Although it lies at the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country, San Antonio itself is mostly flat. Streets are jumbled, especially in the old parts of town, while a number of the thoroughfares leading in and out of town wind along old Spanish trails or 19th-century wagon trails.
MAIN ARTERIES & STREETS: Most of the major roads in Texas meet in San Antonio, where they form a rough wheel-and-spoke pattern. There are two loops: I-410 circles around the main part of the city, while Hwy. 1604 forms an even larger circle outside of that, with a 13-mile radius. You may hear locals referring to something as being “in the loop”—that doesn’t mean it’s privy to insider information, but rather, that it lies within the circumference of I-410 (or as locals call it, Loop 410), and is therefore in central San Antonio. The spokes of the wheel are formed by highways I-35, I-10, I-37, U.S. 281, U.S. 90, and U.S. 87, although occasionally two or three of these merge together on their ways in or out of town.
Within the city, Broadway Street, McCullough Avenue, San Pedro Avenue, and Blanco Road are all major thoroughfares leading north from downtown into the most popular shopping and restaurant areas of town. Fredericksburg Road goes northwest out to the Medical Center from just northwest of downtown. St. Mary’s Street, which turns into Roosevelt Avenue, and South Presa Street, work as arteries to the south.
LOCATING AN ADDRESS: Few locals are aware that there’s any method to the madness of finding downtown addresses, but in fact, directions are based on the layout of the first Spanish settlements—back when the San Fernando cathedral was at the center of town. Market Street is the north-south divider, and Flores separates east from west. Thus, South St. Mary’s becomes North St. Mary’s when it crosses Market, with addresses starting from zero at Market going in both directions. North of downtown, San Pedro is the east-west dividing line, although not every street sign reflects this fact.
There are few clear-cut rules like this in Loop land, but on its northernmost stretch, Loop 410 divides into east and west at Broadway, and at Bandera Road, it splits into Loop 410 north and south. Keep going far enough south, and I-35 marks yet another boundary between east and west. Knowing this will help you a little in locating an address, and explains why, when you go in a circle around town, you’ll notice that the directions marked on overhead signs have suddenly completely shifted.
Neighborhoods in Brief
Like other Sunbelt cities, San Antonio has a relatively compact downtown nucleus, encircled by old neighborhoods and commercial areas, which then give way to wide stretches of suburbia. The older areas described here, from downtown through Alamo Heights, are all “in the loop” (I-410). The Medical Center area in the Northwest lies just outside it, and the rest of the Northwest, as well as North Central, is now expanding even beyond Loop 1604.
We’ve used the designations most locals use to refer to the neighborhoods, though they’re not necessarily reflected on maps. For example, though the Pearl Brewery is technically in the area called Tobin Hill, few locals use that neighborhood’s name anymore. Rather, they just say “I’m going to the Pearl” or “it’s just north of the Pearl.” Similarly, areas that are commonly used as reference points might overlap two neighborhoods. For example, the Broadway Cultural Corridor—which is a Chamber of Commerce-type designation, but one that’s often used—straddles both the Monte Vista and Alamo Heights neighborhoods.
Bottom line: You’re in the sprawling Southwest, which doesn’t do neighborhoods like East Coast cities do.
Site of San Antonio’s original Spanish settlements, this vibrant tourist hub includes the Alamo, Market Square, La Villita, the San Fernando Cathedral . . . really, almost all the major historic sights. It’s also home to the newer River Walk, the convention center, theaters, and the hotels, restaurants, and shops that rose in their wake. The 23-story Frost Bank tower is seen by many as a sign of downtown’s rebound as a banking and business center. The area lags in residential development, and many homeless still roam the streets, but mixed-use housing is promised as part of the ongoing Hemisfair Park development. The area is bounded by I-37 to the east, I-35 to the north and west, and U.S. 90 (which merges with I-10) to the south. Note: The Alamodome and the adjacent Sunset Station, a restored 1902 train depot, along with the AT&T Center, home to the Spurs, are generally considered to be downtown, even though they are east of I-35.
The city’s first suburb, this historic district directly south of downtown alongside the San Antonio River was settled in the mid- to late 1800s by wealthy German merchants who built some of the most beautiful mansions in town. It began to be gentrified in the 1970s, and, at this point, you’d never guess it had ever been allowed to deteriorate. A few of the area’s impeccably restored homes are open to the public—the Guenther House, the Steves Homestead Museum, and Villa Finale—and others have become bed-and-breakfasts. It can be a good, quiet base for exploring downtown and Southtown, but it has few restaurants or large hotels.
