The Ultimate San Antonio Travel Guide
February 15, 2019
A visit to San Antonio, Texas’s second largest city, is a celebration of the state’s Mexican culture, from its centuries-old missions to Tex-Mex cuisine.
Ask most Americans what comes to mind first when they think of San Antonio, and they will likely remember the Alamo
(though they may be hazy on the details of the confrontation). The iconic mission is a stop on most travelers’ itineraries, but it’s only one of many highlights. The period when the city was ruled by Spain is responsible for four other landmarks—the missions along the San Antonio River that have been recognized (along with the Alamo) by UNESCO as the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site.
San Antonio is decidedly not, however, a city frozen in time. Today it is growing faster than Dallas, Houston, and many other Texas metropolises. New settlers (and visitors) to the city will be met by critically acclaimed restaurants, galleries, and museums that all contribute to San Antonio’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Perennial favorites include the San Antonio Museum of Art, which houses one of the world’s most important collections of Latin American art, and the River Walk. The Witte Museum, which covers Texas’s natural and human histories, has recently undergone a $100 million renovation and expansion. Even the Alamo has a planned expansion of its museum, driven in part by singer and songwriter Phil Collins’ (yes, that Phil Collins) donation of his extensive collection of Alamo-related artifacts and memorabilia.
What AFAR Recommends
- The Alamo’s iconic limestone façade is familiar even to those who have never set foot in San Antonio making it an obvious first stop. The site includes several historic buildings besides the much-photographed church and a gallery space with temporary exhibitions on various aspects of the Alamo and its place in Texas history. The famous thirteen-day siege took place from February 23 to March 6, 1836. If your trip to San Antonio falls over those dates, you’ll find a crowded schedule of activities including history walks, lectures, and reenactments.
- The Alamo is one of five surviving Spanish missions in San Antonio. The other four form the Missions National Historic Park and include the Mission Espada and the Mission San José, the largest of the four.
- The San Antonio Museum of Art is a marriage of old and new, with ancient artifacts and colonial pieces housed in the former Lone Star Brewery, which has been masterfully adapted to its role as a treasury of Latin American art.
- Finally, the River Walk is, along with the Alamo, one of San Antonio’s most popular destinations. The riverside promenade includes quieter stretches ideal for a jog or stroll and others lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants—perfect spots for an alfresco margarita or meal.
Neighborhoods to Explore
Downtown and River Walk: The heart of San Antonio includes the Alamo, the main plaza with the city’s 18th-century cathedral, and the famous River Walk. Among other cultural stops you may want to include on your itinerary are the Briscoe Western Art Museum while the historic St. Anthony Hotel has several restaurants and bars making it a good place for a pit stop even if you aren’t staying there.
Alamo Heights: Just to the north of downtown, Alamo Heights is one of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods with streets lined with centuries-old trees. The McNay Art Museum is the principal cultural attraction while the Quarry Market is a former cement factory reborn as an upscale shopping center.
Pearl: The Pearl District is centered along the northern stretch of the San Antonio River, connected to the River Walk by a 1.3-mile extension. Many of the city’s cultural highlights are found in the neighborhood: the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Witte Museum, and the DoSeum. The anchor and namesake of the area is the former Pearl Brewery. The 22-acre complex has been repurposed and now houses a Culinary Institute of America campus, the Hotel Emma, and many restaurants.
Southtown: The city’s self-described arts district sits just to the south of downtown and its twice monthly art walks are ideal opportunities to explore its galleries and studios, like those at the Blue Star Art Complex. From the stately restored Victorian mansions in the King William Historic District to local taquerias, Southtown embodies San Antonio’s surprisingly eclectic side.
Missions: A visit to this part of San Antonio offers a chance to explore the historic sites in the Missions National Historic Park, the natural beauty of undeveloped stretches of the river, and dine at local favorites in the nearby neighborhoods.
When to Go
Winters are mild in San Antonio—daily highs are in the low 60s even in the coldest months. If you are also visiting Texas Hill Country, the wildflowers put on their spectacular display from March to May—bluebonnets typically peak in April. Summers are hot and humid.
Food and Drink
San Antonio is the culinary capital of Tex-Mex, the local variation on Mexican cuisine. The fajitas, tostadas, and tacos of Tex-Mex cuisine have become so popular that when many Americans think of Mexican cuisine, they are actually imagining Tex-Mex. Broadly what distinguishes it is a preponderance of grilled meat, lots of cheese, and some ingredients introduced by other settlers in Texas, like cumin brought by immigrants from Spain’s Canary Islands. You’ll find Tex-Mex restaurants throughout the city.
San Antonio has a dynamic live music scene with the Aztec Theatre and Paper Tiger booking big-name rock bands and lesser known indie musicians. The Paper Tiger is one of several clubs on St. Mary’s Street—and specifically the stretch of it knowns as St. Mary’s Strip. Festivals throughout the year highlight San Antonio’s Mexican-American culture, but the largest is the Fiesta San Antonio, which takes place over ten days at the end of April.
Downtown San Antonio is just a short ride—under 15 minutes if you get lucky in terms of traffic—from the airport. Cabs, shuttle services, and rideshare apps serve the airport. Once you are in compact downtown San Antonio, it’s easy to explore on foot. Cabs do not roam the streets looking for fares—you’ll have to call for one or use a ride-sharing app. (While the city of San Antonio has had a difficult, at times, relationship with Lyft and Uber, the apps and the city reached an agreement in 2016 and they have resumed operating there.)
There is a limited streetcar service that connects major tourist sights and an extensive public bus network.
If you are planning a daytrip into Mexico, bring your passport. Piedras Negras is arguably the most appealing destination over the border and near San Antonio (roughly 2.5 hours by car). That said, none of the Texas-Mexico border towns are especially beautiful and some of them are, simply, dangerous.