Top Ways to Enjoy a San Juan Capistrano Day Trip

A San Juan Capistrano day trip is an ideal Southern California family outing or road trip stop. 

We found this out ourselves on one of our visits to see family in LA. As it turned out, my mother-in-law was as restless to check out somewhere new as I was. We packed up the kids and headed south to Orange County, and stopped at San Juan Capistrano on a whim. And am I ever glad we did! 

On a sunny day, and there are many, this small town has an idyllic feel and is perfect for wandering. As we took in the beauty and the history of San Juan Capistrano, we all agreed that we’d love to come back to linger a while longer. 

Whether you’re looking to visit for a few hours, a day, or a weekend, read on for the best things to see and experience in this gorgeous town that proves that there’s more to Orange County than the beach. Though you’re only a 10-minute drive away if you want to tack that on to your visit too!

Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.

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Map of Things to Do on a San Juan Capistrano Day Trip

This map was created with Wanderlog, the best trip planner app on iOS and Android

Start your San Juan Capistrano Day Trip with Brunch

Start your day in San Juan Capistrano with a splurge-worthy brunch. Any of the following unique restaurants should set a fun tone for your visit so you can head to your next stop in a good mood and with a full belly.

BBQ Smoker
Image Credit: golubovy from Getty Images via Canva

Heritage BBQ

When you arrive at Heritage BBQ, you can expect to see two massive smokers with a line of hungry patrons right behind them. This restaurant is bringing Texas BBQ culture to California, and lines and limited quantities are a part of the experience. The restaurant opens at 11 am. Aim to arrive by 10:30 (maybe 10 am on a weekend) to avoid the worst waits.

Ordering meat here is like ordering at the deli. Your request is weighed in front of you so you can see the amount of meat on the scale. If you want a bit extra, just let them know! The star is their exceptionally tender brisket, but the pulled pork is a crowd pleaser too. And the ribs. And the plump custom-made sausages. Also don’t forget to throw in sides like True Texas Queso and their potato salad of the day. You know what? Just order everything.

Once you’ve ordered, grab a seat on one of the large patios. Relax, have a beer, and settle into the San Juan Capistrano vibe. 

Tip: Worried about waiting in line with restless kids? Try to tag team. One person can stand in line while the other brings the kids to play at Los Rios Park, only a 5-minute walk away, until it’s time to sit down.

Ellie’s table

A dine-in offshoot of Jay’s Catering, Ellie’s Table at The Egan House only serves breakfast and lunch. The company matriarch’s slogan was “Happiness is Homemade,” and the restaurant aims to follow suit by making everything fresh and from scratch every day. Though the brunch menu is wide-ranging, locally famous items come from the bakery. 

This is a casual place where you order at the counter. Don’t be surprised by lines on the weekends. If you can’t get there before 10 am to beat the rush, consider ordering ahead for takeout. You can enjoy your breakfast at Historic Town Center Park, just a quick walk away.

Tea House on Los Rios

Frilly and flowery, the Tea House on Los Rios offers an extensive brunch menu set in a restored cottage that’s over 100 years old. The beautiful setting with garden seating compliments the high tea concept. Dining here is designed for an experience, whether you choose scones and finger sandwiches or a full weekend brunch. 

Know that while the regular Tea Menu includes options for “young royals” under 10, there is not a separate children’s menu during Brunch.

Ramos House

This one may not be for most families, as every two-course meal is $45 per person, regardless of age. But I had to include it in this section, as it’s arguably San Juan Capistrano’s best brunch spot. 

The Ramos House Cafe is located in the heart of the Los Rios Historic District. The home itself was built in 1881 and was the longtime residence of the Ramos Family. John Q. Humphreys transformed the historic home into a cafe and home in 1995. Though now under new owners, a table on the front porch is still dedicated to him.

The tradition of the Ramos House Cafe is to keep everything fresh. The herbs are grown on-site in the garden, and the menu changes pretty much every day. Brunch is all that’s served here on the weekends, and it’s a San Juan Capistrano favorite.

Top Sights to See Downtown on Your San Juan Capistrano Day Trip

San Juan Capistrano’s can’t-miss sites are located within easy walking distance of each other downtown.

Explore Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano on our day trip.
Bougainvillea, fountains, and bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Though people had been living on this land for 10,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish, most of the history of the area as we know it today follows the story of the Mission. Many consider Mission San Juan Capistrano to be the birthplace of Orange County. Founded by Junipero Serra in 1776, it is the 7th of 21 California missions. 

Though the chapel still offers mass, today the Mission is also known as a historic landmark and a museum. They aim to represent California’s Native American, Spanish, and Mexican heritage accordingly. Visitors can explore the gardens, see where soldiers lived, pray in Junipero Serra’s chapel, and learn about Acjachemen basket weaving. 

