What to Do in San Antonio If You Don't Have Much Time
For a sprawling modern metropolis, San Antonio has a quaint Old World sensibility that’s vaguely Spanish, decidedly Mexican, and truly Texan. Such a kaleidoscope of enduring proud cultures makes the city a top choice for vacationers. But like the rest of the Lone Star State, this urban oasis is big, and it helps to know what to see if you want to sample all the flavors. If you only have three days or fewer, follow our touring plan for the best of San Antonio.
Day One: The Alamo
Smaller than you’d expect, this Spanish mission (San Antonio de Valero), built in 1744, squats in the center of downtown. With its famous façade, the Alamo is a sacred place honoring those who died here in 1836 during a bloody siege in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. Today, the historic complex features tree-shaded grounds, the mission chapel, a research center, a museum, and a gift shop. There is not a lot to see inside the chapel itself—disappointing some visitors—but outside the Long Barracks building, docent storytellers give a riveting free talk about the battle, leaving you feeling as though you’ve stood on hallowed ground. Spend about 45 minutes here. 204 Alamo Plaza. Streetcar: Red & Blue lines to Alamo Plaza.
The Menger Hotel
Standing in the shadow of the Alamo, and built just 23 years after the mission fell, the historic Menger Hotel is a San Antonio treasure which opened in 1859. Enter the Crockett Street side door of the hotel’s Teddy Roosevelt Bar, where Rough Riders were recruited. From there, enter the hotel and follow a corridor where historic photos, artifacts, and hotel memorabilia are all on display. Pass through the lobby and notice the adjacent courtyard of towering palm trees and exploding blossoms of bright bougainvillea before peeking into the elegant Colonial Room. In the older, original lobby, be sure to look up at the stained-glass ceiling in the atrium. 204 Alamo Plaza.
Lunch: Rivercenter Mall & IMAX Theater
Step out the south-side doors of the Menger and cross a pedestrian walkway to enter the mall, a convenient portal to the River Walk. There, in the Rivercenter, an IMAX theater offers a 38-minute docu-drama, Alamo: The Price of Freedom, a surprisingly worthwhile tourist movie that brings the historic battle to life. Artifacts from the 1800s and an Alamo diorama are displayed near the theater gift shop. Reward yourself for learning all that history with a riverside lunch at one of the mall’s many casual restaurants. 849 E. Commerce St. Streetcar: All lines to Alamo & E. Commerce sts.
No visit to San Antonio would be complete without exploring the city’s most enchanting attraction, the River Walk, or Paseo del Rio. This rambling corridor of quiet walkways first began in 1939 as a project of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and today features romantic arched bridges, a canopy of shade tree branches, and lush landscaping. Flanking both sides of the slender green San Antonio River, restaurants, clubs, art galleries, and shops line narrow walkways. Float on a river barge, linger beneath colorful umbrellas, and sway to the sounds of jazz at the Landing after dark. Popular restaurants wait in shadow of the Old Pearl Brewery. Enter at Rivercenter or at any bridge stairwell. 110 Broadway St. Bus: 302 & Yellow streetcar line.
Rio San Antonio Cruises
To get your bearings on the River Walk, it’s best to board a boat. Buy your ticket under the Commerce Street bridge just below Schilo’s Delicatessen, and take a 35- to 40-minute cruise covering 2.5 miles (4km) of the San Antonio River on a slow-moving river barge. Boat drivers provide entertaining and informative narratives about the history of the River Walk. Buy tickets and board boats at any of four locations on the River Walk. Tickets and maps are available at Rio San Antonio Cruises' website, too.
As Mexican and Spanish as San Antonio may seem, there’s also a strong German influence here from immigrants who came in the mid-1800s. Stop at Schilo’s Delicatessen, an affordable and well-loved landmark German deli, for a bite of bratwurst, and don’t miss the huge slabs of scrumptious cheesecake. Pronounced “shy-low’s,” this is the perfect pick-me-up place for a cup of coffee and a slice of strudel. 424 E. Commerce St.
