Awesome Things to do in San Juan Capistrano, California

Looking for the best things to do in San Juan Capistrano, California? We got you. This is without a doubt one of the best hidden gems in Orange County and Southern California, tucked away inland just off the coast of Dana Point is one of California’s oldest cities.

Historically, San Juan Capistrano was populated by the Acjachemen indigenous nation for at least 10,000 years before Spanish colonizers came in 1776 and established Mission San Juan Capistrano, the 7th of the 21 missions in California. The mission changed hands in 1833 and was secularized before being returned to the Catholic Church in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln.

This beautiful, historic city has also been used as a backdrop for old Hollywood films and is famous for the swallows migration each year in March when they return to their mud nests.

San Juan Capistrano, California is also popular for weddings due to the gorgeous scenery, and famed for the historic Mission, this city shouldn’t be missed when making your way through sunny Southern California whether you’re on a Southern California road trip or just spending time in the area.

You can easily take the train here, as there’s a convenient Amtrak Pacific Surfline stop here, and have a getaway exploring Old Town San Juan Capistrano and other local attractions. Are you wondering exactly what to do in San Juan Capistrano? Keep on reading to discover all the places to hit up in this stunning city!

San Juan Capistrano Attractions

Mission San Juan Capistrano

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Of all the things to do in San Juan Capistrano, visiting the Mission must be at the top of your list. The history of the Mission goes back well over 200 years, when the Spanish established Mission San Juan Capistrano in 1776, and it was the 7th of 21 missions founded in the state.

The purpose of the missions was to increase Spain’s reach throughout the world, and spread Catholicism to Native Americans in California through colonization. Throughout the next several decades, varying factors contributed to the decline of the missions, and ultimately the missions were preserved as historical landmarks after changing hands of ownership a few times as they were secularized during the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833 and wound up being back in the hands of the Catholic church by 1864.

On a different note, Mission San Juan Capistrano is also intertwined with the famous swallows that migrate to the city each year. The swallows travel here annually from Argentina, and since the 1930s, they have settled at the Mission when they arrive in the city.

If you happen to be visiting the Mission any year on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, the Mission celebrates the miracle of the “Swallows” of Capistrano, when they make their annual return here. This is actually a really big deal in Southern California and the whole town celebrates and has events around the annual migration.

When you visit the Mission today, you can take an onsite tour, and view a variety of exhibits. There are artifacts, paintings, art, photographs, and documents on display in the exhibits and historic collections.

With onsite tours, you will get to explore the exhibits and collections, as well as the 10-acre outdoor gardens. There is an admission fee to visit the Mission, and it’s open Tuesdays through Sundays.

Los Rios Butterfly Garden

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A lovely garden located in Old Town San Juan Capistrano is the Los Rios Butterfly Garden. Paths lead you through a variety of plants and flowers which are known to attract butterflies, giving the garden its name.

Placards can be found along the way that discuss the plants in the area and the reason butterflies are drawn to them.

You’ll probably want to bring your camera here, as there are all kinds of interesting plants that thrive in the California terrain, mingled with colorful bursts of flowers. Taking a walk through the Los Rios Butterfly Garden is a quick and enjoyable thing to do in San Juan Capistrano to add to your itinerary.

Also, you can enjoy a nice outdoor seat looking at the Los Rios Butterfly Garden from Ramos House Cafe across the street! Their food is also great and this is a particularly great breakfast and brunch spot.

Los Rios Street Historic District

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One of the defining features of San Juan Capistrano, California is that it’s home to the oldest neighborhood in California, the Los Rios Historic District. There are around 40 original homes in this area, of which three are made of adobe.

As you explore this street that dates back to simpler times, you will find charming cottages that contain a fun assortment of shops and restaurants. Las Catrinas is the boutique to hit up for a variety of gifts and unique items. Cottage Home & Garden is also a lovely gift boutique, with an outdoor area for browsing.  Hidden House Coffee is nested in a tiny yellow building behind a green fence, and it’s a great place to go for a hot or iced coffee drink. The Tea House on Los Rios is a distinctive establishment where you can enjoy a cup of tea and al fresco dining. To admire some beautiful Native American jewelry, and perhaps pick up a piece for yourself, head over to Turquoise Territory.

