Spanish missions date back to the 17th and 18th centuries and are an integral part of American history. During this time, Spain planned to colonize and spread Christianity from Chile and Argentina, through Mexico, and into the present-day United States. As a result of these colonization efforts, hundreds of missions were built throughout the Americas, emphasizing Spanish culture and religion in these areas.
While many of these Spanish missions were built with the intention to convert and colonize Native Americans, today they stand as historic markers and places of reflection throughout much of the Southwest. It was common for missions to be humble in appearance, but there are some that are truly magnificent, even by today’s standards. Here are six of the most stunning Spanish missions still standing in the U.S. today.
San Xavier del Bac Mission (Tucson, Arizona)
Founded in 1700 by Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit explorer who traveled north from Mexico, San Xavier del Bac is the oldest European building in Arizona. Although the site was founded long before the mission was complete, construction on the present-day structure didn’t begin until 1783. San Xavier was completed in 1797 and underwent several rounds of renovation due to damage from natural disasters in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The brilliant white stucco exterior captivates from the outside, but it’s the elaborate interior — adorned with 18th-century statues and murals — that’s truly impressive. The shape of the main building resembles a cross and the vaulted ceilings, marbling, and opulent details embellish the Baroque-style architecture. Today, the church is located on what is now the San Xavier Reservation of the Tohono O'odham Nation, and is still in use.
Old Mission Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, California)
Known as the “Queen of the Missions” because of its size and beauty, Old Mission Santa Barbara was founded by Friar Fermín Francisco de Lasuén in 1786. Constructed of sandstone and lime made from crushed seashells, Old Mission Santa Barbara is situated on 15 beautiful acres on a hilltop overlooking a rose garden and the surrounding seaside community. The Greco-Roman-style mission has a pink hue, which makes it particularly unique.
Two bell towers mark the entrance to the church and the long hall that stretches off one side was formerly used as a workshop area. Visitors to the grounds can also see the Padres’ Quarters, a fountain, several courtyards, a cemetery, and mausoleum. A nine-room museum is open year-round to those interested in learning more about the mission’s history. Private tours are also available of La Huerta Historical Garden and the Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library.
Mission Concepción (San Antonio, Texas)
Founded in east Texas in 1716 and later moved to its current San Antonio location in 1731, Mission Concepción is considered by many to be the oldest unrestored church in the U.S. Once covered in bright mosaics that have long since faded away, the stone church’s façade is now defined by two large towers. Although the exterior of the mission has aged, several original frescos have stood the test of time and are visible in the interior rooms.
Mission Concepción is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial-style architecture and the structure is officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with four other missions in San Antonio. The mission still stands today as a functioning Catholic church, hosting mass every Sunday.
Mission San Francisco de Asís and Mission Dolores Basilica (San Francisco, California)
San Francisco’s Mission District is centered around Mission San Francisco Asís (also known as Mission Dolores), California’s oldest fully-intact mission and the reason for the city’s name. The humble, whitewashed adobe mission founded in 1776 pales in comparison, however, to the adjoining Mission Dolores Basilica, an early 19th-century, Spanish Revival work of art that resembles a fairy-tale castle.
Today, the site is simply referred to as Mission Dolores because of the renowned beauty of the basilica. The detailed carvings on the exterior of the church are just the tip of the iceberg. The interior is adorned with statues of saints and beautiful murals painted by Native Americans who once lived there. Mission San Francisco is the sixth of 21 missions founded throughout California and is arguably the most elaborately decorated of them all.
Mission San José (San Antonio, Texas)
With its stone archways and grand façade, Mission San José looks more like a medieval castle than a house of worship, which is probably why it’s considered one of the prettiest missions in Texas. Originally founded by Fray Antonio Margil de Jésus in 1720, the mission was moved twice before it found its final resting place along the San Antonio River in 1758. Construction wasn’t completed until 1782, but the site quickly became known as “the most beautiful church on the frontier of New Spain.” Mission San José joins Mission Concepción as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The standout feature of Mission San José is la Ventana de Rosa (the Rose Window), a seven-foot-tall, intricately carved window heralded as one of the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in North America. The purpose of the ornate window is a mystery; some say a special service may have been preached from its opening, while others say priests used it to show the Eucharist to the Indigenous people of the mission. Mission San José continues to host Sunday mass to this day.
Mission San Juan Capistrano (San Juan Capistrano, California)
California’s pretty southern coast is dotted with missions, and none is more inviting than Mission San Juan Capistrano. Founded by Franciscan missionary Saint Junípero Serra as the seventh of the California missions in 1775, the place of worship is still celebrated today as a beautiful part of the state’s history. Encompassing a chapel, museum, gardens, and fountains, the 10-acre site is a peaceful oasis for visitors to explore independently or via guided tours.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was built in the shape of a cross, using six domes to achieve a cathedral-style effect. The bell tower was once the pride of the mission, but a massive earthquake reduced it to rubble in 1812. The original bells were moved to a wall, known as a campanario, and two of them are still displayed and rung today on special occasions. Spring is a particularly beautiful time to witness the blooming flower gardens against the well-preserved ruins and the legendary mass migration of the cliff swallows as they return from their winter hiatus in Goya, Argentina.