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10 Delightful Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano, CA

Looking for things to do in San Juan Capistrano, California? This historic city in Southern California is perfect for a day trip and a family-friendly day out or part of a larger weekend getaway.

San Juan Capistrano is located just north of Dana Point in Orange County. It’s actually the birthplace of Orange County, although technically it didn’t become part of Orange County until April 1961.

This historical city is known for one of the most beautiful Missions in California that has been titled, “the Jewel of Missions”.

San Juan Capistrano is home to the oldest neighborhood in California and the historic structures of Orange County that are still standing throughout the city today. It is also known for the migration of swallows that is celebrated yearly in March.

We first visited San Juan Capistrano years ago, the historic town center captured our hearts and it’s one of our favorite day trips from Los Angeles. This adorable town is rich in history as they highlight and celebrate Native American, European, Mexican, and European cultures.

There are lots of great restaurants, cafes, and wineries to stop by for lunch or dinner. I consider San Juan Capistrano a foodie destination that absolutely needs further exploration.

It is also is family-friendly, with plenty of things to do not only for adults but children too. This city was a favorite of my nieces. With its multiple playgrounds, parades, and festivities, what’s not to love?

As you’re exploring San Juan Capistrano, you’ll notice that the city is surrounded by beautiful hills from the Santa Ana Mountains with biking and hiking trails that lead to great scenic views. That you may want to consider exploring outside of the city center of San Juan Capistrano.

featured blog image | things to do in san juan capistrano, california

While it is only about an hour’s drive from Downtown Los Angeles or an hour from San Diego, with its neighboring cities of Laguna Niguel, Dana Point, and San Clemente, you could absolutely visit San Juan Capistrano as part of a long weekend trip in Orange County.

In this post, we will cover all the things to do in San Juan Capistrano, so you can plan a fabulous and fun day here.

What do people do at San Juan Capistrano? What are the top attractions to visit in San Juan Capistrano?

The San Juan Capistrano attractions that are most visited are the Mission of San Juan Capistrano and the Los Rios Historic District.

Is San Juan Capistrano worth visiting?

Absolutely. It’s a relaxing little getaway to a historical city in Orange County.

Does San Juan Capistrano have a beach?

Technically, there is no beach inside the city of San Juan Capistrano. However, Capistrano Beach Park in Dana Point is just a short drive south of the city.

How to get to San Juan Capistrano?

You can drive the PCH past Dana Point and then take the 5 north to San Juan Capistrano [Google Map It]. Alternatively, you can take the train to San Juan Capistrano as the Pacific Surf Liner stops in San Juan Capistrano: click here for more info.

Things to Do in San Juan Capistrano

1. FKN Bread: Start Your Day With a Scrumptious Pastry

fkn bread sign on the window and a cart of crusty breads
Who doesn’t stop at the sight of fresh-baked crusty bread?

What do you do when you see delicious loaves of crusty bread staring at you from behind the front store window? Besides drooling, you go inside the store.

FKN Bread is a small bakery in the heart of the city, steps away from the Mission, that specializes in sourdough bread. All of their bread is made with sourdough. Including, their pastries.

croissants and biscuits

We looked at their pastries and we knew that breakfast was served. It was difficult to choose from, their sourdough biscuit with honey and the almond croissant called out to us. Then it was love at first bite.

The croissant was one of the best croissants I’ve had most recently, flaky, buttery, and crispy with sweet almond paste. The sourdough biscuit was unique with that sourdough flavor I was not expecting, but I welcomed with each bite.

large biscuit with honey
The biscuit was the size of my face. Do you see the glimmer of honey?

You can find their biscuit served at Heritage Barbecue right across the street.

If there are any loaves of bread left, I recommend taking one home.

