It’s not just the most famous of San Antonio’s five missions, it’s Texas’s most-visited attraction, drawing 2.5 million people annually. So yes, the Alamo is a must-see, but don’t expect anything dramatic at first glance—sitting smack in the heart of a touristy downtown plaza, the site looks surprisingly small. That said, you’ll immediately recognize the graceful mission church where, for 13 days in March 1836, a band of 188 “Texian” volunteers turned back the much larger army of Mexican dictator Santa Anna. Eventually all the men, including pioneers Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie, were killed, but a month later Sam Houston’s cry “Remember the Alamo!” used their deaths to rally his troops and defeat the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto, thus securing Texas’s independence.  

Built by the Spanish in 1744 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, in 1905 the compound was saved by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas from becoming a hotel. Since 2011 it has been managed by the General Land Office (GLO)—which has brought many of its displays and events, not to mention its website, into the 21st century. The three main buildings are the Shrine (church), which hosts artifacts like Travis’s ring, Crockett’s buckskin vest, and a period Bowie knife; the Long Barrack Museum, where videos provide an overview of the Texas revolution and the Alamo Siege; and the Alamo Gift Shop and Museum. Visitors can also stroll the pecan oak–shaded Alamo Gardens behind the church. The exhibits and many interpretive talks and videos are free; it’s definitely worth shelling out extra for the tours, which include a self-guided audio tour and one geared toward kids. 

Because the first impression of this key historic site is less than inspiring, the GLO is working on a variety of solutions, including the possibility of closing Alamo Street to vehicular traffic. Click the “Master Plan” link on the website to check on the progress of these plans.