8 of the best things to do in San Antonio: get to know this 300-year-old city

One of the oldest urban centers in Texas, San Antonio is packed with impressive landmarks from centuries past. Yet despite the years — the city celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2018 — San Antonio remains firmly rooted in the present with sprawling markets, cutting-edge museums and a vibrant dining and drinking scene.

There’s much to see and do in the second-largest city in Texas, from strolling the banks of its iconic waterway to cycling past architectural masterpieces from the 1700s. Here are some of the best experiences in San Antonio.

Get the inside scoop on the latest cultural happenings all over the world delivered weekly to your inbox with our email newsletter. People walk by the facade of an old Spanish-style low-rise buildingThe Alamo holds historic displays of the events that happened here in the 1830s © iStockphoto / Getty Images

1. Tour the Alamo

San Antonio is best known for the Alamo, a former Spanish mission church transformed into a shrine after American revolutionaries died defending it against Mexican troops. Inside, you can wander through the 18th-century church and visit the Long Barrack where Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and others made their last stand. 

Afterwards, you can peruse the rifles, cannonballs and uniforms on display in the Alamo Exhibit, with much of the collection donated to the museum by British rockstar Phil Collins. The former Genesis frontman has had a lifelong passion for the Texas landmark, which he reveals in his book The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, published in 2012.

The Living History Encampment gives a taste of life from the 1830s with costumed interpreters giving talks that focus on medical practices, weaponry, clothing and food. On weekends (Friday through Sunday at 11:30am and 2pm), you can seek musket firing demonstrations on the street in Alamo Plaza.

Planning tip: Admission to the church is free, but it’s best to reserve a timed entry slot so you’re not left waiting to enter. You can get a bit more out of your visit by booking an audio tour (available in five languages) or a one-hour docent-led guided tour. 

2. Stop and smell the roses in the San Antonio Botanical Garden 

Stretching across 38 acres, San Antonio’s best-loved green space has a mix of formal gardens, tropical greenhouses and meandering pathways that take you through wild landscapes full of native Texan flora. The Lucile Halsell Conservatory is a complex of five futuristic glass structures that allow visitors to experience tropical forests, desert scapes and a fern grotto complete with a shimmering waterfall. Kids can tromp through water and roll down hills in the Family Adventure Garden.

Planning tip: Find out if there are any special events at the garden while you’re in town, including outdoor sculpture exhibitions, Texas bird walks and botanical cocktail hours. Lightscape transforms the grounds into a fantastical art installation in the winter (November through early January).

A boat, with a hull lit up in green, floats down a river in a city centre at twilight San Antonio’s River Walk passes through the heart of downtown © iStockphoto / Getty Images

3. Take a stroll along the River Walk

A slice of Europe in the heart of downtown, the River Walk comprises a scenic network of canals and pedestrian walkways that extend for more than a dozen miles. The meandering waterside paths lie just below the downtown streets, meaning you’ll never have to stop for traffic as you stroll past landscaped gardens and waterside cafes, or linger on cypress-shaded footbridges that crisscross the water. 

Planning tip: For an overview of the River Walk, hop aboard an eco-friendly river cruise operated by Go Rio. 

4. See North American and European masterpieces at the McNay Art Museum

Set in a Spanish-Colonial Revival mansion five miles north of downtown, the McNay has been turning heads since its opening in 1954. The state’s first modern art museum has an impressive collection of works dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. It’s particularly strong in works from the 19th and 20th centuries, with pieces by Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe and countless other luminaries.

The McNay also stages some of the most thought-provoking exhibitions in the city. Recent shows have grappled with the Black experience across generations, life in the borderlands and unmasking Asian-American stereotypes. You might also discover cutting-edge multimedia artists, avant-garde costume makers and folk artists working outside the academy.

Detour: Before or after visiting the museum, have a meal at Paloma Blanca, an artfully designed restaurant serving some of San Antonio’s best Mexican cuisine. 

5. Visit the historic Spanish missions by bike

Nearly everyone traveling to San Antonio pays a visit to the Alamo, but many don’t realize that the former church is just one of five missions around the city. Built in the 18th century, these striking monuments make up the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park; in 2015 they were also declared a Unesco World Heritage Site — the only one in Texas. 

While you can visit by car, it’s more fun to go green, and rent a bike for a scenic ride that follows mostly along the San Antonio River Walk. The leafy Hike & Bike Path begins near the Alamo and leads you three miles south to Mission Concepción, the oldest unrestored stone church in America. Another 2.5 miles along, you’ll reach Mission San José, known as the “queen of the missions” for its large size. Farther along, Mission San Juan has an elegant simplicity to its design, while tiny Mission Espada is among the most photogenic of the five. 

6. Wander amid the dinosaurs at the Witte Museum

One of the best things to do in San Antonio for families is to spend the afternoon at the Witte (pronounced “witty”). Exhibitions at this natural history museum here take you back through the ages, covering the Cretaceous period, regional wildlife and the disparate groups of peoples who have crisscrossed Texas. 

In a separate building, the H-E-B Body Adventure has high-tech interactive stations devoted to health, bodies and movement. You can run across a motion-capture screen, walk amid medicinal plant gardens and take part in cooking demonstrations.

Planning tip: Save money by visiting on Tuesday afternoons, when the museum offers free admission from 3pm to 6pm.   

7. Explore the shopping and dining scene at the Pearl

Once the largest employer in San Antonio, the historic Pearl Brewery today houses a complex containing indie shops and cafes, restaurants and the Hotel Emma, among the city’s best boutique hotels. Discover a new author at the Twig Book Shop, support artisans in developing countries at Ten Thousand Villages and browse for gift ideas at Feliz Modern Pop.

Over two dozen eating and drinking spots at the Pearl offer plenty of variety. You can explore the eclectic influences of South Texas cuisine at Carriqui with its mix of Gulf seafood, pit-smoked barbecue and traditional Mexican staples. Southerleigh has creative cooking while keeping the Pearl’s brewing traditions alive with 15 different beers produced in house. 

Planning tip: Visit on Saturdays (9am to 1pm) to pick up fresh produce from Texas growers and munch your way through food stands at the weekly Pearl Farmers Market. On Sundays (10am to 2pm), Pearl hosts a Makers Market, with artisans selling their pottery, goat milk soap and other wares.

Two performers play guitars in a wooden structureThe live performances in Luckenbach are worth the drive north of San Antonio © iStockphoto / Getty Images

8. Listen to live music in Luckenbach

If you’re looking for one of the top things to do near San Antonio, hop in the car and head north (about an hour’s drive) to Luckenbach. There you can listen to live music under the oak trees while sipping a cold bottle of Shiner Bock. The former German settlement has just a handful of old wooden buildings, including a general store and a saloon, but on weekends draws visitors for boot scootin’ in the atmospheric dancehall. On weekdays, expect low-key acoustic jams. 

Planning tip: Get your driving soundtrack just right by listening to the famous Waylon Jennings song. In “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” you’ll also hear some guest vocals by Willie Nelson, a longtime fan of the tiny Texas enclave.


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