How to Tour the Exquisite San Antonio Missions National Historical Park


San Antonio is steeped in history and there is nowhere in the city where that is better found than San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

This national park encompasses four of the five Spanish colonial missions established in the early 1700s. These missions were intended to spread the Roman Catholic faith among the Native American tribes in the area. 

The missions also served as hubs for teaching farming and other trades, as well as instruction on how to become Mexican citizens. On the flip side, the missions did this at the expense of native culture. Still, the park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Looking at the front facade of Mission San José in San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Mission San Jose

While the park maintains the grounds, the chapels of each of the missions are maintained as active Catholic churches and we even saw a wedding at one when we visited, which was cool! 

You can easily visit all four missions in one day. You will learn a lot about early Texas history in the process. There is even a pair of trails that follow the San Antonio River and connect the missions. You can either bike or walk the trails and see even more parts of the park. 

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Where to Start Your Tour of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

I have included a Google Map so you can visualize the routing for visiting the four units of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. I feel this routing gets the most out of the visitor center and allows you to see the excellent exhibits at Mission San José. I have also pinned the other locations I mention in the article, including where we ate and stayed.

Mission San José 

Start your visit at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Visitor Center at Mission San José. While this mission is more in the center of the park and not at the beginning of the trail, the visitor center has a bunch of great exhibits on the history of the San Antonio missions and their purpose, as well as an excellent film. 

You can also pick up a map of the overall park that we found handy when navigating between the missions. 

Bonnie Sinclair reading an exhibit at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Visitor Center.
Bonnie checking out an exhibit at the main visitor center at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

After checking out the visitor center, walk over to Mission San Jose. Inside the walls of the missions, you will find various exhibits on the workshops, the granary, the grist mill and the soldier’s quarters. 

Be sure to check out the Rose Window on the side of the church. It is one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the US. Also, make sure you check out the inside of the church if it is not being used for a service. 

Mission Espada and Espada Aqueduct

From Mission San José, head south following the map to Mission Espada. Along the way, be sure to stop at the Espada Aqueduct. While the stop is relatively short, it allows you to see the most complete of the aqueduct systems in the park. This aqueduct transports water from the San Antonio River over a low creek to the farmlands of Mission Espada. 

The Espada Aqueduct in San Antonio
The Espada Aqueduct

Continue to Mission Espada and check out the grounds. This mission is not as well preserved as Mission San José but it does have an excellent small church with a gift shop and a visitor center of its own. While the visitor center is quite small, it has a working loom. 

Mission Espada, one of the San Antonio Missions.
Mission Espada

While this mission had farms, it focused on teaching blacksmithing and weaving skills. Learning how to weave had a lasting impact on native artisans and the legacy can still be seen in San Antonio artists to this day. 

While we were visiting the mission, there was a wedding at the church… it is just so cool to see these 300-year-old churches still in use to this day. 

The loom exhibit at Mission Espada in San Antonio National Historical Park
An example of a loom used at Mission Espada in the small visitor center at that mission.

Mission San Juan

Circling back north from Mission Espada, head to Mission San Juan. This area operated a large farm and had a ranch located about 20 miles away, eventually supplying agricultural goods throughout the region, including to the other San Antonio Missions. 

The National Park Service operates a demonstration farm at the mission. The farm gets its water from the aqueduct system and practices the same farming techniques used when the mission was active. We visited in the winter, however, so did not get a chance to see the farm in action.

Be sure to check out the small church on the grounds. While it isn’t as grand as some of the other missions, it retains a small church feel and is quite nice in its own right. 

Mission Concepción

From Mission San Juan, head north towards the center of San Antonio to visit Mission Concepción, the oldest unrestored stone church in the US. It was also the site of the first major engagement of the Texas Revolution. 

This is the best preserved of all of the mission churches and inside the church, you can still see frescos painted upon the walls and ceilings. Make sure you check out the inside of the church if it is not being used for a service.

Visit the Final San Antonio Mission: the Alamo

There are five San Antonio Missions… The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park only preserves four of them. The final mission is Mission San Antonio de Valero, which is better known as the Alamo. 

