What to Do and Where to Eat in San Antonio
Explore missions, art, history and the walkable downtown, plus golf, try delicious Tex-Mex and more
San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the 1718 Alamo the most visited. At this limestone “shrine of Texas liberty,” some 200 Texans famously held off at least 1,800 Mexican soldiers for 13 days in 1836. Although the Alamo fell, the death of its defenders took on mythological status for courage and sacrifice. Today the site has its own rules of reverence that some 2.5 million visitors follow each year. Take a guided tour and learn that the reality of this mission is much more complicated than you may think. (Note: Wheelchairs are available for loan at the Alamo, but some areas may pose challenges for wheelchair users.)
The other four missions — collectively forming the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, with some still home to active Catholic parishes offering mariachi Masses — merit a visit for their striking architecture, rich historic value and scenic respite. The four — San José, San Juan Capistrano, Concepción and Espada — are too far apart for visitors to easily walk from one to the other, but you can rent a bike to see them along the 8-mile stretch of the river’s Mission Hike and Bike Trail, dotted with picnic and seating areas. Or you can drive from one to the other, with free parking at each. (Wheelchairs are available for loan at the missions, although the missions are only partially accessible.
For such a historic city, downtown San Antonio is surprisingly walkable. The wide and mostly flat streets offer plenty of room for strolling, though Sunbelt sprawl takes over once you get a few miles away from downtown.
Follow the meandering San Antonio River, the city’s heart and soul, to walk along its terraced riverbanks and through its iconic neighborhoods. Start with the famous below-street-level River Walk. Some 11 million visitors each year amble along its main 2.5-mile stretch of cypress-lined cobblestone and flagstone paths, pack the river barges, and toast the view with cold margaritas in riverside cafes, popular pubs and cheery Mexican restaurants. Although the city has greatly improved the River Walk’s accessibility, wheelchair users and those with walkers or canes should take care due to the uneven ground. Not surprisingly, the path is often crowded, especially on weekends, so slow down and proceed with care.
The River Walk is only a couple hundred yards away from the Alamo. To get down to the river, take one of the several stairways or elevators that descend below street level to it. From the Alamo, two convenient access points are the bridges at Commerce and Losoya streets (there is an elevator there) and Presa between College and Houston streets. You can also take the lobby elevator at the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk.
Follow the aromas of grilling meats and the sounds of mariachis wearing traditional charro garb to Market Square, about a mile west of the Alamo. There you’ll find El Mercado craft emporium, considered the largest Mexican market outside Mexico. Even though the distance isn’t that great, the heat and humidity can creep up on you, so stop for an ice-cold cerveza (beer) at the market’s iconic Mi Tierra Café & Bakery, open 24 hours. Strolling mariachis serenade patrons at the café, which is festooned year-round with colorful twinkling lights and Christmas decorations.
En route to Market Square, visit San Fernando Cathedral, the spiritual hub of the city since its founding in 1731, in the Main Plaza. After dark, watch San Antonio: The Saga, a spectacular 24-minute nighttime light show projected against the cathedral walls that tells the story of the city from its beginnings to today.
On the southern edge of downtown, Hemisfair Plaza, site of the 1968 World’s Fair, offers large park-like areas, water gardens and playscapes scattered about green lawns. Recent redevelopment projects are helping to make this area an even more fabulous place, with three main parks, restaurant and retail areas, and more.
From the original stretch of the River Walk, walk north into the 1.3-mile Museum Reach section for the city’s latest urban jewel: the booming Pearl entertainment district, which has brought new life to San Antonio yet again over the past decade. Billionaire Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, of Pace Picante sauce fame, painstakingly transformed the former 1883 Pearl Brewery property into a cultural area as hot as his spicy salsas. A deft mash-up of historic features with industrial, modern and minimalist elements, it’s home to 22-plus acres of fun, including a branch of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and more than 20 unique retail shops and art galleries, a spa and more than two dozen restaurants, bars, cafés and bakeries — several with CIA graduates at the helm. There’s even a busy food hall as well as an occasional pop-up restaurant. On weekends year-round, eat your way through the Pearl Farmers Market, a foodie paradise with more than 45 artisanal vendors — some offering salsa and barbecue sauces, of course — and great people-watching.
