A tree-covered riverwalk with quaint stone bridges. An eleven-day festival with confetti and chicken on a stick. Remembering the Alamo. When it comes to having a good time steeped in history, there are so many scenic and fascinating things to do in San Antonio, Texas.
You can wander around in one of their many museums, take a riverboat down a fairy-tale-esque river, and walk the grounds of what was once a Mission turned gruesome battlefield. Not to mention stunning gardens, incredible food, and friendly people. It’s easy to find yourself falling in love with San Antonio on your first visit!
Visiting Texas for the first time I wondered what it would be like. A desert wasteland? No, not at all, luckily! Would everyone be in ten-galloon hats and cowboy boots? Well, not everyone, but you’ll definitely see some Texan fashion! And would the vibes be off since Texas has some truly awful politics? I am glad to say no – the city is diverse and welcoming.
Luckily our Editor-in-Chief Richie Goff spent five days here to tell you all about the best things to do in San Antonio, Texas. So let’s get into it!
Psst: Planning a visit to Texas or the West? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip!
The Best Time to Visit San Antonio, Texas
The best time to San Antonio, Texas is before it gets too hot or too cold (all you need is a light jacket), generally in March/April or October/November. The temperatures during this time range from the mid-60s to the 80s, and when I went in April it got a little hot at midday but not stifling.
I also visited San Antonio during their Fiesta festival which happens every April, and fell in love with the energy the city exudes during this time. People come out to party, much like we do here in Louisville during the Kentucky Derby Festival or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and there was so much to do and see during this time.
I highly recommend visiting during April during the 11-long-day festival (more on this below), and if you’re into fun and lots of events to attend, this really is the best time to explore the city!
How to Get to San Antonio, Texas
Texas is a huge state, and the easiest way to get here is to fly. Many airlines don’t fly directly into San Antonio but connect through Dallas, which is about an hour’s flight away. The San Antonio airport itself (SAT) is small enough to get through quickly and is only 15 minutes away from the center of the city.
How to get around San Antonio, Texas
There are a couple of ways to get around San Antonio easily. Those are:
- Walking: I stayed downtown right across the street from the Alamo during my stay and was able to walk to a lot of the cultural highlights of the city, including the Alamo (of course), the River Walk, the Old Marketplace Square, a few of the museums, some great restaurants, and most of the Fiesta events.
- Ride Shares or Rental Cars: To reach my other destinations I used rideshares, but this can add up quickly. If you’re going to stay for more than a few days renting a car may be your best option, but not absolutely necessary.
- The Bus: San Antonio has a bus system called the VIA Metropolitan Transit that runs several lines for an inexpensive cost.
Things to do in San Antonio, Texas
There are so many things to do in San Antonio, Texas, where does one begin? Well to get the pulse of the city, and the history that built it, there is one stop that will put into perspective the culture, and complicated history of the city and the state of Texas. Lest we forget, let’s start with learning about the history of the Alamo!
Learn Your Texan History at the Alamo
Even if you aren’t the biggest history buff, the Alamo is a good place to start your time in San Antonio because it puts the city, and the state of Texas, into historical perspective.
The Alamo is located smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio, and it feels like the center of the wheel which the rest of the city fans out from. Next to it is a mall and several hotels, but walking around the Alamo grounds feels like being in a different world.
When most people think of the Alamo they only think of the iconic Alamo church, which of course is very beautiful and evocative, but the surrounding grounds are just as much of the original Alamo, even though most of the walls and buildings are missing today.
The San Antonio area was originally occupied by the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation of Indigenous Peoples until their population was greatly diminished by the arrival of Spanish Franciscan Missionaries who established San Antonio de Valero Mission in 1718.
In 1793, the Spanish Crown issued an order for the missions in Texas (which was still part of Mexico at this point) to be secularized, so in 1803, a Spanish cavalry unit called La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Parras converted the old mission into military barracks which became “the Alamo”.
In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain, then Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in 1833 abolished the Constitution of 1824, changing his political views from federalism to centralism, causing Mexico to fall into a civil war and Texas to seek its own independence.