Lastly, while you’re in the area, check out the renovation of the Silvas Adobe property, since it is believed to have been built around 1794. Be sure to pay a visit to Old Town San Juan Capistrano and check out the Los Rios Street Historic District.

Zoomars at River Street Ranch

 

 
 
 
 
 
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If you can’t resist a chance to interact with an animal of any kind, head over to Zoomars at River Street Ranch, located in Old Town San Juan Capistrano. This is a fantastic place to take kids, as there are many activities catered towards children. They can mingle with guinea pigs in the guinea pig pen, say hi to the animals in the goat and sheep pen, and explore the playground.

There are also pony rides and train rides to keep the kids entertained. Other animals you’ll encounter here include kune kune pigs, cows, alpacas, llamas, and emus. There is a fee for admission, and Zoomars is open weekdays and weekends.

Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum

 

 
 
 
 
 
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To immerse yourself in the history of the city, be sure to check out the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum. Back in the middle of the 1800s, a man named Don Blas Aguilar bought two adobe homes, and named one home “Casa Tejada” and the other home “Casa de Esperanza”.

As of today, only “Casa” de Esperanza” remains standing, and it is home to the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum. Native tools, photographs, pendants, shell beads, Spanish-era furniture, fish hooks and crafts, saddles, and maps of native villages and the California missions are among the objects to see and learn about.

When contemplating what to do in San Juan Capistrano to make sure you learn all about the history here, make your way over to the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum.

See a Movie

 

 
 
 
 
 
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When you’re ready for a break from sightseeing around the city, catch a movie at Regency Theatre. This old-school theatre sits in the heart of historic Old Town San Juan Capistrano and is perfect for a midday break or evening activity.

The inside of the theatre is eclectic, with fluffy clouds painted on the ceiling, accompanied by assorted decorative lighting fixtures and white ornamental railings. Each of the theatres has a vintage feel, and several have a limited number of seats for a cozy atmosphere.

There’s a cafe on site called Rick’s Cafe, and you can order food, beer, and wine to enjoy during the movie screening. Seeing a movie at Regency Theatre is a perfect thing to do in San Juan Capistrano to relax and unwind for a bit.

Have a Drink at the Swallow’s Inn

 

 
 
 
 
 
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For a fun time that will leave you grinning from ear to ear, head over to the Swallow’s Inn for a drink! Named after the famous swallows that return to San Juan Capistrano, California every year, the Swallow’s Inn is a local favorite watering hole.

This establishment is absolutely covered in signs, posters, and other various trinkets that take up any available space on the walls and ceiling. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, with music coming from the jukebox or a live band performing. The bartenders will make sure your thirst is quenched, and you can grab food here as well. Swallow’s Inn is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ortega’s Capistrano Trading Post

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Directly across from the mission is this gem in San Juan Capistrano. The Capistrano Trading Post is a cool store has all kinds of gifts and specializes in selling Native American jewelry and turquoise. They even have consignment Native American jewelry, so if you have something in your own personal collection you’d like to sell, you can do it here.

Beyond their beautiful collection of jewelry, they also sell San Juan Capistrano souvenirs and artwork and crafts from local artists. 

Eat!

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Should you be left wondering what to do in San Juan Capistrano for dining spots, this section has you covered! Sundried Tomato is a bistro in Old Town San Juan Capistrano, and you can grab fresh salads, burgers, and pasta accompanied by a glass of wine.

Trevor’s on the Tracks prides itself on globally inspired cuisine, to be enjoyed with live music on their patio located at the historic train depot right on the tracks!

Cedar Creek Inn is a nice, elevated restaurant that serves classic American fare and cocktails, and save room for dessert here so you can sample their coconut cake.

