Museum Self-guided Tour

Founded in 1798, by Fr. Fermin Lasuen, successor to Fr. Junipero Serra, Mission San Luis Rey became the largest of the 21 Spanish missions established in Alta California. This mission, the 18th in the chain, was named by the Spanish Viceroy after King Louis IX of France, a 13th-century saint, and patron of the Secular Franciscans.

We hope you enjoy exploring the grounds and buildings of this National Historic Landmark. Your self-guided tour through the museum will take you to the time of the Friars and early California.




Discover the story of Mission San Luis Rey and the history of the Mission era with a self-guided tour through period rooms, art galleries and courtyards within the Mission walls.


PERIOD ROOMS - Start your tour by viewing the lifestyle of Luiseño Indians; then move into rooms depicting life at the Mission. On display is the original document that President Abraham Lincoln signed giving the Mission back to the Catholic church. You will also see how the Mission is always continuing its efforts to preserve, restore and enhance this historic landmark allowing the mission legacy to continue for generations to come.


AGAPITO COURT (2) - This newly restored courtyard was once the private courtyard of the friars. The original fountains provided drinking water, and medicinal herbs and plants were grown here. To the left of Agapito Court, you can view the Sacred Garden, the private garden of the friars who live at the Mission.


VIDEO (3) - Your self-guided tour ends with a short video presentation about the history of Old Mission San Luis Rey. A CD of the 30-minute version is available for purchase at the Museum Store.


MUSEUM STORE (4) -The Museum Store has a wonderful selection of items from mission souvenirs and historical books to Catholic statues and prayer books.


HISTORIC MISSION CHURCH (5) - Enter through the front doors of the historic Church to see the amazing Spanish Colonial architecture, both Baroque and Classical in style. The paintings and decorations reflect the combination of Spanish and Luiseño Indian cultures. In addition to enjoying the beautiful art and architecture, the Historic Mission Church is open 365 days a year from 7am to 5pm for meditation and private prayer.


MADONNA CHAPEL (6) - Unique to Mission San Luis Rey is this octagonal room, originally a mortuary chapel, where church members were waked. Small doors on either side of the altar lead to hidden passageways – on the right, a staircase to a balcony for mourners; on the left, an entry to the altar for the friar saying the funeral service.


HISTORIC CEMETERY (7) - This is the oldest community burial ground in North County San Diego, dating back to 1798. It contains grave markers of early settlers, crypts of the friars, and a monument to the Luiseño Indians.


SOLDIER BARRACKS (8) - See the adobe ruins of the barracks that once housed the Spanish soldiers assigned to protect the Mission. It included apartments and a lookout tower. American troops were stationed here during the Mexican-American war, 1846-1848.


LAVANDERIA (9) - The elaborate “laundry” is where mission members bathed and washed their clothes. A gated arch fronted a grand staircase leading down to this area. Water poured through aqueducts into a series of tile and stone pools and spouted from gargoyles into lush orchards.


CARRIAGE ARCH (10) - The Carriage Arch is one of the last remnants of the arcade that formed the original quadrangle, a four-sided patio surrounded by buildings. The central patio, used for work and leisure activities, was bordered by workshops, classrooms, a kitchen, an infirmary, a winery and dormitories for Indian converts. The buildings are now the Retreat Center.


PEPPER TREE (11) - The oldest pepper tree in California can be seen from the viewing area near the Information (Welcome) Center. Fr. Peyri planted it from seeds given to him in 1830 by a sailor from Peru. Branches of the old tree now need to be supported by tall stakes.



Prior to Spanish occupation, the Luiseño people inhabited this area for hundreds of years. Their villages were located in valleys, along streams, by the coast, and near the mountains. Luiseño homes were dome-shaped and constructed of tules over a branch frame. It was the chief and shaman who saw to it that laws were obeyed in the village. The women gathered most of the plant foods, while the men usually hunted for animals and fish.

The Luiseños made tools out of stone, such as pestles for grinding and pounding. They created baskets from grasses and natural fibers and used them for gathering and preparing food.


The establishment of the missions in Alta California was not authorized until the threat of Russian encroachment into the area. In its long history of colonization, Spain had learned that land could be claimed inexpensively by establishing a mission – sending dedicated padres, a handful of soldiers, and a few supplies. With a shortage of Spaniards in the New World, Spain decided to colonize the indigenous people. The Franciscans were chosen, not only to preach to the Luiseño Indians but to teach them new skills so they could become productive citizens of Spain. Father Antonio Peyri was put in charge of Mission San Luis Rey, from the day of its founding on June 13, 1798, until his departure in January 1832. Between these years the Mission became home to approximately 3,000 Luiseño Indians. With their labor, the Mission cared for more than 50,000 head of livestock, and large sections of mission lands were brought under cultivation. Grapes, oranges, olives, wheat, and corn were some of the crops produced. Fields were irrigated by water channeled from the San Luis Rey River just north of the Mission. The Mission soon became self-sustaining. Its buildings were constructed of adobe, fired clay bricks, and wooden timbers, and by 1830, the Mission was the largest building in California.



After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the law of secularization was passed, giving each mission a 10-year period to fulfill its function of instructing the Luiseño Indians. The land was then to be handed over to the Luiseño Indians. After this time, the missions would be replaced by another colonial institution, the pueblo. This last step was long overdue in Alta California. The law was enacted at the Mission in 1833. However, the Mission came under the control of various secular administrators who managed to gain title to large portions of former mission land and thousands of livestock, leaving nothing to the Luiseños.



From 1847 to 1857, the Mission was used as an operational base by US soldiers. Notable figures that served at the Mission include General Stephen W. Kearny, Kit Carson and the Mormon Battalion. Some troops stationed at the Mission were ordered to take charge and prevent any vandalism. Others assisted ranchers in dismantling rooms and providing building materials for their own homes. In 1850, California became part of the United States, and the Catholic Bishop in California petitioned the US government for the return of the missions. In 1865, Mission San Luis Rey was returned to the Catholic Church by Abraham Lincoln. It continued to lay abandoned until 1892.



In 1892, a group of Franciscans from Zacatecas, Mexico sought refuge at the Mission, looking for a novitiate site. They were assigned to San Luis Rey under the guidance of Fr. Joseph Jeremiah O’Keefe who is referred to as the “Rebuilder of the Mission.” From 1892 to 1912, Fr. O’Keefe repaired the church and rebuilt the living quarters on the foundations of the old Mission (where the museum sits today). The quadrangle was rebuilt in 1949, as part of a Franciscan college that today is the Retreat Center. During the 1950s and 60s, the Friars uncovered ruins of the soldier barracks and lavanderia from layers of dirt accumulated over the years. In 1984, a restoration effort to stabilize and preserve the exterior of the church building was completed. Mission restoration and preservation is an ongoing process, and archaeological investigations continue to unearth the past.