San Antonio is Texas’ number one tourist destination and the seventh largest city in the United States. A broad spectrum of cultures and traditions gives the city a distinct flavor that cannot be duplicated. San Antonio is best known for the Alamo (hence one of its nicknames, Alamo City) and for the River Walk in downtown, but has even more to offer: Families will find an array of world-class theme parks; nature lovers will appreciate the city's proximity to Hill Country; revelers will enjoy festivals year-round; and art lovers will discover top-notch galleries and museums.
ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN San Antonio
1. Stroll, Dine, or Cruise along the San Antonio River Walk
San Antonio's centerpiece is the River Walk, where stone walkways and restaurants line the San Antonio River flowing through the city center. Set below street level, this is a beautiful area with calm waters, graceful bridges, birds, and plenty of shade from large trees towering over the banks.
Most people come down here for a stroll, or to enjoy a meal on one of the outdoor patios. One of the most relaxing ways to experience the River Walk is from the comfort of a barge on a guided tour or dinner cruise.
The barges that cruise the river can hold up to 40 passengers. For dinner cruises, the barge is set with a large table in the center and can accommodate up to 20 guests. These slow-moving boat tours are a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and a great opportunity to rest your legs after a day of sightseeing.
2. Tour The Alamo
The Alamo is one of the most important historical sites in the United States and a must-see attraction if you are visiting San Antonio. The Alamo was part of the mission station established here in 1718, its church built by Franciscans in 1744.
In 1836, the Battle of the Alamo, one of the most famous battles in US history, played out here, when a small force entrenched themselves in the Alamo against a Mexican army of 3,000. All the defenders were killed, including legendary figures Davy Crockett and James Bowie, in a battle that some estimate may have lasted only 20 minutes.
The Alamo soon became the cradle of Texan independence, and the phrase "Remember the Alamo!" became a battle cry. The former mission is now a National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park & Mission Trail
In 2015, the San Antonio Missions were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first such designation in the state of Texas. The five missions, including the famous Alamo (Mission Valero) were built in the early 1700s, established by the Franciscan Order in an effort by Spain to colonize and evangelize the region.
Today, they are one of the city's greatest tourist attractions. If you have time to see only a few of the missions, be sure to see the Alamo, Mission San Jose, and Mission Concepción. The remaining two include Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. The Mission Trail connects the missions.
Most people drive between the missions, but if you want to combine a little outdoor activity with your sightseeing, consider biking between the missions. With a full day and the help of the city's bike share program, you can bike all the way from the Alamo in downtown to the other four missions on an eight-mile, one-way ride or a 16-mile return trip.
4. San Fernando Cathedral & San Antonio|The Saga
Famous as the burial site of the heroes of the Alamo, the Roman Catholic San Fernando Cathedral (Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe) is one of the oldest cathedrals in the US and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The walls of the original church, completed in 1750 and built by settlers from the Canary Islands, now form the cathedral's sanctuary.
The cathedral is on Main Plaza and is one of the best places to visit in San Antonio after dark. At night, it becomes the stage for one of San Antonio's most visually compelling attractions, known as San Antonio|The Saga. Offered free of charge every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evening, this video art installation, created by Xavier de Richemont, is a 24-minute video, with choreographed music and narration, projected onto the side of San Fernando Cathedral.
5. Natural Bridge Caverns & the Canopy Challenge and Zip Lines
Less than 30 minutes from San Antonio is Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest commercial caves in Texas. These spectacular caves are known for their huge open rooms but they also have narrow passages and interesting formations.
Two types of cave tours are available and take approximately 70 minutes. But there are plenty of things to do here other than just touring the caves, and if you're looking for more of an adrenaline rush, try the Canopy Challenge, a course of platforms and ladders 60 feet above the ground, as well as ziplines. Younger children can also get in on the action with the Sky Tykes, with a rope course designed for younger kids and toddlers.
Another above ground option at the caverns is a gem and fossil mining experience that allows kids or adults a chance to see how miners panned for gold, and find and identify their own gems in mining rough. Also here is a maze and a place to buy souvenirs, food, and fresh fudge.
6. Visit the Pearl District and Farmers Market
The Pearl is a trendy historic district of San Antonio, with lovely restored buildings, unique shops, and a reputation for great cuisine and hip restaurants. On weekends, the Pearl is home to a lively farmers market, with vendors from a 150-mile radius of the city set up at tables on a pedestrian-only street, selling fresh produce, baked goods, sauces, and other specialties.
The Pearl district has become synonymous with great cuisine and wonderful dining experiences. While fine dining is a term that comes to mind, the restaurants here are not all about white tablecloths and expensive entrees.
This area is about atmosphere and tasty dishes. The Pearl is also home to a Culinary Institute of America campus, one of only three such campuses in the United States. The CIA, as it is more commonly known, has strong ties to this area, and its signature restaurant, the Nao Latin Gastro Bar, is located here.
7. Shop and Eat at Historic Market Square (El Mercado)
Market Square is the place to go to find unique items and souvenirs. This three-block strip of shops and restaurants is known for being the largest Mexican market in the United States. The indoor El Mercado sells everything from sombreros to pottery.
Locally owned shops display handcrafted art works and all kinds of interesting items that range from paintings and dolls to blankets, jewelry, ponchos, dresses, shoes, musical instruments, and much more.
When you've had your fill of shopping, check out Mi Tierra Café Y Panadería for lunch, dinner, a treat from the bakery, or simply to have a look around. This restaurant is a San Antonio institution that has been in operation by the Cortez family since 1941 and is the size of an entire block.
Open 24 hours a day and serving Mexican food, this one-of-a-kind restaurant is elaborately decorated with Christmas lights and fiesta flags and includes a bakery counter, with baking done right on-site.
8. Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden is a beautiful, relaxing space and a free attraction in San Antonio. A former rock quarry, this area has been transformed into a peaceful garden with exotic plants, ponds with Koi, waterfalls, and the lovely stone Pavilion. Walkways meander through the gardens. The Jingu House is an on-site restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining space.
The Japanese Tea Garden is about a 10-minute drive from the River Walk. You can combine a visit here with the nearby San Antonio Zoo.
9. San Antonio Botanical Garden
The San Antonio Botanical Garden is an oasis of green in the city. Take a wander around and soak up the quiet and be dazzled by the colors. The garden has a wonderful array of trails that wind their way past some of the main highlights. These include the Mays Family Display Garden with its focus on native plants, the Water Saver Conservation Garden highlighting drought resistant plants, and the 2.5-acre Family Adventure Garden where kids are invited to "mess with Texas."
For a quick trip to the tropics, step inside the Lucille Halsell Conservatory. This 90,000-square-foot complex features heat and humidity-loving plants from around the world. Some of the highlights include the Fern Room, the Palm and Cycad Pavilion, the colorful plants of the Gretchen Northrup Tropical Conservatory, and the cacti of the Robert and Helen Kleberg Desert Pavilion.
10. Fiesta San Antonio
Fiesta is an annual 10-day celebration of epic proportion, held in the spring. Parades and events, including the famous Battle of Flowers parade, are constant in San Antonio during this time, giving the city an almost electric vibe.
Stores, restaurants, and houses are decorated for the event. People collect, trade, and wear metal pins, and the Fiesta King and Queen, chosen each year based on how much money they have raised for charity, reign over the celebrations. It's not uncommon to see traffic stop as a "royal" motorcade drives through the city. If you are going to be in the city during this time, check the event schedule and plan on seeing some of the activities.