Last Updated on January 13, 2023 by Jim Ferri
By Jim Ferri
Have you ever revisited a place and wondered why you hadn’t returned much sooner?
That happened to me a few days ago in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a fascinating city, only a 1 ½-hour drive from Austin and about 3 hours from Houston.
This stay followed a too-brief visit a dozen or so years ago. And again, it opened my eyes to the cultural feast this south-central Texas city offers. In fact, I found so many things to do in San Antonio I couldn’t squeeze everything into my three-day visit.
Location is essential for any traveler. Thankfully, I was hosted at the Emily Morgan Hotel, a hotel with a Doubletree by Hilton pedigree. Importantly, it’s not only a historical hotel with excellent service but also superbly located adjacent to The Alamo. That’s right in the middle of the city and only a few minutes walk to San Antonio’s famous River Walk.
I quickly found there’s a lot to do and see in San Antonio. It’s a city to get your hands on history, arms around art, and your fork into fantastic gourmet food. It’s also an excellent city for a couples’ three-day getaway or a family vacation.
And it needn’t be expensive. There’s also a lot to do in San Antonio on a budget.
The Alamo – One of the Top Things To Do In San Antonio
If there’s one thing San Antonio is known for, it’s the Alamo. And immediately after I arrived at the Morgan, I headed off to it, just a five-minute walk.
The first Mission in San Antonio, it was a way station between East Texas and Mexico. But it’s not renowned as a way station, but for the 13 days in 1836 when 189 Texas defenders held the Alamo from 2,500 of General Santa Anna’s troops from Mexico.
Three of its most famous defenders – William B. Travis, James Bowie, and David “Davy” Crockett – died in the conflict. And “Remember the Alamo!” soon became a rallying cry for Texans fighting for independence.
Today a National Historic Landmark it’s one of the most popular places to visit in San Antonio. Visit the 4.2-acre complex and Alamo Gardens of this former Franciscan Mission and learn all about the Mission’s fascinating history. There’s also a gift shop selling plenty of items to help you remember the Alamo.
In addition, be aware that more than 2.5 million travelers visit it each year, so it can get crowded. The best time to avoid the crowds is to see it when it opens at 9am.
Admission is free, although you must get a timed ticket at the little red visitor’s booth out on the central plaza. Booking a tour (not required) will cost anywhere from $7 to $40.
300 Alamo Plaza
Tel: (210) 225-1391
Open: daily 9am – 5:30pm, with extended hours from late May through early September until 7pm.
River Walk – #1 Attraction in Texas
San Antonio’s River Walk is a 15-mile urban waterway and the most significant urban ecosystem in the U.S. In plain English, it’s a walkway on the San Antonio River that’s great for sightseeing, shopping, food, and fun.
And, with all due respect to the Alamo, it’s not only San Antonio’s most-visited tourist attraction but also the #1 attraction in all of Texas. The bottom line: no tour of San Antonio is complete without a stroll on River Walk.
River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is not only fun but also a great way to navigate the city. But while you can take it to the south to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park or northward to the trendy Pearl District, it’s the five-mile stretch through downtown that’s most popular.
Lining its banks, especially downtown, are a seeming gazillion restaurants, sidewalk cafes, and the occasional boutique hotel. Come evening, and when the crowds and mariachis come out in force, it can be sensory overload.
River Walk is approximately 20 feet below ground level, and you access it by numerous staircases along the way. Enjoy it by strolling along the paths on both sides of the river, morphing back and forth across little bridges.
You can also take one of the river barges for a ride and guided tour. (The 35-minute tour is $8.25 for adults and $2 for children). I found that doing both is most enjoyable.
In San Antonio, River Walk is NYC’s Times Square and Broadway combined, and there are numerous events held on it throughout the year…the Armed Forces River Parade, Day of the Dead River Parade, the Holiday River Parade, and several more. It’s also ablaze with holiday lights starting the day after Thanksgiving through the first weekend in January.
Open: 24 hours per day
Visit the San Antonio Missions, One of the Best Things to Do in San Antonio
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.
It includes not only the Alamo but also four other Spanish colonial missions – Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. Overseen by the National Historical Park Service, the missions are still active Catholic parishes that hold regular services.
Connecting the missions, which are approximately three miles apart, is an eight-mile Mission Trail, which you can hike or bike.
The Queen of the Missions is San José y San Miguel de Aguayo. Today known simply as Mission San José, it is the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park headquarters.
