As San Antonio’s official city website will prove, there’s plenty to do in our fabulous city – from a rich and active music scene to dozens of family fun options and everything in between. Today we’re going to focus on just one of our favorites: San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (MNHP). The buildings in this riverfront park, run by the National Park Service, date back to the 1700s.
A visit to MNHP is a lesson in local history, in mission life during the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the unique architecture of that period. Here are just some of the things you’ll see and experience at this one-of-a-kind site:
4 Spanish missions: Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. Missions were walled compounds built by the Spanish in the style reminiscent of their homeland where priests and local Native Americans lived and worked.. They were like small towns and as such included areas for growing crops and raising animals, churches, blacksmith and other craft workshops, and homes. While these particular missions haven’t been actively in use since the 1800s, they’ve been preserved so visitors can better understand the life of a mission resident.
The buildings provide a living example of the graceful yet masculine architecture of the Spanish during that period, a style that featured arches, stone façade carvings, detailed frescoes and bell towers.
The church that’s part of Mission Concepción is the most well-preserved, with remnants of its original paintings still seen on the walls and ceilings.
San José Mission’s granary (where grains were stored) and gristmill, (where grains were ground into flour) have been restored and demonstrate one of the methods needed to ensure each mission’s self-sufficiency.
At Mission San Juan, a chapel and campanile, or bell tower, are still in use, though its original chapel, built out of brush and mud, is long gone.
The acequía, an early irrigation system, at Mission Espada is still in partial operation. Originally the Spanish constructed 7 acequias, five dams and an aqueduct, a system that extended 15 miles.
Mission San José has a large visitor center where you can watch a film (shown every 30 minutes) and explore exhibits related to the missions, so visit this one first for good insight on the others. Free guided tours provide a good overview of the architecture, uses, history and interesting information about what it was like to live in the missions, so be sure to take advantage of those.
The Mission State Park is located just south of downtown San Antonio. It’s an easy drive from the city, but it can also be reached on foot or by bike using the Mission Hike & Bike Trail. This trail takes you along the San Antonio River and is considered an easy enough walk, even for kids.
A visit to Mission State Park is free, though donations are accepted to help with ongoing restoration and upkeep of the park. All four mission churches still have active Catholic parishes that hold regular services; check their schedules if you’d like to attend one.