Walking down San Francisco's Dolores Street for the first time, I stopped and admired the large, ornate basilica I assumed was the 227-year-old Mission Dolores. I didn't realize I was staring at the wrong building until a friend walked over toward the entrance of the relatively nondescript chapel next door.
The small, whitewashed adobe building is the real Misión San Francisco de Asís, more commonly referred to as Mission Dolores. It is the sixth of 21 Franciscan missions stretching from San Diego to Solano County along the old Camino Real (Royal Highway). So well constructed that it withstood the devastating 1906 earthquake, this is the oldest standing building in San Francisco.
After walking into the chapel, I found my gaze quickly settling on the gorgeous ceiling, a zigzag of yellow and red stripes designed to mimic the baskets woven by the Costanoan or Ohlone Indians, which inhabited the area when the first settlers arrived. A large, ornate altar is built into the back wall, with two smaller altars on either side.
Back outside, I realized the building was more interesting than I thought. The front appears to have four large columns supporting a balcony that houses six smaller columns and the three mission bells.
Appearances are deceiving, though. The entire facade was created from a single block of adobe that was 10 feet thick and 22 feet wide.
A colorful garden is next to the small cemetery that's home to 150-year-old tombstones belonging to some of San Francisco's most important early residents. Buried here are Don Luis Antonio Arguello, the first Mexican governor of Alta California, and Don Francisco de Haro, San Francisco's first alcalde, or mayor. In the center of the cemetery is a statue of Father Junipero Serra, who oversaw the creation of the first nine Franciscan missions.
History is in the air here. Even though you're just a few steps away from the constant stream of buses that run down 16th Street, walking into the mission is like stepping back in time. Besides the chapel itself, there is a small museum that displays a baptismal register that dates back to 1776, and also the original mission key, which was the model for the symbolic key to San Francisco.
The mission is inextricably tied to the history of the city. In March 1776, a scouting party visited the area and claimed the land for the King of Spain, Carlos III. Back at their home base in Monterey, the group was given permission to return to the area and establish a mission. Colonists and soldiers arrived in San Francisco on June 27, 1776, and, two days later, celebrated mass on the site of the future mission.
That date, June 29, became the official birthday of the city of San Francisco.
In the late 1700s, this small building was part of an expansive complex in the middle of a large field surrounded by rolling hills. The church was next to a granary, shops, and a convent that housed the Franciscans and their guests. Today, it is dwarfed by its companion basilica and the three-story Victorian buildings that line Dolores Street.
The church's neighborhood, the aptly named Mission District, is one of the city's most vibrant and diverse communities. In this warm, central valley between Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, recent immigrants from Central America live next to middle-aged activists and young artists.
On nearby Valencia Street are a handful of thrift shops and myriad restaurants, which run the gamut from Vietnamese to Mexican to French. Independent bookstores and coffee shops pepper the always-bustling street.
Dolores Park - located two blocks south of Mission Dolores - is a 14-acre paradise in the middle of the cramped concrete jungle. From the top of the long, sloping park, the views of the skyline and the Berkeley hills are awe inspiring.
Many visitors to San Francisco stick to the familiar tourist spots in Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, but those willing to venture into the Mission District will be delighted by the neighborhood's charismatic charm and the mission's many treasures.
• Misión San Francisco de Asís, 3321 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114; Telephone (415) 621-8203.
An interesting way to absorb California history is to visit some of the state's 21 missions. Here are eight of the most notable, along with the dates that they were founded.
1. San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the California missions; 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego. Phone: (619) 281-8449. Founded July 16, 1769.
2. San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, burial site of Junipero Serra, the priest who was a driving force in colonizing California; 3080 Rio Road, Carmel. Phone: (831) 624-3600. Founded June 3, 1770.
3. San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, considered one of the more beautiful missions; 782 Monterey, San Luis Obispo. Phone: (805) 543-6850. Founded Sept. 1, 1772.
4. San Juan Capistrano, one of the most popular missions, known as the Jewel; located at the Corner of Ortega Highway and Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. Phone: (949) 234-1300. Founded Nov. 1, 1776.
5. Santa Bárbara, Virgen y Mártir, known as the Queen of the Missions, was rebuilt after an 1812 earthquake; 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara. Phone: (805) 682-4713. Founded Dec. 16, 1786.
6. La Purísima Concepción, said to be the best-restored mission; 2295 Purisima Road, Lompoc. Phone: (805) 733-3713. Founded Dec. 8, 1787.
7. San Miguel Arcángel, the least-altered mission, having never been repainted; 775 Mission Street, San Miguel. Phone: (805) 467-3256. Founded July 25, 1797.
8. San Luis, Rey de Francia, the second and largest of the missions; 4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside. Phone: (760) 757-3651. Founded June 13, 1798.
• For more information on all 21 of the historic missions in California, see http://missionsofcalifornia.org/missions/ index.html; www.californiamissions.com; and www.ca-missions.org/links.html.