San Antonio used to be an affordable city.
In the last decade, though, prices have soared as more and more people discover this unique and charming Texas city. That’s not to say that a budget traveler can’t have a great time exploring San Antonio. Many of the city’s biggest attractions are free, allowing you to save your dollars for other things like a hotel or Tex-Mex cuisine.
Here we’ve gathered our favorite free attractions and things to do in San Antonio. Whether you’re a fan of the outdoors, want to do some window shopping, or experience San Antonio’s history and culture, we’ve got you covered.
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1. See San Fernando, the oldest cathedral in Texas
Visiting churches isn’t at the top of everyone’s “to-do” list, but the San Fernando Cathedral is a must-stop in San Antonio. Founded in 1731, this has been the center of life in the city for centuries and is the oldest cathedral in the US. While the Gothic Revival church is a frequent stop on historical and ghost tours of the city, tourists can always visit the cathedral on their own at no cost.
Our favorite way to experience the San Fernando Cathedral is by watching a video art projection on the front exterior of the building. Known as San Antonio | The Saga, it was created by artist Xavier de Richemont and is a 24-minute retelling of the settlement and development of San Antonio, the state of Texas, and its place in US history. Visitors can watch this narration of color and light projected across 7000 sq feet of the cathedral’s facade for free at 9, 9:30 and 10pm every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The show is occasionally halted due to repairs on the cathedral, so check the website in advance.
San Antonio’s River Walk is a delightful place to linger © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
2. Take a stroll on the River Walk
The San Antonio River Walk is one of the top attractions in the US, and when you visit San Antonio, you’ll understand why. Although the San Antonio River has been an important aspect to the city since before its founding, it was in the 1950s that tourists and locals began to walk the winding pathways and across the arching bridges. Today, the River Walk is 15 miles long, running through neighborhoods like Downtown, Mission, Museum Reaches and the Pearl District.
The River Walk is full of public art, but it draws most people for its endless amount of entertainment. In the Downtown area, you’ll find restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels and shops. Between Downtown and the Pearl District, the San Antonio Museum of Art sits along its path. Check the calendar of the Arneson River Theater, a historic outdoor theater on the River Walk in the La Villita Historic Arts Village. Throughout the year, the theater hosts free dances and musical performances for all to enjoy. It doesn’t cost a thing to explore the River Walk and get a firsthand look at some of the most dynamic neighborhoods in San Antonio.
Planning tip: Make your trip extra special – and still free – by visiting the River Walk during a river parade event! Watch as floats literally float down the river for the Ford Parade of Lanterns, Day of the Dead River Parade, Texas Cavaliers River Parade, Armed Forces River Parade, and the Ford Holiday River Parade. Check the online schedule for free events.
3. Dive into Mexican art and culture in El Mercado
Experience the impact of the Mexican American community in San Antonio with a visit to El Mercado in the Historic Market Square. As the largest Mexican market in the United States, El Mercado was originally in Plaza de Armas before making its way to its present location in the 1890s. Today, El Mercado comprises three city blocks full of stalls that sell Mexican art, clothes and decor. You’ll also find Mexican food carts and stages with Mexican bands and ballet folklorico dancers. With indoor and outdoor spaces, it’s a great place to window shop throughout the week, listen to live music on the weekends, and join the couples dancing cumbia in the square.
Planning tip: Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia is the most popular restaurant in El Mercado, serving customers since 1941. If you want to save your money by ordering gorditas or tacos from a food stall in the Historic Market Square but still want to experience Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, we highly suggest ordering some decently affordable pan de dulce (sweet bread) from the restaurant’s bakery. Conchas, orejas, and the empanadas are some of our favorites, but the cafe sells everything from churros to yoyo de fresa, pan de pano, cuernos de azucar and more.
There are four Missions in San Antonio, and all are free to visit © John Coletti / Getty Images
4. Visit historic missions, including the Alamo
The Alamo may be the most famous mission in all the US, but travelers would be missing out if they didn’t explore the historic missions that make up the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, comprising the Mission San José, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. Entry to all four missions is free, as are the guided walks that are led by park rangers every day. If you prefer, you can take a free audio tour or explore these massive and architecturally beautiful missions on your own. Just be mindful; these four missions are active Catholic parishes that still hold mass every week.
Although the Alamo is not technically part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, it is very much connected to the other four missions. The Alamo also has free admission, but if you want to see where those famed defenders of the Alamo held out for 13 days against Santa Ana’s army in 1836, you’ll need to make a reservation prior to visiting. Guided tours and access to exhibitions cost a fee, but you can see inside the church and take a self-guided audio tour for nothing.
