Like the Mona Lisa and Statue of Liberty, the Alamo is so much smaller than most visitors expect when they first behold it. Tucked tightly between the high-rise buildings and hotels of downtown, San Antonio's most famous of its five missions is just a little limestone church surrounded by well-tended gardens, a few outlying buildings, and a brave but tragic past. Built by the Spanish in 1744 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, the compound was home to indigenous people from many different tribes. Today it is a shrine, a small museum, and one of Texas' biggest attractions, drawing more than 2.5 million visitors a year through its massive wooden church doors. Visitors quietly explore three main buildings: the Shrine, or church, the Long Barrack Museum, and the Alamo Gift Shop and Museum, all housing exhibits on the Texas Revolution and Texas history. Visitors are also welcome to stroll the shady Alamo Gardens behind the church. Throughout the centuries, the compound has served many uses, from mission to Spanish Cavalry quarters, but its most important moment came in 1836. A large Spanish army led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna battled with a band of brave "Texians" fighting for Texas' freedom. Among the defenders were Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie, all of whom died along with the other Texians. Today the Alamo serves as a shrine honoring the memory of its brave defenders and their fight for Texas independence from Mexico. The battle cry "Remember the Alamo!" led Texians to victory and independence just a month later, on April 21, 1836, at the Battle of San Jacinto. The Alamo shrine, with its famous curved façade, holds a diorama of the mission grounds at the time of the battle. Display cases exhibit artifacts like Travis' ring, Crockett's buckskin vest, and a period Bowie knife. An arrangement of flags represents the states and nations where the defenders originated. The Alamo Museum Gift Shop and Museum sits just across a short pathway from the shrine. The Alamo was saved by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas from becoming a hotel in 1902. The outlying buildings of the original mission no longer stand, except for the Long Barrack, which had been living quarters for Spanish missionaries who called it the "convento," or "convent." Today the Long Barrack houses a small museum. A short History Channel program is shown every 20 minutes or so, and perhaps best illustrates to visitors the significance of the battle and the Alamo mission. Visitors can enter the Alamo grounds from any one of five gates. Although most people prefer to first enter the shrine, I suggest that visitors head straight to the Long Barrack Museum to see the film. Another good tip is to first view "ALAMO: Price of Freedom," an IMAX film projected in the AMC Rivercenter 11 and Alamo IMAX cinema in the nearby Rivercenter Mall (about a block away from the Alamo). Also, don’t miss the history talks that are given, free of charge, every 30 minutes in the Cavalry Courtyard on the Alamo grounds. A thorough visit to the Alamo won't take more than 30-45 minutes, including the 15-minute film.
- Janis Turk