brings the longest days for more time to enjoy the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano, however it brings the hottest temperatures. Keep in mind that unlike the beach cities of Orange County, San Juan Capistrano is located a bit inland, so it will be a bit warmer. 

As with the rest of California, the region does experience a bit of “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” This just means that it may be a bit overcast in the mornings in these months. You’ll still have fun exploring all the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano regardless – bring a jacket, and wait for it to burn off in the afternoon!

Spring and fall are basically like summer (So-Cal doesn’t get much in the way of seasons y’all). Winter is relatively mild as well, with highs still hovering around the low 70s Fahrenheit, though it may rain a little. Spring is a beautiful time to visit though, because of all the spring blooms that come alive in the area, especially at the mission!

Every year in March, the swallows migrate back to San Juan Capistrano after spending the winter in the Southern Hemisphere. On St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the city comes alive and celebrates the Return of the Swallows, with a festival, parade, and other festivities. This is a super fun time to visit San Juan Capistrano!

Do note that the mission (which is the highlight of the things to do in San Juan Capistrano) is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, as are many other businesses. I would avoid visiting on those days.

Getting there and Around

San Juan Capistrano is located in south Orange County, about 55 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. It takes about an hour to drive to San Juan Capistrano without traffic (but let’s be real – it’s LA and there will probably be traffic). There is plenty of public parking available in the downtown area, although it is much busier on the weekends. 

If you want to skip driving in traffic, you can take the train here for a fun little adventure. San Juan Capistrano is served by both Metrolink and Amtrak, and the train station is right in the center of town, right next to all the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano! It takes roughly an hour and 20 minutes to get here from DTLA via train, which is often faster than sitting in traffic!

Once you are in town, it is very walkable and many of the top things to do in San Juan Capistrano are within a few blocks’ radius of each other. Because of this, it is an excellent place to escape for a day trip. You can even extend your adventures into a leisurely weekend trip – you are close enough to the hustle and bustle of LA, but far enough to make it seem like an escape.

What to Bring to San Juan Capistrano

  • Comfortable Walking Shoes or Sandals: You’ll do a fair bit of walking while exploring around town. Allbirds are my new favorite travel shoe – you’ll stay comfortable all day! If you want to look cute and be comfortable, Rothy’s are my go-to as well.
  • A light jacket or cardigan: For overcast mornings and breezy evenings. I just carried around a denim jacket with me.
  • Sunglasses: It gets super sunny here!
  • Sunscreen
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Battery pack:  I never travel anywhere without this one. It can charge up to five times on one full charge!
  • A camera: There are soooo many photo ops! I love my my Sony a6000.

Fun Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano

Explore the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Mission San Juan Capistrano is the jewel of the city, and one of the most fascinating historical sites in Orange County. Paying it a visit is one of the top things to do in San Juan Capistrano and an absolute must!

The Mission San Juan Capistrano is the seventh out of the 21 California missions intended to convert the native population to Catholicism and expand Spanish territory. Named for Saint John of Capestrano, a town in the Abruzzo province of Italy, the mission dates back to 1776.

The mission thrived for about 30 years and over 1000 people lived there at one point. In 1812, an earthquake caused the Great Stone Church to collapse. Combined with other factors such as disease, a declining birth rate, and inadequate supplies from the Spanish government, the mission began to decline. 

In 1845, Spain sold Alta California to Mexico, and the mission system ended. In 1850, California officially became a state of the United States of America.

During its heyday, mission became a place that served as the religious, agricultural, and cultural center in the region. In addition to being shown the ways of Christianity, natives were taught Spanish agricultural techniques and village life. Farming and cattle ranching were big industries here, and it is said that the first wine produced in California was fermented here.

Given that the mission was first and foremost a religious institution, you’ll find plenty of signs of religious significance here. One of the main ones is the Serra Chapel, named after the priest who founded the mission. You’ll also get to see the remains of the Great Stone Church, and an iconic replica of the bell wall that once stood on the grounds.