On October 2, 1835, the Texas Revolution began in the town of Gonzales, when the Mexican Army refused to hand back a canon to the Texans who lent them it. Eventually, the Texans fired a shot at the Mexican Army, leading to the start of the Texas Revolution.
The Texans hunkered down at the Alamo, as General Santa Anna’s Army marched toward Texas. On March 2, 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico. The Battle of the Alamo took place on March 6, 1836, and was really a very small moment in this whole political turmoil – the battle lasted only 90 minutes, and Santa Anna’s Army wiped out all 200 defenders.
Today the Alamo stands for bravery, revolution, and resilience, though it has a more complicated side, in that part of the political unrest of the Texans was they wanted to fight Mexico to keep their right to own slaves. Like almost all of US history, there is a strange line between honoring the complicated past and using it to guide us to a better future.
Visiting the Alamo church is free with a timed ticket, and you can also take a guided tour or private tour (Ernesto was an amazing guide!). They also just opened the brand new Ralston Family Collections Center, which features a huge collection of items related to the Alamo (many donated by singer Phil Collins) including Santa Anna’s field sword, a rifle owned by Davy Crockett, and a Violin made from the Alamo church wood.
The Alamo is currently going through some expansion efforts, building out parts of the original Alamo so visitors can see what the entire complex would have looked like before Santa Anna’s army destroyed most of it. Check out Mission San Jose if you want to explore a mission that has been better preserved (i.e. not destroyed), which is San Antonio’s Nation Park, and you can even hit up a lot of the missions on a private tour!
Party During Fiesta®
Fiesta® San Antonio is a long-standing event, originally started in 1891 a one-parade event to honor those who died at the Alamo and Battle of San Jacinto, the final battle of the Texas Revolution. Today the event lives on in the month of April, but rather than being a single parade, it has evolved into an 11-day-celebration that honors all things San Antonio, including its diverse residents, with parades (multiple ones!), music, patriotic observances, Fiesta Royalty with rhinestone dresses, and lots of good food and drinks!
Though the original festival may have had more of the strictly Patriotic history associated with it, Fiesta today brings the city together all for a good cause – The Fiesta® San Antonio Commission Inc. is a nonprofit, volunteer, self-supporting organization and the funds raised provide services to San Antonio citizens throughout the year. It really is a party with a purpose!
You’ll see people wearing flower crowns (halos), smashing confetti eggs on each other’s heads (Cascarones), and wearing colorful badges on their clothes (medals) which you can buy or you may be given by business or party-goers. For Fiesta you dress up – we’re talking a total color explosion, and you’ll see a lot of people in Latin-inspired embroidered tops and huge gaudy hats, much like the Kentucky Derby!
Now that you know a *little* about what Fiesta® San Antonio is, here are some of the events you can’t miss:
- A Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) – A Night in Old San Antonio or NIOSA (as you’ll more commonly see it written or heard it said as), is a four-day long event that celebrates the culture of San Antonio’s residents. It feels a lot like Disney World in a way – there are many different “lands” filled with food and drinks from that culture which takes place in the downtown historic arts village of La Villita. You can get escargot from France, chicken on a stick from New Orleans, pretzels from Germany, elote from Mexico, and so much more. Live music fills the air, everyone is drinking and having fun, and you can explore the world in one night!
- Battle of the Flowers Parade – This 2.5-hour+ parade is the culmination of the Fiesta® activities, and in the days leading up to it, you’ll see people setting up bleachers all over the city for the 45,000 seats that are sold. The Battle of the Flowers® Association is the only all-women, all-volunteer organization producing events of its kind and you can expect to see military displays, cultural floats, and the Fiesta® Royalty, including its duchesses in long, ostentatious beaded dresses. You’ll hear spectators yelling for the girls to “show us your shoes!”, and they’ll show what they’re wearing underneath their dresses to the audience – usually rhinestone cowboy boots!
