The Mission (District)

When there are so many places to go and things to do in San Francisco, you might ask, “Why visit the Mission?” Here are a few good reasons. Go there to tour Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city. Go there to see the largest collection of street art in the world. Go there to wander the inexpensive, off beat, and sometimes funky shops, bookstores, and markets along Valencia, Mission, and 24th Streets. Go there for Cinco de Mayo and Carnaval. And, above all, go there for the food.

01) Mission Dolores-Front (Z-15-894)03) Mission Dolores-Alter (Z-15-910)04) Cemetary Headstone (Z-15-931)


Mission Dolores

Mission Dolores is San Francisco’s oldest intact building and among the city’s most important landmarks. On June 29, 1776, just five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Father Francisco Palou, dedicated the mission site at the northern end of El Camino Real. Like the city that now surrounds it, the mission was named after Saint Francis of Assisi and was officially called Misión San Francisco de Asís. Unofficially, it’s called Mission Dolores because of its location near Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows creek).

Mission Dolores was the sixth of 21 missions established in California under the direction of Father Junipero Serra. Built with Native American labor, it was completed in 1791; the chapel ceiling is painted in an Ohlone Indian basket design; the wooden reredos (altar) came from Mexico in 1796. 

The colonial Spanish mission has 4-foot thick adobe brick walls and redwood log roof supports lashed together with rawhide. Because of its solid construction, the mission withstood the 1906 earthquake while a newer basilica next door was totally destroyed.


The cemetery next to the chapel is one of only two remaining in San Francisco (the other is the National Cemetery in the Presidio), and it has many gravesites from the 1800s. Among the notables buried here is Don Luis Antonio Arguello who was the first Governor of California under Mexican rule. Understandably, many of the headstones bear Spanish names, but there are several with Irish names as well — a consequence of shifting demographics as the Irish were driven from Ireland by the famine and drawn to California by the Gold Rush.

Mission Dolores welcomes visitors and, for a small donation, invites you to tour the chapel, garden, and cemetery. There is also a small museum with artifacts, art, and models depicting life in the mission’s early years.


05) Quetzalcoatl (Z28-5-809)06) Tropical Fantasy Mural (Z-15-876)

Mission Murals

According to the book Street Art in San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, the Mission has a “greater concentration of street art than any other neighborhood in the world.” There are murals everywhere in the Mission: on buildings, down alleyways, even on garage doors. These vibrant murals add color, meaning, identity, and life to this busy neighborhood. Influenced and Inspired by the works of the Mexican Muralists and motivated by the 1970s civil rights movement, the Mission Murals are art with a message. Some depict Mesoamerican legends and history, some are about the timeless struggle for equality and justice, some rage against the horrors of war or cry out for peace, some are comical or whimsical, and some are just ordinary graffiti. For more on the murals, read my Mission Murals blog or go to Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, the organization that supports and protects the murals. They also conduct mural tours.

24th Street Mini Park Art

If you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss this tiny park on 24th Street. It’s a children’s playground tucked into a narrow city lot, but there are two things here that are really worth seeing: Quetzalcoatl and Tropical Fantasy. Quetzalcoatl is the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs, and this park has a huge concrete sculpture of Quetzalcoatl undulating through the playground. Quetzalcoatl rises from and disappears back into the soft playground surface and is completely clad in colorful mosaic tile — the result is stunning. This was a collaborative project by Precita Eyes, and in 2009, they added a large mosaic tile mural called Tropical Fantasy.


07) Lucha Libre Masks (Z-16-177)


If you like to shop and inexpensive, off beat, or funky appeals to you, check out the many stores along Mission, Valencia, and 24th Streets. There are dollar stores, boutiques, and stores with ethic clothing and wares. You can buy Mexican folk-art, piñatas, Dia de los Muertos decorations, and even lucha libre máscaras, the masks worn by professional freestyle wrestlers in Spanish speaking countries.


08) Casa Lucas Market (Z-16-16-186)


The Mission population is at least 40 percent Latino and this is reflected in the food. There are Mexican bakeries (panaderias), taquerias, and pupuserias as well as Central and South American restaurants and cafes. There are also Mexican markets in the Mission that sell Hispanic foods not readily found elsewhere: items like chorizo, empanada wrappers, queso fresco, tomatillos, yuccas, and plantains. These markets are really inexpensive too; you can buy limes and avocados for a fraction of what you’d pay in a supermarket. Casa Lucas Market on 24th Street has the best Yelp reviews.


The Mission, I’m told, has a very lively nightlife from edgy bars to supper clubs to theater, but I’m not qualified to comment on this subject; just google it or read articles here and here.

09) Dolores Park (Z-16-161)


Mission Dolores Park

This 14-acre park, near Mission Dolores, is beautiful, functional, and hugely popular with San Franciscans. Even on a winter weekday morning, when I took this photo (right), there were lots of people sitting on the grass or wandering through the park. The park has ball courts (tennis, soccer, basketball), picnic areas, a community clubhouse, and the wonderful new Helen Keller children’s playground (opening in March 2012). This park is also the site of several festivals and cultural events, and, if all this isn’t enough, it has a gorgeous view of the city skyline.


10) Carnaval 2009 (P1010858)

Mission Events:

The Mission has some of the most popular and most unusual events in the city. Its biggest event is Carnaval, and it’s a really big deal. This parade, with nonstop music and dancing, is lively, colorful, loud, long, and fun. Most of the participants are dance groups and fall roughly into three categories. There are Aztec dance groups, in full-feathered regalia. There are a few groups who represent specific South or Central American counties by wearing their traditional clothing and marching (or dancing) to their traditional music. But most of the groups are elaborately costumed dance groups along the lines of what you’d expect at the Samba Parade at Carnaval in Rio. The costumes are elaborate, beautiful and, in some cases, a bit skimpy.

Here’s a list, with dates, of the major Mission events in 2012:

- Cinco de Mayo Festival — Saturday, May 5th

- Carnaval — Sunday, May 27th

- San Francisco Street Food Festival — Saturday, August 18th

- Dia de los Muertos Procession — Friday, November 2nd

- Sunday Streets — May 6th, June 3rd, July 1st, and August 5th


11) Valencia St. Parklet (Z-16-171)

The Mission is a bustling, colorful, vibrant neighborhood with a younger ethically and socioeconomically mixed population. Goods and services tend to be cheaper here, and thanks to its low-lying elevation, it has less wind and fog and is sunnier and warmer than other parts of the city. Some parts of the Mission are a bit edgy and gritty, especially along the Mission Street corridor and around the 16th and 24th Street BART Stations. Other parts, like Dolores and Valencia Streets are mostly residential with tree-lined streets and well-maintained Victorians. Valencia Street has recently added several parklets, which makes the street even more inviting. “Deepistan National Parklet,” with its whimsical topiary dinosaur, represents the youthful, lively spirit of the Mission (photo right).


Giving credit where credit is due:

Mission Dolores Visitor Center Brochure: Welcome to Misión San Francisco de Asís

S.F. parklets: a little tour of a major trend - By John King, December 29, 2011

36 Hours in San Francisco - By Chris Colin, September 11, 2008,

San Francisco’s Mission District - Via Magazine, March/April 2003

SFGate website: San Francisco: The Mission


© Virginia E. Vail 2012