The largest Mission in San Antonio, it was built by Franciscan friars in 1720 with Texas limestone and stucco. It provided sanctuary and a social community for more than 300 Indians at one time.
I took an Uber to the Mission, which surprisingly, was only a twenty-minute drive south of the Alamo and central San Antonio. About 819 acres, it’s the largest of the four missions and the most popular to visit.
Unfortunately, its only remaining structures are the exterior walls, the church, and a convent. Still, though, it’s pretty interesting and well worth visiting, especially since it’s so close to the city. A bonus: admission is free, and the park rangers give free guided tours.
Mission San José
6701 San Jose Drive
Tel: (210) 534-8875
Open: Daily 9am – 5pm
Visit the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) – One of the Top Things to Do in San Antonio
On the northern edge of downtown, the buildings of the San Antonio Museum of Art were once home to the Lone Star Brewery. And given a brewery’s need for water, its position on the banks of the San Antonio River makes sense.
I enjoyed this museum, despite my not-long-enough visit. Among other things, it’s renowned for the most comprehensive ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art collections in the southern USA.
There’s also the museum’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Latin American art wing. Its renowned collection encompasses Spanish Colonial Art, Folk Art, Pre-Columbian Art, and Latin American Modern and Contemporary Art. Also, visit its Asian art wing, with treasures from Korea, India, Japan, and China. Its Chinese ceramics collection is beautiful.
Although its collections numbers 30,000 objects, SAMA may not be as large as other famous museums you may have visited. But it’s a gem with top-notch collections.
Squeeze it into your schedule if you enjoy art, even if you only have an hour or two.
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 West Jones Street
Tel: (210) 978-8100
Open: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday 10am – 5pm / Tuesday and Friday 10am – 7pm.
Admission: adult $20 / students $12 / children 12 and younger free. The museum offers free hours on Tuesday and Sunday
Note: there’s a large parking lot on-site to park for free. Bus No. 7 stops across the street from the museum. The VIVA Culture bus also stops here.
Visit the Witte Museum – One of the Interesting Things to Do in San Antonio
I wasn’t going to visit the Witte during my search for things to do in San Antonio during such a short visit.
It appeared a bit too quirky since everything seemed too Texas-centric for a non-Texan.
Nevertheless, I went after someone urged me to visit, and I saw its affiliation with the Smithsonian.
And I’m glad I did.
That’s not to say that this museum – focusing on Texan nature, science, and culture – will be of interest to everyone. But on the other hand, I found it fascinating because its collections and displays are also relative to American history and culture.
After all, I didn’t know that dinosaurs once roamed Texas. Or how the indigenous people of the American Southwest once survived and lived. Or how needed goods were moved by wagon across an unhospitable land during the 19th century.
This museum attempts to provide each visitor with an “ah-ha!” moment. And I had several.
Visit the Witte and have your own.
The Witte Museum
3801 Broadway Street
San Antonio, TX 78209
Tel: (210) 357-1900
Open: Monday and Wednesday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm / Tuesday: 10am – 6pm / Sunday: noon – 5pm
Admission: adult $14.00 / Military and 65 + $13.00 / Military Senior $12.00 / Child 4 – 11 years $10.00 / Military Child $9.00 / 3 years and younger free
Note: the museum is free Tuesdays 3pm – 6pm
Market Square – Another Top Thing To Do In San Antonio
Market Square is a three-block outdoor plaza lined with shops and restaurants in downtown San Antonio. This historic three-block Market Square, also known as “El Mercado,” is the largest Mexican market in the United States. And it’s only about a ten-minute walk from the Spanish Governor’s Palace and San Fernando Cathedral.
In its 100 locally-owned shops and stalls, you’ll enjoy the sights and flavors of old Mexico. Think authentic Talavera pottery, assorted trinkets, and Mexican handicrafts. And outstanding, gourmet Mexican cuisine at the lively Mi Tierra Café and Bakery and La Margarita restaurants.
I had been to Mi Tierra years ago and loved the food and the murals adorning the walls. But unfortunately, on this trip, I was rushed, and although I could visit, I didn’t have time to dine.
But I did a walk-around to enjoy the festive and colorful atmosphere of the popular restaurant.
Outside in “El Mercado” is where the culture of San Antonio comes alive. Visit the shops and stalls, and you’ll find colorful Mexican artistry, including hand-embroidered dresses, crafts, souvenirs, and more.
