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Learn about San Juan Capistrano, California, by reading Why Do the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano? by Sandy Zimmerman, Travel Writer and WTA Member. It features a mini, but thorough tour of the destination, plus all you'll need to know to plan your trip including getting there, objective information on places to stay and eat, and things to do. At the end of the article, we've provided a summary of the contact information for your easy reference. Enjoy

“Why Do the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano?”

By Sandy Zimmerman, Travel Writer

Spanish-influence architecture

The swallows have been visiting San Juan Capistrano, California every year since people first noticed them in the 1800s. Whether it was the cities’ perfect climate, friendly people, or picturesque historic downtown, the swallows have the right idea. You too will be enchanted by San Juan Capistrano. February brings the “Taste of San Juan,” a kick-off celebration before the swallows arrive. The first Saturday after March 19th, Capistrano welcomes the swallows with the“Swallows Festival” (“Fiesta de las Golondrinas”), the largest non-motorized parade in the U. S., and “Swallows Week” celebrations- the Hairiest Man Contest, Pets on Parade, Hoosegow Day, a rodeo, and other events. These small birds build their nests with mud from the creeks and can be seen around the city.

Historic Buildings

The Los Rios historic district is the oldest residential street in the U.S., its 31 historic buildings are still standing from 1776 through the Spanish, Mexican, and statehood eras.

“Jewel of the Missions”-While walking through the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, you will be amazed that most of the restored buildings look as they did in 1776. Its famous Serra Chapel is one of the oldest buildings still in use in California. Named after the mission’s founder, Father Junipero Serra, the chapel contains candlesticks, torches, statues, and pictures from the early days of the mission. The golden alter, originally brought from Barcelona, Spain over 310 years ago, is made from cherry wood covered with gold leaf. In 1915, Mary Pickford was married here. Built in a Roman Greco style, the Great Stone Church was named the “American Acropolis.” It was ransacked by pirates in a surprise attack by Hippolyte Bouchard and his crew, later partially destroyed by the earthquake of 1812. Recently a $20 million renovation project restored the mission and reinforced the remaining walls of the Great Stone Church. Stop at the soldier’s adobe barracks, the gardens, courtyard, music room, and the historic bells. Each room exhibit is an authentic representation of life throughout the Spanish and Mexican eras- the padre’s room, kitchen, guest room, and work rooms. There is also a Native American shelter of the Juaneno Indians. These huts “Kiitca” were made of saplings then covered with tule grass. Every year crowds gather in the mission’s courtyard garden watching for the Swallows. The bell ringer finally yells, “The Swallows are here,” and rings the bells. Walking tours are available.

Serra Chapel Entrance

Avila Adobe Juan Avila, a beneficiary of the Mexican policy of land grants, built a ten room home (1840s). Called “El Rico,” the rich one, Avila’s land holdings included most of what is now Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills. Due to a fire (1879), the adobe was partially rebuilt to only a third of its original size.

Blas Aguilar Adobe - Built as part of a larger dwelling called Hacienda Aguilar (1794), it was composed of two adobes with a courtyard in between. The north wing is called Casa de Esperanza, and south wing Casa Tejada, which is no longer there. This adobe is associated with Don Blas Aguilar, the last Alcalde (regional governor) of the Mexican/ ranchero era.

Capistrano Depot - The red brick, domed railroad station was built by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (1894). It is the oldest Spanish colonial Revival style railroad station in Southern California. At the time of its completion, the Depot was called “the finest depot on the Santa Fe system.” Converted to a restaurant (1975), it is still an Amtrak stop.

Combs House - The Combs House has been a residence, general store, and post office (1878).

Egan House - Richard Egan started out as a farmer, and then was named a judge while he was out on a cattle drive. Egan became known as “King of Capistrano.” His home, Harmony Hall (1883), was the center of socials entertaining many famous visitors. He constructed underground tunnels to the courthouse- at that time it was housed in the El Adobe building.

Eyraud/ Chabre House - Spanish revival style home (1920s).

Ferris Kelly Building - Three buildings (1930) that are the cities oldest commercial structures. All three buildings have distinct facades, two mission revival style buildings front Ortega highway, and the brown brick building on Camino Capistrano is art deco style. Fiestas and bullfights were held there during the Spanish and rancho eras. Now the building is used for stores.

