Except for the Alamo, San Antonio's missions constitute San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Established along the San Antonio River in the 18th century by Franciscan friars, the missions stand as reminders of Spain's most successful attempt to extend its New World dominion northward from Mexico: the missions had the responsibility of converting the natives (primarily American Indians) to Catholicism. The missions were also centers of work, education, and trade. They represented the greatest concentration of Catholic missions in North America, and were the basis of the founding of San Antonio. Today, the four missions are active parish churches, and each illustrates a different concept of mission life. All are beautiful, in their own ways.
Mission San José. Start your tour at the stunning Mission San José, the "Queen of Missions." It's adjacent to the visitor's center, where a National Park Service ranger or docent illuminates the history of the missions. San
José's outer wall, American Indian dwellings, granary, water mill, and workshops have been restored. Here you can pick up a driving map of the Mission Trail that connects San José with the other missions. 6701 San Jose Dr. 210/922–0543. Free. Daily 9–5.
Mission Concepción. Mission Concepción, the oldest unrestored stone church in the nation, is known for its colorful frescoes, or wall paintings. The most striking fresco is the "Eye of the God," a face from which rays of light emanate. 807 Mission Rd., at Felisa St. 210/534–1540. Free. Daily 9–5.
Mission San Juan. Mission San Juan, with its Romanesque arches, has a serene chapel. This mission once supplied all its own needs, from cloth to crops, and a trail behind the mission winds along the low river-bottom land and provides a look at the many indigenous plants formerly used by the mission. 9101 Graf Rd. 210/534–0749. Free. Daily 9–5.