514 W. Commerce Street
Tel: (210) 207-8600
Open: Monday – Sunday: 10am – 6pm
Spanish Governor’s Palace
The Spanish Governor’s Palace, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, is in the heart of downtown San Antonio.
However, there’s a problem: it isn’t, and never was a palace. So I can only guess there wasn’t sufficient reason to change its name.
On the other hand, the dwelling was the former seat of the Spanish government. That’s when San Antonio was the capital of Spain’s Texas territory. And why it remains part of the legacy of San Antonio’s early days.
Near San Fernando Cathedral, the long one-story, stucco-covered stone structure surrounds a traditional and beautiful cobblestone patio. It’s the last surviving example in Texas of an aristocratic 18th-century Spanish Colonial town house, complete with period furnishings.
Spanish Governor’s Palace
105 Plaza de Armas
Tel: (210) 207-7527
Open: Tuesday – Saturday: 9am – 5pm / Sunday: 10am – 5pm / Monday: Closed
Admission: Adult: $5 / Age 60+, Military, Children 7-13: $3 / Children under 7 years: free
Note: Visitors must purchase tickets online and reserve a date and time to visit.
The Buckhorn Saloon and Museum and Texas Ranger Museum
If beer, stuffed animals, and Texas history are what interest you, the Buckhorn Saloon will be your cup of tea. Or, more appropriately, your mug of beer.
But if you’ve watched many old westerns on television., you could be a bit let down by the place.
Nevertheless, you’ll find one-of-a-kind animal exhibits, a historic saloon, a café, a gift shop, and the Texas Ranger Museum.
The saloon was opened in 1881 by Albert Friedrich, a local bellhop. However, his way of doing business was a bit out of the ordinary: if customers didn’t have the cash to pay for drinks, he’d accept horns, pelts, and other objects as payment. It was the start of his museum. Today, thanks to the talents of taxidermists, there are more than 500 species of wildlife in the museum.
I entered and stepped up to buy my museum ticket from a goatee’d cowboy. With cowboy hat and vest, six-guns on each hip, he was the epitome of the old Texan cowboy.
I soon learned otherwise. “Moved down from Jersey 42 years ago,” he told me when I picked up on his accent. “Got tired of shoveling snow.”
To satisfy many visitors, the Saloon’s Texas Ranger Museum has hundreds of artifacts – guns galore, badges, photographs, and more. While interesting, purists should know that the official Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum is in Waco, Texas.
The original bar, however, may be historical. It’s said to be where Pancho Villa planned the Mexican Revolution, and Teddy Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders.
Buckhorn Saloon and Museum
318 East Houston Street
Tel: (210) 247-4000Open: varies greatly; see https://www.buckhornmuseum.com/plan-your-visitAdmission: There’s no fee to enter the saloon, but there is a fee to enter the museums (adult: $22.99 / children 3-11 years: $16.99)
McNay Art Museum
You’ll likely enjoy the McNay Art Museum if you enjoy modern art. It’s in a Spanish Colonial Revival-style mansion north of downtown San Antonio.
Named in honor of Marion Koogler McNay, the museum’s founder, it is the first museum of modern art in Texas. During her lifetime McNay collected hundreds of works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jackson Pollock, Paul Gauguin, and others.
Since 1950, the museum’s collection has expanded to over 22,000 works since McNay’s original bequest. Today it includes Medieval and Renaissance art; 19th- through 21st- century European and American paintings, sculptures, and photographs; and one of the finest collections of prints and drawings in the Southwest. There are also collections devoted to Art Glass, the art of New Mexico, and the Theatre Arts.
The collection, however, isn’t only contained within the museum’s walls. You’ll find more art all around the museum’s 25-acre campus.
McNay Art Museum
6000 North New Braunfels Ave.
Tel: (210) 824-5368Open: Sunday: noon – 5pm / Wednesday 10am – 6pm / Thursday 10am – 9pm / Friday 10am – 6pm / Saturday 10am – 5pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Admission: adult: $22 / 65+ and college student with ID $15 / Teens 13-19 years $10 / 12 years and younger – free.
San Fernando Cathedral
If you’re in downtown San Antonio, visit San Fernando Cathedral. It’s near the Spanish Governor’s Palace and about a 10-minute walk from Market Square.
The cathedral, one of the oldest in the U.S., was built in 1738 by colonists from Spain’s Canary Islands. It’s still an active place of worship, beautiful both inside and out. It’s also the burial place of wild west legends Davie Crockett, James Bowie, and William Travis.
