Of the 21 missions along the California coast, Mission San Juan Capistrano (949/234-1300, daily, $9 adults) has been the most romanticized. When the movement to restore the missions and preserve California’s Spanish colonial past was at its apogee in the late 1930s, its main theme tune was Leon René’s “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” popularizing the legend that these birds return from their winter migration every St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. After wintering in Goya, Argentina, they do come back to Capistrano, along with several thousand tourists, but the swallows are just as likely to reappear a week before or a week after—whenever the weather warms up.
The mission, which has lovely bougainvillea-filled gardens, stands at the center of the small eponymously named town, a short detour inland along I-5 from the coast. Besides the birds, the main attractions include the small chapel, the last surviving church where the beatified priest Junípero Serra said mass, widely considered the oldest intact church and perhaps the oldest building of any kind in California, and the ruins of the massive Great Stone Church, a finely carved limestone structure that collapsed in an earthquake in 1812, just six years after its completion. Many visitors to the chapel are terminally ill patients saying prayers to Saint Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.
To get a sense of the huge scale of the Great Stone Church, a replica patterned after the fallen building has been constructed next door and now serves as the official Mission Basilica, open to visitors except during religious services.