If you head north from Mission Concepción, you will end up in downtown San Antonio where you will find the Alamo. This is the site of one of the most famous battles of the Texas Revolution. The defeat of the Texian forces here served as a rallying cry later at the Battle of San Jacinto, where the Texians won their independence. 

The Alamo is the fifth of the San Antonio Missions
The Alamo

Read more about visiting San Jacinto here.

The Alamo is considered a shrine and visiting the interior is free but does require a reservation. There are guided tours and living historians as well as in-depth exhibits on Texas history.

If you only want to visit the Alamo Church and see the exhibits inside, you could easily add that to a day of visiting the San Antonio Missions. You might feel rushed if you plan on seeing any of the other exhibits or taking a guided tour.

The casket of the Texas Heroes inside the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio.
Inside San Fernando Cathedral, there is a monument and container of the remains of some of the heroes of the Alamo.

Other Things to Do in San Antonio

There’s a ton of other stuff to do in San Antonio. At the very least, you need to walk along the River Walk. San Antonio’s River Walk is one of the best urban parks we have ever seen. 

If you are in town after dark, check to see if San Fernando Cathedral is doing the Saga that night. The Saga is a light show projected onto the front of the cathedral which traces the history and culture of San Antonio through the years. 

There’s also the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the San Antonio Japanese Tea Gardens among so many other sites. Seriously, you could easily spend a week in San Antonio and not run out of things to do. 

Where to Stay and Eat When Touring San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Where to Stay in San Antonio

We stayed on the north end of San Antonio at the Hilton Garden Inn San Antonio at the Rim. If we had to do it over again, we would have stayed closer to the city center to cut down on the amount of driving we did. The reason we didn’t? It was leading into New Year’s Eve and the Valero Alamo Bowl was the night we arrived, so the hotels in the center of town were quite expensive. 

Read TripAdvisor Reviews | Book the Hotel

That said, the hotel was perfectly comfortable and we would gladly stay here again. It also made for a good base for going to the Hill Country to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. 

Read more about visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park here.

When we stayed in San Antonio on our first visit in April 2011, we camped at the San Antonio/Alamo KOA Holiday, which is on the east side of town and right across from a bus stop so you can take mass transit into town. It’s been a while, but we enjoyed the campground and would certainly camp here again. 

Where to Eat in San Antonio

In terms of food, our first recommendation is to go to Pollos Asados los Norteños on the east side of town. This place serves Mexican-style chargrilled chicken and all the fixings. When you pull up, this place will only kinda look like a restaurant. Indeed, the outside looks a little sketchy, especially at night. But the food on the inside is so worth it… It was delicious!  

We ended up getting a whole chicken to split and it was WAAAAY too much food, so just get half a chicken if it is just the two of you. 

A whole chicken with sides of rice and beans at  Pollos Asados los Norteños in San Antonio
An amazing plate of food from Pollos Asados los Norteños in San Antonio

After visiting the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, we were looking for a quick lunch downtown and found La Mexicana right around the corner from the San Fernando Cathedral.

This quiet Mexican restaurant doesn’t look like much on the outside but the food was tasty, not terribly expensive despite its location downtown and the service was quick! We enjoyed our meal here and would eat here again. 

A plate of food at La Mexicana restaurant in San Antonio
Just around the corner from the San Fernando Cathedral is a small Mexican restaurant, La Mexicana, that serves some amazing food.

Final Thoughts on Touring the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

If you are looking for a great way to experience the Spanish colonial history of Texas, one of the best ways is to tour the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Seriously, these missions offer a great way to see and experience the first colonial interactions in Texas.

You can easily see all four of the San Antonio Missions preserved by the park in one day via car. I would expect you could manage the same via bicycle but it might be a long day of riding.   

A flower blooming in front of the church at Mission San José in San Antonio
At Mission San José

But don’t miss the rest of San Antonio when you come to visit the missions. There’s just so much to see and enjoy. We have visited twice: once in 2011 and again in 2023. Honestly, we feel like we have barely scratched the surface of what this city has to offer. We highly recommend you plan to spend more time than you think you need to truly experience this city. 

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