By Mike DuBose and Debra DuBose with Blake DuBose
San Antonio, Texas is a clean, well-planned, and safe city notable for its strong cultural background, inspiring historic sites like The Alamo, and delicious cuisine with an international flair. Walking San Antonio’s streets, you can almost hear the echoes of footsteps through time: the Native Americans, Spanish colonists, Catholic missionaries, American folk heroes, and outlaws (including Butch Cassidy) who have traveled there over its nearly 350-year history. From this melting pot of cultures has risen a city that respects and celebrates its past, even as it moves toward the future. How could anyone forget? After all, the Alamo—source of the famous saying, “Remember the Alamo!”—sits right in the middle of downtown!
Today, San Antonio is the seventh most populated city in the United States, but even as it grows, it retains its ties to history. Once described by architect Frederick Law Olmstead (who designed New York City’s Central Park) as a “jumble of races, costumes, languages, and buildings,” San Antonio is still very multicultural today, with 41% of the population speaking Spanish at home, and many restaurants featuring Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. The fascinating mix of cultures, historic sights, and Old West mystique makes San Antonio an exciting vacation spot!
Each year, nearly 25 million tourists travel to San Antonio to visit the Alamo (and other Spanish missions), participate in local festivals, and enjoy the sights, sounds, and foods that make the city special. Recently, we took our own journey to San Antonio, and we also found delight in this unique city! The following are some suggestions based on our experiences and research.
When to Go
One of the major factors you’ll want to take into consideration when planning your San Antonio visit is the temperature. Due to its location in southern Texas, the city’s climate is hot and humid in summer and mild in the winter. San Antonio sees average high temperatures in the 90 to 96-degrees Fahrenheit range from June to September. April and October’s highs, however, are in the low 80s. As with any city, hotel rates will rise during popular times, so if you are on a budget, you might consider going in winter. Even in December and January, temperatures are typically in the 50s and 60s!
If you consider temperature alongside yearly happenings in San Antonio, April—the month when Fiesta, a huge, 11-day city-wide festival takes place—is the ideal time to visit. According to Fodor’s.com: “October and April are the prime months for a comfortable visit to San Antonio, though the spring (when it's not raining) is ideal for seeing the scenery if you're planning to visit the missions or take an excursion into the Hill Country. Also in the spring, a celebratory mood overtakes the town during the annual Fiesta event.” We visited in April and found the weather (and atmosphere) very pleasant!
San Antonio should be easily accessible by car or plane for most Americans. We left from Atlanta, and our flight took about two hours. Air travelers will arrive via San Antonio International Airport (airport code SAT). The airport is about nine miles from the historic city center, which is normally about a 15-minute drive by car. TripAdvisor reviewers noted that cab fares usually run about $25 to get to downtown San Antonio from the airport; Lyft and Uber rides are another popular option. There is also a shuttle that runs from the airport that is cheaper than a taxi, but may experience delays.
Traveling Within the City
San Antonio is well-patrolled, with a strong police presence. On our visit, we saw many friendly city workers wearing bright yellow clothing. They have been trained to help tourists find their way around, and it seemed like it was a pleasure for them to be asked for directions!
Public transportation in downtown San Antonio is good. Its bus network, Via Metropolitan Transit, even has special routes that go to popular tourist sites, such as the VIVA Culture route that goes to museums and parks (see www.viainfo.net/bus-schedules/#downtown for details). You can also get around by walking or taking taxis, Uber, or Lyft.
As in most cities we visit, we looked for a “hop on, hop off” tour bus as an easy, cost-effective way to visit the important sights. In San Antonio, these big, red double-decker tour buses are run by City Sightseeing San Antonio (www.citysightseeingsanantonio.com). The route stops at 18 historic and cultural sights, and your ticket entitles you to get on and off wherever you’d like during the hours the bus is running. For $49 per person, we received two days of rides, a 35-minute boat tour along the River Walk, and free access to a museum. Riding the City Sightseeing bus early in your tour will provide you with a glimpse of where you may want to return to spend more of your time.
For trips not on the City Sightseeing bus route, we used Uber, which worked well in San Antonio. However, note that if you take Uber on longer trips to surrounding towns, driver availability may be limited. In rural areas, it may take an hour or two for one to arrive within the coverage area to return you to San Antonio. So, if you would like to visit places outside of the city like Texas Hill Country (www.texashillcountry.com), you will probably want to rent a car (beware, though, that parking in San Antonio can be expensive!).
Where to Stay
There are numerous hotels, resorts, and bed and breakfasts scattered throughout San Antonio at different price points. The Menger Hotel, Emily Morgan Hotel, and Crockett Hotel are all reasonably-priced historic hotels located right next to the Alamo. Most travel guides recommend that you stay at a hotel in downtown San Antonio near the River Walk, because you’ll be able to walk, take free water taxis, or obtain Ubers or Lyfts pretty much anywhere you need to go from this popular tourist area.
