The San Antonio Missions: UNESCO World Heritage Sites
While the Alamo is the most well-known of the five San Antonio missions, the other historic structures also have interesting stories to tell. Starting in the 1700s, the Spanish sought to spread Christianity in the region, which was then a part of Mexico. The Native Americans were facing struggles of their own, including conflicts with other tribes, drought and famine. While the Spanish were eager to find new converts, most of the Native Americans were primarily interested in simply staying alive. Over time, the intermingling of their cultures served as one of the building blocks of modern Texas. In 2015, all of the missions were designated as historically significant UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Alamo: Site of the Famous Battle
Long before the historic battle, the Alamo was known as San Antonio de Valero. Originally built in 1744, the mission served as headquarters for Spanish efforts to convert the tribes in the area to Catholicism. Beyond the religious goals, the Spanish missionaries hoped to turn Native Americans into productive members of Spanish society. They taught them blacksmithing, farming, masonry and carpentry.
The structure didn’t come to be known as the Alamo until it was taken over by a group of Mexican soldiers known as “The Alamo Company” — they were from the town of Alamo de Parras.
The battle at the Alamo in 1836 cemented its place in Texas history. The Texians lost that battle to the much larger Mexican army led by General Santa Anna, but the battle cry “Remember the Alamo” helped push the rebels to victory.
How to Visit
Admission is free, but the guided tour (using a radio headset) will give you a much better sense of the history of the building and the artifacts on display. Located in the heart of downtown San Antonio, the site gets very busy by afternoon. Try to arrive as early as possible. Unlike the other missions, the Alamo is not part of the National Parks Service. It is currently controlled by the Texas General Land Office and run day-to-day by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
Mission Concepcion: Colorful Frescoes Inside
Established in 1755, Mission Concepcion was the flashiest of all the missions in its early years. It was covered in colorful frescoes and geometric designs. While the exterior paintings have all faded beyond recognition, some of the interior frescoes offer a glimpse of the church’s original glory. The oldest church in the United States that has never been extensively renovated, Mission Concepcion owes much of its longevity to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock, and the walls are more than 40 inches thick.
How to Visit
Admission and tours are free. For families, the nearby Concepcion Park is a nice place to have a picnic or let the little ones blow off some steam at the playground.
Mission San Jose: Queen of the Missions
The biggest of all the San Antonio missions, Mission San Jose is sometimes referred to as the “queen of the missions.” Built in 1720, the mission had evolved into a major social center by the 1780s. It was home to up to 350 Native Americans, who worked in the surrounding fields and tended livestock. The size of the operation attracted the attention of Apache and Comanche tribes, who would periodically steal some of the livestock. However, the mission itself was built with high, thick walls that helped ward off most invaders. In addition to its sturdiness, the mission has gorgeously ornate detail work, such as the Rose Window near the south wall. The building was extensively remodeled in the 1930s to restore its original design.
How to Visit
Rangers lead free tours seven days a week at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. No admission fee is charged. Mission San Jose also serves as the visitor’s center for all four missions that are part of the National Park Service. You can pick up brochures here and get more information about the other missions. You can also view a 30-minute film, Gente de Razon, which presents an overview of day-to-day life in the missions in the 1700s. For those who don’t mind a little walking, you can also access the Mission Reach portion of the San Antonio River Walk from Mission San Jose. The eight-mile trail weaves through nature trails and picnic areas, and offers easy access to three other missions.
Mission San Juan: Booming Agricultural Operation
Completed in 1756, Mission San Juan originally served as an agricultural hub for the area. In the fields around the mission, Native Americans grew grapes, melons, peppers and sweet potatoes. Some of the fields even had irrigation systems. By the 1760s, more than 200 Native Americans were living at the site, helping to make the operation virtually self-sufficient. This flourishing agricultural enterprise helped the mission survive through several lean years and major small pox epidemics. A portion of the irrigation system has been restored so that modern visitors can see how this early innovation worked.
How to Visit
There is no charge for admission. In addition to viewing the mission, you can take a stroll on the Yanaguana Trail, which leads to the San Antonio River. The area has been allowed to return to its original state, so it’s full of birds as well as native plants and trees.
Mission Espada: Distinctive Three-Bell Tower
Constructed in 1756, Mission Espada played a key role in teaching the Native Americans trades such as blacksmithing, weaving and carpentry. Eventually, the mission also produced its own bricks and tiles. In the nearby fields, Native Americans tended crops such as corn, peaches, beans and melons. The mission has a well-preserved portion of the original acequia irrigation system, including an aqueduct and a small dam. The acequia is the oldest irrigation system in the country that has been in continuous use. Mission Espada has a distinctive appearance due to the three-bell tower above the main entrance. Before entering, make sure you take a moment to appreciate the ornate stonework on the arch above the front door.
How to Visit
Admission and guided tours are always free.