If I’m being honest, I find visiting California missions somewhat disorienting. I was raised Catholic and find beauty in the Spanish colonial architecture and abundant gardens. I love the smell of candles burning in the chapel. But the tragic history that happened on this land can’t be ignored. I try to share the dualities of this experience with the kids, especially as it follows the undercurrents of California’s history.

With that in mind, our visit involved John running around snapping photos, while I tried to slow the kids down, audio guide and Scavenger Hunt in hand. At the end of the day, we all agreed the experience was memorable and worthwhile.

J looking for the next item on the Mission San Juan Capistrano Scavenger Hunt.
J looking for the next item on the Mission San Juan Capistrano Scavenger Hunt

The Events Calendar shares more ways to experience the Mission. From Music Under the Stars in the summer to the popular holiday Capistrano Lights, there are many ways to visit this historic site.

All visits require General Admission tickets. Buy yours in advance or onsite. 

Wander the Los Rios Historic District

Entering the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano

The Los Rios Historic District is across the railroad tracks from Mission San Juan Capistrano. Known to be the oldest neighborhood in California, the forty homes that remain include three of the original adobe structures: the Rios, the Silvas, and the Montañez, which is now a museum.

As with so much of modern San Juan Capistrano, the neighborhood’s history is tied to the Mission. The people who lived here originally in the 1700s and 1800s built the Mission and worked the land. Other homes were built by immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Though it once stretched to Dana Point Harbor, today the main thoroughfare in the Los Rios District is a little less than a mile long. In addition to a few residences, the area is home to many restaurants and shops popular with tourists.

Businesses like Hummingbird Cottage and Lemon Drop Grove offer visitors a unique place to pick up a souvenir. The O’Neill Museum offers opportunities to learn about the area’s history. And Zoomars Petting Zoo offers fun experiences for restless kiddos not yet able to appreciate the history lesson.If you’re traveling with kids, make time for a stop at Los Rios Park. Carefully designed to fit in with the neighborhood’s historic character, the park has plenty of trees, fun play structures, and shaded picnic tables.

Visit the home of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society

The O’Neill Museum, once the home of an ill-fated saloon keeper in the late 1800s and later a cigar-smoking ghost, is now home to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, which keeps the town’s many stories vibrant and alive. 

The house is small and browsing its few rooms won’t take up too much of your time. For more background on the neighborhood’s colorful history, join ]the Historical Society tours. They leave from the train depot every Saturday at 1 pm. 

For a unique souvenir, purchase one of the Society’s Historic Town Photographs

Take A Tour Downtown

Sunset and a historic clock in downtown San Juan Capistrano
Image credit: Matt Gush from Getty Images via Canva

San Juan Capistrano’s walkable downtown is also well worth a wander. Interested in more than window shopping? Book a tour of the Mission, Downtown, and Los Rios District all together (Mission tickets purchased separately). 

The walking tour includes Mission history, secrets of the historic downtown, and tips for where to stop in the Los Rios District. You’ll learn more about the town’s famous Swallows and lesser-known tales about Zorro, pirates, ghosts, and even President Nixon. 

Spend Your Day Experiencing San Juan Capistrano’s Country Side

Head further afield for family-friendly fun and get to know the town’s rural roots.

Baby Goats
Image Credit: flySnow from Getty Images via Canva

Ride a Tractor and Pet Some Guinea Pigs at Zoomars

Sometimes you need to take a history break, especially when traveling with kids. Located at the edge of the Los Rios District, Zoomars allows kids to pet and feed their resident guinea pigs, goats, and sheep. 

If your little one loves, “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Sight,” they are sure to get a kick out of the park’s Mini Excavators and ride-on tractors too! 

More attractions include pony and train rides and opportunities to mine for treasure. The onsite western-themed playground is perfect for getting wiggles out before the next stop. 

Stretch and Cuddle with Goats

Goods and Goats Market is a short drive north of downtown. Originally built so the owners’ grandchildren could experience the joys of ranching and farming, this place is magic for kids and fun folks who crave unique experiences like baby goat yoga. 

Kids are welcome to cuddle and play with the resident goats, bunnies, and guinea pigs during Playtime, which also includes a storytime session. During Playtime, they can dig for worms and feed them to the chickens. And make birdhouse crafts. And play with the zipline, rock play zone, and Nerf Guns. Because, why not? 

Grown-ups can book a session of baby goat yoga for themselves too. This place is sure to bring out the kid in all of us. 

Whenever there’s a program going on, the Soap-Farm Shop is also open to the public. Take home some organic, all-natural goat milk soap to complete your experience. 

Explore a Farmers Market at Farmakis Farms

As you can surely see by now, San Juan Capistrano’s experiences prioritize its California history and rural roots. 