- Cornyation – Cornyation (a spoof on “coronation”) started in the 1950s as a way to make fun of the rich, Anglo citizens of the Fiesta® Royal Court and the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo, where every year 24 women of eligible marriage age walk across the Coronation stage and up a set of stairs, waiting for the crowning of their Princess and Queen. The first Cornyation in 1951 mocked the Coronation theme of 1950, the “Court of Islands,” by crowning instead an “Empress of the Cracked Salad Bowl” on the river of the thousand islands, where all the Cornyation duchesses dressed up as lettuce and other vegetables. Today Cornyation keeps with the tradition of panning the elite – you’ll see drag queens impersonating CoUNTry queens, skits making fun of local and national politics, and a whole lot of campy and gay musical numbers. It’s chaotic, irreverent, and funny. I recommend this excellent book – Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition – to learn more about this super fun tradition.
- Fiesta de los Reyes – Located in the Historic Market Square, which has been used as a meeting point for food and the local “chili queens” since 1730, you can find yourself among 100+ local vendors during a huge street party. The Fiesta itself is the largest free event in San Antonio, and you can walk down the street with a margarita while noshing on a chicken on a stick. Live music permeates the air and it’s wonderful people watching amongst the historic architecture! The Historic Market Square is also lively on any weekend you may be in town.
Stroll Along the River Walk and Take a River Cruise
One of the most charming places in San Antonio is the River Walk, which weaves between buildings and under stone bridges, with restaurants and colorful fiesta banners lining the route. If you’ve ever been to EPCOT it’s a bit like the Gran Fiesta Tour in the Mexico pavilion – but in real life!
The River Walk is easily accessible from most places downtown, and you’ll see signs pointing down stairs all over to get to the River Walk. As you stroll down the mostly natural river, you may notice the Arnerson River Theatre, which you may know as the place where Miss Rhode Island gives her famous “perfect date” answer in Miss Congeniality (April 25th).
One of the best ways to really see where this little river winds is by taking a Go Rio River Cruise, which is a 35-minute narrated boat tour in a colorful and comfortable small barge boat. You’ll learn about things like how 300 people fall in the river per year, most of whom are drunk or accidentally fall in when it’s crowded during parades around the river.
On your journey, you’ll wind past iconic spots, like the Old Mill Crossing Mural where Teddy Roosevelt led his Rough Riders, and Selena’s Bridge, where Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Pérez’s husband proposed to her in the movie (as played by J-Lo, of course). You’ll also learn about the historic architecture and see some huge modern sculptures which loom over the river.
Seeing these scenic bridges and people sipping on margaritas at little restaurants on the shore, like at Casa Rio, the first restaurant to be built along the river, it’s easy to see why the River Walk is so magical!
Stop to Smell the Roses at a Garden
Since San Antonio is in a temperate climate (i.e. hot), it’s easy for a lot of tropical plants to grow here. My initial thought was that San Antonio was going to be more like a desert rather than the surprisingly lush place that it actually is, though I was told that by the end of summer the plants are pretty baked.
Luckily, there are two great places to take in both the native flora of Texas, but also some amazing tropical plants you can only see in a cultivated environment.
San Antonio Botanical Garden
The San Antonio Botanical Garden is a 38-acre urban oasis of plants, flowers, and plenty of birds, bees, and butterflies fluttering about. Here you can stroll through culinary gardens, past massive plantings of native perennials feeding the local fauna, and through giant sculptural greenhouses, filled with an incredible assortment of orchids, ferns, palms, and other exotic plants.
Seriously, once the water misters come on in the greenhouses and you’re strolling through lush green and a plethora of rainbow orchids, you’ll feel like you’re in a prehistoric movie – sans the dinosaurs. You also cannot miss wandering through the Japanese gardens, the Texas native trails complete with little log cabins, and the formal garden, filled with roses and eye-popping snapdragons.
Once you’re done with your afternoon stroll, dine at the adjoining Jardin Restaurant. Cool off with a refreshing frozen peach bellini, and their grilled cheese with sweet tomato jam is to die for. If you’re in the mood for something heavier, try their house-made pasta, like the decadent pan-seared potato gnocchi. Being right next to a garden, you know everything is as fresh as it can get!
Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden was once a limestone quarry and cement factory at the turn of the century, but in 1916 Park Commissioner Ray Lambert looked out over the rocky void and thought, “You know what, this would make an epic Japanese garden.” So it became what it is now – a jaw-dropping, lush year-round garden with an abundance of flowers, shaded walkways, stone bridges over Koi ponds, and a dramatic 60-foot waterfall.
As you climb the stairs and look over the vast garden below, water pouring from the waterfall above, you’ll understand why people flock here to take photos and general wander around such a zen place.
The garden is free and open to the public 7am to 5pm every day, and arriving early is better rather than later since even in spring and fall San Antonio afternoons can get hot and steamy. If you get hungry for a snack, you can grab some food from the adjoining Jingu House which has spring rolls, boba tea, dumplings, and more!
The Saga at San Fernando Cathedral
By day, the San Fernando Cathedral is a gorgeous Catholic cathedral established in 1731, but by night it becomes The Saga at San Fernando Cathedral, a colorful light show that tells the story of San Antonio through music and dazzling images.
During this 24-minute journey by international artist Xavier de Richemont, you’ll see over 7000 square feet of light, color, and visual narration overtop the gorgeous architecture of the cathedral.
The Saga tells the story with constantly shifting, somewhat trippy visuals, painting the story with music from the Native Americans who called this region home, to the arrival and colonization of the Spanish, to the battle at the Alamo, to San Antonio today.
The show is free and takes place every Tuesday through Sunday at 9pm and 9:30pm.
Stuff Your Face
San Antonio has no shortage of delicious eats, I mean, who doesn’t like some excellent Tex-Mex food? Besides all the flavors of the city’s Mexican influence, San Antonio is the culinary capital of Texas and is one of the two U.S. cities (the other being Tuscon) designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, and probably the reason I put on so much weight in 5 days.
Since San Antonio is also home to a Culinary Institute of America campus, that most certainly helps them produce some top chefs and some truly unique dining experiences. Some of my favorite restaurants in San Antonio I’ve tried are:
- Botika – Botika is located in the Pearl, and its menu contains “a melting pot of South American and South East Asian flavors” which is exactly what you can expect to find here. To start, get the steam buns which include crispy pork belly, caramelized onion hoisin sauce, pickled red cabbage, cucumbers, and mint. For your main, get the undeniable star Lomo Saltado, a savory and decadent dish with Wok stir-fried shoulder tender steak, siyao, wedge fries, sweet plantain, pickled aji, and salsa criolla. I could eat this every time I come here!
- Best Quality Daughter – Also located in the Pearl in a 1906 house with four differently decorated rooms, Best Quality Daughter is a New Asian-American Restaurant with some serious style. Once you settle into this artistic and cozy restaurant, order a Super Bien cocktail with Mezcal, Watermelon-Ginger Cordial, and lemon juice that is smoky and sweet. For a starter, get the Mochi Cheddar Hush Puppies which are cheesy and chewy and come with Thai chili jam (I dream of these), and for a family-style main get the Cashew Chicken, which is super flavorful and crispy and nothing like take-out!
- La Gloria – Located in the Pearl as well (see a theme?), La Gloria “celebrates the rich and delicious street foods from interior Mexico” by providing lotssss of good Mexican eats. As you sit outside among the shade and colorful decorations overlooking the scenic river walk (the best view in town?), get one of their margaritas that have been voted best in San Antonio and an order of the Tradicional Queso Fundido and chips. For a little more sustenance than tequila and cheese, you can’t go wrong with their Tacos Al Pastor.
- Dough Pizzeria Napoletana – Dough is the place to go for quality Neapolitan pizza, where their wood-burning ovens that bake the pizzas to perfection in 90 seconds at over 900 degrees. Dough features an extensive wine selection, or get a flight of red or white wine to discover your new favorite wine (I sure did, the San Salvatore Ceraso Aglianico Paestum). To start try their Signature Burrata Al Tartufo© (so good it’s copywritten) with house-made burrata filled with truffle essence, mascarpone, and ricotta and paired farm fresh tomatoes, rosemary balsamic reduction, extra virgin olive oil, and house-made flatbread. For your pizza course, get the Fontina E Salsiccia with house-made sausage, fontina cheese, caramelized sweet onions, oak roasted mushrooms, thyme, Locatelli pecorino romano, and rosemary balsamic reduction. Buon Appetito!