FKN Bread | 31760 Camino Capistrano Suite B, San Juan Capistrano

2. Mission San Juan Capistrano

One of the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano is to visit the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is a Historical Landmark in California that is full of history, filled with beautiful artwork, architecture, and ruins that you’ll wish each stone could talk about everything it’s seen. I recommended doing the audio tour that is included with the price of your admission.

fountain with flowers, palm trees and ruins in the background

With over 240 years of history, Mission San Juan Capistrano has gone through great ordeals, builds, and restorations. You could spend an entire afternoon here walking the beautiful grounds, sitting by the fountains, and taking in all the history.

central courtyard of mission san juan capistrano
Central Courtyard of Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Mission was first founded in 1775 by Spanish Catholics, but they did not have their first religious service celebration until 1776.

ruins of the great stone church in misison san juan capistrano

The Great Stone Church was built in 1796 and was only fully completed for 6 years before it collapsed after a terrible earthquake in 1812. What’s left standing of the church is considered one of the oldest ruins in Southern California. You can visit the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano which was modeled after the Great Stone Church.

chapel with a table of candles and a path with rows of pews leading to gold transept

The Serra Chapel is the oldest standing building in California. It was built in 1782. Today it is called “Father Serra Church” and mass is still held here. You can light a candle at this chapel (we did for a family member that is no longer with us) which you can buy at the missions store.

woman sitting on bench along the stone and brick outdoor corridors of mission san juan capistrano
Benches are set along the corridors of the compound.
archway into a stoned garden with a fountain and a wall with four bells
The Sacred Garden

When the Great Stone Church collapsed, they resumed having services at the chapel. A year later, in 1813, the bell wall was built between the chapel and the ruins to support the four bells that were found after the collapse.

original bell tower display at mission san juan capistrano

While the bells at the mission are not the original bells, the bells were part of everyday life since Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is unlike any other historic place I’ve visited anywhere in California. It really felt like I was walking the grounds of European ruins. On a lovely Spring day, I can imagine the flowers brightening up the grounds, making the visit even more special.

Tip: Start your day early and beat the crowds.

  • Cost: $14 pp for adults – you can purchase tickets in advance online
  • Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 4 pm

Mission San Juan Capistrano | 26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano

Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano

basilica san juan capistrano
Basilica San Juan Capistrano

Don’t forget that when you leave the Mission to walk north on Camino Capistrano. Here you’ll find the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.

This is the current Basilica in San Juan Capistrano that was built in 1986, resembling the Great Stone Church, but it’s not identical.

A visit to the Basicila itself is off-site from the mission and anyone can visit, it’s one of the free things to do in San Juan Capistrano.

3. Explore Los Rios Historic District

sign los rios district
directional arrows, wooden structure and palm trees against blue sky

Once you have visited the mission, you’ll want to explore the Los Rios District, across the train tracks, past Capistrano Depot.

Los Rios Street is one of the oldest streets in California, it dates back to the late 1700s. Back then, 40 adobe homes were constructed for workers working on the Mission. Now only 3 of those homes remain today. The street is only 600 feet long, however, it once went all the way to Dana Point.

Fun fact: Adobe structures are built from organic and earthly materials… like turning mud into brick.

Most of the old houses and converted businesses that you in Los Rios Street today, were constructed by European immigrants in the 1800s.

green bird house with mission chalk drawing on it in on los rios street
charming landscape on los rios stret
butterfly sanctuary observation in los rios street

Presently, Los Rios is a charming district in San Juan Capistrano that is filled with historic homes turned into fun boutiques, great cafes, and eateries. It’s a delightful little area to explore and walk around in. So many charming details can be found throughout the street.

At Los Rios park, you’ll find a playground for children.

The SJC Historical Society, also known as the O’Neill Museum, can be found south of Los Rios Street. They provide walking tours of the Los Rios Historic District every Saturday at 1 pm, starting at the train depot. For more info, click here.

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4. Grab a Cup of Joe at Hidden Coffee House

outside of hidden coffee house, big tree shading a yellow house and patio with a gate that says petting zoo

While you will find a couple of cafes in the Los Rios District, the Hidden Coffee House makes one mean mocha latte. They have a great selection of delicious coffee.

red coffee cup with hidden house script
hidden coffee house coffee bags on shelves

Residing in a 120+-year-old home, this cute coffee house has a lovely garden and patio area that is great to relax in for a chat and to people watch.

