As a native San Antonian, I take comfort in our unofficial slogan, Keep San Antonio Lame, a play on the state’s capital city’s cry of Keep Austin Weird. Things just happen slower in San Antonio, and are not as fast-paced as in say, Los Angeles, New York City, or even Austin—the morning sun is a little softer, the how-are-you chats a little longer, and plans are a little more flexible. But things are quickly changing.
San Antonio was among the most popular cities for people moving during the pandemic—between the years of 2020 and 2021, the city added 18,889 transplants, making it the second largest city in Texas and the seventh largest in the United States. But after returning home again this spring, I think it’s safe to say that San Antonio has still kept its old soul despite the rapid growth.
Alamo City is perhaps best known for, well, the Alamo, but there’s always been so much more to San Antonio. Here, visitors will find a thriving creative art scene, a multitude of inventive, independent restaurants, and a healthy selection of luxury and boutique hotels. Thanks to a series of extensions, the River Walk is now 15 miles long, 5 miles of which stretch through the city’s bustling downtown region; the rest of the River Walk makes a perfect place to take a long hike or bike ride. And with the remarkable transformation of the Pearl Brewery from condemned building to a vibrant cultural hub, the city has a new favorite hangout.
Here’s what you need to know—from all the best things to do to where to stay—to plan the perfect trip to San Antonio.
What to do in San Antonio
Visit during Fiesta
Fiesta is an 11-day celebration that takes over the city every spring—it’s occurred annually since 1891 with the exceptions of World War I, World War II, and COVID. Celebrations are traditionally held every April in honor of the Battle of San Jacinto, the final, decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Several different events happen across the city for Fiesta, but among the most lively are the Battle of Flowers Parade, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade (with decked-out floats sailing the river), and the Fiesta Flambeau Parade.
But there’s more to Fiesta than the parades—the best part is arguably the neighborhood parties. La Villita hosts the four-night Night In Old San Antonio (better known as NIOSA), the King William neighborhood holds the eponymous King William Fair, and Brackenridge Park holds it down with A Taste of New Orleans. And keep an eye out for Fiesta pins—local establishments will design and make pins that represent their businesses, which can be purchased. The goal is to collect as many as you can.
Have a sip at Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery
Location: 623 Hemisfair Blvd. Ste. 106
Just a decade ago, Texas’s wine scene was . . . not taken very seriously. These days, however, Texas is the fifth largest wine producer in the country, and has the fifth highest number of wineries, according to the National Association of American Wineries. Most Texas grapes are grown in the Hill Country (about 90 minutes from S.A.), which has become synonymous with wine country in the state. Here, vineyard owners are getting creative with grape varieties that can thrive in the region’s rocky soil. Visitors to San Antonio can get a taste of Texan wine culture at Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery, located in Hemisfair Park. Owned by sommelier and wine educator Jennifer Beckmann, the wines at Re:Rooted are all grown and produced in the state. And with wine classes and events like chef-led dinners, she makes wine feel approachable and uncomplicated. Re:Rooted employs a kegged wine system that allows for visitors to select from several varieties on tap and refill glasses or bottles each time they come in.
Take a walking tour with MOV Tours
There’s a lot to learn about San Antonio and its Texan history. One of the best ways to get acquainted with the local culture and folklore is via a walking tour of the city with MOV Tours. There are four options: The ICONS Tour is best for people hoping to get a 101 crash course on the basics of San Antonio’s history; the HERstory Tour offers a woman-focused introduction to the city; the Mission San José Tour offers a way to get familiar with Texas’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Pearl Taco Walking Tour lets foodies taste some of the best tacos in the city.
Visit an art museum
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets about San Antonio is our thriving museum scene. San Antonio has long been a haven for artists (drawn to the city by its low cost of living) and art lovers. Check out the McNay Art Museum, located in a charming 24-room Spanish colonial revival–style mansion, for works by Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne; the San Antonio Museum of Art for ancient Mediterranean, Latino, and Asian art; the Contemporary at Blue Star to keep up to date on what’s happening in the local art scene; and the Eye of the Beholder Art Gallery and Studio to see works by Black San Antonio artists.