Walking through the grounds, you’ll see lots of signs of 18th and 19th colonial life here, from the stone wheels used to extract olive oil, to the vats used to make tallow used for candles, soap, and more. There are also signs of textile production here, from the vats used for fabric dying, to the looms used for weaving. You’ll also find tools and furnaces used for blacksmithing as well.

It is worth noting that this obviously disrupted the culture and population of the Acjachemen, the Native Americans who lived in the area. While the Spanish brought modern ideas and ways of living with them, the Acjachemen were asked to change everything about their way of life. The Spanish also brought many germs and diseases with them, and this caused the native population (as well as the plant life) to decrease significantly.

Still, there is no denying that the missions are a significant part of California’s history, and Mission San Juan Capistrano is both a fascinating and beautiful site to explore. It is a place of religious, cultural, and historical significance.

I loved walking through the grounds here, admiring the beautifully preserved colonial architecture, looking at the rooms, and imagining what life was like back then. Looking at the remains of the Great Stone Church was fascinating. My favorite part was walking through the gardens, since it was in the springtime and everything was blooming – absolutely beautiful!

Expect to spend about two hours here. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $9 for youth aged 4-17 students with a valid student ID. Your admission includes a free audio guide, but I decided to roam the grounds on my own.

If you want more insight into the history and significance of the mission, as well as the surrounding historic districts, consider taking this walking tour.

Address: 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 9am-4pm, Closed Monday-Tuesday

Wander through the Los Rios Historic District

One of my favorite things to do in San Juan Capistrano is to wander through the Los Rios Historic District, just across the railroad tracks from the Capistrano Depot. With homes dating back to 1794, this is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in California. 

Back when the Mission San Juan Capistrano was in operation, this was where in which the ranchers and builders once lived. Today, about 40 homes still remain in the neighborhood, including three abode structures. Many of the homes are private residences, but some of them have been converted into shops, restaurants, and other businesses.

I love the Los Rios Historic District because it is so charming, and wandering through it is like stepping back in time. The neighborhood has such a quaint, small-time vibe as well – there’s a sense of tranquility from the tree-lined streets, which don’t even have sidewalks! Strolling through here is almost like walking through the real-life Stars Hollow (any other Gilmore Girls fans out there?).

The Los Rios Historic District isn’t very big, but you can easily spend an entire day here finding many of the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano. I recommend at least spending a few hours here, stopping for some coffee or brunch, and checking out some of the eclectic boutiques selling art, antiques, and more.

If you want to learn more about the history of the neighborhood, the San Juan Historical Society offers a walking tour of the area every Saturday at 1pm. Tours depart from the train depot and last approximately 45 minutes. For more information, see here.

Taste some local wines

Did you know that the Mission San Juan Capistrano may have been the first mission to grow grapes, and the first wine in the state? Therefore, it makes sense that San Juan Capistrano is home to Orange County’s largest winery at Rancho Capistrano Winery. Stopping here for a glass (or two!) of wine is one of my favorite things to do in San Juan Capistrano!

Rancho Capistrano Winery offers a selection of more than 40 different wines, with many award-winning varietals in their selection. You’ll find something to suit everyone’s taste here – and if you don’t know what you want, the staff is very helpful in suggesting something that you’ll like!

They also have a beautiful 3,000 square foot patio in the back, which is the perfect place to relax after exploring all the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano. They also serve a full lunch, brunch, and dinner menu.

Another option for wine lovers is Five Vines Wine Bar, which boasts over 65 boutique wines in their selection. You can choose from 10 different flights (or create your own), or order by the glass or bottle. They also offer a selection of small plates, cheese and charcuterie boards, and desserts to snack on while you taste. 

Try some craft brews

Orange County has an up-and-coming craft brewing scene (with some great breweries in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and San Clemente), and San Juan Capistrano boasts some awesome craft brews of its own.

