Our writer loved going solo and finding a lot of free or inexpensive things to do in San Antonio on a budget…
By Carla Marie Rupp
One of the best things following my short business trip to Texas was going solo and finding a lot of free or inexpensive things to do in San Antonio. After all, it’s home of the big San Antonio Fiesta in April, The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, the latter the first World Heritage Site in the state of Texas. Everyone can visit them for free, every day – a fun and inexpensive San Antonio vacation!
San Antonio is also a great place to start a Chisholm Trail road trip.
The first part of my trip I stayed with a friend, Quasia, in her beautiful condo on the sprawled-out city’s outskirts. I enjoyed it but yearned to see what would happen on my own adventure down in the heart of the city.
I didn’t know what to expect. Because I had been to San Antonio in previous years, it seemed like a nostalgic and magical place and I wanted to relive some of it.
Memories of San Antonio
With my parents and brother Larry long ago, I had memories of going up the Hemisfair Park’s Tower of the Americas (now $14 for adults; $12, seniors) that looms in city views, and taking a leisurely boat ride (now around $10) on the river.
With my son Jason and our friend a few years back, we drove from Austin, stopping along the way for country music at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, a cool, swinging small town. We then set off to explore the fun and crazy activities at the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, the largest in the nation, held over a few weeks in February.
We especially loved the hoopla of the carnival and sideshow atmosphere, the tacos (yummy) and the Mexican music tent. I also have fond memories of the neighborhood Second Friday Art Walk in the To-bin Hill area (free), so I knew there were artsy people among the more than two million yearly visitors to San Antonio, and not just cowboys. Our art walk then was followed by what many tourists like, clubbing along the River Walk.
But now I wanted to visit the city at a laid-back pace and still mingle with locals. Alone on my own. So that’s what I did. I moved to my own place nearer “the action,” studying everywhere I could go in this vibrant city with its Tex-Mex culture and rich history. I knew I could enjoy beautiful San Antonio without breaking the bank.
Seeing San Antonio on a Budget
I’ll share some tips for things to do in San Antonio on a budget.
For the next five days, I had the best time exploring this fascinating city, marveling at the architecture, taking in the sights walking (free) or by bus. One of the few times I rode in a car after going solo was when local musician\ activist friends Katchie and Richard, who I knew from New York City, dropped me off at my small hotel after we marched in the eye-opening, Martin Luther King, Jr., parade (free), the biggest in the nation, held annually in January.
But I had easily made my way there to find them by city bus (VIA, exact change, no dollar bills, $1.30, single trip; $2.75, unlimited Day Pass, or Reduced Senior Fare), and walking through the eager and enthusiastic crowds, chatting with a few people here and there. It’s a friendly city.
“It’s a different pace of life. But there’s something beautiful about that,” says Quasia, who moved there from New York City. “I like it.” I like San Antonio, too.
A Historic City to Enjoy
San Antonio — once a Spanish mission and colonial outpost in 1718 — has a population of around 1.5 million residents living over a huge area of 465 square miles. It is the second largest city in Texas, after Houston. It’s also the seventh largest city in the United States, 75 miles southwest of Austin, the state capital, 190 miles west of Houston, and 250 miles south of Dallas.
The historic, beautiful city is home to the famous Alamo (which I thoroughly enjoyed seeing and photographing), as well as the five-mile, downtown River Walk (free to stroll) below street level. Walk along its pathways and you’ll possibly see mariachi musicians, but also the San Antonio Museum of Art in the Lone Star Brewery Complex (adults, $20; seniors, $17), with its art ranging from Greek and Roman to Latin American and contemporary. Also near River Walk is Artpace, dedicated to the creation and advancement of contemporary art (free).
Although it’s further away, don’t miss the McNay Art Museum, located in a Spanish colonial mansion belonging to an art collector of modern European and American art ($10-$20, adults; $5-$15, seniors, students, depending on the exhibition and galleries).
The wonderful Witte Museum (free every Tuesday, 3 pm-8 pm; other days, $13-$15) showcases science, health, natural history and the heritage of South Texas people. Anyone would enjoy The DoSeum ($14 per person above the age of one), a great children’s museum for all ages.
