San José, established in 1720, was the largest, best known, and most beautiful of the Texas missions. It has been reconstructed to give visitors a complete picture of life in a mission community—right down to the granary, mill, and Indian quarters. The beautiful rose window is a big attraction, and popular mariachi Masses are held here every Sunday at noon (come early if you want a seat). This is also the site of the missions’ excellent visitor center; the film about the mission system offered here is worth viewing. If you’re going to visit only one of the missions, this is it.
Moved in 1731 from an earlier site in east Texas, San Juan Capistrano (9101 Graf Rd., at Ashley Rd.), doesn’t have the grandeur of the missions to the north—the larger church intended for it was never completed—but the original simple chapel and the wilder setting give it a peaceful air. A 3-mile interpretive trail, with a number of overlook platforms, winds through the woods to the banks of the old river channel.
The southernmost mission in the San Antonio chain, San Francisco de la Espada, 10040 Espada Rd., also has an ancient, isolated feel, although the beautifully maintained church shows just how vital it still is to the local community. Be sure to visit the Espada Aqueduct, part of the mission’s original acequia (irrigation ditch) system, about a mile north of the mission. Dating from 1740, it’s one of the oldest Spanish aqueducts in the United States.