Photograph by George H.H. Huey, Alamy
Site: San Antonio Missions
Location: San Antonio, Texas, United States
Year Designated: 2015
Reason: These five 18th-century Franciscan missions—Missions San José, San Juan, Espada, Concepción, and Valero (the Alamo)—are an uncommonly well-preserved collection of Spanish colonial compounds.
Lay of the Land: The five mission complexes that make up the newly designated World Heritage site are spread across San Antonio, two to three miles apart, north to south, along the San Antonio River. The four southernmost missions are part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, while the most famous, the Alamo, is its own nonprofit park. Mission Espada’s cattle ranch, Rancho de las Cabras—also recognized by UNESCO—is 30 miles south in Floresville, Texas. None of the sites have an admission fee.
Backstory: Built to convert the native people of the Americas to Catholicism, the Spanish missions were not just churches but self-sustained, multicultural—Spanish and indigenous—communities designed to cement Spain’s dominance in the region. Several of San Antonio’s missions were first established elsewhere (the Alamo, which was originally known as San Francisco Solano and later renamed San Antonio de Valero, was relocated from Coahuila in present-day Mexico). Relocated to lush south Texas, with its fertile soil and abundant water, the missions thrived between 1745 and the 1780s. As in missions elsewhere, disease decimated the indigenous population, contributing to the decline of the mission system.
Where to Stay: Surrounded by palm, magnolia, and cypress trees, the Hotel Havana sits on the north end of the San Antonio River Walk in the Museum Reach, close to the tourist district but outside the bustle. Opened in 1914, the 27-room hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its restaurant, Ocho, has a steel-and-glass observatory dining room decorated in Tiffany blue and perched above the San Antonio River—an ideal spot for sipping a sunset margarita.
When to Go: San Antonio sits in subtropical south Texas, an area that sees an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. While the summer months can be quite warm, the winter climate is moderate, with average high temperatures in the 70s and low 60s. As weather in this region of Texas can be unpredictable, layers are a good idea.
What to Bring: Carry water to avoid dehydration and prepare for natural menaces like mosquitoes, fire ants, ticks, and poison ivy by wearing repellent and closed-toed shoes.
Don't Miss: Except for the battle-ruined Alamo, all of the missions are active parishes. Mission San José and Mission Concepción host a special Mariachi Mass on Sundays (12:30 p.m. and noon, respectively) that's worthy of a visit regardless of one’s faith. Visitors are invited to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with a bilingual service featuring both a live mariachi band and traditional church choir.
From Mission to Table: Recent restoration efforts have been devoted to the mission’s agricultural history, including the water-powered stone gristmill at Mission San José, which is capable of producing some 600 to 800 pounds of flour per day. To the south at Mission San Juan, the acequia dam-and-aqueduct irrigation system is again flowing, feeding water to the Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm, which seeks to re-create the historic farmlands of the mission system. In Floresville, Rancho de las Cabras offers tours—by reservation only—of the ranch where vaqueros raised cattle, sheep, and goats.
Detour: The San Antonio River Walk, perhaps the city’s best known attraction besides the Alamo, has recently completed its newest addition, the Mission Reach, a riverfront hike-bike trail with portals exiting to each of the four southern missions. Borrow a cruiser bicycle from the city’s B-Cycle bike share program and tackle the trail on two wheels.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Browse photos of nature, cities, and people and share your favorite photos.