Mayfield is an energetic, airy eatery that serves Mediterranean-style food for brunch and lunch. And, El Campeon Taqueria is the place to grab some tacos, tortas, and burritos, perfect for a hearty lunch.

Camino Real Playhouse

A great way to engage with the local community is to take in a show at the Camino Real Playhouse. This is a performing arts venue, and they put on seasonal plays, musicals, and other various productions. Since 1980, the Camino Real Playhouse has been where aspiring performers of all ages come to learn about theatrical education, and where locals and visitors can see productions from the hard-working performers.

Volunteers pretty much run the show here, and handle the jobs to keep everything running smoothly, truly making this a community effort. As far as what to do in San Juan Capistrano for entertainment, check out what productions are happening at the Camino Real Playhouse!

Arroyo Bird Park

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Now, for a quirky and off-the-beaten-path thing to do in San Juan Capistrano, check out Arroyo Bird Park. So, what will you find here? Fake evergreen trees, gnomes, Buddha statues, pieces made of blown glass, and lots of homemade birdhouses.

Yes, this is quite the interesting art installation! There is a set-up with art supplies, so you can whip up your own creation to leave behind. Additionally, there is a library onsite where you can pick up a book, put back a book, essentially just returning the favor. Since this is an outdoor area, it’s a great place to enjoy nature and watch the local birds.

Wine Tasting

San Juan Capistrano, California is not too far from southern California’s wine region, located in Temecula. As a result, there are a couple of fantastic wine establishments located in the city.

Rancho Capistrano Winery has excellent food and wine options, enjoyed in a relaxed and upscale rustic atmosphere. The brunch, lunch, and dinner menus have lots of great healthy options, accompanied with an extensive wine menu. Sit on their patio, while you sip a glass of wine and take in the view. Five Vines Wine Bar is a fun, casual place to pair wine with delicious food. They offer flights of wine, and even frozen wine concoctions, along with food like flatbreads and boards featuring gourmet sausage.

Take a Cooking Class at Farm School

 

 
 
 
 
 
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If you enjoy culinary activities, taking a cooking class at the Farm School on Los Rios Street is a fantastic thing to do in San Juan Capistrano. The property where the Farm School is housed dates back to 1903, and has gorgeous grounds. There are fruit trees, an organic garden, kitchen garden, a brick terrace, delightful little sitting areas, and a board and batten cottage.

Cooking classes take place in the lovely rose cottage, named after all of the roses dotting the property. You will engage with the other people taking a class for communal cooking, as well as learning one (or more) new things. If you were wondering what to do in San Juan Capistrano for date night, taking a cooking class at the Farm School is a terrific date activity.

Swallows Day Parade

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A famous annual event that takes place in San Juan Capistrano, California is the Swallows Day Parade. Also known as “the Fiesta de las Golondrinas”, this event celebrates the return of the swallows. It started as part of a school carnival back in the 1930s, and has substantially grown in scale and spectacle over the years.

Today, the Swallows Day Parade garners global attention, and is one of the biggest non-motorized parades in the U.S. If you happen to be visiting when this annual event takes place, be sure to head over to downtown and witness this incredible celebration!

Where to Stay in San Juan Capistrano

Inn at The Mission 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The stunning Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano is an Autograph Collection hotel featuring gorgeous hacienda-style accommodation and hotel rooms in the heart of Old Town San Juan Capistrano. 

Enjoy the gorgeous views of the Mission at San Juan Capistrano from their patio or your room. The entire property has Spanish details and touches incorporated paying homage to the historic roots of this city and the rooms are beautifully designed. Don’t miss hanging out poolside on a sunny day here either in a lounge chair or cabana.

If you’re looking for an upgraded space, they also have luxury villas guests can choose to stay in. This is a popular stay among the bridal parties and wedding guests that come to the area but also perfect for an overnight staycation in this incredibly charming and historic Southern California getaway.
 

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