San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the 1718 Alamo the undisputed star. Nearly anytime, day or night, the plaza is packed in front of this limestone “shrine of Texas liberty” where 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 tourand learn that the reality of the Alamo is much more complicated than you may think. (Wheelchairs can be checked out, but some areas may pose challenges for wheelchair users.)
The other four missions — collectively forming the San Antonio Missions National Park — merit a visit for their beautiful Baroque architecture, rich history, scenic respite and even a Sunday mariachi mass. These missions — San José, San Juan Capistrano, Concepión and Espada — are too far apart to easily walk to each other. But you can rent a bike to see them along the eight-mile stretch of the river’s Mission Hike and Bike Trail, dotted with picnic and seating areas. Or you can drive from mission to mission, of course. (Wheelchairs are available for loan at the missions, although they 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. But once you get a few miles away from downtown, Sunbelt sprawl takes over.
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 river barges and toast the view with cold margaritas in riverside cafes, popular pubs and noisy 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 very crowded, so slow down and proceed with care.
The River Walk is only a couple hundred yards away from the Alamo. To get there, take a stairway or one of several elevators along the river to descend below street level. Or stay on street level and head west on Houston Street until you reach the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, the home of the famous “78 Point Buck” and more than 500 species of wildlife, in a business that goes back to 1881. Count the points — all 78 of them! — which are growths off of the two main beams of the deer’s antlers.
Follow the aromas of meats grilling and the sounds of mariachis in traditional charro garb to Market Square, about a mile west of the Alamo, where 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. Stop for an ice-cold cerveza (beer) at the iconic Mi Tierra restaurant, open 24 hours and festooned year-round with Christmas decorations and strolling mariachis.
Make sure to visit San Fernando Cathedral, the spiritual hub of the city since its founding in 1731, in the Main Plaza. Watch San Antonio: The Saga, a spectacular 24-minute nighttime light show projected against the cathedral walls that tells the story of San Antonio from its beginning to today. On the southern edge of downtown, Hemisfair Plaza, site of the 1968 World’s Fair, is being transformed into a bustling urban district.
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 district that is reinventing San Antonio yet again. Billionaire Christopher "Kit" Goldsbury, of Pace Picante sauce fame, painstakingly transformed the 1883 Pearl Brewery 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 a branch of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), 14 unique retail shops, a spa and 11 restaurants — several from CIA graduates. On weekends, eat your way through the Pearl Farmers Market, a foodie paradise of more than 45 artisanal vendors — including salsa and barbecue sauces, of course — with great people-watching on the side.
Just north of the Pearl, stroll the 343-acre Brackenridge Park, an oak-filled urban oasis founded in 1899. Take a seat on a bench and enjoy the lovely Japanese Tea Garden, with its koi-filled lily ponds and Japanese pagoda, and explore the San Antonio Zoo. (Both are wheelchair accessible.)
Before the Pearl put the city on the hip-and-trendy map, Southtown, a quick ride from downtown filled the bill. Its funky, eclectic art studios, retail boutiques, 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 Homesteadand the Guenther House, the onetime home of mill owner Carl Guenther.
How to save: Villa Finale and Edward Steves Homestead offer discounts for those 65 and older.
In a city where Mexican, European, Asian, African and American Western traditions all come together, it’s not surprising that San Antonio boasts more than 25 museums. Take the San Antonio Museum of Art (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), a beautiful 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 andscience of South Texas, while 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 San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) offers free admission from 4 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays. The McNay offers free admission from 4 to 9 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 those 65 and up.
Thrill to the sounds of acoustic guitars and spirited mariachi trumpets at the River Walk’s historic open-air Arneson River Theater, 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 the 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. Tucked between downtown office towers, the cozy Carmens de la Calle delivers flamenco, jazz or world music, along with memorable sangria and tapas on Thursdays, Fridays andSaturdays.
Catch a concert or a Broadway touring show in the ornate and beautifully restored Majestic Theatre or 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 accessible.)
Slip on your best dancing boots and drive out of town (about 40 miles) for toe-tapping country or Americana music at the 6,000-square-foot 140-year-old Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, or John T. Floore's Country Store, a quintessential Texas honky-tonk, considered the musical birthplace of Willie Nelson. Be sure to try its famous tamales and homemade bread. (Some shows at Gruene Hall are standing-room only, so check if you’re unable to stand for long. But at Floore’s, those using a wheelchair or walker will be admitted up to 30 minutes early.)
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 your tickets online directly from the venue, before the ticket brokers raise the prices.
Get a great city overview on a double-decker hop-on/hop-off tour from City Sightseeing San Antonio. City Tours Inc. offers narrated double-decker, trolley and big bus tours. Gray Lineoffers 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 River Cruises. All are ADA accessible.
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 them. Check out the ghost tours from the Sisters Grimm, Ghost City Tours or Bad Wolf Ghost Tours. And since you’re close to the Hill Country, go on a wine tour with Cottonwood Wine Tours, Hill Country Wine Tours or 19th Hole Wine Tours.
Ways to save: Save $10 on a two-day pass with City Sighteeing San Antonio when booked online. Those 65 and older get $2 off of the walk-up price. On the Grand Tour from City Tours Inc., those 65-plus get a discount of $6.50. Visitors 60 and up save $3 on cruises from Go Rio River Cruises.