Frank Foster residence - Built by Frank Forster (1910), grandson of John and Ysidora Forster who owned and resided in the Mission (1845-1864). Two story mission revival style residence, listed in early guidebooks as the fist stucco house in Orange county.

Garcia Adobe - Only two story adobe in San Juan Capistrano (1840’s). Its exterior walls are over 3 feet thick. Monterey-style balcony with lacey wood accents. Built by Portuguese merchant Manuel Garcia, this was the first post office (1870), and later a hotel (1880-1903). The Garcia Adobe is located two blocks south of the mission, and just a few doors from the town's most famous restaurant, El Adobe Restaurant.

Historic Town Center - This is an archaeological park site, part of a plan to enhance the cities’ downtown.

“Little Hollywood” - The homes (1870s) of some of the residents who spent 70 years or more in the same home.

Montanez Adobe - One of 40 original mission adobes (1794).

New Parish Church - Copy of original stone church destroyed by an earthquake (1812), 30% larger than the original. You can still see the ruins of the original church within the Mission walls. When the church bell tower‘s bells ring, they can be head around town. This is the tallest building in San Juan Capistrano.

O’Neil Museum - Tour one of the town’s first homes (1870), with authentic room exhibits, and memorabilia. It also houses the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society office.

Rios Adobe - Originally built in (1794) for Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier who served with the Mission garrison. The oldest residence in California continuously occupied by the same family, this was build when the road between San Diego and Santa Barbara was a footpath. Now it is still a private residence.

San Juan Capistrano Regional Library - The first postmodern building the library was designed by architect Michael Graves (1983). There is a unique blend of architectural styles.

Silvas Adobe - It’s wide adobe brick walls were formed with mud and straw (1794).

Stone Field - Gets its name from the stone walls (1936-39) that surround it. A mission period brick-lined aqueduct (zanja) traverses stone field between Trabuco Creek and the mission grounds.

Stroschein House - Yellow clapboard home (1927), 650 square foot vernacular gabled house. They raised walnuts, oranges and avocados on the grounds.

Twin-Winton Mural Mercado Village - Inside the Twin-Winton ceramics building, this was one of San Juan Capistrano’s early non-agricultural light industries, employing local residents and producing ceramic tiles and pottery.

Yorba Adobes El Adobe Restaurant (1830) - The Domingo Yorba adobe has been owned by the Oyharzabal family since 1880, now residence for the family.

Mission wall and arches

Walking Tours

Don’t miss these two completely different tours. Beyond the excitement of simply walking through this historical district, you can enter the stores, offices, and restaurants as they are open for business.

Architectural Walking Tour (Friends of the Library) makes the past come alive. Each building has a story. The Montanez adobe was built without windows because glass was expensive in the 18th century. Since soldiers and Native Americans worked from dusk to dawn they didn’t need windows. The Yorba adobe (1830) was once used as a stagecoach depot, later a courthouse, and now a Mexican restaurant. Judge Richard Egan built Harmony Hall (1868) with underground tunnels to the courthouse. Their San Juan Capistrano Regional Library has the “look” of early California with beamed ceilings, massive looking walls, earth toned colors, and an impressive long paneled entrance.

Historical Walking Tour explains Capistrano’s history, ghost stories, and folklore, “If you are around Trabuco Creek on a dark and stormy night, you may see the “Crying One‘s” ghost weeping as she searches for her lost child.” Hear the story of 19 year old Modesta Aguilar, arrested for spreading her laundry on the railroad tracks, the first felony conviction in Orange County.

Places To Eat

Enjoy the Fish Market & Grill’s flavor and charm of the Florida’s Keys. They offer a wide variety of fish with unique seafood combinations and fish sandwiches.

Places To Eat with Entertainment

Cedar Creek Inn Restaurant has weekend entertainment, across from the Mission.

With beautiful murals, high wood beamed ceilings, indoor or romantic outdoor patio dining, Ciao Pasta Trattoria sets the scene for the foods of Southern Italy. Owner/ Chef Pasquale Manta’s 86 year old Italian Grandmother Josephine makes the cookies! Sunday lunch, jazz band, 1-4 pm, lunch begins 11 am, No cover, no minimum.

Coach House Known for booking top international concerts, bands and acts. You never know whom you will see at this popular spot.

