By: Debbie Olsen | From: O Canada

In late May, wildflowers bloom in the grassy fields that surround Mission Concepcion outside San Antonio, Texas. I wandered along the mission’s walking paths on a warm spring afternoon enjoying the flowers and appreciating the 300-year-old Moorish-influenced architecture — including a remarkably beautiful old church. Nearly all of the structures are original at the site and it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in the early 1700s when the mission was established.

San Antonio is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and a tech hub for the state of Texas, but the modern-day city is rooted in the past. Franciscan friars established six missions along the San Antonio River in the 1700s and five of them flourished and evolved into independent communities that ultimately became the foundation of the modern-day city of San Antonio. Today the five missions and a historic ranch property are part of the San Antonio UNESCO World Heritage Site, a site that can be explored in a day or two.


Many visitors to San Antonio visit the Alamo, the most legendary of the original missions, but most miss the opportunity to visit the other four missions that make up the world heritage site. These missions have remarkable architecture, but their greatest achievement is not found in the buildings that were left behind. The unique interlacing of cultures that you find in south Texas can be traced back to the original missions and exploring them can be a fascinating look at the culture of San Antonio past and present.

My husband and I took a day-and-a-half exploring the five missions by vehicle and on foot. The five missions are spread out along the San Antonio River and connected by the Mission Reach Trail making them easy to also explore by bicycle.


“I personally feel that seeing the missions by bicycle gives you a real feel for what the missions were like years ago,” said Theresa Scheets, a guide with Mission Adventure Tours, a company that offers both walking and cycling tours of the missions. “It’s easy to get around on an e-bike and you get beautiful river views, see wildflowers, egrets and other birds.”


Whether you get to these historic missions by bike or by car, visiting them is a fascinating look at Spanish colonialism and American history.

The real builders were Indigenous Peoples


Indigenous Peoples inhabited the region that is now south Texas for thousands of years before Spanish friars came to the area with the goal of establishing a colonial frontier. There were several different Indigenous groups speaking different languages, but they are collectively referred to as Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tay-kans). Within 10 years of European arrival, about 70 per cent of the Indigenous people in this region died of diseases brought to the area by Europeans. Most of the rest became willing and sometimes forced workers at the missions. They were offered food and shelter at the missions in exchange for labour and submitting to religious conversion. The master craftsmen for the missions were Mestizos, persons of mixed race who were part Spanish and part Indigenous. They combined European and Mesoamerican building traditions that can still be seen today. Spaniards brought the first cattle to Texas and the first ranches were tended by Native American mission residents.

The Alamo


The Alamo was established in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero and was ultimately abandoned until it became a Spanish military fortress in 1803 and was renamed the Alamo. The structure became legendary as the site of a 13-day siege in 1836 during the Texas revolution. The Battle of the Alamo was a failure for Texas freedom fighters, but it became a symbol of their resistance to oppression and their struggle for independence. “Remember the Alamo” became a battle cry for the fight for Texas independence from Mexico during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.


Did you know Phil Collins is an honorary Texan?


British rock star Phil Collins amassed the world’s largest private collection of Alamo artifacts and donated the collection to the Texas General Land Office. A portion of his collection is currently on display at the Alamo. A 24,000-square-foot venue for the collection will open in 2024 with an even bigger museum planned for 2026. In recognition of his gift, the state Legislature named Collins an “Honorary Texan” in March 2015.

Mission San Jose


Mission San Jose is the largest of the missions and the one that has been the most restored. There are elaborate stone carvings in the complex and the interior walls of the structure are lined with the dwellings of Indigenous families — small interconnected rooms. This mission contains a lot of information about Indigenous Peoples in exhibits and a short documentary film.

Mission Concepcion


A large white dome over a simple chapel is the most visually striking feature of this mission, which was completed in 1755. Inside there’s an altar and a painting of Christ as well as some intact frescoes that use both Christian and Indigenous symbolism. There’s a wide courtyard area outside the chapel.


Mission Espada


Mission Espada was founded in 1690 near the town of Weches, Texas and moved to its current location in 1731. It is the southernmost mission in San Antonio and the site of a remarkable gravity-powered irrigation system that has been in operation since 1745 and is still used to irrigate crops. Bricks and tiles were also made at this mission.


Mission San Juan Capistrano


Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1731 and is the most rural of the remaining missions. There’s a bell tower with two bells over the humble chapel. Construction began on a larger chapel, but it was never completed. This mission did not prosper as much as the other missions and it was secularized in 1794 and went through a period of neglect before the Franciscans returned in 1967.