One of the top things to do in San Antonio is explore Texas’s history at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Most people know about San Antonio’s first mission — the Alamo. But there are actually five missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park to discover.
If you want to visit San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, this guide will share everything you need to know about visiting the five missions. Including how to get to the San Antonio Missions, what to bring, the history of each, entry fees, and which ones you should visit if you’re short on time. Let’s dive in!
Quick facts about San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Ancestral Lands: Tonkawa, Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), Coahuiltecan, Jumanos.
Size: 1.29 sq. miles or 826 acres
Annual Visitors: 1.33 million in 2021
- The Alamo (privately operated)
- Mission San Jose
Entrance Fee (as of 2023): Free
Drive time to each mission: 20 minutes total
History of the San Antonio Missions
Construction on the San Antonio missions began in the early 1700s by Franciscan Spanish monks. Texas at the time was a part of Mexico, putting it under Spanish rule.
Missions were established all across Mexico (including what is modern-day Louisiana, Florida, and Texas) to convert the local natives to Catholicism and make them upstanding Spanish citizens. The construction of the first mission, The Alamo, was completed in 1718. By 1731 all five missions in San Antonio were established.
There was a 2,000-mile-long road that connected the missions in San Antonio to Mexico City called the Camino Real. The trail that connects the five missions in San Antonio however, is commonly referred to as Mission Trails.
There’s a lot of controversy around the Mission’s history. The creation of these missions meant the displacement and eradication of entire civilizations. The native peoples had lived in this area for hundreds if not thousands of years before the Spanish arrival. These tribal bands were forced to assimilate or perish outside as conflict, drought, and disease (thanks to colonization) rose in the region.
Inside the Mission’s fortress walls, natives were taught Spanish and how to practice Catholicism. Days were spent mostly working on the farm, cultivating food, and going to school to practice Spanish ways of living. They also worked as laborers constructing buildings at each mission including the church and priest quarters.
Whether you support what the Missions stand for or not, many Texans today come to these churches to practice religion.
Our first visit to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was during Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter); a very important holiday in Mexican and Spanish culture. We were shocked at how many people were there celebrating. There were processions and songs throughout the day and there were hundreds of people there in attendance.
A lot of Texans can trace their history back to the indigenous people but still have strong ties with Mexico and Spain because of this region’s complicated past. If you’re interested in learning more about the stories of descendants of San Antonio’s original inhabitants, you can read more here.
Are the San Antonio Missions a National Park?
Four of the five missions (all but the Alamo) are a part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The Historical Park designation is not the same as a National Park like Yellowstone, but it does fall under the National Park Service umbrella.
Something worth noting is that the five missions are a World UNESCO Heritage Site. The only sites in all of Texas to receive this designation.
What is the cost to visit the San Antonio Missions
Most National Parks require an entrance fee to tour the grounds. But because San Antonio Missions National Historical Park isn’t a formal National Park, there is no cost of entry!
If you still want to purchase a National Parks Interagency Pass because you plan to attend several National Parks in the coming year, you can purchase the annual parks pass at the Visitor Center at Mission San Jose.
How long should you spend at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park?
How long you should spend at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park depends on which mission you are visiting.
The Alamo and Mission San Jose are the largest of the five. Visitors usually spend around 1 and a half to 3 hours exploring the grounds and learning about the history.
Both the Alamo and San Jose will have placards on the outside to learn about the history of the mission. You can also listen in with audio guides or learn more at their Visitor Centers.
Mission San Jose had a free QR code we could scan on their placard that gave us a ton of information as we walked from spot to spot. The audio guide at the Alamo will cost $10 and can be purchased at the kiosk out front or at the Visitor Center.
The other missions, San Juan, Espada, and Concepcion can be seen in about 20 to 40 minutes depending on the order you are visiting the missions.
How to get to the Missions
You can get to the five missions in San Antonio National Park by walking or riding the five-mile Missions Trail. This is by far the most popular way to visit each during ideal seasons (spring and fall).
However, if you’re coming in summer (which gets incredibly hot) or winter (which can dip into freezing temperatures) then you’ll like just want to drive a vehicle to each mission. Aside from the Alamo, all four of the missions have ample parking.
Since the Alamo is located downtown, your best bet is to pay for parking in a parking garage (normally $10 for all day) or try to find street parking (2-hour limit).
What to bring
What to bring will depend on when you are visiting. San Antonio can be quite cold in the wintertime. Dress in layers and always have a breathable but warm jacket with you. We love wearing merino wool clothing from Woolly to layer. Their clothes are made to keep you cool or insulated depending on the weather and don’t retain odors like other materials.
If you’re coming in Spring or Fall (both have ideal weather) then you’ll be fine with normal temperate clothing. Summer (late May – early Oct) can be extremely hot. Bring a hat to protect your face as you’re exploring and dress for hot humid weather.
We also recommend having your own refillable water bottle like this Camelbak that has a life straw in it. There are water refill stations at the Mission San Jose Visitor Center as well as water fountains throughout the mission itself. (We filled ours 2 times as we explore Mission San Jose 😳)!
Of course, make sure you have comfortable shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking! Liz loves her Allbirds for days of exploring, while Dennis loves his Earth Runners.
Which is the best San Antonio Mission to visit?
There really isn’t a “best” San Antonio Mission to visit. All of them are extremely beautiful, rich in history, and have their own features to appreciate.
However, if you are short on time, Mission San Jose will likely give you the most bang for your buck. It’s the largest and most well-preserved mission of the five. Often called the “Queen of the Missions” it gives a lot of history about why these missions existed to begin with.