Hidden House Coffee | 31791 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano

5. Take the Kids to Zoomars Petting Zoo

Right behind Hidden Coffee House down River Street is Zoomar’s at River Street Ranch. It is one of the fun family things to do in San Juan Capistrano that the kids will love.

horse stables at zoomars

The inner child within me loved to see the emo and the horses just from River Street. You can see that they are well taken care of. The emo is friendly, but he will try to get any food you may have on hand, so be cautious.

Emu

The petting zoo is small and they sell feeding baskets so you can feed the animals. If you buy a basket, it will definitely keep your child occupied for a bit and you’ll make a few animals super happy with the veggie treats.

There is a hay maze and a playground with room for the kids to run around.

While it is an additional cost, there are also tractor and train rides here, too.

  • Cost: $15 pp – Adults | $12pp – Children
  • Additional costs: Rides & Feeding baskets (filled with veggies)

Zoomars at River Ranch | 31791 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano

6. Have High Tea with a Friend at The Tea House on Los Rios

the tea house los rios districti

If you’re looking for a high tea experience in Orange County, add this one to your list.

This charming Tea House serves high tea and it’s one of those enjoyable things to do in San Juan Capistrano that celebrate a special occasion, like a birthday or just a fun girl’s day out. I would absolutely love to do this with little ones or a few girlfriends.

The teas are served in floral vintage teapots and teacups. Little plates of petite pastries and sandwiches accompany the tea. All under a beautiful sweet setting and ambiance. On a beautiful day outside, the patio would be lovely, especially when all the flowers are blooming in the Springtime.

Make reservations way in advance to secure this charming experience.

  • A special brunch menu is available on the weekends.
  • Check their website for special holiday high teas and dinner.

The Tea House | 31731 Los Rios St, San Juan Capistrano

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7. Go Wine Tasting

For those that love a little wine tasting, San Juan Capistrano has a handful of tasting rooms and wine bars to choose from. Which is one of the adult things to do in San Juan Capistrano.

Choose a tasting room or plan to go to all of them. Check their websites for more info as a couple of them have a full restaurant menu, like Rancho Capistrano, that you may want to dine at.

8. Eat at Trevor on the Tracks

capistrano depot \ trevor on the tracks

At Capistrano Depot, you’ll find one of the popular places to eat in San Juan Capistrano, Trevor on the Tracks. This restaurant is located in a historic location, it used to be the train depot that was built-in 1894.

As you walk around the restaurant, you’ll see cool artifacts, like the Western Union sign and rooms named after what used to be used at the depot.

There are so many different sitting areas in this restaurant. From the courtyard by the tracks, to inside with a view of the trains going by or the front patio. The ambiance is welcoming and unique.

prime beef sandwich
Parisian Prime Sandwich
Snappin Tacos from Trevor on the Tracks
Snappin’ Tacos

We had a fantastic meal here. My snappin’ tacos were surprisingly better than I expected them to be. The crunch tacos had melted cheese between them and the snapper fish and toppings were a great combination. The plate filling. Hubby’s Parisian Prime sandwich was delicious, maybe a little too much horseradish but the meat was tender and flavorful.

I chose not to drink, but I gawked at the as pretty cocktails were served to the tables around me. Delicious plates that I wish I could try them all.

dessert bar with fresh baked cookies in cake stands
These fresh baked cookies looked amazing! I wish I had taken photos of the dessert charcuterie that was being prepared.

If you’re dining as a group, I highly suggest sharing a few plates as the servings are large. They have a savory charcuterie board that looks absolutely fantastic. Take a peek inside their dessert bar, you might catch a glimpse of them preparing a beautiful dessert charcuterie that I’ll love to have in the future.

Trevor on the Tracks reminded me of our own train depot restaurant in Pasadena, La Grande L’Orange. Although I can say Trevor’s is bigger.

Trevor on the Tracks | 26701 Verdugo St, San Juan Capistrano

Other places to eat in San Juan Capistrano:

Paddy’s Station

old red train car

Right next to Trevor’s is another cool dining experience in San Juan Capistrano. Paddy’s Station is an Irish Bar and Restaurant with a lovely dining train where you can plan events in. You can go inside and check out the dining train car.