On our visit, we stayed at the Embassy Suites on 125 E. Houston Street, which is on the River Walk. We would rate it 3.5 stars. It has a good, free breakfast buffet and hosts a two-hour happy hour each night with complimentary snacks, beer, and wine. Our balcony had a great view of the river below. If you stay there, be sure to ask for a room overlooking the river!
If you plan to visit San Antonio during a popular time, book early, and expect to pay more for accommodations near downtown. Fodor’s travel guide notes, “San Antonio is a major convention destination, so it's feast or famine for hotel rooms; peak seasons are generally spring and late fall. At the right time you can get some great deals for top-quality accommodations, but during special events (Fiesta week, the NCAA Final Four tournament, during major conventions) expect to pay top dollar and make reservations months in advance.” However, the guide notes one unusual positive: weekend rates may actually be lower than weekday rates at some hotels, because business travelers tend to travel during the week!
Many of San Antonio’s most popular attractions are linked to its complex history. Even its name reflects its Spanish colonial heritage! One can trace the different stages of the city’s development by visiting areas and sites from different periods in its history. Non-history buffs shouldn’t fear, though: there is plenty else to do and see, including museums, gardens, and zoos.
The Alamo and San Antonio Missions National Historic Site: No trip to San Antonio would be complete without a visit to the Alamo. It’s an enduring symbol of the city and its proud spirit. But the Alamo was not always a fort—in fact, it started out as a Catholic mission, one of five that the Spanish built in the region after founding San Antonio in 1718. As time passed, these missions took on purposes other than spreading Christianity to the native people—most notably, the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which became a barracks known as the Alamo.
Rather than go into detail about the history behind the Battle of the Alamo, we suggest that you watch the 1960 historical epic movie The Alamo. During the battle, many heroes, including James Bowie and Davy Crockett, died fighting the Mexican army under General Santa Anna. This infuriated Americans and led to the famous saying, “Remember the Alamo!”
All within the city limits, Mission San Antonio de Valero (aka the Alamo), Mission San Jose, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada combine to make up the San Antonio Missions National Historic Site. According to San Antonio’s Tourism Department, the five missions “represent the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America.” This has earned San Antonio Missions National Historic Site its designation as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one of only 23 in the United States with that honor!
The Alamo is in downtown San Antonio on Alamo Plaza, close to the River Walk. Admission is free, but we only spent about 45 minutes there since it is now a small, empty mission surrounded by a wall. For more information, visit www.thealamo.org.
The other missions are scattered along the San Antonio River, but there are trolleys and buses running the route, so it is possible to see them all. You can find information on the locations, hours, admissions policies, and more for each of the missions at www.visitsanantonio.com/missions; the site also lists recommended trolley services and tours.
King William Historic District: This area of San Antonio is home to many historic houses dating to the late 1870s. After the Mexican-American War, which slashed San Antonio’s population by two-thirds, the city’s population recovered with the help of immigrants, particularly people from Germany (who went on to shape Texas’s beer and brewing industry). Many of these people settled in the King William Historic District, and you can note their influence in the area’s distinct architectural style.
With its elegant mansions, King William Historic District was the premier neighborhood in town at the end of the nineteenth century, and it was also Texas’s first zoned historic district. Now, several of the homes have been turned into museums. One of the most popular to visit is the Edward Steves Homestead, a three-story mansion built in 1876. Other homes, like the Guenther House, have been converted into restaurants, so you could also grab lunch there and check out the scenery!
The King William Historic District covers about 25 blocks and is located on the San Antonio River’s south bank. The San Antonio Conservation Society offers a printable map with information on important houses in the area at https://www.saconservation.org/what-we-do/tours/, which you can use as the basis for a self-guided walking tour. (If you are very interested in historic houses, you might consider hiring a guide.) The district is a dropoff point for the City Sightseeing bus.
Pearl District: Home of the Pearl Brewery, this is a local “hot spot” you may want to consider experiencing on the weekend. We enjoyed walking around and visiting the area’s vendors, small shops, musical performers, food tents, and a few excellent restaurants. It is a dropoff point for the City Sightseeing bus, but if you go, arrive by 10:00 AM since most of the vendors and activities disappear by 1 PM.
River Walk: Stretching 15 miles along the banks of the San Antonio River, the River Walk runs right through town. All along the way are hotels, shops, and restaurants, and water taxis float up and down the river, carrying travelers to different locations along the path. Lonely Planet travel guide calls it “a little slice of Europe in the heart of downtown San Antonio,” and it reminded us of Venice, Italy!
We spent a lot of our time walking through this great area along the river and eating at the restaurants. It was filled with wonderful landscaping, small waterfalls, friendly people, and walking areas. Note that it gets crowded on the weekends when tourists swoop in for fun!