Fun Things to Do in San Antonio
Every visitor can find fun, inexpensive, and worthwhile things while visiting San Antonio on a budget. The Historic Market Square/El Mercado (FREE to browse), with delicious food and a weekend farmers market, is a treat.
The outdoor plaza with what seems like 100 restaurants, craft shops, and pastries everywhere you look, is a must. Here the cultures of Old Mexico come alive and if you’re lucky, you’ll be there with live bands. Also visit the 16-acre, historic La Villita Historic Arts Village (free), one of the city’s first neighbor-hoods, built in 1845.
For families, there is Six Flags Fiesta Texas, a dream of many children. It was one my brother Larry accomplished by winning a free trip there when we were children back in Kansas, by collecting a huge amount of bottle caps.
Families might also like the Quadrangle at Fort Sam Houston or the four missions making up San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (free) and the Institute of Texas Cultures. The parks are also beautiful, many with trails, and include Brackenridge Park (free), the Japanese Tea Garden (free), San Pedro Creek Culture Park (free), Phil Hardberger Park (free), and scenic McAllister Park (free), the latter great for joggers.
San Antonio is full of neighborhoods, as in most cities. My favorite place this past visit was to discover Southtown, a fun, small artsy area, and the nearby historic King William Historic District (free to walk around), filled with late 19th to early 20th century colonial-revival mansions.
It’s a beautiful walking area with plenty of restaurants and entertainment, and a great time to stroll through it is on the first Friday of every month when galleries stay open late. One of the great places to visit is the 1920s warehouse, Blue Star Contemporary Art Center (free to enter). During Fiesta in late April you can enjoy the annual King William Fair, an activity-filled, one-day festive event.
Hotels for Budget Travelers
For a solo traveler, unless you’re splurging at the hot and trendy Hotel Emma at $500 a night in the Pearl District, or one of the boutique hotels along River Walk, anyone visiting San Antonio on a budget can find a range of budget lodgings. There are plenty of them, such as Red Roof, Motel 6 and La Villita. I chose the latter at around $50 a night. Some such as Days Inn, La Quinta Inn and Super 8, are a bit more but still a good deal.
I loved all the Mexican food, and had fun eating alone, in restaurants that were mostly within walking distance from my budget hotel, La Villita (around $50+ a night). But there’s nothing like the fun company of eating with a good long-time friend.
After listening to the big band play at Blue Star’s bar on my last night in San Antonio, I joined Jimmy James, a musical entertainer friend whom I knew from Hollywood and New York City, at Pappasito’s Cantina, a large, colorful restaurant. Jimmy and I had margaritas and the works (around $60 for two), and while enjoying the huge and delicious helpings laughed and reminisced. Afterwards Jimmy took me to meet his sweet Texas mother. “Be sure and come back and visit us again!” she said, when I was leaving.
I’m glad I had a budget San Antonio experience on my own. While it was nice at my friend Shaquasia’s condo, with its pool and clubhouse, I also wanted to be downtown or by the gorgeous River Walk. Going solo, which was exciting and still relaxing for me, let me do that. And it wasn’t that expensive.
San Antonio is special, and a wonderful place to visit. And each time you go there are more places to see and experience. Downtown I could “feel” the history and culture. I even navigated my own way to the San Antonio International Airport by city bus, seeing even more sights — and proud that I could figure it out on my own and not spend money on a taxi.
I promised Shaquasia, a New York City transplant, I’d be back.
“Be sure and come for the Fiesta in April! It’s so fun,” she assured me.
I hope I can.
Editor’s Note: you may also enjoy Texas Road Trip: the Chisholm Trail, The Texas Panhandle – Route 66, the Cadillac Ranch and Buddy Holly, and The Importance of Family Travel
If you go to:
Visit San Antonio www.visitsanantonio.com
Fiesta San Antonio www.fiestasanantonio.org
Historic Market Square https://www.marketsquaresa.com/
King William Historic District www.saconservation.org
Tobin Hill www.Tobinhill.org