- La Panadería – La Panadería is a quick-service bakery and cafe with several locations around town (including downtown), which is great to get a meal on the go! They specialize in handmade bread and pan dulce inspired by Mexico’s Golden Era, which draws influence from French, Italian and American breadmaking techniques, including a 48-hour fermentation process. Get a puff pastry like a frosting-dipped Oreja, or a traditional Mexican sweet bread like a Concha. You can also get sandwiches on their fresh baked goods like the El Favorito served on a round croissant with ham, swiss cheese, and two sunny side up eggs.
Explore the Historic Pearl
The Historic Pearl in San Antonio is a literal gem of delicious eateries, local boutique shops, and plenty of laid-back yet classy ambiance paired with gorgeous architecture. This area has been bringing people together since 1883 when local businessmen and moguls opened a brewery here. Soon after a brewmaster made his “Pearl” beer, whose name came from the foamy bubbles in the freshly poured glass which resembled sparkling pearls.
It wasn’t until the 2010s that this area became developed into the Pearl we see today, with apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants, a big lawn, the Culinary Institute of America, and a modern brewery. It’s a great place to spend a sunny afternoon, have a drink and a bite to eat, and shop!
Some of the best places to check out are:
- Feliz Modern – This super colorful shop specializes in curating items made by independent artists & makers, and is like stepping into a living painting. You can find super fun cards, zany earrings and jewelry, Taylor Swift gifts, and lots of other fun things that have a Texan vibe. I found so many things I wanted for myself and plenty of things to give as gifts!
- The Twig Book Shop – This intimate bookstore is jam-packed with amazing reads, with plenty of books highlighting the history of San Antonio! This is where I picked up my book on Cornyation and plenty of amazing souvenirs. You never know when you’ll need a book… in my case, another one!
- The Food Hall at Bottling Department – The Food Hall has four quick service food options you can pick up to eat inside or in the park right outside the doors. You can enjoy Mexican street food from Chilaquil, pizza from Wonderslice, or Caribbean food at Mi Roti, which has yummy curry chicken and roti, a buttery flatbread. You can also grab a drink to go at the Park Bar, like a frozen boozy lemonade perfect for a hot day!
- Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery – Southerleigh touts itself as “Texas Cross-cultural Cuisine and Craft Brewery” with a seasonally rotating menu. The craft brewery is a throwback to the Pearl’s original brewery which started it all, and you can even get a “Pearl on the Patio” beer which pays homage to the original beer. Pair this with Southerleighs Famous Fried Chicken and you have a meal! There’s also a drink cart outside, where you grab a drink like a strong Sangria to enjoy your walk around the Peal.
Check out one of the Many Museums
Sometimes the best way to find the heart and soul of a city is to visit a museum (or five)! San Antonio is a many-faceted city, from the Alamo to its Indigenous Population to contemporary art, so checking out a specialty museum is a great way to see all the nuances and many different cultural lenses.
Here are some of the best museums to visit:
- The Briscoe Western Art Museum – The Briscoe Westen Art Museum is the place to help put the story of the American West into perspective, from the Native Americans who call/called Texas home to the European settlers. In the three-level museum, you can explore artifacts such as settler’s stagecoaches, saddles, spurs and covered wagons, as well as Native American drawings, sketches, paintings, and sculptures.
- The McNay – What is now the McNay Museum was once the home of a woman named Marion Koogler McNay, an Ohio-born heiress who purchased her first modern oil painting, Diego Rivera’s Delfina Flores, and commissioned the 24-room Spanish Colonial-Revival house, which became the first modern art museum in Texas. Walking the grounds is like being in a fancy 1920s film, with fountains and formal gardens, with each room highlighting modern art from vases to life-size sculptures, to colorful pop art.