Just north of Pearl, stroll the 343-acre Brackenridge Park, an oak-filled urban oasis founded in 1899. Take a seat on a faux-bois art bench and enjoy the lovely Japanese Tea Garden, with its koi-filled lily ponds and Japanese pagoda and café, and explore the San Antonio Zoo. (Both are wheelchair accessible.)
Before Pearl put the city on the hip-and-trendy map, Southtown fit the bill. A quick ride from downtown, its funky, eclectic art studios, retail boutiques, bars, outdoor family spots, food trucks, restaurants and coffee shops span five separate neighborhoods. The best known, King William, took its name from the Prussian merchants who built homes in the mid-1800s and named their neighborhood after Kaiser Wilhelm I. Several of the mansions from the late 19th century are open for tours, including the Italianate Villa Finale, the French Renaissance Edward Steves Homestead and the Guenther House, the onetime home of mill owner Carl Guenther. Several classic B&Bs call this neighborhood home.
How to save: Villa Finale and Edward Steves Homestead offer discounts for those 65 and older. Free maps for self-led walking tours are available online and at the King William Cultural Arts District offices (122 Madison St.).
In a city where Mexican, European, Asian, African and American Western traditions mix, it’s not surprising that more than 40 museums focus on a range of cultures. Take the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA; wheelchair accessible), for example: It offers pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial, and Latin American folk art — and quite unexpectedly, the largest collection of Asian art in the southern United States.
The McNay Art Museum (mostly accessible), in a handsome Spanish colonial revival house, features modern, medieval and Renaissance art, and an impressive collection of theater arts and contemporary Latino prints. The Witte Museum (fully accessible) focuses on the natural attractions, culture and science of South Texas; the Briscoe Western Art Museum (mostly accessible), on the American West.
The Spanish Governor’s Palace, which operates as a museum of Spanish colonial history, is the last remnant of what was once the presidio, or fort, that protected San Antonio’s missions. Meanwhile, Blue Star Contemporary, located in the gallery-packed Southtown Arts District, serves as an incubator for local contemporary art.
Ways to save: The McNay offers free admission from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursdays and from noon to 5 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month. SAMA, the McNay, the Briscoe and the Witte offer discounts to adults 65 and up.
Thrill to the sounds of acoustic guitars and spirited mariachi trumpets at the River Walk’s historic open-air Arneson River Theatre, a white-stone amphitheater with grassy seats. It hosts Fiesta Noche del Rio, an infectious summertime show where traditional dancers swirl in multicolored skirts and fiery flamenco couples dance as one. As you stroll the River Walk, listen for singer-songwriters belting out covers and original tunes from any number of restaurants and bars.
At Pearl, sway to suave jazz in the sleek and modern basement venue Jazz TX while sipping craft cocktails and nibbling San Antonio–inspired American dishes. A few miles away, tucked between downtown office towers, the cozy Carmens de la Calle delivers flamenco, jazz, Tejano and world music, along with memorable sangria and tapas on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Catch a concert or a Broadway touring show in the ornate and beautifully restored Majestic Theatre or the more intimate Empire Theatre. Enjoy everything from the San Antonio Symphony and opera to plays and concerts at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, which combines Spanish colonial design with modern, geometric flourishes. (All are ADA compliant.)
Slip on your best dancing boots and drive out of town (35 miles) for toe-tapping country and Americana music at the 6,000-square-foot, 144-year-old Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, or hear country music at John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, a quintessential Texas honky-tonk that’s considered the musical birthplace of Willie Nelson. Be sure to try its famous tamales and homemade bread. At Floore’s, those using a wheelchair or walker will be admitted up to 30 minutes early; at Gruene Hall, 15 minutes early. Some shows at both venues are standing-room only, so check if you’re unable to stand for long.