Where to eat and drink in San Antonio
Best Quality Daughter
Location: 602 Avenue A
Best Quality Daughter was founded in 2018 by chef Jennifer Dobbertin, one of the few Asian American woman chefs in south Texas. She’s also responsible for founding Hot Joy and the now shuttered, but once much beloved Tenko Ramen. The menu at Best Quality Daughter reflects Dobbertin’s Taiwanese American heritage and her San Antonian upbringing with options like mochi cheddar hush puppies, cashew chicken, and orange chicken-fried steak. Dobbertin is also obsessed with Thai food (she spent a few years in Thailand working for a nonprofit organization before she got into the restaurant business), so a few Thai classics like tom yum noodles and phat kaphrao fried rice are also available. And a visit to Best Quality Daughter wouldn’t be complete without indulging in one of its iconic cocktails—it’s hard to go wrong with Are You There God? It’s Me Margarita, a lychee- and rosewater-infused margarita, or one of the boozy bobas. (I’m partial to the Thai tea–inspired I Used to Live in Thailand.)
Brasserie Mon Chou Chou
Location: 312 Pearl Pkwy.
OK, OK, I know it might seem crazy getting French food in Texas when there’s barbecue and Tex-Mex to be had, but Brasserie Mon Chou Chou is perhaps some of the best French cuisine any Texan could hope to find outside of France. Mon Chou Chou’s interiors feel as if they were air-lifted out of a Parisian bistro and are decorated with black-and-white tiling, rattan chairs, and art deco–inspired light fixtures. The restaurant is owned by Laurent Réa, Philippe Placé, and Jérôme Sérot, who all hail from France and met each other in San Antonio. Many items on the menu are inspired by their respective grandmothers. Mon Chou Chou is perhaps best known for its raclette, which is dramatically served by heating a portion of a cheese wheel and scraping it off tableside, but it’s hard to find something on the menu that isn’t a hit. Try starting off with the St. Jacques à la Chou Chou, ordering the beef bourguignon, served with a hearty, savory sauce, as entrée, and finishing with the delightful, berry-topped crème brûlée.
Little Em’s Oyster Bar
Location: 1001 S. Alamo St.
Little Em’s is situated in a former gas station in San Antonio’s hip Southtown region, in its King William neighborhood, which is known for its grand, historic mansions. Little Em’s opened in 202as the city’s first true oyster bar and is arguably the cutest of its kind this side of the Mississippi—with a crisp white interior accented with pops of blue and pink, the restaurant is certifiably Instagrammable. There’s a weekly rotating selection of oysters sourced from the East Coast as well as options like lobster rolls, burgers, and clams linguine for the folks who don’t like to eat raw seafood. The indoor space in Little Em’s is, well, little, but there’s an expansive patio, which serves as the perfect place to enjoy a pinot grigio or a Michelada while chatting with friends over a few cold oysters.
Where to shop in San Antonio
Visit the Pearl Farmers Market
Location: 312 Pearl Pkwy.
Not sure what to do during the weekend in San Antonio? Head over to the Pearl Brewery, where every Saturday (9 a.m.–1 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m.–2 p.m.) the Pearl Farmers Market takes place. Here, in addition to live music, you’ll find a veritable bounty of south Texas veggies, fruits, meats, natural beauty products, and treats. Buy a tin of hand salve from Byccombe Natural Solutions after browsing the produce at Green Bexar Farm and picking up a steak or two from Braune Farms. For a sweet treat, check out the gelatos at OroBianco Italian Creamery, which are made with water buffalo milk—the strawberry stracciatella features Fredericksburg strawberries.
The Twig Book Shop
Location: 306 Pearl Pkwy., Unit 106
The Twig Book Shop is San Antonio’s oldest (and most beloved) independent bookstore and gets its name from a quote by Alexander Pope: “‘Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, a tree’s inclined.” Founded in 1972, the Twig was originally located on Broadway but moved to its current location in 2009. Here, visitors will find a healthy selection of popular children’s and adult books, along with puzzles, games, and San Antonio–themed memorabilia. The Twig regularly hosts children’s storybook times as well as author-led events—keep an eye on its event calendar to see what’s happening next.
Historic Market Square
Location: 514 W. Commerce St.
Historic Market Square is the largest Mexican market in the United States. The outdoor plaza covers three blocks and is packed with over 100 shops where visitors can pick up everything from a serape to pottery to hand-crafted leather goods. Historic Market Square is also home to one of the most famous bakeries in the city, Mi Tierra Cafe Y Panaderia, where dozens of types of pan dulce and Tex-Mex essentials like enchilada plates abound. The Historic Market Square is also an important meeting place during big events in San Antonio. During Fiesta, the area transforms into a lively venue packed with street food vendors and musicians—and when Dia De Los Muertos occurs each year, the market becomes lined with altars.
