Visiting San Antonio without going to the Alamo is like visiting London and not seeing Big Ben: You can do it, but it would be wrong.
Expect the kids to be let down at first. The Alamo looks downright dinky, set smack in the heart of downtown San Antonio, surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic. But the whole point of the Alamo is that it was such a tiny fort, and the valiant Texan volunteers never had a ghost of a chance of escaping the Mexican army's siege -- and still they fought, they fought to the death. That's heroism, Texas style.
There were only 188 Texans defending the Alamo in February 1836, facing the 4,000-strong army of General Santa Anna, who was bent on squashing the Texas territory's bid for independence from the new Mexican Republic. The Texans held out doggedly for 13 days, waiting for reinforcements that never arrived, until all the men -- every last one of them, including pioneer heroes Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie -- were killed in a crushing dawn attack on March 6. But a month later, when Sam Houston was leading another troop of Texans into the battle of San Jacinto, he fired them up with the cry, "Remember the Alamo!" With that heroic example to live up to, the Texans fought like demons, and this time they won, becoming the independent Republic of Texas. (It didn't join the U.S. until 1846.)
What you see today isn't much of a fort -- in 1836 the fortified compound was a bit larger, its outer walls ringing much of what is today Alamo Plaza (look for foundation stones near the steps down to River Walk). After the defeat at San Jacinto, the retreating Mexican forces pulled down much of the Alamo fort to prevent the Texans from refortifying it. Only two original buildings remain. First is the gabled stone mission church -- now officially a shrine, so show respect by removing hats and taking no photos -- which was built in 1756 for the Mission San Antonio de Valero, founded in 1718 to convert local Native American tribes. By the end of the 18th century, the mission was turned over to a Spanish cavalry unit, which renamed it the Alamo (Spanish for "cottonwood") after their Mexican hometown. Besides the church, you can visit the Long Barracks, originally the missionaries' living quarters and later used as the cavalry's barracks; today it includes exhibits on Texas history, with an emphasis on the Alamo battle.
For kids, however, it's the artifacts displayed in the church that will be most compelling: things like a Bowie knife, Crockett's buckskin jacket, and one of the antiquated flintlock rifles the Texans used to defend the fort. Several cannons from the battle are set around the courtyard, mute witnesses to that day of incredible valor.
Nearest Airport: San Antonio International, 13 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Crockett Hotel, 320 Bonham St. (tel. 800/292-1050 or 210/225-6500; www.crocketthotel.com).