The Perfect Day Trip Itinerary For San Juan Capistrano, California

Missions, old Californian history, afternoon tea, antique shopping, cute brunch spots, barbeque joints, dive bars, wine tasting, bangin’ Mexican food, and even a petting zoo…! Were you enticed by any of those things listed just now?

Because this is what’s waiting for you at San Juan Capistrano, California!

San Juan Capistrano has recently become one of my favorite daytime outing destinations in Southern California. It’s the ideal day trip from LA or Orange County, especially if you’re looking to get away from high rises and crummy SoCal traffic.

SJC’s historic charm, lush gardens, and rich Spanish heritage make it such a fun and refreshing destination! You can explore the iconic Mission San Juan Capistrano, stroll through the Los Rios Historic District, and enjoy wine tasting, all within a short walking distance from each other.

It’s a perfect way to immerse yourself in history, culture, and natural beauty, even if you have just a couple of hours to spare.

This day trip itinerary offers a mix of history, culture, nature, and some REALLY good food, allowing you to get a taste of everything on your day trip to San Juan Capistrano, California!

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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: IN A NUTSHELL

Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!

  • When To Go: All year round because the weather is consistently pleasant down here! However, if you prefer slightly cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, visit during the months of September to November OR April to June.
  • Where To Stay: For a true weekend getaway in style, here are my top picks: Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano ($$$) – North Beach Villa ($$) in San Clemente – Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa ($$) in Laguna Beach
  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne Airport (SNA), located in Orange County. It’s approximately a 30-40 minute drive from the town.
  • How to Get Around: Having a car is best. We recommend using Rentalcars.com to find the best deal. Another popular method of getting into town is via Amtrak — it drops off and picks up by the Los Rios Historic District. From there, you can explore by foot.
  • Must-Do’s: Make sure to visit the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, stroll through the Los Rios Historic District, and grab some Texas-style BBQ at Heritage Barbeque!
  • Before You Go: Pack comfortable walking shoes for exploring the town and its historic sites. Pack a hat and some sunscreen too, as the SoCal sun is usually out and about.

What Is San Juan Capistrano Known For?

Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California - What Is San Juan Capistrano Known For

San Juan Capistrano is a lesser-known city in southern Orange County, California, located by the Orange Coast.

I think most people are used to hearing the name “San Juan Capistrano” when it comes to conversations about historical missions across California. And I don’t blame them, because that’s honestly what I thought for the longest time too — that SJC is just “the town where that one mission is”.

I finally made my way down to San Juan Capistrano during an extended housing-sitting stay in Costa Mesa. This finally gave me time to explore all the little gems dotted in Orange County and beyond, and you know what I learned? That it’s a charming little town that’s seriously worth exploring!

This little town is a quiet little haven for history buffs, nature lovers, families, and anyone looking for a laid-back, charming, and picturesque escape!

If you know almost nothing about SJC, it’s a charming, historic town known for its rich Spanish heritage. The heart of it all is the Mission San Juan Capistrano, and driving into town and seeing it is like stepping back in time.

The mission’s gardens are gorgeous, and there’s even a swallows’ migration event every spring that’s world-famous. (These little birds come in droves and make a pitstop here during their journey — it’s super cool to see.)

Now, onto the town itself. OMG, it’s so cute! Especially the Los Rios Historic District, filled with its cute adobe houses and mom-and-pop shops. On a warm sunny day, you can stroll through there with no plans in mind and just soak in the old-timey charm!

And if you’re into history, this place will be your jam. There’s a train depot that serves as a mini-museum where you can learn all about the town’s history, as well as the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society.

But let’s say you’re planning a visit with your family/younger children. SJC will be fun for the young ones too — there’s a petting zoo called Zoomars at River Street Ranch, and it’s great if you’ve got kiddos.

And the food? Oh, you won’t be disappointed. There are some awesome little cafes and restaurants, especially in the downtown area. You’ve got to try either some Mexican food or Texas-style BBQ while you’re here – pick your poison!