The area’s official website (www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com) divides the River Walk into three sections: Museum Reach, Downtown Reach, and Mission Reach, each corresponding to the types of sites nearby. Bikes are available for rent from several vendors if you’d like a faster way to get around, or you can book a Rio San Antonio Cruise (https://www.goriocruises.com/) for a boat ride and short explanation of important historic and cultural points along the river, which was interesting. You can also simply stroll along and enjoy the shade provided by the cypresses planted along the path!
Brackenridge Park: Another highly recommended place to enjoy nature is the 343-acre Brackenridge Park, which is in the Alamo Heights district on the northern side of downtown San Antonio. It features many walking or jogging trails, as well as a miniature train and a carousel (part of the San Antonio Zoo) that kids will enjoy riding. There are concessions available if you get hungry or thirsty walking around—or playing on the Brackenridge Park Golf Course, the oldest municipal golf course in Texas! See www.brackenridgepark.org for more details on park, including hours, admission costs, and things to do while there.
South Town: While this was a recommended neighborhood to visit and a dropoff point for the City Sightseeing bus, we were disappointed South Town and would not recommend it.
Japanese Tea Garden: Within Brackenridge Park is a Japanese Tea Garden, a peaceful oasis that was formed out of what was previously a marble quarry. Built almost 100 years ago, it recently underwent significant renovations in the mid- to late 2000s. Visitors enjoy its koi ponds, water lilies, and Japanese pagoda. See http://saparksfoundation.org/japanese-tea-garden for pictures and details on the garden.
The San Antonio Zoo: Fifty-six acres of Brackenridge Park are dedicated to the San Antonio Zoo, a 501c3 nonprofit that houses over 750 species of animals. Themed exhibits are dedicated to replicating the natural homes of animals from Africa and the South American rainforest, and a large bird house that allows the creatures to stretch their wings in flight (it’s also one of the few places in the zoo that is fully enclosed and air-conditioned—a good thing to note if you’re there in the summer!). See https://sazoo.org for more information.
San Antonio Botanical Garden: Another haven for nature lovers is the San Antonio Botanical Garden (www.sabot.org), which is near Brackenridge Park at555 Funston Place. Colorful flowers and plants grow in the formal gardens, conservatory, low-water/succulent garden, and ledge garden, and there is even a trail dedicated to plants that are native to Texas. The gardens are currently undergoing an expansion that is slated to end in Fall 2017, so note that some areas may be under construction if you visit during that time.
Briscoe Western Art Museum: After the American Civil War, San Antonio’s cattle business boomed. The wealth and relative freedom of the area (it was still considered a frontier town at that time) made it a stop for outlaws like Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch. Many of our images of the “Wild West” are drawn from this period, and countless TV shows, movies, and books have been produced romanticizing the era!
If you’re a fan of Westerns (or American history), consider visiting the Briscoe Western Art Museum, located at 210 West Market Street. In addition to exhibits depicting life in the Old West, the museum also displays Native American art and Pancho Villa’s saddle! See its website, www.briscoemuseum.org, for hours and admission information.
McNay Art Museum: The first modern art museum in Texas, the McNay was founded by Marion McNay, a wealthy heiress who collected 19th and 20th century American and European art and Native American art. When she died in 1950, she left a collection of more than 700 pieces, as well as land and money to establish the museum. The collection has expanded over the years to more than 20,000 items, works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Degas. The McNay Art Museum is located at6000 N New Braunfels Avenue. Its website, www.mcnayart.org, provides information on admissions, hours, and exhibits.
Witte Museum: Near Brackenridge Park at 3801 Broadway Street, the Witte Museum contains an array of natural history, science, and cultural exhibits. One standout is the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery, with its towering T-Rex skeleton! Parents who visited noted that their children enjoyed the hands-on aspect of interactive exhibits like the H-E-B Body Adventure; however, some said that the admission price was a bit expensive. Visit www.wittemuseum.org for more information and to purchase tickets.
La Villita: This small village was one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods. It is one of the City Sightseeing bus stops, and guides recommended visiting for its art. However, we were disappointed with the few stores there and would not recommend visiting this area.
Buckhorn Saloon and Texas Ranger Museum: We obtained free entrance to this museum (318 E. Houston Street) through a combination deal with our City Sightseeing bus tickets. It was an interesting tour, and worth the 45-minute walkthrough. The museum has a replica of the infamous car in which Bonnie and Clyde perished (the real one is at a western casino) and a good display of handguns and rifles.
Market Square (El Mercado): On the weekends, this area—the largest Mexican market in the United States—becomes party city, filled with Mexican dancers and Latino music. It was pretty crowded with shops, local food tents, and everyone having a good time. The souvenirs that the shops were selling weren’t anything special, but watching the Mexican dancers was really neat!
