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Plan on spending at least an hour poking around the sprawling mission’s tiled roofs, covered arches, lush gardens, fountains and courtyards – including the padre’s quarters, soldiers’ barracks and the cemetery. Admission includes a worthwhile free audio tour with interesting stories narrated by locals. The mission is at the corner of Ortega Hwy and Camino Capistrano.
Particularly moving are the towering remains of the Great Stone Church, almost completely destroyed by a powerful earthquake on December 8, 1812. The Serra Chapel – whitewashed outside with restored frescoes inside – is believed to be the oldest existing building in California (1782). It’s certainly the only one still standing in which Junípero Serra (the founder of the mission) gave Mass. Serra founded the mission on November 1, 1776, and tended it personally for many years.
There's a special audio tour for the elementary-school set, called Saved by the Mission Bell, included in children's admission.