Where to stay in San Antonio
The Hotel Emma
Location: 136 E. Grayson St. Book now
Thoughtfully designed, luxurious, and with a riveting, historic origin story to boot, it seems like the 146-room Hotel Emma truly has it all. The building that’s now home to the hotel was once the manufacturing headquarters of Pearl Beer, one of the most popular brews in Texas during the 19th and early 20th century. (Pabst Brewing Co. purchased it in 1985 and began phasing out Pearl Beer in 1999; all production ceased in 2001.) Before the building was bought in 2002 by local firm Silver Ventures, there were plans to demolish it to make way for a Walmart distribution center. Thankfully, it was saved, and construction on Hotel Emma broke ground in 2012—great care was taken to preserve the brewery’s architecture and design while updating the property with modern bells and whistles.
Upon checking into Hotel Emma, guests are greeted with a La Babia margarita, which some might say is the most perfect margarita in the Great State of Texas with its simple mix of lime juice, tequila, and triple sec. Guests can enjoy cast-iron clawfoot bathtubs to soak in after a long day exploring the nearby River Walk extension (which can take travelers to the center of town via a 30-minute walk), a complimentary snack bar stocked with local eats, and large, comfy beds with crisp sheets. Hotel Emma guests will also have exclusive access to the library, which is stocked with over 3,700 books donated by local historian, author, and playwright Sherry Kafka Wagner.
The Hotel Emma has two delightful on-property dining options. Supper specializes in classic American cuisine and dishes with ingredients sourced from South Texas. Highlights of the menu include the (perfectly) seared scallops and crispy Hill Country quail that’s served with whipped mashed potatoes. For an after-dinner tipple, head over to Sternewirth, located in the brewery’s old fermentation area. Here, guests can indulge in small bites and creative cocktails, including the Three Emmas, which is named after the three women—all named Emma—that were romantically involved with original brewery owner Otto Koehler; one of his lovers was responsible for his death in 1914.
Thompson San Antonio
Location: 115 Lexington Ave. Book now
Constructed in 2021, the Thompson San Antonio is one of the city’s newest—and swankiest—hotel options. The 20-story tower, which houses 162 hotel rooms along with 59 luxury condominiums, is located along the River Walk near the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The guest rooms at the Thompson San Antonio have a decidedly midcentury modern–inspired look about them and feature cowhide rugs, honey-colored leather accents, Tivoli Bluetooth sound systems, open-concept bathrooms (peep those generously deep soaking tubs), and jetliner views of the San Antonio skyline and River Walk. And what’s that fragrance in the air? It’s the hotel’s signature scent, Velvet, a beguiling mix of leather and amber. The Thompson is a 15-minute walk away from the San Antonio Museum of Art and a 25-minute walk from the Pearl Brewery.
Location: 1015 Navarro St.
Hotel Havana—managed by Bunkhouse, a design-focused hospitality group—is the cool kids’ choice of San Antonio accommodations. Conveniently located off the River Walk, the building that now houses the Hotel Havana was originally constructed in 1914 by local grocer Edward Mulcher, who built it to house the vendors who would stock his store; the hotel is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The property changed hands several times, but was purchased by Bunkhouse in 2010 and thoroughly renovated. Here, guests will find antiques filling the common areas of the hotel, colorful Turkish rugs, local art, and a SMEG refrigerator packed with Texas-sourced beverages. Each of the 27 rooms at the hotel is unique, and no two layouts are alike. Make time to visit the on-site restaurant, Ocho, which is helmed by Chopped winner chef Jesse Kuykendall. Much of the menu at Ocho is inspired by both South Texan and Cuban cuisine—save room for the chocolate churros after dinner.
Location: 212 W. Crockett St.
Sited in the heart of downtown San Antonio, the Mokara offers guests 99 Italianate, luxurious rooms. In the lobby of the hotel, the front desk is made of stretched leather while portraits of Wild West cowboys pepper the walls, echoing the building’s past as a saddlery in the 1800s. The rooms feature plush four-poster beds, marble bathrooms, and up-close-and-personal views of downtown San Antonio. After exploring the length of the River Walk in San Antonio, unwind with a massage or facial treatment at the two-story, full-service spa and fuel up at the award-winning seafood restaurant, Ostra—it makes a mean shrimp cocktail.