If you’re into history and prefer to learn about the role the mission played in Texas’s revolution, you should spend your time at the Alamo.
However, to help you determine which mission is the best to visit given your time and interests. Here is a summary of each mission along with what to expect during your visit.
Mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo)
Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first mission, which was established in 1718. The battle of the Alamo which took place in 1836 is what made this mission so famous. But the mission was inhabited firstly by Franciscan monks and then by local residents of San Antonio for over 100 years prior.
We share a lot of the history of the Alamo’s mission days including how and when it changed its name from Mission San Antonio de Valera to San Antonio the Alamo, in the video below. But if you prefer reading, here’s a summary.
The Spanish resided in the mission until 1739 when they returned to Spain. The Tejanos (a mix of Mexican, Spanish, and natives) that stayed behind in San Antonio’s sizeable city of roughly 2,000 people took over the mission.
Conflicts were rising between native tribes (including the Apaches who lived here before colonization), so the Tejanos requested Spain’s return. The Spanish returned and fortified the mission and changed the name from Mission de San Antonio Valero to San Antonio the Alamo.
Over the next few years, tensions rose about the future of Texas remaining under Mexican rule. Its location (being so far from Mexico City) and challenges within the Mexican government at the time, led to a revolt by local Texianians who wanted to declare Texas an independent state.
The leaders of the revolt which include James Bowie, William B. Travis, and David Crockett along with their fairly small army made camp in the Alamo.
Former Mexican President and military leader Antonio López de Santa Anna led a 13-day siege on the Alamo in 1836. On the last day, Santa Anna got into the Alamo and killed nearly 200 people. The battle lasted only 90 minutes and was a brutal loss for Texas’s independence.
A few days later, by chance, the Tejanos found Santa Anna’s army along the river. They took revenge killing most of his army (far more than the 200 they lost at the Alamo). At the same time, the army captured an unidentified man in a different area who turned out to be Santa Anna. This defeat allowed them to claim independence from Mexico and started a new chapter for this part of the country.
There’s a lot more to learn about the mission and the life of the Alamo at the site itself. One of the many reasons we recommend taking a guided tour. If preferred you can explore yourself with a self-guided audio tour ($10) or just reading the placards as well.
Mission San Jose
Mission San Jose is known as the “Queen of the Missions” because it’s one of the largest and most well-preserved. Mission San Jose was established in 1720. It was believed around 240 Native individuals lived at the mission in 1720. By 1739 there were just 41 left after disease plagued the mission.
This mission did temporarily house Texian/Tejano armies during the nineteenth century, but its well-preserved buildings best illustrate what mission life would have been like three hundred years ago.
The site is rather large so get ready for walking! There are 3 wells on site with rooms lining the walls of the fortress. These areas are where the native families would have lived. The center of the site is a large open area which would have been where the residents grew food, worked, played, and kept livestock.
You can walk into the rooms of the mission and go inside the church (during operating hours). Attached to the church are the priest’s quarters which today is a series of arches with no roof. The roof fell off in the nineteenth century and was never been replaced. Its ruin like-vibes make it a beautiful spot to take photos!
Two notable features that are often admired by visitors to San Jose’s church are the Rose window and the church entrance. Both are fantastic illustrations of the ornate detail in Spanish architecture.
Don’t miss the mill at the back of the property. This was Texas’s first grist mill which was used to grind corn and wheat. The mill was originally powered by water that came from the Spanish-built acequia (irrigation ditch).
The acequias connected to all five missions and funneling water from the San Antonio River. The water provided by the acequia system was the only way these missions were able to survive as long as they did in Texas’s dry and extreme heat.
Mission Espada was one of our favorite missions of the five. Like Mission San Juan it was established in 1731 and is much smaller than San Jose or the Alamo. However, its grounds have a lot of unique features. Espada is short for espadaña, the Spanish word for bell gable. For those who don’t know (like me), bell gables are the intricate arches with bells inside that often adorn churches.
The church is small but very quaint. We don’t normally love going inside churches (they kind of all look the same to us) but this one had a charming feel to it.
It’s also the only mission with an aqueduct. You have to drive about 5 minutes from the mission itself to see the aqueduct, but we think it’s well worth it. Aqueducts were built by the Spanish all across the country and Mexico, but this aqueduct is the only Spanish-colonial one remaining in the United States.
Mission San Juan
Established in 1731, Mission San Juan is also on the smaller side of the five missions. Its lack of arable land to raise livestock and cultivate food meant it wasn’t as successful as the other missions. This one won’t require a lot of time to explore (we recommend 20 to 30 minutes).
Don’t leave without seeing the small dam built by the Spanish. This was one of two dams used in the acequia system to control water flow.
Mission Concepción was established in 1731. Although it was until the 1750s that the church construction (with native labor) was completed. In its first year, it had roughly 300 native peoples living on its grounds. Which made it one of the larger missions in the region.
Like the other Missions though, Mission Concepción struggled with disease and outside attacks. Mission records stated 75% of the 792 Native Americans baptized in 1762 passed away from disease that same year. Eventually, the Mission secularized and was abandoned. The church was eventually restored and added to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1978.
A visit to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a must for any history buff looking to understand Texas’s complicated story. Even if you’re not a huge history nerd like us, it’s still well worth visiting.
If you’re looking for other things to do in San Antonio, make sure to check out our blog post here. Let us know if this guide was helpful for you in planning your trip to San Antonio Missions National Park in the comments below!