There has long been a debate as to where the heroes are buried. But enter the cathedral through its left entrance, and you’ll find a marker… “Here lie the remains of Travis, Crockett, Bowie and other Alamo heroes…”
View the cathedral’s interior, which is beautiful as you might expect. Many people, however, prefer to visit at night to see the free light show projected on the building’s facade. It takes place every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 9, 9:30, and 10pm.
San Fernando Cathedral
115 Main Plaza
Tel: (210) 227-1297
Open: Monday – Friday 9am to 5pm / Saturday and Sunday – 7:30am to 6:30pm
One of the Interesting Things to Do in San Antonio: Go for a Walk in the King William Historic District
San Antonio currently has 31 different locally designated historic districts. However, the most popular is the King William Historic District, named after the neighborhood’s main street.
The street was named King William in honor of King Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, in the 1870s. At that time, German immigrants had begun building homes in the area. However, during World War I, when America and Germany were at war, the name was changed to Pershing Avenue. Several years after the end of the war, the original name was restored.
Today it is a beautiful neighborhood and a National Register Historic District. Near where the street meets the river, you’ll find the 1876 Steves Homestead House Museum. It’s named after the lumber baron who built the house.
Today, though, it’s the home of The Conservation Society of San Antonio, one of the first community preservation groups in the United States. The society also helped preserve the Spanish missions and other historical attractions in San Antonio. Unfortunately, the Steves House is currently closed.
Further along the street, though, you find several other beautiful homes. At 523 King William Street, see the Victorian-style Harnisch House, at 401 the Villa Finale Museum and Gardens, and the surprisingly simple twin houses of English architect Alfred Giles at 306 and 308.
Enjoy the walk!
King William Historic District
Steves Homestead House Museum
107 King William Street
Tel: (210) 224-6163
Open: the house is closed until further notice
Admission: $10 per person; children under 12 free
Relax in the San Antonio Botanical Garden
The 338-acre San Antonio Botanical Garden is more than a garden. It’s also a tranquil escape and a living museum of plants that includes 35 endangered and rare species.
The garden encompasses a rose garden, sensory garden, water-saving garden, and a Japanese Garden. Its unique 11-acre Texas Native Trail – representing three ecosystems – features over 250 plant species.
Its ingenious Conservatory takes you underground through a tunnel of soil cut 20 feet into the earth into the Palm House.
Unfortunately, I visited during a heatwave and could only see a small portion of the garden.
San Antonio Botanical Garden
555 Funston Place
Tel: (210) 536-1400
Open: daily 9am – 7pm / Thursday 9am – 9pm
Admission: Adults $18 / Children 3 – 13years $15 (under 3 years free) / Military and students with valid ID $16
Enjoy a Top Restaurant in the Pearl District, One of the Enjoyable Things to Do in San Antonio
The Pearl District, now the trendiest area of San Antonio, is an urban Cinderella story.
The district is the former home of San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery, which first opened there in the 1880s. More than 100 years later, after the historical brewery shut down in the 1990s, it laid dormant for many years. Finally, a revitalization plan was developed.
Key to it was the re-use of the original brewery buildings as the base of the new community. As a result, today it’s an exceptionally vibrant community filled with restaurants, shops, and a now-famous Saturday Farmer’s Market. In addition, it is home to some of the top restaurants to open in San Antonio in recent years.
Wandering about the area, I was amazed by the outdoor cafes and the numerous restaurants and shops. In addition, there are also many chic boutiques and even an independent bookstore. Most notable was the newest campus of the famed Culinary Institute of America.
I capped off my short visit to The Pearl relaxing at Bakery Lorraine, sharing my table with a delicious lemon cake.
303 Pearl Parkway
Tel: (210) 212-7260
If You Go:
Visit San Antonio
317 Alamo Plaza (across the Plaza from the Alamo)
San Antonio, TX 78205
Tel: (210) 212-7260
The Emily Morgan Hotel
705 E Houston Street
San Antonio, TX 78205
Tel: (210) 225-5100
Ed Boitano says
Truly enjoyed your article on San Antonio.
I’ve only experienced it once, and, upon reading your very educational article, I see there is so much more to explore.
Local food is also a gateway for me in understanding a new city or location. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t San Antonio the modern birthday of ‘fajita’?
Jim Ferri says
To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. And I’ve also consulted a Mexican food expert (my wife) and she doesn’t either.