- Hopscotch – Hopscotch San Antonion is an immersive art experience, where you don’t just look at art, but become part of the art yourself! There are exhibits like enormous, room-size murals, telephones where you can listen to recordings of visitors’ secrets (and you can leave your own!), a digital graffiti wall, a hall of neon lights, and more all in a dark and magical environment. There is also a bar before you enter, so you can grab a zodiac-themed drink before you “go down the rabbit hole”! You can grab your ticket in advance as well!
- San Antonio Museum of Art – The San Antonio Museum of Art has a balanced collection of beautiful works of art from around the world, including an impressive collection of ancient Greek statues and vases, as well as a good-sized collection of Egyptian artifacts. One of the most fascinating and gorgeous exhibits is the Latin American Popular Art gallery, where colorful sculptures, masks, and miniatures exploring the themes of life and death in Latin culture take center stage.
Get Scared on a Ghost Tour
San Antonio is a very old city, and especially where wars have been fought, there is a tense energy that never seems to leave the place. As our guide Robert pointed out from RJA Ghost Tours, the Alamo is basically just a giant graveyard.
Even if you aren’t a strong believer in ghosts, taking a ghost tour gives you the chance to see the city at night, learn about who lived, worked and died in San Antonio, and gives you a taste of history you might otherwise miss.
A lot of the buildings downtown are historic, including many hotels like the Menger, which is purported to have 45 ghosts in there alone. Apparently, Teddy Rosevelt is a guest who never really left the Menger Bar, the place he famously selected his Rough Riders back in 1898.
You may also see the ghostly apparition of a maid from the 1870s at the Menger, Sallie White, still making beds after her husband killed her in a jealous rage outside the hotel one night.
Even the Alamo has had its share of ghost encounters – when Santa Anna ordered his men to tear down the rest of the Alamo after the battle, the men saw six ghosts or “diablos” come out to defend the Alamo once more. That’s pretty disturbing!
To learn all about the ghosts of San Antonio, and more about the city’s rich and strange history, check out RJA Ghost Tours. They’re fun, a little hokey, and definitely spooky – especially if you find out you’re staying in a haunted hotel!
Where to Stay in San Antonio
When you’re coming to San Antonio, it’s best to stay for several days and explore all the city has to offer! The best area is without a doubt by the Alamo downtown, this way you can walk to most of the central attractions and it makes for a scenic and easy time.
Some of the best options in this area are:
- Hotel Gibbs – Located catty-corner to the Alamo, this hotel is clean and modern and super comfortable, and comes with a complimentary buffet breakfast. The best part of all? You can literally have a room that overlooks the Alamo (I did!) and it’s a great way to start and end your day. I always felt super close to the action (I had a seat for the Battle of the Flowers parade right by the hotel) and the River Walk is only a few minutes away.
- Sonder The Atlee – If a vacation rental is more your thing, this spacious and super bright apartment is the perfect place to call home base. It’s just two blocks away from the Alamo and has two bedrooms, perfect if you’re traveling with friends or family.
- Hotel Contessa – If you want to stay right on the River Walk (which is completely understandable), this charming and colorful hotel has gorgeous suites and a pool with a hot tub for those hot Texan afternoons. You can pop out and stroll along the River Walk at any time of course, too!
About the Author: Richie Goff is a Louisville, Kentucky native with a great love of the outdoors. When he is not growing flowers for fun, he is the Editor-in-Chief of Practical Wanderlust and Let’s Go Louisville. He has been a friend of Lia’s since high school, and they have taken plenty of their own disaster-prone adventures together!
Are you excited to visit San Antonio yet? Which of these things in San Antonio are you dying to do (probably go to Fiesta, right?)? Drop your comments and questions about visiting San Antonio in the comments below!
Psst: Planning a visit to Texas or the West? Check out some of our other posts to help you plan your trip!
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Disclaimer: This post was created in partnership with Visit San Antonio. All opinions and super corny jokes are 100% my own and absolutely not their fault.