And if you’re a shopper, there are these unique boutiques that you’ll want to explore. Perfect for finding some one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

Have you been convinced to visit yet?! Seriously, San Juan Capistrano is a one-of-a-kind of place that’ll make you want to kick back, relax, and enjoy the simple things in life. You’ve gotta check it out!

Trading Post - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

When Is The Best Time To Visit San Juan Capistrano?

San Juan Capistrano enjoys some pretty fantastic weather all year round, so there’s really no bad time to visit.

But if you want to know when it’s particularly lovely, here’s the scoop:

Spring (March to May): This is a fantastic time to visit. The weather is comfortably warm, and you’ll see flowers in full bloom. It’s perfect for exploring the town and enjoying the outdoor attractions.

Summer (June to August): Summer is also great, especially if you’re a beach lover. The temperatures are warm, and you can hit the nearby beaches like Dana Point after your trip to SJC. Just be prepared for more tourists during this season.

Fall (September to November): Fall brings pleasant weather and fewer crowds than summer. It’s a lovely time for a peaceful visit and enjoying outdoor activities without the summer heat.

Winter (December to February): Even in winter, the weather in San Juan Capistrano is relatively mild compared to many other places. It’s a quieter time to visit, and you can explore historical sites without the summer crowds.

So really, you can’t go wrong whenever you decide to visit. It all depends on your personal preference – whether you prefer the vibrant blooms of spring, the beachy vibes of summer, the tranquility of fall, or the peacefulness of winter. San Juan Capistrano is a year-round charmer!


How To Get To San Juan Capistrano, California

San Juan Capistrano, despite being a pretty small town, is quite conveniently located in Southern California. It’s close to a lot of popular cities like Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Irvine, and even Anaheim to an extent!

Here’s how to get to San Juan Capistrano from popular cities and the best airport options for visitors coming from farther away:

From Irvine / OC Area:

  • Distance: Approximately 20 miles
  • Travel Time: Approximately 30-40 minutes by car

From San Diego:

  • Distance: Approximately 65 miles
  • Travel Time: About 1.5 to 2 hours by car, depending on traffic

From Los Angeles (LAX):

  • Distance: Approximately 65 miles
  • Travel Time: About 1.5 to 2 hours by car, depending on traffic
  • Best Airport Option: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the closest major international airport. Alternatively, you can consider flying into John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County, which is closer to San Juan Capistrano.

From San Francisco (SFO):

  • Distance: Approximately 400 miles
  • Travel Time: A flight from San Francisco to John Wayne Airport (SNA) takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. After landing, you can drive to San Juan Capistrano in about 30-40 minutes.

From beyond:

  • The best airport to fly into would be John Wayne Airport (SNA). After landing, you can drive to San Juan Capistrano in about 30-40 minutes.

The Perfect San Juan Capistrano Day Trip Itinerary

Morning:

Grab coffee and pastries at FKN Bread

FNK Bread - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

If you arrive early in the morning and are getting tummy rumblings already, check out FKN Bread for some delicious sourdough bread or a pastry. The loaves of bread are freshly baked each morning, so if you’re in need of a bread re-up at home, here is the place to pick some up!

We ordered a birthday-sprinkled cookie to snack on later, and even though we forgot about it in our bag for hours on end, when we did eat it in the early evening, it was still shockingly good!

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San juan Capistrano

Start your day of getting to know San Juan Capistrano by exploring the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, known as the “Jewel of the Missions”. If you’re into history, strolling through postcard-perfect-looking gardens, exploring chapels, or learning about California’s history, this is a must-see.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is both a historic landmark and museum — AND is the “Birthplace of Orange County”! It was founded more than two hundred years ago as the seventh of 21 missions statewide and features a chapel still standing where Saint Serra once celebrated Mass. It’s like stepping back in time and soaking up a big dose of history!

First off, I’m a huge fan of cute gardens. The gardens here are SO picturesque! Expect to see romantic courtyards, fountains, and old stone buildings that give you a taste of what life was like back in the day.

