Away from the coast, 15 miles inland from Monterey Bay via Hwy-129 or Hwy-156, stands one of California’s most idyllic small towns, San Juan Bautista (pop. 1,862). It centers on a grassy town square bordered by a well-preserved mission complex, complete with a large church and monastery, standing since 1812. Two other sides of the square are lined by hotels, stables, and houses dating from the 1840s through 1860s, preserved in their entirety within a state historic park (831/623-4881, daily).
Completing the living history lesson, the east edge of the square is formed by one of the state’s few preserved stretches of El Camino Real, the 200-year-old Spanish colonial trail that linked all the California missions with Mexico. Adding to the interest, the trail runs right along the rift zone of the San Andreas Fault, and a small seismograph registers tectonic activity. (Incidentally, San Juan Bautista was where the climactic final scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo were filmed—though in the movie, they added a much more prominent bell tower with a seemingly endless staircase.)
The town’s main street is a block from the mission and is lined by a handful of antiques shops, Mexican restaurants, and cafés like the Mission Café (300 3rd St., 831/623-2220).