Located just two miles north of downtown and right off the I-5, Farmakis Farms runs a certified farmers market, craft markets, opportunities for visitors to experience farm life, and a fun Christmas tree farm during the holiday season. Their amazing 3,000 sq foot barn frames visitor experiences here.

If your San Juan Capistrano day trip falls on a Friday, make sure to stop by the weekly market for locally-made baked goods, small-batch foods, and high-quality produce. Come meet and support the small business owners and farmers that make this community special, and bring home a unique souvenir and some delicious memories. 

Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park

We are always looking for a new place to explore the outdoors, and San Juan Capistrano offers families more than just sightseeing and shopping downtown. If you need a nature break, drive a half-hour east and wind your way into the Santa Ana Mountains. 

One of the favorite regional parks here is Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. An 8,000-acre protected reserve, it’s the largest park in the OC Parks system. Besides the gorgeous California oaks and sycamore trees, you can find peaceful running streams and seasonal wildflower blooms here. 

For a family-friendly walk, head to the Nature Trail near the Old Corral Picnic Area. A loop trail that’s only 0.85 miles long, you’ll wander through Cathedral Grove with its lovely shaded tree canopy. This area is also home to a historic windmill that has become a beloved park landmark. 

Time Your San Juan Capistrano Day Trip with one of the Town’s Seasonal Events 

Time your visit to align with San Juan Capistrano’s favorite annual events.

Swallows flying at sunset
Image credit: Gelpi from Getty Images via Canva

The Swallows Day Parade

Every year for centuries, Cliff Swallows have returned to San Juan Capistrano near the middle of March. The Mission notes that the return aligns with St. Joseph’s Day on the church calendar, March 19.

Near the start of spring, thousands of orange-tailed swallows fly home to reclaim their mud nests in the arches and walls of the Mission. Fledglings are raised in the valleys below. 

The Mission originally made an ideal spot for cliff swallows to nest, given its height. It also enjoyed a location near rivers and open fields where the birds’ fed on the area’s many insects and found the mud they used for nest-building.

In recent years, the swallows have started to nest further from town as humans take over their wetlands and riverbeds. Though visitors are not as likely to see the clouds of swallows descending on the Mission as they once did, the annual swallow migration is still a huge event here. 

These birds are among the town’s most famous citizens. They are protected and celebrated here. And coming to San Juan Capistrano in late March is a pretty big deal. 

The Fiesta Association hosts an annual Swallows Day Parade each year. But the Association doesn’t just host one big parade in March, they have a whole series of events leading up to it, including the Taste of San Juan and the Kids Pet Parade. 

So if you are wondering when to visit and don’t mind crowds, show up during the Swallows Day festivities and see what the excitement is all about.

San Juan Summer Nights

On select summer nights, locals and visitors alike come together for the San Juan Summer Nights festivities in Historic Town Center Park.

Each night features a family-friendly (and free) concert, food booths, and a kids’ activity area. Bring blankets and chairs, support local businesses, and enjoy one of the town’s favorite annual events. 

Capistrano Lights

If your San Juan Capistrano day trip involves getting a Christmas Tree at Farmakis Farms, consider staying to celebrate the holidays at the Mission’s annual Capistrano Lights event. On select days throughout December, visitors are invited to stay after hours for an evening of holiday fun.

Photo ops abound, including a 10-foot wreath that’s sure to be featured in many family holiday cards. There’s also Christmas music, a 30-foot tree, a large-scale candle-lit nativity, and – of course – lots of lights. Carolers, kids’ crafts, sweet treats, and surprise performances round out the experience. 

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San Juan Capistrano FAQs

Located in Orange County, San Juan Capistrano enjoys beautiful weather and is pleasant to visit year-round. 

One of the most popular times to visit is in late March when the famous Swallows return as part of their annual migration. The town has many events to commemorate this season, highlighted by the annual Swallows Day Parade.

Located just before I-5 reaches the coast, San Juan Capistrano is about an hour from both Los Angeles and San Diego depending on traffic.

For those that want to take a break from driving, the train station is located in the heart of downtown. A train ride can be an adventure in itself, and you’ll still be able to easily experience the most popular things to do in San Juan Capistrano. 

Metrolink trains connect to towns in Ventura, LA County, San Bernardino County, Orange County, and some of San Diego County. The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner that stretches along the coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo stops here too.

Depending on traffic levels, Google and Apple Maps may route you onto SR73 unless your preferences say not to take toll roads. This toll route was developed to avoid traffic on the 405, one of the most congested freeways in the country.

Unlike California’s increasingly common pay lanes, this one can come as a bit of a surprise. And once you’re on it, getting off isn’t as easy as changing a lane. 

Toll costs vary, but have a max of $9 one way. If you don’t have a FasTrack, pay online at within five days before or after your drive. A bill with added penalties will be mailed to you if you miss the window (as we found this out the hard way!).

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