Now, when you’re at the mission, make sure to check out the Serra Chapel. It’s the oldest church in California, and it’s got this serene, peaceful vibe that’s hard to describe. You’ll feel it when you step inside.

The ruins of the Great Stone Church are another highlight. This place used to be massive and super impressive, but it was damaged in an earthquake way back when. Now, it’s these hauntingly beautiful ruins that make for some fantastic photos.

Just take your time and wander around. The mission is like a little village in itself with all these nooks and crannies to explore. There are little exhibits that tell you about California’s history, and you can even check out some original artwork from the mission’s early days.

Oh, and the swallows! If you’re there in the spring, you might catch a glimpse of the famous swallows that migrate to the mission every year. They’re a big deal in town, and there’s even a festival for them in March.

A quick note on admission: I’ll be honest here, admission costs to get in are quite steep (especially since you can find missions around California that are donation-based or free to visit), so unless you’re going in there with the intention of learning about history, appreciating the architecture, and lingering a bit longer in the gardens, it might not be worth your time/money. At the time of writing, tickets cost $18 for adults, with discounted pricing for seniors and students.

👉 What’s the deal with missions in California, anyway? Missions were like early Spanish settlements established to spread Christianity and colonize the region. A lot of the missions across the state are designated historical landmarks with exhibits and artifacts that tell captivating stories about California’s past. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, you’ll be taken back in time to learn about a time when Spanish settlers attempted to convert Native Americans to Catholicism and expand European territory.

Browse the antique shops

Antique Shops - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

After you leave the mission, it’s time to peruse the random shops around town a bit before heading off to lunch. First stop: Ortega’s Capistrano Trading Post. Once you’re done checking out the Native American-made handicrafts, it’s time to step back in time!

One of the delightful aspects of exploring San Juan Capistrano is stumbling upon its many charming antique shops! These little gems add a unique flavor to the town’s already-historic character.

As you wander through the streets, you’ll notice quaint storefronts that beckon you to pop in with their vintage allure. Inside, you’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles, unique knick-knacks, and curiosities that span the ages.

Even if you’re not on the hunt for a specific item, these shops sure are fun to browse through!

Antique Shops - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

Lunch:

Lunch at a local restaurant

Savor a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, perhaps trying a few of the options that piqued our interest. Two phenomenal choices of cuisine would be: BBQ or Mexican cuisine!

We ate at Heritage Barbeque after we were told by our really good friend that “we HAVE to go to Heritage for good BBQ in the OC area”. We had totally forgotten where he said it was located. But during our day trip to SJC, we totally stumbled upon it and knew we had to try it!

It was about 10:45 am (15 minutes before they were opening) and a line of about 5-8 groups was already forming. Needless to say, we jumped in line because when else would we be so auspicious to accidentally show up at a must-try restaurant just before they opened?

The wait was so worth it! We ordered fatty brisket, hot links, and a ton of delicious sides including the potato salad (this was soooo good, highly recommend), elote, and coleslaw. Since it was just Papu and I, we had to hold back on ordering everything on the menu because there was no way we would have finished it all, so we skipped on the cornbread — which I really wanted!

First off, let me say that I’m NOT a fan of BBQ meats — but I am making the statement that even I would eat there again, so that’s a true testament to how good the food was!

And if any of you get to order the cornbread after reading this, let me know how it tastes!

Heritage Barbeque - San Juan Capistrano

If you’re not into BBQ whatsoever, here are a few other well-known options in SJC. You can use this list for picking a spot to eat for dinner too!

