One of downtown San Antonio’s gifts to visitors on foot is its wonderfully meandering early pathways—they were not laid out by drunken cattle drivers as has been wryly suggested, but formed by the course of the San Antonio River and the various settlements that grew up around it. Turn any corner in this area and you’ll come across some fascinating testament to the city’s historically rich past.
Walking tour: Downtown
Start: The Alamo.
Finish: Market Square.
Time: Approximately 1 1/2 hours, not including stops at shops, restaurants, or attractions.
Best Times: Early morning during the week, when the streets and attractions are less crowded. If you're willing to tour the Alamo museums and shrine another time, consider starting out before they open (9am).
Worst Times: Weekend afternoons, especially in summer, when the crowds and the heat render this long stroll uncomfortable. (If you do get tired, you can always pick up a streetcar within a block or two of most parts of this route.)
Built to be within easy reach of each other, San Antonio's earliest military, religious, and civil settlements are concentrated in the downtown area. The city spread out quite a bit in the subsequent 300 years, but downtown still functions as the seat of the municipal and county government, as well as the hub of tourist activities.
Start your tour at Alamo Plaza (bounded by E. Houston St. on the north); at the plaza's northeast corner, you'll come to the entrance for:
1. The Alamo
Originally established in 1718 as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the first of the city’s five missions, the Alamo was moved twice before settling at this site. The heavy limestone walls of the church and its adjacent compound later proved to make an excellent fortress. In 1836, fighters for Texas’ independence from Mexico took a heroic, if ultimately unsuccessful, stand against Mexican general Santa Anna here.
Walk south along the plaza to:
2. The Menger Hotel
German immigrant William Menger built this hotel in 1859 on the site of Texas’ first brewery, which he opened with partner Charles Deegan in 1855. Legend has it that Menger wanted a place to lodge hard-drinking friends who used to spend the night sleeping on his long bar. Far more prestigious guests—presidents, Civil War generals, writers, stage actors, you name it—stayed here over the years, and the hotel turns up in several short stories by frequent guest William Sidney Porter (O. Henry). The Menger has been much expanded since it first opened but retains its gorgeous three-story Victorian lobby.
On the south side of the hotel, Alamo Plaza becomes N. Alamo Street. Take it south 1 block to Commerce Street, where you’ll spot:
3. Joske’s (now Shops at Rivercenter)
After lying empty for several years, in 2016 the building that once hosted San Antonio’s first department store was restored to its former glory. Opened by the Joske Brothers in 1889, the modest retail emporium was enlarged in successive stages until, in 1939, it became the large Art Deco building you see now, distinctive for its intricate Spanish Renaissance–style details. This was the first department store in Texas to be fully air-conditioned. The interior was gutted to incorporate the building into the Shops at Rivercenter mall complex, but the exterior is as impressive as ever.
Walk a short way along the Commerce Street side of the building to:
4. St. Joseph's Catholic Church
Built for San Antonio’s German community in 1876, this Gothic revival–style house of worship is as notable for the intransigence of its congregation as for its beautiful stained-glass windows. The worshipers’ refusal to move from the site when Joske’s department store was rising up all around it earned the church the affectionate moniker “St. Joske’s.”
Head back to Alamo Street and continue south 2 blocks past Market Street to reach:
5. La Villita
Once the site of a Coahuiltecan Indian village, La Villita was settled over the centuries by Spanish, Germans, and, in the 1930s and ‘40s, a community of artists. A number of the buildings have been continuously occupied for more than 200 years. The “Little Village” on the river was restored by a joint effort of the city and the San Antonio Conservation Society, and now hosts a number of crafts shops and two upscale restaurants in addition to the historic General Cós House and the Arneson River Theatre.
Just south of La Villita, you'll see HemisFair Way and the large iron gates of:
6. Hemisfair Park
This park was built for the 1968 exposition held to celebrate the 250th anniversary of San Antonio’s founding. The expansive former fairgrounds are home to two museums, a German heritage park, an observation tower—the tallest structure in the city and a great reference point if you get lost downtown—as well as the new Yanaguana Garden complex, with several restaurants. To explore the entire park would take several hours, so for the purposes of this tour, you might want to confine yourself to the observation tower and the German heritage park.