One of my favorite things to do in San Juan Capistrano on a sunny afternoon is to hang out on the patio at Capistrano Brewing Company, located right in the historic downtown area.. They offer a selection of 12 different brews on tap here, with a mix of their own and a selection of beers from other local breweries in the area. 

My favorite here is the Capo Peach – it’s perfectly refreshing on a sunny day, and it’s always a treat to enjoy it while sitting outside on the patio here! 

Also attached to Capistrano Brewing is Heritage BBQ, which sadly, I have not tried yet but have heard is amazing! I definitely would love to come back to try the BBQ while sipping my beer. Do be aware that Heritage BBQ is absolutely POPPING – people start lining up an hour before they open, and things do sell out! 

Can’t get enough beer? Also check out Docent Brewing. It’s a little bit farther away from the main drag, but it’s San Juan Capistrano’s first brewery and public house. They offer 14 different brews on tap, as well as a food menu that is inspired by all things fermented.

Stroll through the historic downtown area

San Juan Capistrano’s historic downtown area is located within the streets that immediately surround the mission – Camino Capistrano, El Camino Real, and Verdugo Street.

Here, you will find plenty of unique local businesses, as well as signs of the city’s historical past. You’ll also find the city’s historic train depot in this area.

You’ll find plenty of options for dining, one-of-a-kind antique shops, historical buildings, and quiet little side streets and alleys.

In the evenings, the string lights overhead come on, creating a super romantic vibe! 

Go for a hike

San Juan Capistrano is surrounded by rolling hills and plenty of natural beauty, and there are plenty of hiking options. One of the best places to experience the area’s natural beauty is Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, an 8000 acre wilderness preserve nestled in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Here, you will find plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, and wilderness viewing (as well as camping). They also offer guided nature walks on Sundays. In the spring, the park is especially beautiful as the wildflowers bloom.

Other hiking options include the San Juan Creek trail, which borders the San Juan Creek and goes all the way to Doheny Beach in Dana Point; and the Colinas Ridge Trail, which is located along the border of San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Niguel, and has some amazing views.

More hiking options here.

Have afternoon tea

I’m a little sucker for little finger sandwiches + desserts, so I was excited to come across the Tea House on Los Rios. Located in the Los Rios Historic District, the Tea House on Los Rios offers afternoon tea service, as well as a la carte menu items.

It is located in the cutest little historic home, perfect for a tea house! It also has the prettiest patio, with beautiful florals and whimsy vintage touches everywhere. Having some tea here is the perfect way to relax and take a break while exploring all the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano.

They offer several options for high tea service, so you can choose an option based on how hungry you are. They have a la carte options as well – I really wanted to do the tea service (because I am a sucker for afternoon tea), but I was not very hungry so I just got some tea and a dessert. If you aren’t in the mood for sweets, they have a selection of savory lunch and brunch plates as well.

They have an extensive selection of loose leaf teas, and you’ll find something to suit your taste, whether you fancy an herbal tea, fruit tea, or a classic such as earl grey. I had the peach tea here (peach is always my fave), and it was delicious!

The Tea House on Los Rios is super popular for gatherings such as bridal showers, birthday parties, etc. Because of this, it tends to get busy, especially on the weekends. To be sure you can enjoy tea here, I recommend making a reservation in advance if you can!

Address: 31731 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Hours: Wednesday-Friday 11am-4pm, Saturday-Sunday 10am-4pm, Closed Monday-Tuesday

Step back in time at the O’Neil Museum

The O’Neil Museum is located in a beautifully restored home on Los Rios Street that once belonged to the Garcia family, a prominent local family in the 19th century. After Jose Garcia’s death in 1896, the home was then sold to Albert Pryor. After his death, the house was donated to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, which is headquartered here and also runs a museum.

It was one of the first frame houses built in the city. Originally, the house only had four rooms, and had no bath or kitchen (cooking was mostly done outdoors). The house has been beautifully restored in order to give visitors a glimpse into life in the 19th century.

