California Missions Road Trip Day 1: San Diego to Pasadena

Visiting all of the California missions is something that surprisingly not a lot of people have done. These beautiful and historic places are all incredibly unique and harbor so much for the explorer to see. This trip will take you seven days to complete, and this post provides an itinerary for day 1. You can see all of the days and learn more about mission history here. This post assumes you will start in San Diego, which is the southernmost California mission and the three missions you visit today are three of the best. Here is all the information.


  • Miles: 74 miles from the first to third mission, 114 miles if you add in Pala, more if you go to Pasadena

Since it is hard to guess where everyone will stay the night before, I picked a coffee shop close to the mission as my recommendation for coffee / breakfast. There are a ton of great places if you are staying in downtown San Diego as well though.

Breakfast/Coffee: Cuppa Cuppa

mission day 1-1

This small drive-thru coffee shop is located about 5 minutes from the mission itself. It may not seem like much, but the coffee here is ridiculously good. I highly recommend the chai drink they mix with cold brew and almond milk. It is nice spiced chai, and the flavors are fantastic. They have pastries that you can partake in as well before heading over to the mission.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Mission San Diego-1216

Mission San Diego de Alcalá is the first mission that was ever established and it has a lot of unique history. This mission was the site go the first Christian martyr in California, and it has a beautiful old bell tower and facade. While it is not that big, you will probably spend a decent amount of time strolling the immaculate gardens and reading the history, but do note that all three of the missions today are impressive so plan your time wisely.

  • Time Needed: 1 Hour
  • Highlights: Bell Tower and Gardens
  • Read more here

Lunch: Local Tap House and Kitchen

mission day 1-2

This restaurant, about 45 minutes from the San Diego mission, is a great spot for a unique meal in Oceanside. I am always on the look out for places that offer nontraditional items, so I was right at home with Local Tap House, who’s menu included things like calamari tacos, mason jar s’mores and curried scallops. They have sandwiches and hamburgers as well if that is more your vibe though.

  • Cost: $12-$15 for an entree
  • Location: 308 S Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA 92054

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

Mission San Luis Rey-1

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is about 10 minutes from the lunch spot, and this is another mission where you will want to spend some time. The mission sits on a large dirt lot and doesn’t feel as encroached upon by the cities as many of the missions do. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is free to explore; all except for the museum which costs $7. I will say it is one of the better museums in all of the missions as it tells a lot of history about how the missions became what they are today. The chapel here is also unique as it is the only mission chapel shaped like a cross and in that it has three altarpieces to see.

  • Time Needed: 1-2 hours
  • Highlights: Chapel, museum, old courtyard arch and the first pepper tree
  • Read more here

Optional Excursion: San Antonio de Pala Asistencia

san antonio de pala-4

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia is about 35 minutes from Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, and it is the only Asistencia still in use. Asistencia is a mission that helped another mission by reaching different groups more inland. This Asistencia helped Mission San Luis Rey. It has a beautiful free standing bell tower and few other things to see if you have time. It is a part of mission history, but it is relatively small and pretty out of the way. Also, you do not want to rush San Juan Capistrano, which is one of the best, so you will need to decide if you want to try and see it.

  • Time needed: 30 minutes
  • Highlights: Freestanding bell tower and simple chapel
  • Read more here

Mission San Juan Capistrano


Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of, if not the best California mission. Everything from the courtyards to the old stone church walls have been meticulously kept up, and there are tons of photographic opportunities. I have been to this mission three times, and I still enjoy going back as it is just one of those places where you are constantly shocked by the beauty.

This mission is relatively large and has a lot to see though, so make sure you set aside enough time to explore it well.

  • Time Needed: 2-3 hours
  • Highlights: Gardens, fountains, old stone church wall and bells
  • Read more here

Tomorrow starts with a mission near Pasadena, so I would recommend making your way over there as it makes the morning much more peaceful. That being said, you can always stay in Orange County if you spend too much time at the mission and don’t want to drive.

For dinner it is hard to make a recommendation without knowing where you will be staying, but here are a few spots I like along the way.

  • Native Foods (Multiple locations)
  • Lemonade (Multiple locations)
  • Tender Greens (Multiple locations)
  • Kopan Ramen (Fullerton)
  • Anaheim Packing House (Anaheim)
  • Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles (Multiple locations)

Nice job, you have completed day number 1. Hopefully, you are already enjoying your time visiting the missions and that you are ready for six more days of driving and exploring this fascinating part of California’s history. Read the rest of my missions coverage here and head on to day 2 here.

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About JoshMc

Thanks for checking out the blog, I am happy to be sharing my adventures with you! You can get to know me by reading my about me, which includes a video and additional information on the site, myself and my full disclosure. Also, follow along on Twitter here or read all of my posts on this blog here.

  • Marjie Starkey

    Hey JoshMc. I am taking my 4th grader next month on the Mission tour. Do you have hotel
    suggestions per chance? We don’t have 7 days, but hopefully 5. Our trip will be more compacted. Thanks in advance!

    • Thanks for the comment and I am glad you are taking the trip! Was there a specific spot you were looking for a hotel in? When I did the trip I mostly just tried to pick low cost hotels near the last mission town I was in.

      • Marjie Starkey

        Hi. Well I’m going to need to really look at the map to make sure we can get 5 missions in each day. Looking at places in San Diego, San Clemente, Lompoc, and then we have friends in San Jose. I’m trying for economical as well.

        • Awesome! I just used the site for the cities that I was going to be in. It is nice because many of the hotels don’t have cancellation fees (check when booking) so it was good to be able to update it as the trip changes. I don’t have any specific recommendations though as I usually opted for Motel 6.

  • Eve Campos

    Hello, this was so nice to see that you did this. I have been wanting to do this for a few years now. i’m going to be doing this in September. Do you know if the missions are dog friendly? i hate to leave my girl behind at home, but i refuse to leave her anywhere not by my side on a trip.

    • Thanks for the comment, I don’t know about your question though. I would imagine that most of them probably do not allow dogs but it is most likely up to the individual mission. I can say that I didn’t see any dogs at any of the missions when I was there if that helps though.

  • Crystal contreras

    ok ok so my daughter wants to do a mission trip. And looking at what you have done i think you have inspired us to do this!! We even love your food ideas. We are probably going to start on mission Buenaventura though! Pack a tent and hotel money! Thank you very much for your site.

    • Thanks for the comment! Have fun on the trip and let me know how it goes!