La Villita Historic Arts Village
Located on the banks of the San Antonio River, up the steps from the little outdoor Arneson River Theatre, rests San Antonio’s first neighborhood, La Villita (“little village”). Spanish soldiers stationed at The Alamo once lived in huts on this spot, which later would become a community of brick, stone, and adobe houses in the 1800s. In 1836, the Mexican Army General Santa Anna (1794–1876) positioned his cannon line here during his siege of the Alamo. Later, German and French immigrants settled here. Today, historic structures (the village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places) house galleries, restaurants, and shops with folk art, jewelry, clothing, home decor, Mexican imports, and more. Spend an hour here, and be sure to peek inside the Little Church, built in 1979—a popular site for weddings. Walking tour maps are available throughout the site. 418 Villita St. (from the River Walk enter at the Arneson River Theatre). Streetcar: Red & Blue lines to LaVillita.
The Havana Bar
Smell the history—but no cigars—in this small, dark, and handsome best-kept-secret Cuba-themed bar. Set in the basement of the enchanting little Hotel Havana, the bar’s tobacco-colored walls and worn-leather chairs add an other-world, other-century, Hemingway-was-just-here-a-minute-ago vibe that leaves us weak in the knees. This is now a nonsmoking area, so leave the Cohbias in Cuba. 1015 Navarro St.
Dinner: Mi Tierra Café y Panadería
In Market Square is an exploding piñata of sweet colors, strings of twinkling lights, and consistently good Tex-Mex fare at Mi Tierra Café y Panadería. Mariachis stroll past tables while waiters balance big trays of steaming enchiladas and handmade tortillas. An SA tradition since 1941, Mi Tierra’s is still open 24 hours and stays busy all the time. 218 Produce Row.
Day 2: Tower of the Americas
Start at the celebrated centerpiece of HemisFair Park, built for the 1968 World’s Fair. It is the city’s definitive skyline feature, a tower rising 750 feet (229m) high. With multimillion-dollar renovations in 2004 and 2006, the Tower of the Americas boasts an observation deck near the top, nearly 59 stories high. Take the glass elevator there to enjoy spectacular views, especially by night. The tower has a ground-level cafe and gift shop, an observation deck, a revolving restaurant, a cocktail lounge, and a thrilling (but touristy) “Skies Over Texas” 4-D film “ride.” 600 HemisFair Plaza Way. Streetcar: Yellow line to S. Alamo & Nueva sts.
Institute of Texan Cultures
This entertaining museum and educational center, home to one of several campuses of UT San Antonio, features exhibits highlighting the influence of more than 20 different ethnic and cultural groups on Texan culture. Buildings in the large complex include a one-room school, an adobe home, a windmill, and the multimedia Dome Show Theatre. Family-friendly shows, events, and exhibits are offered throughout the year. Upstairs, an historic photo archive is open to the public on weekdays. Spend 90 minutes.739 César E. Chávez Blvd. Streetcar: Yellow line to Bowie St. & Institute of Texan Cultures.
Lunch: Casa Rio
Some say the food is overrated, but there’s not a more pleasant spot along the River Walk to sit under colorful umbrellas and try some authentic Tex-Mex fare. In lieu of a full meal, a basket of crispy tortilla chips, a bowl of hot “chile con queso” (cheese dip), and a frozen margarita make a nice snack before hitting the Mission Trail. 430 E. Commerce St. tel. 210/225-6718.
Mission San Jose
San Antonio is home to five historic Spanish missions (including the Mission San Antonio de Valero, or "Alamo") built by Catholic priests and native peoples along the San Antonio River in the early 1700s. City-owned hike-and-bike trails create a nice route loosely connecting four of the walled medieval-style fortresses, which rest surprisingly near one another along a 6-mile (9.7km) stretch. A popular mission along the trail is the "Queen of the Missions," Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo (aka "Mission San Jose"), featuring an ornate "Rose Window" in its chapel. The largest of the four missions run by the National Park Service (the Alamo is not a national park property), San Jose was established in 1720 and was home to a busy and productive community of priests, nuns, and mission Indians. Beautifully restored in the 1930s by the WPA (Works Projects Administration), Mission San Jose appears today much as it did over 250 years ago. The Park Visitor Center stands adjacent to Mission San Jose and features an informative short film, as well as a small museum and bookstore. Park rangers and docents conduct free mission tours. Budget about 2 hours. 6701 San Jose Dr. Bus: 42 to Roosevelt Ave. & Dagley (White) St.
Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr
Southtown and the King William District.
