Whether you love learning about history, riding roller-coasters or simply eating amazing Mexican food, San Antonio offers a wealth of entertaining options. The richness of Mexican culture permeates the city, and there’s always music in the air and a fiesta around every corner.
The River Walk is a must-see for any traveler to San Antonio. The River Walk was conceived in 1929. Downtown had major flooding problems, and a 27-year-old UT architecture graduate named Robert H. Hugman suggested that the city turn the San Antonio River into a tourist attraction that would also help control flooding. Hugman’s big idea has since become the biggest draw in the city. Stairways down to the River Walk can be found on street level throughout downtown. Walk down anywhere you like, and wander and explore the great shops, galleries, restaurants and other sights.
The San Fernando Cathedral was founded in 1731 and is the oldest active cathedral in Texas. Fifteen families from the Canary Islands were the church’s first members. They were a part of King Phillip's efforts to colonize the area and claim it for Spain before the French could gain a foothold in the region. Considered one of the most historically significant churches in the U.S., it has been visited by a number of dignitaries throughout its long history, including President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966 and Pope John Paul II in 1987. Located midway between the city center and Market Square, the cathedral welcomes up to 5,000 people for weekend masses.
One of the most famous buildings in the world, the Alamo was the site of a brutal battle between Texas rebels and the massive Mexican army. The Texans lost the battle but soon won the war, gaining independence from Mexico in 1836. If you have the time, the guided tour is highly recommended. You’ll learn much more about the building, the artifacts and the history with the help of a knowledgeable guide.
The 750-foot Tower of the Americas is a tourist attraction that will appeal to the whole family, with two restaurants, a movie theater and an observation deck. Instead of paying for a ticket to the observation deck at the top of the tower, you may want to apply that money toward lunch or dinner at the Chart House restaurant or drinks at the bar (the ride is free for restaurant and bar customers). The top of the tower rotates very gradually to allow for ever-evolving views of the city. Check out the Tower of the Americas Plaza, at street level, during the summer. Every Friday night from 7 p.m. to midnight, there are live music performances, car shows and other free events.
With all the shows Sea World has to offer, the aquarium, the rollercoasters and the Lost Lagoon Water Park, you should be prepared to spend a full day (or two) in this fun-filled park. Located about 40 minutes northwest of downtown San Antonio, this Sea World park has something for everyone. Little-known fact: you are allowed to bring a six-pack-sized cooler into the park with bottled water and small snacks. Also, you can save 10 percent off admission by buying your tickets online.
After an orca killed a trainer at the Orlando park in 2010, several new safety measures were implemented to protect the trainers and the fans. The trainers no longer get in the water with the whales and higher, stronger barriers were erected around the performance area. Due to the public outcry since the incident, the orca shows are slowly being phased out.
The Witte Museum is part of Brackenridge Park and is located just three miles north of downtown on the banks of the San Antonio River. The museum features exhibits on South Texas history, culture and natural science. The HEB Science Treehouse is aimed at teaching children about science in a fun, hands-on setting. Kids also love the Dino Hall, the mummy exhibit, the Ancient Texans display and the live animal exhibit, which includes bees, spiders and snakes. Daily educational programs for kids and adults help to bring the exhibits to life.
The core of the museum is a 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival house donated by oil heiress Marion McNay in 1950. She also donated her collection of 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings. Take a relaxing stroll through the property’s 23 acres, including beautiful gardens of native Texas plants and flowers.
If you want a special treat, plan to have lunch at the Carriage House Bistro on site and dine outside on the patio. For a scenic trip to the gardens, hop onto the VIA Sightseer bus No. 7. Bring your camera to take pictures of the grounds. The McNay is a popular spot for bridal and fashion shoots because of its beautiful gardens and courtyards.
Located just south of the downtown area, the King William Historic District is a residential area that was settled by German immigrants in the 1860s and named for Kaiser Wilhelm, King of Prussia during the 1870s. Many of the immigrants were talented stonemasons, and their handiwork is still visible on many of the homes. The early residents of the houses were major players in San Antonio's business community, including lumberyard owners, architects, doctors and other professionals.
Visitors flock to the area to admire the large, impressive houses and walk along the pecan- and cypress-shaded streets. The district has evolved into a hip and artsy area, boasting bed and breakfasts, art galleries and quaint cafes.