Ways to save: Catch the 5:30 p.m. show at Jazz TX and avoid paying a cover for the early set. The Arneson River Theater offers 65-plus discounts. For Gruene Hall or Floore’s, buy tickets online directly from the venue before the ticket brokers raise prices. Or visit Gruene Hall during the day to poke around the charming old dance hall, and then stop into the nearby Grist Mill restaurant for a chicken fried steak. Up-and-coming Texas singers often play for tips outside the restaurant during the day. While in Gruene, you might also want to shop in the now-bustling historic hamlet.
In downtown San Antonio, get a great city overview on a double-decker hop-on/hop-off tour from City Sightseeing San Antonio. Gray Line offers half- and full-day tours that cover the city highlights. Or explore the River Walk from the water with a narrated barge tour from Go Rio Cruises. All are ADA compliant. An often missed delight are the Rio Taxi rides that operate between the busy tourist section of the River Walk and the Museum Reach. You can be picked up and dropped off at different spots along the route if you buy a 24-hour river taxi pass from Go Rio Cruises.
Hungry for new experiences? Try a food tour from operators such as Food Chick Tours, San Antonio Detours or SA Food Tours.
More into spooky history? San Antonio has a host of haunted sites and tours to explore. Check out ghost tours from the Sisters Grimm, Ghost City Tours or Bad Wolf Ghost Tours.
Ways to save: City Sightseeing San Antonio’s online rates are $2 to $3 per person less than its walk-up rates, but even greater savings are available if you purchase combination attraction/package deal passes online.
Quantity doesn’t always mean quality, but when it comes to golf, San Antonio has both — in spades. There are more than 40 courses in and around the city, including one that hosts the Lone Star State’s highest-profile tournament, the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open. You’ll find Texas’ oldest public course and designs by acclaimed architects such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Greg Norman and a rare public — and bargain-priced — offering by the legendary A.W. Tillinghast, whose work includes famed courses such as New Jersey’s Baltusrol, New York’s Winged Foot and the San Francisco Golf Club. With something for everyone, most experts agree that San Antonio is the state’s top golf destination. “San Antonio has the best collection of golf resorts in Texas, and they are all quite different from one another in style and amenities,” notes Brandon Tucker, senior managing editor for travel for the Golf Channel, who happens to live in nearby Austin.
A few top choices include:
Cedar Creek Golf Club: You simply cannot beat the quality of golf for the dollar at the public Cedar Creek . It’s one of the nine city-owned courses comprising the budget municipal Alamo City Golf Trail, but while the rest are on smaller lots closer to downtown, this one is on the less-developed northwest side of the city. Cedar Creek is representative of nearby Texas Hill Country, on rolling terrain with frequent elevation changes and a wide variety of tees that allow golfers to play it from a short 5,500 to a brutish 7,100 yards. Yet walkers’ greens fees never go above $33, and for those 65 and over, start at just 27 bucks. Its siblings are great buys as well, as Tucker notes: “The eight municipal courses bundled up into the Alamo Golf Trail offer wonderful affordability and variety, too.”
The 36-hole Westin La Cantera Resort is a destination golf resort known for offering a high-quality experience on both its courses, which are managed by upscale specialist Troon Golf. The Palmer Course is very hilly with dramatic elevation changes, forced carries and several blind shots, and it appeals to better players. It is also beautiful and features waterfalls on two holes. Those looking for a more relaxing round with the same premium experience should consider the Resort Course, which is also eye-catching and gorgeous, dotted with exposed limestone outcroppings and water features.
Both courses feature five sets of tees for varied options. Uniquely, the resort sits immediately next to the Six Flags amusement park, and golfers view — and hear — the roller coasters at several points during their rounds. The resort uses dynamic tee time pricing based on demand, but both courses cost the same. Peak weekend morning rates typically max out at $150, while weekday afternoon rates can be much less.
