Mission Dolores

Church in The Mission, Dogpatch & Potrero Hill

Image by Valerie Stimac Lonely Planet

The city's oldest building and its namesake, whitewashed adobe Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776 and rebuilt from 1782 with conscripted Ohlone and Miwok labor – a graveyard memorial hut commemorates 5000 Ohlone and Miwok laborers who died in mission measles epidemics in the early 19th century. Today the modest adobe structure is overshadowed by the ornate adjoining 1913 basilica, featuring stained-glass windows depicting California's 21 missions.

The building's nickname, Mission Dolores (Mission of the Sorrows), was taken from a nearby lake – but it turned out to be tragically apt for native conscripts who were exposed to harsh living conditions and who had little resistance to introduced diseases. Their work survives them in the original adobe mission. The ceiling is patterned after native baskets, and recent restorations have revealed a hidden Ohlone mural behind the altar showing a sacred heart pierced by a sword and dripping with blood.

Surrounding the Ohlone memorial in the mission graveyard are graves dating from the gold rush. Alongside mission founders are buried Don Luis Antonio Arguello, the first governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, and Don Francisco de Haro, the first mayor of San Francisco. Hitchcock fans looking for the grave of Carlotta Valdes will be disappointed: the tomb was only a prop for the film Vertigo.

Next door to the mission is the grand Churrigueresque basilica, built after the 1876 brick Gothic cathedral collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. The front doors are usually only open during services, so you'll need to pass through the original adobe structure and cross a courtyard to enter the basilica's side door.

Your eyes may take a moment to adjust once you're inside, because most of the light is filtered through the basilica's splendid stained-glass windows. The choir windows show St Francis beaming beatifically against an orange background. Lower windows along the nave feature 21 California missions from Sonoma to San Diego, plus mission builders Father Junípero Serra and Father Francisco Palou. True to Mission Dolores' name, seven panels depict the Seven Sorrows of Mary: one above the main door and three on each of the side balconies.