  • The Ramos House Café
    • Cuisine: Southern-inspired American cuisine with a modern twist.
    • Must-Try: Their Southern Shrimp & Grits is a fan favorite, featuring shrimp sautéed with garlic, shallots, mushrooms, and andouille sausage over creamy stone-ground grits.
  • Ellie’s Table Egan House
    • Cuisine: A charming bakery and cafe known for its delectable pastries, artisanal sandwiches, and fresh salads.
    • Must-Try: The Turkey & Brie Croissant is a customer favorite, featuring thinly sliced turkey, creamy brie cheese, mixed greens, and cranberry aioli on a flaky, buttery croissant.
  • El Adobe de Capistrano
    • Cuisine: Classic Mexican cuisine in a historic setting.
    • Must-Try: The Molcajete is a popular choice, a sizzling hot stone bowl filled with grilled steak, chicken, shrimp, cactus, and a rich red sauce.
  • Mayfield
    • Cuisine: A modern American restaurant offering seasonal, farm-to-table dishes with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.
  • El Molino de Oro
    • Cuisine: A beloved Mexican bakery and restaurant known for its authentic Mexican cuisine and freshly baked goods. I already know the locals love this spot!
  • Trevor’s at the Tracks
    • Cuisine: Modern American cuisine with a focus on local ingredients. If you can snag a seat outside, you may get lucky with some live music!
Trevor On The Tracks - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California
The views from the inside are too cute!

Afternoon:

Los Rios Historic District

Stroll through the Los Rios Historic District, one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in California (circa 1775).

The Los Rios Historic District is a testament to the town’s commitment to preserving its rich history and creating an atmosphere that’s both relaxing and enchanting.

I swear, all of the establishments in this area made me swoon, simply because of the fact that they’re all shrouded by flowers, greenery, and drapey trees!

For an afternoon pick-me-up, you can stop by Hidden House Coffee!

Hidden House Coffee Los Rios District - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

While you’re in this little area, be sure to take a quick stroll through the Los Rios Butterfly Garden because it’s so cute and relaxing in this little garden!

Los Rios Butterfly Garden - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

Zoomars Petting Zoo

If you’re traveling with younger family members, head to the family-owned establishment that is Zoomars Petting Zoo to interact with friendly animals! You can expect to find all the cute little farm animals you can think of, including horses, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, a llama, an alpaca, an emu, and a cow.

From pony and train rides to mining and digging, Zoomars has activities to entertain the whole family.

San Juan Capistrano Historical Society

If you haven’t gotten enough of San Juan Capistrano’s history yet, pay a visit to the Historical Society for more insights into the town’s history.

At the museum, you’ll find all its archives of photos, books, documents, maps, genealogical records, oral histories and much more.

Looking for more of a guided experience? The Historical Society offers 45-minute tours every Saturday at 1:00 pm, starting at the train depot. These tours explore the rich history of the Los Rios District, California’s oldest continuously inhabited street.

Visitors will see historic structures, including adobes, 19th-century homes, and more, such as the Garcia/Pryor House, Leck House, and the recently restored Silvas Adobe, each with its unique story shared by knowledgeable guides.

Late Afternoon:

Afternoon Tea at The Tea House On Los Rios

Afternoon Tea at The Teahouse - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano

During our day trip, we encountered a massive group of middle-aged women, all dressed in pink going to afternoon tea at the teahouse. They all had fancy, old-fashioned afternoon tea hats, complete with feathers and all that good stuff!

We could already tell that this was a really popular place for Sunday brunches, Mother’s Day get-togethers, and other special occasions. If you can stop by for afternoon tea here, it’s sure to be a very fun experience!

Go wine tasting

If you are someone who enjoys a fresh glass of wine, one of the most enjoyable activities to include in your San Juan Capistrano adventure is wine tasting. Luckily, you don’t have to venture far from the heart of town to savor some exquisite wines!

Two great spots for wine tasting include Rancho Capistrano Winery or Five Vines Wine Bar. Both are super close to the train depot and can’t get any more convenient to reach by foot!

Rancho Capistrano Winery will transport you to a rustic, wine-country ambiance right in the heart of town. Five Vines Wine Bar, on the other hand, is a cozy and intimate spot that caters to wine aficionados and those seeking a leisurely sip. Both are super relaxing places to unwind and discover new varietals!