La Villita means “little village” and it is the original home of the first settlers of San Antonio. Today, people visit La Villita for its quaint cobblestone paths, art galleries and history. It is located on the south bank of the San Antonio River and hosts many outdoor festivals and events with live music and dancing, especially in the springtime. You can check out a weekend dance performance of Ballet Folklorico at The Arneson River Theater, an amphitheater in La Villita, with the stage located across the San Antonio River. The Little Church, built in 1879, features a gorgeous stained-glass cross along the back wall. It’s now an active non-denominational church that is also available for weddings and other events.
Mission San Jose, located at the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, was founded in 1720 by Father Antonio Margil de Jesus. If you only have time to visit one of the San Antonio Missions, the “Queen of the Missions” is the one to see. It is the largest of the five missions and the most fully restored.
The mission was a church-focused community, where Spanish missionaries and their Native American converts lived during the 1700s and 1800s. In its heyday, in the late 1700s, 350 Native Americans lived on the property and tended crops and livestock. The site’s bounty made it the subject of frequent attacks by Apaches and Comanches. While they succeeded in stealing livestock, which was kept outside the compound, the raiders could not get past the formidable defenses of the mission itself. Free ranger-guided tours last 45 to 60 minutes and are available periodically throughout the day. The mission remains an active church, and visitors are permitted to attend the Sunday mass.
What started in 1918 as a simple lily pond built out of an old rock quarry is now a lush year-round Japanese garden. A 2008 renovation added shaded walkways, stone bridges, a 60-foot waterfall and ponds filled with koi. Informative signs reveal the garden's interesting history. In 1920, Ray Lambert, commissioner of parks, had several small houses built on the site. Lambert envisioned a tourist attraction for selling Mexican arts and crafts. In 1926, a local Japanese-American artist, Kimi Eizo Jingu, opened the Bamboo Room on the site. The restaurant sold light lunches and tea. He and his family lived on-site and also worked in the gardens. At the dawn of World War II, Jingu and has family were evicted as a result of widespread anti-Japanese sentiment. The site was renamed the Chinese Sunken Garden; in 1984, the original name was restored.
This 343-acre park just north of downtown San Antonio is the best deal in town for family fun. The park is set along a quieter part of the San Antonio River and there are picnic areas, playgrounds, pedal boats and even a carousel. The San Antonio Zoo Eagle, the miniature train right outside the zoo, is one of the cheapest thrills in town. The cost is only $3 for adults, $2.75 for children. The ride chugs 3.5 miles along the San Antonio River, over bridges and through tunnels throughout the park. Other facilities include a municipal golf course, a driving range, bike trails and picnic areas.
A bustling cultural and business center since the 1820s, Market Square is also home to festivals and outdoor events year-round. Market Square is particularly popular in April, during the Fiesta celebration that takes over much of the city. Year-round, the square features authentic Mexican restaurants, one-of-a-kind Mexican handicrafts and souvenir shops. Museo Alameda, which is affiliated with The Smithsonian, features exhibits of work by Latino artists. The square is located just west of the city center and walking distance from most downtown hotels.
Named one of the Top 10 Best Zoos for Kids by Parenting magazine in 2016, the San Antonio Zoo features animal exhibits and interactive experiences that can grab and hold the attention of even the most easily distracted little ones. Established in 1914, the 35-acre site is home to 3,500 animals. The zoo is easy to navigate on foot, with plenty of helpful signs and beautifully landscaped walkways. It’s conveniently located about three miles north of downtown and the Alamo. Don’t be alarmed if you see an animal that’s not in a cage. Docents regularly roam the park with well-behaved critters, allowing up-close encounters. In addition to providing first-rate family entertainment, the zoo plays a global conservation role by participating in breeding programs for endangered species.
San Antonio Streetcars
If you’re staying on the River Walk, there are plenty of entertainment options right at your doorstep. If you don’t want to walk everywhere, however, the San Antonio Streetcar is the best deal in town. Run by the local VIA bus company, the old-fashioned trolleys only run downtown and are a hidden gem for travelers on a budget. They’re a clean and inexpensive way to get around downtown. Look for the trolley stops next to the bus stops. The wait is rarely longer than 10 minutes. The routes and schedules are posted as well. A one-day pass offers unlimited rides for only $5. You can access any of these destinations by streetcar: Brackenridge Park, Japanese Tea Garden, San Antonio Botanical Garden, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio Zoo and Witte Museum.