Where to eat
San Antonio is the epicenter of Tex-Mex cuisine, where arguably the first Tex-Mex restaurant — “the Original Mexican Restaurant” — opened in 1899 and where the humble home cooking of South Texas meets that of Northern Mexico. You won’t find a plate of Tex-Mex enchiladas, bubbling with hot shredded yellow cheese and slathered in Texas chili gravy, in Mexico, but they’re a must in San Antonio. So is a breakfast taco: a thick flour tortilla cradling a scrambled egg, potato and bacon filling. Such local creations, the backbone of this regional cuisine, are as emblematic of San Antonio as the Alamo itself.
But don’t stop at enchiladas and tacos. A new crop of chefs here — including James Beard Award nominees and winners — is taking San Antonio’s hottest culinary traditions to the next level.
Tex-Mex and Mexican temples: You can’t leave San Antonio without sampling some of its beloved local specialties. Bask in breakfast tacos at the Haven Southtown (formerly called Taco Haven), make a pilgrimage to honky-tonk-retro Ray’s Drive Inn for puffy tacos, and dive into the cheese enchiladas at Los Barrios, Jacala or the stylish but loud Rosario’s (five locations, including one at the airport). For Tex-Mex with a modern twist — duck chalupas, anyone? — try Ácenar. For some of the best and most authentic Mexican street tacos and fabulous ceviches, head to La Gloria (three locations), Fruteria-Botanero (two locations) or any of the other food outlets operated by Chef Johnny Hernandez, often called San Antonio’s culinary ambassador.
You’d think you were back in Old Mexico at several outposts. Enjoy seafood from the state of Sinaloa at El Bucanero, Mexico City–style street food (think enmoladas, or chicken enchiladas in mole poblano sauce) at Cascabel Mexican Patio, and contemporary Mexican (plus a few old-school Tex-Mex) dishes at the attractive La Fonda on Main.
Don’t forget drinks to go with your queso-fueled happy hours. Try an upscale margarita at El Colegio bar or Las Canarias restaurant at La Mansión del Rio hotel or the shaken margarita at Rosario’s. Slowly sip a classic michelada, a beer with lime juice, powdered chili and tomato juice, at Mi Tierra. The Fruteria-Botanero in Southtown serves some of the best Mexican-inspired cocktails infused with fresh fruit and the finest tequilas.
Good meats: At Cured, six-time James Beard finalist Steve McHugh offers his handcrafted homage to cured foods, from charcuterie to pickles, at his popular Pearl gastropub. Iron Chef Gauntlet contestant Jason Dady celebrates Central Texas–style barbecue at his Two Bros. BBQ Market, and the South Texas-Hill Country region at his downtown steakhouse, Range. San Antonio culinary ambassador Johnny Hernandez shows off his take on regional Mexican dishes at his numerous area restaurants, including La Gloria, the Fruteria-Botenero, Burgerteca and Casa Hernan.
Culinary districts: As expected, the Pearl is packed with acclaimed chef-driven eateries. Enjoy the gumbo and gastropub eats (as well as chilled craft cocktails) at chef Steve McHugh’s Cured, modern Gulf Coast dishes at Southerleigh and tasty Chinese American cuisine at Best Quality Daughter. The original La Gloria location is another Pearl favorite. Many of Pearl’s best restaurants are priced for special date nights, but visitors can still get great value and good local eats at its Food Hall Bottling Department as well as its coffee shops and sandwich spots.
Even Southtown has turned into a foodie destination of its own with an array of standout restaurants. Try Texas brasserie the Maverick, which touts “make your own rules” and neighborhood favorites.
Ways to save: At lunchtime, sample renowned restaurants at lower prices. Overall, though, even San Antonio’s most expensive tables aren’t as costly as those in many other larger cities. In addition, a number of top places offer tasty and reasonably priced bites during happy hour. If you want to enjoy some inexpensive local flavors, remember that a couple of breakfast tacos and a coffee with free refills costs about five bucks, and most Tex-Mex combo plates (with coffee or tea) cost less than $10. Also, at different times of the year, San Antonio offers Restaurant Week events with attractive pricing at some of the city’s finest eateries. Check out the Culinaria website for more information and dates.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2018. It's been updated to reflect new information.