Even for people who know Southern California well, San Juan Capistrano's 40-acre Los Rios district comes as a surprise. In the shadow of Mission San Juan Capistrano, this Orange County neighborhood began life in 1794 and contains California's oldest residential street, Los Rios Street. "The first homes were built by Juanenos Indians when the missionaries allowed them to live outside the mission compound," says Tony Forster, president of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society.
What's wonderful about Los Rios ― and what makes it worth a stop for travelers on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Diego ― is that here, those mission days don't seem very far away. A good place to start your tour is at the historical society's headquarters, the O'Neill Museum (closed Mon and Sat; $2 donation suggested; 31831 Los Rios St.; 949/493-8444). Take a docent-led walking tour of the olive tree-dotted streets (1 p.m. Sun; call museum for details), or begin your own self-guided exploration.
The neighborhood centerpiece is the Rios Adobe (31781 Los Rios), best viewed from the street. Built in 1794 by Feliciano Rios, a Spanish soldier, it's still inhabited ― 10 generations later ― by his descendants. On May 8, during National Preservation Week, another Los Rios adobe, the 1794 Montañez Adobe (31745 Los Rios), will be included on a historic tour of San Juan Capistrano (visit www.sanjuancapistrano.org for more information).
Dining and shopping opportunities are relaxed. At the Ramos House Cafe ($$; breakfast and lunch Tue-Sun; 31752 Los Rios; 949/443-1342), diners enjoy beignets on a tree-shaded patio. The Tea House on Los Rios ($$; closed Mon-Tue; 31731 Los Rios; 949/443-3914) serves high tea and brunch on weekends. On the other side of the tracks, in an old train depot, Sarducci's Capistrano Depot ($$$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; 26701 Verdugo St.; 949/493-9593) offers blackened snapper tacos on an outdoor dining patio. Before you leave, stop by Hummingbird Cottage (26711 Verdugo; 949/487-1249) or the Art Garden (closed Mon-Tue; 31712 Los Rios; 949/488-0060), where you can pick up a gift to remind you of Los Rios' slow-paced charms.
Los Rios is in San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, 60 miles south of Los Angeles and 65 miles north of San Diego. From I-5, take the Ortega Hwy. (State 74) exit west to downtown and follow the signs. There's free three-hour parking next to the train depot. For maps and information, you can stop at the kiosk outside the mission, or contact the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce (949/493-4700).