If wine is too fancy for you yet you still want to grab a drink in town, head on over to Swallow’s Inn, an old-school country saloon bar that offers no-frills drinks and beers. Show up at the right time and you just might catch the live music and dancing!

The thing you’ll probably love most about this bar is the many interesting decorations hanging from the ceiling!

Swallow's Inn - Things To Do In San Juan Capistrano California

Dinnertime

Depending on how long you linger around doing the activities on this itinerary, you’ll either run out of things to do or run out of daylight! If you fit into the latter category, then it’s probably time to grab a meal at this point.

Take a look at the list of iconic food establishments from above and see if there’s anything that catches your eye. Again, try to eat at one of the Mexican spots I listed above — they’re local institutions! You can visit one of these restaurants for dinner.

For something super casual, go with El Molino de Oro. For some historic charm to go alongside your meal, opt for El Adobe de Capistrano instead.

Otherwise, you can drive to nearby Dana Point Harbor for dinner with a view + the chance to enjoy a beautiful sunset!

👉 [COMING SOON] River Street Marketplace – The 60,000-square-foot River Street Marketplace is set to open in downtown San Juan Capistrano. This exciting addition to the area will feature a mix of locally beloved concepts and nationally established brands, celebrating California culture and heritage. Dining options will include La Vaquera, McConnell’s Ice Cream, Fermentation Farm, Bred’s Hot Chicken, Finca (a sister-concept of Brick in San Clemente), and more.


How Many Days Are Needed To See San Juan Capistrano?

To be honest, I feel like you can see most of San Juan Capistrano in a day. Staying a bit longer would allow you to try out more of the local restaurants, but in terms of sights/landmarks, you’d be able to see most of it in one day.

Having said that, I do think an overnight stay in the area could be really fun!

If you opt for an overnight stay or two, I’d recommend seeing SJC for your first day, then making a plan to check out other nearby towns on the other days.

Here are a few nearby towns worth visiting:

Dana Point:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 10 minutes.
  • Highlights: Dana Point Harbor for boating and whale watching, and Doheny State Beach for sun and surf.

Laguna Beach:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 15 minutes.
  • Highlights: Laguna Beach is known for its art scene, Main Beach, and the Pageant of the Masters event during the summer.

San Clemente:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 10 minutes.
  • Highlights: San Clemente features a charming pier, beautiful beaches, the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, and local shops and restaurants.

Mission Viejo:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 15 minutes.
  • Highlights: Mission Viejo offers Lake Mission Viejo for paddleboat rentals and lakeside dining, as well as The Shops at Mission Viejo for shopping and dining.

Newport Beach:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 25 minutes.
  • Highlights: Balboa Island, Newport Harbor, boat tours, surfing, and exploring the charming shops and restaurants along the Lido Marina Village.

Huntington Beach:

  • Drive Time from SJC: Approximately 25 minutes.
  • Highlights: Huntington Beach (also known as Surf City, USA!) is famous for its beaches, iconic pier, and laidback SoCal vibes. Stroll along the lively Main Street, visit the International Surfing Museum, and savor fresh seafood at waterfront eateries.

Where To Stay In San Juan Capistrano, California

For a true weekend getaway in style, here are my top picks for hotels near San Juan Capistrano:

Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano ($$$) – This upscale hotel offers a blend of modern elegance and Spanish-style architecture. Guests will love the enjoy beautiful courtyards, upscale dining, and easy access to the mission’s attractions, making it a true luxury retreat.

North Beach Villa ($$) in San Clemente – This charming and affordable boutique hotel is known for its friendly atmosphere and proximity to North Beach. Expect laid-back vibes, comfortable rooms, and the convenience of exploring the beautiful San Clemente coastline.

Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa ($$) in Laguna Beach – This Mediterranean-style boutique hotel is nestled in the artistic community of Laguna Beach. This hidden gem offers a stylish and tranquil escape with lush gardens, a spa, and elegant rooms. It’s a short walk from the beach and downtown Laguna Beach, too!


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