A few blocks from the city center is a bohemian enclave built up along South Alamo Street called Southtown. This hip arts and entertainment district of distinctive galleries, restaurants, bars, warehouses, converted lofts, and specialty shops sits next door to its stately—but not stodgy—neighbor, the King William Historic District (pictured). Known for its regal Victorian mansions and pretty little turn-of-the-20th-century bungalows, King William borders a quiet bend in the green San Antonio River and makes for a nice self-guided walking tour. In Southtown, salsa and merengue clubs, photography studios, Tex-Mex restaurants, sushi bars, microbrew pubs, and tea rooms draw locals for late-night fun on First Fridays every month, when places stay open late and a block-party vibe sets in. Take about 2 hours here. S. Alamo St. (from Durango Blvd. to Probant St.). Streetcar: Blue line to S. Alamo & Barrera sts.
Day Three: San Fernando Cathedral
Start by taking the Yellow line streetcar to Main Plaza and West Market St. The majestic San Fernando Cathedral is the site of the earliest marked graves in the city and the oldest continuously functioning religious community in Texas. The sanctuary is also the state’s oldest standing church building. Three walls of the original church, which was founded by the Canary Island settlers in 1738, are still visible in the rear of this 1868 Gothic Revival cathedral, which not long ago underwent a major renovation. Remind the kids that several prominent Texans throughout history have been buried within the sanctuary walls. Spooky—but little boys love that kind of thing. 115 Main Plaza
San Antonio Museum of Art
Several castle-like buildings of the old Lone Star Brewery built in 1904, were transformed into the San Antonio Museum of Art, architecturally arresting exhibition spaces housing Latin American folk art, pre-Columbian artifacts, Spanish Colonial works, and much more. The museum’s Lenora and Walter F. Brown Asian Art Wing is the largest Asian collection in Texas and one of the largest in the Southwest. During a 90-minute visit, be sure to note the Dale Chihuly Persian Ceiling piece in the museum. Thanks to the River Walk “Museum Reach” expansion, you can now travel to the museum via river taxi. 200 W. Jones Ave. Closed Mon. Bus: 7, 8, 9 & 14.
Lunch: The Pearl Brewery Complex
The 22-acre (8.9-hectare) Pearl Brewery, which closed in 2001, underwent a booming revitalization. The Museum Reach expansion of the River Walk instigated the transformation of the site into an entertainment complex with studios, galleries, shops, warehouse lofts, chic restaurants, and exciting art installations along the river. The towering original brewery structure, built in 1883 on the east bank of the San Antonio River, is one of the city’s most prominent and recognizable features. 312 Pearl Pkwy. www.pearlbrewery.com. Bus: 20.
Brackenridge Park is San Antonio’s favorite Saturday spot—a park with rustic stone bridges and shaded walkways that wend through lush landscaping under a canopy of trees. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden, or “Sunken Garden” (pictured), created in 1817. A bowl of limestone cliffs (once a cement quarry) is home to the park’s Sunken Garden Theater. A 60-foot-tall (18m) waterfall and ponds loaded with water lilies adorn the spot. Across from the entrance to the San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium, get on board the SA Zoo Eagle, an old-fashioned kiddie train. The 1800s-style choo-choo chugs along a pretty 2-mile (3.2km), 20-minute track through the park. 3700 N. St Marys St. (main entrance 2800 block of N. Broadway St., near the Witte Museum). Bus: 7, 8 & 9.
The McNay Art Museum
Wander the grounds and galleries of this exquisite modern art museum housed in an historic home. The 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival–style mansion just north of Brackenridge Park rests on 23 acres (9.3 hectares) of landscaped grounds dotted with large sculpture pieces. The McNay Art Museum was once the private residence of an oil heiress, art collector, and artist who bequeathed her home, art collection, and much of her fortune to establish the museum. The museum collection focuses primarily on 19thand 20th-century art, including works by Cézanne, Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, and others. The museum’s well-designed modern sculpture wing is a nice plus. Visit the gift shop, and then enjoy a picnic lunch on the grounds as you watch brides have their portraits done in the gardens. 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave. Bus: 8 & 14.
It has had a cult-like following ever since owner Joe Cosniac came to town for the World’s Fair in 1969 with his secret shrimp paesano recipe, Paesano’s is a well-loved, often-lauded San Antonio institution. 555 E. Basse Rd.