Ramos House Cafe

cozy dining setting at ramos house

Absolutely loved the charming and cozy setting at Ramos House Cafe. They are located in Old San Juan on Rios Street. On the weekends they are open for brunch with a lovely prefixed menu for $40 per person. During the week, they have an a la carte menu with small plates like Huckleberry Coffee Cake and Hush Puppies w Avocado Aioli, it looks too scrumptious to pass up.

Heritage Barbecue

Who doesn’t love good BBQ? We almost ate here, after getting another great recommendation from FKN Bread, but it was a long line. I’m sure the long line means that it’s a pretty delicious BBQ. So, plan accordingly if you’d like some BBQ. And, don’t forget to order some biscuits if you never made it to FKN bread.

El Adobe de Capistrano

Margaritas anyone? El Adobe de Capistrano is serving traditional Mexican cuisine from a State historical Landmark. The location is actually two structures in one, the southern half of the building used to be the old court and jails from 1812. If you want to eat in a place surrounded by history and good food, El Adobe is another great choice.

Fun fact: This is one of President Richard Nixon’s favorite restaurants.

Ciao Pasta Trattoria

Had dinner here one night with my extended very Italian family who absolutely approved. The food was delicious and the service excellent. Definitely has a great family atmosphere. The patio area with the brick fireplace was my favorite part.

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9. Swallows Day Parade

If you’re still wondering, what are swallows? Like I did the first time I heard about it. Swallows are small birds and there are 8 different types of swallows. The ones in San Juan Capistrano are Cliff swallows. They like to come to San Juan Capistrano in the Spring to make mud nests on the sides of buildings, Mission San Juan Capistrano being one of their favorite places to nest.

This is why the Swallows Day Parade is such a huge celebration in San Juan Capistrano. And, is one of the exciting things to do in San Juan Capistrano every year.

San Juan Capistrano has been celebrating the return of the swallows every year since the 1930s. This popular event is loved and attended by the locals as well as tourists.

For the past 2 years due to the pandemic, the Swallows Day Parade was canceled. This year the festivities will take place on Saturday, March 11, 2022.

The parade begins at 11 am in the Downtown District.

Tip: You may want to consider taking Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner into town on the day of the parade as parking will be difficult to find.

  • You can find all info on the Swallows Day Parade: here.

10. Capistrano Beach Park

When visiting Orange County, you should try to include a visit to the beach. Capistrano Beach is a 9-minute drive from San Juan Capistrano.

This is a pebbled beach where you can find some pretty walks. It’s quiet and not overly crowded. Great for a stroll and to get in some vitamin sea that is much needed. Parking is on the main street as the former parking lot is no longer functional.

Hope this list of things to do in San Juan Capistrano helps you plan your time in this charming city in Orange County. It’s such a lovely way to spend a day exploring a small part of Orange County’s history, choosing a great restaurant to eat at, and maybe planning to attend one of their festivities throughout the year.

Are you planning a trip to San Juan Capistrano? Have you been? What did you enjoy?

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Lauren Elena

Sunday 13th of February 2022

You are a blog posting Queen these days! I thought I was all caught up only to realize I am very behind! I’m impressed! I have all these ideas for future blog posts but my execution is slow.😅 Send me some of your blogging juju, please. I love that you’ve posted so much about Cali. I love learning more about California. There’s so much to see! I’ve never even heard of San Juan Capistrano and now I would love to visit. I feel like I need to move to Cali to be able to explore it all. It was cool learning all the history and it looks beautiful. And tasty! I want that bread, the croissants and biscuits sound delicious! I want to go to Hidden House Coffee too. That looks too cute. And Paddy’s Station- how cool! That dining experience is probably better than Amtrak.😉 And finally, give me that Vitamin Sea! I need it!😍 🌊

Kathy

Sunday 13th of February 2022

We are getting out there and exploring before it's pool season and I get lazy, and all I do is sit by the pool. HAHA. Yeah, gonna be going out on adventures and sharing on the blog. I wish I started this ages ago because I have over 15 years of living in Southern California to share with all the readers. There is so much to do here that even I can't keep up but we are gonna do our best.

Glad you enjoyed the post. San Juan Capistrano is really a charming city.