One of former President Richard Nixon’s favorites, the historic El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant (building-1778) offers weekly entertainment. One man Mariachi band Friday, Saturday, 6-9 pm. Sunday brunch, Mariachi trio, 11 am-3pm. No cover, no minimum.

L’Hirondelle Restaurant (means swallow in French) has accordion and keyboard entertainment on weekends.

San Juan Depot Bar and Grill. “An Evening with Neil Diamond” (almost) impressionist Diamond Tom, every Thursday, 7 pm.

Swallows Inn cocktail lounge has live country/western bands, dancing 6 nights a week.

Renaissance Restaurant – no cover, no minimum, live entertainment nightly.

Club Bleu - One of the biggest dance floors in Orange County, 2 DJ’S play in separate rooms- techno, hip-hop, r&b. Acts as a sports bar and restaurant during the day, and nightclub at night.

Things To Do

For a small town of only 35,000 you will be surprised how much there is to do.

The Camino Real Playhouse is your entertainment destination.

Downtown Farmers’ Market - Every Wednesday, 30 vendors sell flowers, produce, and specialty foods.

The Mission San Juan Capistrano presents a schedule of events throughout the year including: Celebrate Tamales, Christmas at the Mission, Flower and Garden Festival, Fun with Clay, Journeys to the Past, Lincoln Day, Living History Day, Music Under the Stars, Pirates Festival, Return of the Swallows, Russian Heritage Festival, and many other events.

Places To Stay

Just 2 blocks from the quaint Los Rios Historic District, the Best Western Capistrano Inn and Conference Center is a pleasant change from other hotels and the perfect hotel for this city. Imagine, free 24 hour shuttle service within a 5 mile radius! Yes, forget about your car, let them take you to the historic downtown, Mission, Pacific Ocean, restaurants, shops, golf courses, Legoland, Disneyland, Dana Point, or wherever you want to go. Not simply just a hotel room, their staff will arrange tours, banquets, wedding receptions, business meetings, or even create a package to suit your needs. Unwind in the heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi anytime -open 24 hours. Their Spanish-style buildings are set back from the road, and rooms furnished with microwaves, refrigerators, bathroom telephones, and are reasonably priced. Even their breakfast is different- choose between a free box breakfast (apple, danish, and orange juice), or the free $2.99 discount voucher next door at Denny’s for breakfast.

Capistrano Inn gives guests a free pass to the 24 hr fitness center, 8 am-9 pm, daily. The state-of-the-art conference center accommodates groups, family reunions, seminars, meetings, wedding rehearsal dinners, parties, and events. They offer televisions, VCR’s, a motorized 10’ screen, wireless lavaliere microphones, flip charts, video conferencing, outdoor sound system, overhead/ slide projectors, and even assist with menu planning and catering. Since the conference center is adjacent to the pool and Jacuzzi, you can take breaks, move the party outside, or relax in a tropical atmosphere. The conference center accommodates 150 people. Call about their golf/ Disneyland/weekend packages, special rates, meeting rooms, conference center, and business services.

Side Trips

Capistrano Beach - Located approximately two miles south of Dana Point Harbor, you can use the beach, seven volleyball/ basketball courts, food stand, showers and restrooms.

Catalina Express - Daily trips to Avalon, on the Island of Catalina.

Dana Point Marinas - inside a 1-? mile jetty, with moorings for over 2,500 yachts.

Fisherman’s Wharf, Marina’s Village, - charter fishing boats, jet ski/ kayak/ motor and sailboat rentals, whale watching cruises, restaurants, shops, Catalina ferries, a beach, picnic tables, and a launching ramp if you bring a boat.

Dana Point Marine Life Refuge - See the sea caves, sea anemones, octopus and maybe dolphins offshore.

Dana Wharf Sportsfishing and Whale Watching - Offers whale watching cruises, 90 minute weekend Reggae cruises with live music and appetizers, and fishing trips.

Disneyland Theme Park (33 miles) - The Happiest Place on Earth" is an enchanted kingdom of fantasy and imagination filled with classic family-friendly attractions and magical entertainment, dining and shopping. Anaheim

Doheny State Beach - This 62 acre state park consists of a mile of sandy beaches, tide pools, 120 family campsites, and 170 picnic tables. Their Visitor’s Center has 5 aquariums, an indoor tide pool, natural history museum, exhibits, photo history of surfing, and year-round educational programs. Doheny Beach is located next to Dana Point Harbor.