Here, visitors will gain insight into San Juan Capistrano’s rich history and past through photos, documents, and artifacts. The San Juan Capistrano Historical Society has a large archive of photos, books, documents, maps, genealogical records, oral histories and much more.

(note: the museum is temporarily closed)

Address: 31831 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Visit the Montanez Adobe

The Montanez Adobe is one of 40 adobes that once stood in the Los Rios Historic District. It is one of only three that remain today. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and illustrates the growth of an 18th century California village.

The adobe belonged to Polonia Montanez, the town midwife and “Captain of the Pueblo,” or the one who was in charge of religious education for the village children. She created a small chapel in the adobe, which became a sanctuary for the village. 

While the Montanez Adobe is currently closed, you can still see it from the outside. In front of the adobe is also a beautiful butterfly sanctuary garden that is lovely to walk through. I didn’t see any butterflies while I was there, but still enjoyed walking through it and seeing all the pretty flowers and cacti that were there. It’s kind of like a little oasis in the middle of the Los Rios Historic District!

Address: 31745 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Where to eat in San Juan Capistrano

There are plenty of options for food and drink in town, and stopping for a leisurely meal is one of the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano. Here are some of the best picks for places to eat and drink in San Juan Capistrano – 

Mayfield

Mayfield is a new(ish) restaurant on the downtown strip, and I randomly found it while walking down the street. The swoon-worthy decor immediately piqued my interest (especially the bar!), so I had to stop in for some lunch.

You’ll find big, open windows, and a loft-like setting here, with beautiful pops of pastel pink and mint green. There’s also a cute little patio hidden away upstairs (I spotted it as I was going to the bathroom).

The menu combines modern California flavors with a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence. I had a grain bowl here and it was delicious! You also have to try the cocktails here – they had one called Sweet Caroline so OBVIOUSLY I had to order it. It was the prettiest cocktail and tasted so good as well! 

They have a supper club on the weekends as well.

Address: 31761 Camino Capistrano Suite 5-6, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 10am-10pm

Hidden House Coffee

Hidden House Coffee is a quaint little cafe nestled into the Los Rios Historic District. I was originally intrigued by the cute yellow storefront! 

It’s a great spot to stop for some coffee and pastries before exploring all of the things to do in San Juan Capistrano…or even to leisurely enjoy a cup of coffee while people-watching in the afternoon.

They have awesome espresso drinks, drip and pour over coffee, teas, and some specialty drinks here. They have kombucha and smoothies as well! You’ll find some delicious pastries here, including some amazing gluten-free options.

Address:  31791 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Hours: 7am-5pm, daily

Trevor’s at the Tracks

Housed in the historic rail depot, Trevor’s at the Tracks is a San Juan Capistrano icon. Trevor’s serves modern internationally-inspired cuisine using the finest locally sourced ingredients. It’s a local favorite for brunch or a romantic dinner!

They have a beautiful courtyard patio, complete with a gorgeous fountain. There is intimate indoor seating as well. They also have live music every night as well, featuring local musicians. Perfect for a fun night out!

Address: 26701 Verdugo St, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Hours: Sunday-Monday 11am-9pm, Tuesday-Thursday 11am-10pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-11pm

PUBlic 74

PUBlic 74 is located a bit away from the main historic area, but it’s worth the trek. My boyfriend and I recently found this spot, and it’s become one of our go-to date spots! It’s got a chill, rustic vibe, with the cutest patio in the back!

They have a seasonally focused, farm-to-table menu that features a variety of small plates and main courses. The mac and cheese here is a fave, as are the reuben fries! They have an excellent cocktail menu, but also serve a variety of local beers on tap and wines as well.

Address:  27211 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Hours: Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday 4pm-8:30pm, Friday-Saturday 4pm-9:30pm, Closed Mondays

Heritage BBQ

Full disclosure, I haven’t yet been to Heritage BBQ but it’s been getting so much buzz and there’s always a crazy line that I had to include it on this list (I’m really wanting to go soon!). Heritage is attached to Capo Brewing (mentioned earlier on this list of things to do in San Juan Capistrano), and shares its patio.