5. Visit the Blue Star Arts Complex
The Blue Star Arts Complex is an art lover’s paradise. Set alongside the River Walk in the King William Historic District, it’s home to art galleries, restaurants, bars and artistic, vintage and fashion boutiques. Perhaps the most notable space in the complex is the Contemporary at Blue Star, the first and longest-running nonprofit space for contemporary art in the city, hosting over 12 exhibitions annually in four galleries – and entirely free to experience.
Planning tip: The biggest monthly event at The Blue Star Arts Complex is the First Friday Art Walk. As San Antonio’s longest-running monthly art event, visitors can explore all the open studios and galleries on the first Friday of the month, with extra perks like live music. If you’re not in town for the first Friday of the month, though, don’t worry – Blue Star Arts Complex also has First Thursday and Third Thursday, which are similar events that celebrate art at night. Did we mention that it’s all free to attend?
It’s free to visit the Japanese Tea Garden in Brackenridge Park © Victoria Ditkovsky / Shutterstock
6. Discover endless activities at Brackenridge Park
Brackenridge Park may be home to attractions that cost a fee, like the Witte Museum, San Antonio Zoo, Brackenridge Golf Course and The Train, but there are plenty of other free things to do upon a visit. The Japanese Tea Garden doesn’t cost a thing and is an exceptionally beautiful place that features a waterfall, artistically designed gardens, and wheelchair-accessible paths.
Enjoy different views of the park and discover great spots like a playground for children by taking one of the three walking trails. In addition to picnic tables and softball fields, you can fish in the San Antonio River that runs through the park, as long as you have a Texas fishing license. If you’re lucky, you may catch a free theatrical performance, concert or event at the park’s open-air amphitheater, the Sunken Garden Theater.
Planning tip: The Witte Museum, located in Brackenridge Park, is free to the public every Tuesday from 3–6 pm, but you’ll need to reserve your ticket online beforehand. Don’t forget the attractions that border Brackenridge Park, too. While the Headwaters Sanctuary nature preserve is always free, the DoSeum offers Free Family Nights on the First Monday of the Month. Tickets must be reserved, and they go fast, but if you have a Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, or US Trust credit or debit card, you can get one free admission ticket on the first full weekend of every month.
7. Take a self-guided Selena tour around town
Selena Quintanilla, the Queen of Tejano music, may have been born an hour away in Corpus Christi, but she made a big impact on San Antonio. For fans who would “do anything for Selenas,” take a self-guided tour around the city to see some of those special places relating to the singer. There are two Selena murals, one by Christopher Montoya on the wall of a shopping center in the Missions/South neighborhood, and another by Alan Calvo on the corner of I-10 and Hildebrand. Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia has a wall mural tribute to Selena, too.
The Hard Rock Café is home to a star that honors Selena. It’s on the outside and recognizes how the singer christened the cafe on its grand opening day. If you’ve seen the 1997 film Selena, you’ll remember a scene where Selena (played by Jennifer Lopez) has a romantic moment with her husband Chris Perez (played by John Seda) on an arched stone bridge of the River Walk. Recreate the moment in the film at that exact bridge located at Saint Mary’s Street and Navarro Street. Other notable San Antonio film locations related to Selena include The Depot at the Espee, The Alamo, and Brackenridge Park, all of which are featured in Selena’s music videos, either for “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” or “No Me Queda Mas.”
Finally, avid fans will want to visit Selena’s former boutique at 3703 Broadway. The boutique shut down after Selena’s death and is unoccupied today, but surprisingly enough, you can see the name Selena etched in glass in the corner of the window. Fans have also left messages to Selena in the dust of the window, a reminder that the singer remains in their hearts.
8. Take pictures with the world’s largest Virgin Mary mosaic
On the exterior of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in West San Antonio is a 40ft votive candle with a picture of the Virgin Mary. Designed by artist Jesse Trevino, this candle is the world’s largest Virgin Mary mosaic and is four stories tall. Trevino is known for creating work that shows the intersection of religious icons and Mexican American history and culture. This beautifully detailed piece of art stands out in San Antonio and is worth a visit – and a picture or two!
Planning tip: After admiring the Virgin Mary mosaic, stop inside the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to see if they have an artist exhibit in one of their galleries or to find out if they’re offering any performances or events. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center was founded by a group of Chicano/a/x artists and provides dance, music, and theater classes, as well as performances, a film festival, an art festival and a mariachi event.