Legoland California Theme Park - A 120+ acre park geared specifically towards youngsters ages two through 12. Over 50 rides, 5 new attractions. Located 30 minutes north of San Diego, 1 hour south of Anaheim, 32 miles from San Juan Capistrano, in the village of Carlsbad. Games recreated from Lego bricks, block of fame, world famous faces and works of art.

Pilgrim is the Spirit of Dana Point - This square-rigged, 118 foot historic Tall Ship looks as though it just came out of a scene in a pirate’s film! You can tour this vessel and even go on one of their sailing cruises. The Ocean Institute, known for helping children experience the ocean environment, runs the Pilgrim and the R/V Sea Explorer.


Getting There

San Juan Capistrano is located halfway between Los Angels and San Diego.

Directions From The North: The city is located 2- 1/2 blocks west of Interstate 5 on Ortega Highway. From the Los Angeles area, take either Interstate 5 or Interstate 405 south to the second San Juan exit, which is Ortega Highway. Exit the freeway and turn right onto Ortega Highway. The city is straight ahead 2-1/2 blocks.

Directions From The South: The city is located 3 blocks west of Interstate 5 on Ortega Hwy. From the San Diego area, take Interstate 5 north to the second San Juan exit, which is Ortega Highway. Exit the freeway and turn left onto Ortega Highway. The Mission is straight ahead 3 blocks.

Directions from Las Vegas: I-15 S toward Los Angeles, 241.4 miles. Merge onto CA-91 W toward Beach Cities, 9.6 miles. Merge onto CA-241 S toward Irvine (Portions toll), 12.2 miles. Merge onto CA-133 S toward I-5 (Portions toll), 3.9 miles.

Amtrack trains run frequently from Los Angeles to Laguna Beach, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, including many coastal cities, and San Diego.

Historic Buildings

Avila Adobe 31831 Camino Capistrano.

Blas Aguilar Adobe 31806 El Camino Real.

Capistrano Depot Verdugo Street.

Egan House 31892 Camino Capistrano.

Eyraud/ Chabre House 31382 El Camino Real.

Ferris Kelly Building 31754 Camino Capistrano.

Garcia Adobe 31831 Camino Capistrano.

Historic Town Center El Camino Real, at Yorba Street.

“Little Hollywood” Northwest section of district.

Los Rios District - Located at the railroad depot crossing, on both sides of Los Rios Street between del Obispo and Mission Streets.

Mission San Juan Capistrano - Just 2 blocks from the I-5 freeway, corner Ortega Highway at Camino Capistrano. 31882 Camino Capistrano Tours of the mission, 949-234-1300.

Montanez Adobe 31745 Los Rios Street.

New Parish Church Camino Capistrano, at Acjachema Street.

Old Union High School 31422 Camino Capistrano.

O’Neil Museum 31831 Los Rios Street, 9 am-noon, 1-3 pm, Tuesday-Friday, 8
and noon-3 pm, Sunday.

Rios Adobe 31781 Rios Street.

San Juan Capistrano Regional Library 31495 El Camino Real. 949-493-1752

Silvas Adobe 31861 Los Rios Street.

Stroschein House El Camino Real at Spring Street.

Twin-Winton Mural Mercado Village, 31952 Camino Capistrano.

Yorba Adobes 31871 & 31891 Camino Capistrano.

Walking Tours

Architectural Walking Tour (Friends of the Library) - Pick up a self-guided tour brochure or join their tour Saturdays, 10 am, $5. 949-489-0736.

Historical Walking Tour - Free self-guided maps of the historical area are available, or take a tour Sundays, 1 pm, at El Peon Plaza across the street from the mission.

San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, $2. 949-493-8444.

Places To Eat

Cedar Creek Inn Restaurant - 26860 Ortega Hwy, across from Mission. 949-240-2229

Ciao Pasta Trattoria - Salmon prepared with white wine, tomatoes, garlic, and basil ($17.95), Veal scaloppini sauteed with Marsala wine, mushrooms, and raisins ($16.95), Pasta al Forno baked pasta rolled with ham and bechamel, served in vodka tomato cream sauce ($15.95), Cold Antipasti ($5.95-9.95) hot Antipasti ($6.95-9.95). Owner/ Chef Pasquale Manta’s 86 year old Italian Grandmother Josephine makes the cookies! 31661 Camino Capistrano, Ste. 201, located across from Mission San Juan Capistrano. 949-496-5002.

