There’s no doubt that the iconic Alamo, site of the famous battle in 1836, is the most famous mission in San Antonio, Texas. Although the oldest in the area, the Alamo was neither the largest nor the most populated of the Spanish missions along the San Antonio River. Throughout much of the 1700s, Catholic missionaries operated a string of missions in the San Antonio area—as well as across much of what would later come to be the state of Texas. The Spanish Empire used the missions to extend its control of the area while educating Native Americans on European religion and traditions. At their peak, hundreds of native Coahuiltecans lived at the missions, where they received food and refuge in exchange for labor, conversion to Catholicism, and—over time—an indelible loss of their ancient living habits. This practice continued into the early 19th century, when the missions were “secularized”—transformed into civil, rather than religious, communities with greater local ownership.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four separate missions—Concepción, Espada, San José, and San Juan—while the lovely Mission Trail driving tour leads north into downtown San Antonio, ending at the Alamo. Start your visit at the Visitor Center at Mission San José, the largest of the missions, where rangers offer hourly guided tours of the site. Then continue south to Mission San Juan and Espada, before heading north again to Mission Concepción and the Alamo.