This past weekend, the five historic missions in San Antonio received official designation as a World Heritage Site. Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the culmination of a nine-year effort to secure the missions with this elite status, reported San Antonio news station KENS5. The missions join an impressive list of other U.S. World Heritage Sites, including Yosemite National Park, Monticello, Independence Hall, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Officials estimate that the new designation will invigorate tourism to the missions—to the tune of a hundred million dollars and tons of new jobs in the local tourism industry. Want to beat the rush? Here’s what you need to know about America’s newest World Heritage Site.
The San Antonio Missions
The World Heritage designation recognizes the historical nature of the missions, which were communities developed by the Spanish in the 1700s to defend against French expansion into Texas and convert indigenous people so that they might become Spanish citizens and help maintain control of Texas.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park consists of four visitor areas spaced about two miles apart from each other. The whole region is brimming with chances to learn about Spanish and Native American heritage. Each of the four churches (the first four entries in the following list) are also active parishes.
The missions are:
- Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña, or Mission Concepción. Dedicated in 1755, the church is the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Several of the rooms still boast original frescos.
- Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, or Mission San José. The largest of the missions (its nickname is the “Queen of the Missions”), the building was restored to its original design in the 1930s.
- Mission San Juan Capistrano, or Mission San Juan. Founded in 1716 in eastern Texas, the mission was transferred to San Antonio in 1731. The stone church, friary, and granary were completed in 1756. A self-sustaining community, residents San Juan produced iron tools, cloth, and prepared hides in addition to growing fruits and vegetables and raising livestock. Surpluses were used to establish a trade network that extended to Louisiana in the east and Mexico in the south.
- Mission San Francisco de la Espada, or Mission Espada. This was the first mission in Texas and was founded in 1690. Originally founded near present-day Weches, Texas, the mission relocated to San Antonio in the early 1700s and added a friary in 1745. The mission’s residents specialized in blacksmithing, weaving, masonry, and carpentry, trades which influenced San Antonio’s post-colonial transition.
- Mission San Antonio de Valero, or The Alamo. Founded in 1718, the mission’s era lasted until 1793, when the Spanish converted it into a military barracks and outpost. In the 1800s, the Alamo became a hotly contested military base and served as the site of the battle for which it is still well known today.
Each of the missions are connected to each other and the San Antonio River by the Mission Hike and Bike Trail, which weaves through old neighborhoods and farmland along eight miles of paved pathways (16 miles out and back). Water is available at each of the missions, but travelers should only expect to find food near Missions Concepción and San José.
Where to Stay
The city of San Antonio is almost as exciting to visit as the missions themselves. With 20 million visitors arriving each year, the city has developed plenty of exciting places to visit, such as museums, theme parks, nature hikes, and fine dining. Flights into the city are fairly inexpensive, and the city is also home to a wide variety of budget-friendly hotels. The Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk, Omni La Mansion del Rio, and Hyatt Regency Riverwalk are all great options.
Come for the history; stay for the vibrant contemporary city. The San Antonio Missions have been around for hundreds of years, and with their new designation as a World Heritage Site, it’s clear they’ll continue to make an impact for years to come.