Alamo Street marks the border between King William and adjoining Southtown, which is often considered King William’s business district. Depressed for years, it became trendy by the start of the 21st century, when its Main Street was refurbished and the Blue Star Arts complex opened; the 2019 completion of the Ruby City contemporary art museum adds to its artistic clout. It’s now a hot neighborhood, where rising real estate values have almost driven out older Hispanic businesses in favor of hip restaurants and shops (although many of those properties are still owned by Hispanic landlords, who carry plenty of political weight in this city).
Home to four of the five historic missions, the city’s earliest settlements, the old, largely Hispanic southeast section of town begins where Southtown ends (there’s no agreed-upon boundary, but it’s roughly a few blocks south of the Blue Star Arts complex). Once a string of quiet working-class neighborhoods, it’s begun to be developed as the Mission Reach section of the River Walk draws increasing numbers of visitors. The area near the decommissioned Brooks Air Force Base is developing especially fast; other recent conversion projects include the remodeled South Park Mall and the Mission Marquee Plaza, formerly the Mission Drive-In Theater.
PEARL/BROADWAY CULTURAL CORRIDOR
Directly north of downtown, the older Tobin Hill neighborhood has regained new life with the development of the wildly popular Pearl culinary and entertainment campus, which is where most locals go for fun these days rather than to downtown. The old St. Mary’s Strip entertainment drag has been revived by proximity to the Pearl as well. This part of town is full of cranes and scaffolding these days, evidence that it’s become a hot place to live as well as play. At the north end of the Museum Reach section of the River Walk, the Pearl is also adjacent to the Broadway Cultural Corridor, so named because of the attractions clustered here—the San Antonio Museum of Art, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Witte Museum, and the DoSeum. If you take it to its northernmost point, you'll be in Alamo Heights.
MONTE VISTA/OLMOS PARK
Further north, above the Pearl, Monte Vista was established at the turn of the 20th century by a conglomeration of wealthy cattlemen, politicos, and generals who moved “on to the hill.” The Monte Vista Historic District, more architecturally eclectic than King William, is the largest historic district in the U.S. and home to Trinity University (est. 1869). A number of the area’s large houses have been split into student apartments, but many others have been restored. North of Monte Vista, high-end Olmos Park was developed in the mid-1920s by oilman/real estate mogul H. C. Thorman. In both neighborhoods you’ll find several bed-and-breakfasts, located on quiet streets within easy reach of downtown, and a number of good dining spots.
In the 1890s, when construction began in this area northeast of downtown, Alamo Heights was at the far reaches of San Antonio. It’s now a ritzy residential neighborhood, with many fashionable shops and restaurants. Here you’ll find the upscale Alamo Quarry shopping mall, as well as shop-lined Broadway and New Braunfels Avenue. Most of this section of town shares the 78209 zip code—thus the local term “09ers,” shorthand for the area’s affluent residents. The McNay Museum of Art is in this neighborhood, and Brackenridge Park, which contains the San Antonio Zoo and the Japanese Tea Garden.
San Antonio is inching toward Bulverde and other Hill Country towns via this major northside corridor, between Loop 410 and Loop 1604, east of I-10 and west of I-35; it’s bisected by U.S. 281. This is where you’ll find the San Antonio airport as well as Morgan’s Wonderland and Inspiration Island theme park. Lots of high-end homes have been built in the posh Stone Oaks area, which also has great shopping and restaurants (although too far from the city center to be covered in this book). The down side of all this growth? Terrible traffic at U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, especially in the afternoons.
Mostly characterless neighborhoods surround the South Texas Medical Center (always referred to as just the Medical Center), where most of San Antonio’s hospitals and health care facilities are located. But the farther north you go in this prime growth area, which includes Six Flags and Friederich Park, the nicer the housing complexes get. Several high-end resorts and golf courses have cropped up just beyond Loop 1604, along with the Shops at La Cantera (San Antonio’s fanciest retail center) and the RIM mall and entertainment complex.
Although SeaWorld has been out here since the late 1980s, the former ranches and farms along Loop 1604 between I-10 and Hwy. 90 weren’t developed until comparatively recently. Now the West is booming with mid-price housing developments, strip malls, schools, and businesses. As with other areas on the outskirts of town, road building hasn’t kept pace with growth, so traffic can be a bear—be prepared for congestion.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.