Retrace your steps to Paseo de la Villita and walk 1 block west to Presa Street. Take it north for about half a block until you see the Presa Street Bridge, and descend from it to:
7. The River Walk
You’ll find yourself on a quiet section of this 2.6-mile paved walkway that lines the banks of the San Antonio River through a large part of downtown and the King William Historic District. The bustling cafe, restaurant, and hotel action is just behind you on the stretch of the river that winds north of La Villita.
Stroll west to the St. Mary’s Street Bridge (along the way you’ll pass under the Navarro St. Bridge). Ascend at St. Mary’s Street and walk north 1 block to Market Street. Walk west across the Market Street Bridge to:
8. Main Plaza (Plaza de Las Islas)
This is the heart of the city, established in 1731 by 15 Canary Island families sent by King Philip V of Spain to settle his remote New World outpost. Much of the history of San Antonio—and of Texas—unfolded on this modest square. A peace treaty with the Apaches was signed on the plaza in 1749 (and later broken). In 1835, the Texan forces battled Santa Anna’s troops here before barricading themselves in the Alamo across the river. Much calmer these days, the plaza still sees some action as home to the Romanesque-style Bexar County Courthouse.
Walk along the south side of Main Plaza to the corner of Main Avenue. Across the street and just to the north you’ll find:
9. San Fernando Cathedral
The oldest parish church building in Texas, this is also the site of the earliest marked graves in San Antonio. Three walls of the original church started by the Canary Island settlers in 1738 can still be seen in the rear of the 1868 Gothic revival cathedral, which recently underwent a massive renovation. Among those buried within the sanctuary walls are Eugenio Navarro, brother of José Antonio Navarro (see stop #13, below), and Don Manuel Muñoz, first governor of Texas when it was a province of a newly independent Mexico.
On the north side of the cathedral is Trevino Street; take it west to the next corner and cross the street to reach:
10. Military Plaza (Plaza de Armas)
This used to be the parade grounds for the Spanish garrison charged with guarding San Antonio de Béxar. The garrison was stationed here in 1718, the same year the mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was established. After Texas won its independence, Military Plaza became one of the liveliest spots in Texas, where cowboys, rangers, and anyone passing through would come to obtain local news. In the 1860s, it was the site of vigilante lynchings, and after the Civil War, it hosted a bustling outdoor market. At night, the townsfolk would come to its open-air booths to buy chili con carne from their favorite chili queen. The plaza remained completely open until 1889, when the ornate City Hall was built at its center.
The one-story white building you’ll see directly across the street from the west side of the plaza is the:
11. Spanish Governor's Palace
Despite the name, this building was the residence and headquarters of the captain of the Presidio de Béxar, not of any Spanish governors. From here, the commander could watch his troops drilling across the street.
From the front of the Governor’s Palace, walk south to Dolorosa Street and turn right (west). One block further is a drainage ditch, the sad remains of:
12. San Pedro Creek
The west bank of this body of water—once lovely and flowing, but now usually dry—was the original site of both Mission San Antonio de Valero and the Presidio de Béxar. In the first phase of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, a stretch of the creek half a mile north of here has already been restored.
Continue west on Dolorosa Street to Laredo Street, and take it south 1 block to:
13. Casa Navarro State Historic Site
The life of José Antonio Navarro, whose lived in this single-story house, traces the history of Texas itself: He was born in Spanish territory, fought for Mexico’s independence from Spain, and then worked to achieve Texas’s freedom from Mexico. (He was one of only two Texas-born signatories to the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.) In 1845, Navarro voted for Texas’s annexation to the United States, and a year later, he became a senator in the new Texas State Legislature. He died here in 1871, at the age of 76.
Trace your steps up Laredo to Dolorosa, and go west on Dolorosa Street. When you reach Santa Rosa, you’ll be facing:
14. Market Square
Home to the city’s Market House at the turn of the 20th century, this low, arcaded structure was converted to El Mercado in 1973, and switched from selling household goods and personal items to crafts, clothing, and other more tourist-oriented Mexican wares. Directly behind and west of this lively square, the former Haymarket Plaza is now called the Farmers’ Market, although it currently sells souvenirs instead of produce. You can enjoy a well-deserved lunch here at Mi Tierra.
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.