Coach House - 33157 Camino Capistrano. 949-496-8930.

El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant - 31891 Camino Capistrano, 2 blocks from the mission. 949-493-1163

Fish Market and Grill - Sandwiches made with salmon, swordfish, Ahi tuna, Mahi Mahi, or blackened catfish ($7.50). Even their Tropical Taco plates are filled with seafood ($2.95-7.95). Bounty of the Islands selections: salmon ($11.95), Pacific sand dabs ($11.95), buffalo shrimp ($13.50), salmon and Mahi Mahi ($15.50), Bermuda Triangle- shrimp, scallops, and lobster tail ($22.50). Appetizers ($6.95-8.95), Salads ($8.25-8.95) 27221 Ortega Hwy, #G. 1 block from I-5 freeway. 949-248-0055.

L’ Hirondelle Restaurant - 31631 Camino Capistrano, across from the Mission. 949-661-0425

San Juan Depot Bar and Grill - 26701 Verdugo, Unit B., next to the train station. .

The Swallows Inn - cocktail lounge 31786 Camino Capistrano. 949-493-3188 Entertainment, dancing, no cover, Tuesday-7 pm, Wednesday & Thursday- 7:30 pm, Friday- 8:30 pm, Saturday-2:30 & 8:30 pm, Sunday- 3:30 pm.

Places to Eat with Entertainment

Club Bleu - 14160 Beach Blvd, Westminster. 714-245-SEXY

Things To Do

Camino Real Playhouse 949-489-8082

Downtown Farmers’ Market - Every Wednesday, Yorba St and Camino Capistrano. November-March, 3 -6 pm April-October, 3-7 pm 858-272-7054

Mission San Juan Capistrano events - Call the Mission for details, dates, and prices, on Ortega Highway, west of I- 5 freeway. 31882 Camino Capistrano 949-234-1300

San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce - 31781 Camino Capistrano, Ste.# 306. 949-493-4700

Places To Stay

For information about their rooms, packages, conference center, sightseeing, or about San Juan Capistrano, call Best Western Capistrano Inn and Conference Center, 27174 Ortega Highway, off the exit to the San Diego Freeway I-5. 949-493-5661

Side Trips

Capistrano Beach - Located 4 miles from San Juan Capistrano, south of Dana Point Harbor, 34551 Puerto Place Dana Point.

Dana Point Harbor 949-923-2255

Dana Point Marine Life Refuge - West end of Dana Point Harbor.

Catalina Express - Round trip $49- adults, $39.50-children, $45-Seniors 55+. Weekdays- leaves Dana Point Harbor-9:50 am and 3:45 pm, weekends- 7:45 am, 11:55 am, 5 pm. Daily trips. Dana Point Harbor, 34675 Golden Lantern. 800-481-3470

Disneyland- 1313 S. Harbor Blvd, Anaheim 714-781-7290

Doheny State Beach - Located next to Dana Point Harbor. Parking and camping charges, open 6:00 am to 10:00 pm (Daylight Savings Time), and 6:00 am to 8:00 pm (PST) 25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive 949 496-6172.

Legoland California Theme Park - Located in the village of Carlsbad- 32 miles from San Juan Capistrano. Open 10 am-5 pm winter season. 10 am-8 pm, summer. Schedule varies. 1 Legoland Drive, 760-918-LEGO,

Pilgrim, Spirit of Dana Point Tall Ship - sailing cruises, most Saturdays and Sundays. Nautical themed plays are presented in July and August. Snorkeling trips to Catalina Island- June to August, Harbor cruises all year. See dolphins, sea lions, and whales on the wildlife cruises - Saturdays and Sundays- with marine biologists. Tall Ship tours request a donation. Located on the far west side of harbor, next to the Ocean institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive. 949-496-1094,

Whale Watching Dana Wharf Sports fishing - Special two-for-one-Tuesdays- 2 adults for $18, Senior’s discount day is Friday, and military discounts. Whale watching/wildlife cruises guarantee that you will see whales and dolphins or ride again free. 34675 Golden Lantern. 949-496-5794,


Old Capistrano Merchants Association - Shop and dine around the Los Rios Historic District, free tour maps and guides are available.

Tourist Information

San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce - 31781 Camino Capistrano, Ste. #306, 949-493-4700,