It is super popular, and people start lining up hours before it opens (kinda like the OC version of Franklin’s BBQ in Austin). Their operating hours are listed as Wednesday-Sunday 11am-5pm, but they often sell out (and close when they do) so you need to get there early!

The brisket is supposed to be insanely good here, with a melt in your mouth texture. They also have an array of mouthwatering sides – been wanting to try the jalapeno cream corn here!

Address: 31721 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 11am until sold out

Where to Stay in San Juan Capistrano

While you can easily do all the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano in one day, you can also consider extending your visit to a relaxing weekend getaway. This will allow you to explore the town at a slower pace (plus, you have more time to enjoy all that food!).

Here are some options for where to stay on a weekend getaway in San Juan Capistrano – 

The Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano

This property just opened up in 2020, and it looks like such a dream! Part of the Autograph Collection, staying at the Inn at the MIssion San Juan Capistrano will allow you to experience a bit of style and luxury while staying in the heart of town.

The gorgeously designed property takes cues from the town’s Spanish influence, with hacienda style guestrooms, gorgeous tile details, and more. I’ve been seeing photos of the hotel, and I’m absolutely swooning – I’m dying to do a staycation over here one of these days!

Located right across the Mission San Juan Capistrano (you can even see the ruins of the Great Stone Church here!), you’ll be right in the center of town and near all the top things to do in San Juan Capistrano.

BOOK HERE: Booking.com / Hotels.com / Agoda

Best Western Capistrano Inn

This is a great choice if you are looking for a more budget-friendly option. You’ll find relaxed rooms with free WiFi, flat screen TVs, a coffee maker, a mini fridge, and a microwave. Some of the rooms have balconies and kitchenettes as well. There is also an outdoor pool.

The location is perfect if you want to hit the beach in addition to exploring San Juan Capistrano  – it’s only 5 miles to Doheny State Beach.

BOOK HERE: Booking.com / Hotels.com / Agoda

What are some of your favorite things to do in San Juan Capistrano?

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The Ultimate Guide to Costa Mesa, CA
San Clemente, CA Travel Guide
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6 Comments

  • Kate

    Hands down I have never heard of this place even though I have lived in San Francisco for a while. The pictures look stunning and I love a good historical place. I am planning to relocate back to California at the end of this year and definitely need to visit!

    Reply

    • Caroline

      It really is a hidden gem – even a lot of people in So-Cal don’t know it exists! Hope you get to visit one of these days 🙂

      Reply

  • Cora Crandall-Schleicher

    To be quite honest, I haven’t read a full blog post in years, 🙈 as I normally skim over most features or hop on Instagram for references on a place.

    However, I LOVED reading all of this post! Your writing was enticing and made me so excited for my day trip to San Juan Capistrano tomorrow. I’m visiting from Portland and I wanted to take my son on a train ride (from Oceanside) to San Juan Capistrano and your feature was such a big help. Thank you!!

    Reply

  • Jessica

    Loved this article! I’m really looking forward to taking my mother (by train/Amtrak) from the North County area for a 3 day fun getaway! Great tips and agree, the Inn at San Juan Capistrano looks gorgeous-excited to stay there and to visit some of these fun spots! Do you know of any interactive shops downtown (Old Town in San Diego, at Toby’s Candle & Soap Shop you can create your own kaleidoscope candle or dip a candle..) anything like that? Hopefully it’s not too chilly towards end of October as we’ll be doing lots of walking around 😊

    Reply

    • Caroline

      Hi Jessica, thanks for the kind comments (and excuse the late reply)! The weather should still be fantastic at the end of October. I do not know any interactive shops off the top of my head – the closest thing might be a cooking class at the Farm School (on Los Rios). There’s also a goat farm called Goods and Goats (that does goat yoga!) that sells soaps and candles, etc….maybe they might have something? I hope you have the best time with your mother!

      Reply

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