San Juan Bautista is home to the largest surviving mission in California. The plaza here was the town square of what was the biggest town in central CA and it was a vital stopping point on the route from north to south. In 1797, the Spanish Franciscan priest Fermin de Lausen founded the mission to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism.
The controversial history of the region has been thoroughly researched and presented in the mission and museums in the adjacent state historic park. The town today is charming and full of history. The streets are lined with quaint antique shops and mom-and-pop restaurants that serve delicious fare. There are several beautiful boutique hotels and the spectacular views from nearby Fremont Peak will satisfy the most discriminating outdoor enthusiast. A must-see destination that’s an easy drive from the Bay Area.
The Mission at San Juan Bautista is just 92 miles from San Francisco, so it’s an easy day trip for visitors who don’t have the time or funds to escape the city for an entire weekend. You’ll follow US-101 S to CA-156 E in San Benito County. Follow the signs on 101-S to San Jose and exit 345 will take you where you need to be – merge onto CA-156 E toward San Juan Bautista/Hollister.
From there, it’s only a few minutes until you reach your final destination. We weren’t kidding when we said it’s an easy drive. You’ll continue on CA-156 E for about 2.5 miles. Make a left on Monterey St. and a quick right at the first cross street onto Muckelemi St. Less than half a mile later, you’ll hit Third Street, the core of the business district and a great place for a quick brunch before you view the mission.
The Hacienda de Leal is a top-rated choice by visitors to the area. This charming hotel stays true to the mission-style architecture of San Juan Bautista. The rooms are spacious, and the property is full of southwestern charm. Each room has a flat-screen TV, coffee machines, and super luxe bathrobes. Wine will be made available for your arrival upon request. Hacienda de Leal is centrally located, and they provide bikes for a leisurely jaunt around town.
The Motel 6 in Gilroy is a solid value choice for travelers who want to enjoy the area on a tighter budget. The rooms are surprisingly spacious and reliably clean with large private bathrooms. The property has a gorgeous sun terrace and an outdoor pool that guests enjoy year-round. The friendly, bi-lingual staff is at the front desk 24-7 to satisfy all your needs.
This Spanish-style hotel features large rooms awash with the colors of floral wallpaper and a lobby that brings the outdoors in, with plants and soothing tones. All rooms have a fireplace plus spa tubs, sitting areas, cable TV, and free Wi-Fi. Fuel up with their complimentary continental breakfast before heading out to the Mission San Juan Bautista, which is an easy three-minute walk away.
Vertigo Coffee Roasters has a prime location on Fourth Street. In contrast to the old-time feel of the town, Vertigo is sleek and modern with a chalkboard menu featuring an array of wood-fired pizzas (try the mushroom!) and panini. The outdoor patio is a perfect spot to enjoy your morning coffee, made from beans the owner roasts on the premises. Later in the day, choose from a diverse selection of local wine and microbrews. Open daily.
Mission Café, open daily for breakfast and lunch, is a local favorite for a filling breakfast. The retro diner, with its throwback 50s décor, serves up massive breakfast burritos with piquant salsa, an amazing corned beef hash, and fluffy homemade waffles that are to die for. With fast, friendly service and kickin’ tunes on the jukebox, this is a place the whole family will enjoy.
Matxain Etxea is a lovely Basque restaurant located just next to Mission San Juan Bautista. This family-friendly spot offers upscale touches like white linens and fresh flowers throughout. The Spanish guitar sets the mood and knowledgeable servers will guide you through a menu of authentic dishes. Try the gambas al ajillo (shrimp in a delicious garlicky sauce) or the hearty oxtail stew. Open Wednesday through Sunday with lunch on weekends.
Mission San Juan Bautista is California’s 15th Spanish-era mission and its largest. The interior rooms showcase the history of the region from the indigenous population to the Spanish cultural influences. The lovingly restored church still holds services. There’s a beautiful rose garden and breathtaking views from the cemetery – find a quiet nook to soak up the tranquility and reflect. The quiet beauty of Mission San Juan Bautista is astounding.
Fremont Peak State Park is just a few miles from San Juan Bautista proper. The road is intimidating, but it’s worth the drive. The observatory at the top, with its 30” telescope, is popular with astronomy buffs after dark. In daylight, the peak offers spectacular views of Monterey Bay, San Benito Valley, and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Fremont Peak State Park is surprisingly free from crowds and the easy-to-moderate hiking trails are suitable for most, though the final climb to the top is steep and presents more of a challenge.
San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is directly across from the mission itself. The centerpiece is the old Plaza Hotel. Inside, you’ll find informative exhibits that trace the history of the region. The mission was built by indigenous Native Americans, who were then thrown out. The story is complex, sometimes tragic, and one worth understanding. Next door is the Castro-Breen house which was owned at one point by the surviving members of the infamous Donner Party. There is also a blacksmith shop, a jail, and old stables filled with lovingly restored wagons and carriages.
Historic Third Street is an easy walk from the mission. The charming thoroughfare is lined with antique shops, lively bars, and amazing little restaurants. Pop into Margot’s for a sweet ice cream treat and then check out The Guatemalan Boutique for incredible textiles hand-picked by the owner. There are lively events throughout the year, including the Christmas Parade which draws visitors from near and far. It’s a great place to shop and people watch – you might even catch site of a chicken or two roaming the street!
Twilight Cellars’ motto is “home to food-friendly wines… by design!” Their carefully curated selection of nine boutique wines are perfectly crafted to complement every meal. The winery produces under 2,000 cases per year and they focus on making wine for the way people live. Grab a bottle of their Gravity Syrah, finished in oak barrels for 31 months, to pair with steak or perhaps a 2005 Mundo Viejo Port, a Portuguese-style port wine made from late-harvest dolcetto grapes and perfect with a square of bitter dark chocolate. A true gem in the region.