In its long history, San Antonio has been influenced by many cultures: Spanish, Native American, German, and Mexican, to name a few. This rich cultural background is reflected in the many festivals held throughout the city each year. If your trip coincides with any of these events, make sure to take them in for a taste of authentic San Antonio life!
Fiesta: Fiesta is a city-wide festival that takes place in April of each year (2018’s Fiesta will be from April 19-29). It began in 1891 with just one parade to honor the defenders of the Alamo and the participants in the Battle of San Jacinto (which won Texas its independence from Mexico), and has expanded over the years to a celebration of San Antonio’s culture and heritage. Today, more than 100 events—including three major parades—are held during the 11 days of Fiesta, with most put on by local nonprofits. The roughly $284 million raised each is given back to the community through scholarships and programs, earning Fiesta its nickname of “Party with a Purpose.”
There are three major parades that take place during the Fiesta time period. The Battle of Flowers Parade is the largest and oldest, dating back to the celebration’s inception. It draws so many people (350,000) on the second Friday during Fiesta that local schools cancel classes! The Fiesta Flambeau Parade occurs the following day (the second Saturday) at sunset and features countless lights on floats, dancers’ costumes, cars, musical instruments, and even horses. On the last Monday of Fiesta, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade’s floats actually float down the San Antonio River next to the city’s River Walk district. The floats are all lit up, and popular local bands play music on them. Be sure to reserve a seat along the River Walk, make an advanced reservation at a river-view restaurant, or watch the floating parade from your hotel balcony!
Other significant events include: A Night in Old San Antonio (a four-day festival-within-a-festival in the La Villita area); Fiesta in Blue (two nights of musical performances by the US Air Force Band of the West); and a charreada (an exhibition of equestrian skills, bull riding, and roping). Various food festivals also occur during Fiesta, including Fiesta Oyster Bake and A Taste of New Orleans.
Parade routes, an event calendar, and other details can be found at the event’s official website, www.fiestasanantonio.org. Tickets to individual events during Fiesta can be purchased through the organizations handling them (click the events on the interactive calendar to find contact information).
Also, some nearby towns outside San Antonio hold their own festivals concurrent with Fiesta. We visited nearby Borne, Texas for the Texas Corvette Association Show, where nearly 300 classic Corvettes were displayed. Borne also had some neat shops. If you visit, be sure to eat at the Hungry Horse!
Texas Folklife Festival: Each year, this event showcases the unique patchwork of San Antonio culture over a three-day period (tickets are available for the whole time or just one day). Attendees can experience foods, crafts, dances, music, and art from more than 40 cultural and ethnic groups that come together in the city. The festival is held at the Institute of Texan Cultures at 801 E. Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard. Visit www.texasfolklifefestival.org for this year’s festival dates, performance schedules, tickets, and other information.
Fiestas Navidenas: If you visit San Antonio in the first three weekends in December, check out Fiestas Navidenas, a celebration of the upcoming Christmas holiday. During these weekends, folkloric dancers perform, artisans offer handmade crafts for sale, and mariachi bands play their upbeat tunes. The kids might even get a visit from “Pancho Claus!”
Where to Eat
Unsurprisingly, San Antonio’s cuisine draws a lot of inspiration from its Mexican and Spanish roots. You’ll find plenty of places serving Tex-Mex, Latin, and Mexican foods like burritos and fajitas. Dishes also tend to be meat-heavy, although there are some vegetarian options available.
Restaurants operate at all price points, from small, inexpensive stalls to pricey fine dining establishments. However, Fodor’s notes that dress codes and attitudes tend to be casual: “You can count on one hand the number of restaurants requiring jackets; the dress codes at most other nice restaurants pretty much stops at ‘no shorts, please.’ Reservations and long waits are rare except at a few high-end restaurants and at peak times on the River Walk.”
The following are some restaurants in San Antonio that we enjoyed or that came highly recommended by travelers, tour guides, and/or locals. Because we visited during Fiesta, many places were filled during peak dinner hours. If you’re planning to go during a popular time as well, we recommend making reservations (we used TripAdvisor.com and OpenTable, which automatically populate in your smartphone’s calendar) in advance when possible.
One of our favorite things about dining in San Antonio was the atmosphere. In several places we ate, talented Latino violinists, guitarists, singers, and trumpet players dressed in authentic outfits traveled through the restaurants playing their music for tips. It was a very interesting and fun experience to see and hear them!
The bottom line: San Antonio is a place where you feel like you’re walking through the past. We had a lot of fun touring it, with many unique experiences! However, we feel like we saw most of the important sights on our visit, so will probably not return. We spent one week there, but would recommend that others budget four or five days for San Antonio and perhaps visit nearby Austin, Texas for a few days, too. We hope our tips help you enjoy your visit!
About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at [email protected].
Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.
Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 45 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.
Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.
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