One of Texas’ oldest and most culturally rich cities (and I think the prettiest), San Antonio is often pigeon-holed as Alamo City. While it’s true that the Alamo is one of the world’s most famous monuments, there’s plenty to see when you explore San Antonio, aside from the Alamo.
San Antonio is in the midst of major revitalization and is the fastest growing city in the nation. Scaffolding and cranes dominate facades and the skyline. Even with all the renovation happening, the real heart and history of San Antonio are in the old structures, town squares, and markets.
Since most of what you’ll want to do is happening outdoors, you need to know that in the summer, San Antonio is hot and humid. Prepare accordingly!
All You Need To Know To Explore San Antonio
These are the sites and monuments which I believe are essential to discover and explore San Antonio, whether you are here for the first time, or the fiftieth.
Missions National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, San Antonio
Texas, like California, and most of the American West, was once a Spanish colony. During the 1700s, the Spanish established missions throughout Texas—there are five in San Antonio alone! In 2015, all five missions in San Antonio were given UNESCO’s World Heritage status, meaning they are of extreme cultural and historical importance and are protected by international treaties.
Mission San Jose
Mission San Jose is one of the five missions which make up the San Antonio Missions National Park. All of the missions were built by the Spanish to spread Christianity among the people who were native to the area. The missions also served to provide protection from raids by Apache Indians. Many Native Americans saw the missions as their only solution to survival.
Mission San Jose is considered the prettiest of the four missions. Due to its size, it is referred to as The Queen of the Missions. The remains of a convent can be seen adjacent to the chapel, as well as a museum with many relics that illustrate cooking, farming, and life in the wilds of Texas in the 1700s—not an easy life, to be sure!
Don’t miss the Rose Window, a key architectural feature of the church, it has a bit of a mysterious and romantic story attached to it. It is uncertain who actually carved the window and the story adds that it is named after a woman who died at sea on the voyage from Spain. It is said to be one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in the United States
The Missions National Park can be accessed by foot or bicycle via the trail along the river. If driving, don’t worry—parking is plentiful and handicap accessible. If you need a wheelchair, there is a loaner available at the mission. Entrance to the mission is free, and guided tours are available. As I mentioned before, it’s really hot in the summer, so bring water or you can buy a bottle in the museum gift shop for $2.
Most visitors to San Antonio head straight for the Riverwalk but aren’t totally sure what exactly it is. The Riverwalk started as a park, and over time has developed into the tourist attraction it is today. Originally only three and a half miles long, today it is thirteen miles in length and has been extended both to the north and south.
Lined with restaurants, shopping, hotels, bars, and even theaters where you can see live performances, the Riverwalk attracts over 11 million visitors per year! For this reason, many visitors avoid it. However, it is possible to walk along the river and find quiet places, now that it has been extended.
If you’re not big on walking, you can take a riverboat taxi that operates on what is called the downtown reach of the river. There are also tours that last about 30 minutes and travel 1.5 miles of the Riverwalk where you’ll learn about the history and top spots to visit.
One of these days, I’m going to walk to all four missions via the Mission Reach extension of the Riverwalk which totals about eight miles. Take note: though the Alamo is part of the UNESCO designation, it is not on the river.
San Fernando Cathedral
San Antonio The Saga is one of the best art installations I’ve seen anywhere. The Saga tells the history of San Antonio in light and sound. It utilizes the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral as a canvas for this colorful, emotional, and educational experience. I’ve included a link to the video which was shared by the artist. However, I promise you, nothing compares to standing in the square and watching this happen live.
If you know your US history I think you’ll enjoy the Saga even more. When I saw it there were a few moments in the story when I wasn’t sure exactly what or who was being referenced. Still, I enjoyed the show and can see why the SAGA is a top tourist attraction – a must for anyone who wants to explore San Antonio!
The creator of The Saga, Xavier de Richemont, has installations all over the world. This was his first in the US.
The Saga can be seen every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:00 pm in Main Plaza. Best of all, it’s free!
San Fernando Cathedral
Main Plaza aka Plaza de las Islas
San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest operating colonial church in the United States, the oldest church in the Lone Star State, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is also the geographic heart of the city, located on land given to the locals by the reigning Spanish king in 1730.
Just inside the entrance of the cathedral is a tomb said to contain the remains of some of the heroes of the Alamo, including Davy Crockett, Colonel James Bowie, and Colonel William B. Travis. However, it is uncertain if their remains really are in the sarcophagus. After the Battle of the Alamo, all bodies were burned in large piles. Years later, the ashes were scooped up and put into this sarcophagus and taken to the cathedral. So, maybe their bones are there, or maybe they are not. Nevertheless, the Cathedral is a place where those who wish to can pay homage to these men who fought for Texas independence in a battle that they knew would not end well.
Don’t miss the retablo
Be sure to step inside the cathedral to see the elaborate retablo crafted in the Spanish colonial style by artists from Mexico City. A retablo is a large wooden altar, usually quite detailed, common in Spanish Colonial churches. The church spent fifteen million dollars on the renovation of the church, and the retablo is regarded as one of the most important pieces of religious art in the United States.
This is an active church, so please be respectful. If there are services, do not take photos, and turn your phone off.
Explore San Antonio’s Market Square
514 W. Commerce St.
You may hear Market Square referred to as El Mercado. El Mercado is Spanish and translates to the market, and actually refers to one of the original buildings on the north side of the square.
The largest Mexican market in the country, and the home of the famous restaurant La Margarita (they invented the fajita), this is another iconic destination for those seeking to explore San Antonio. The best times to visit and avoid the crowds are weekdays and early morning on weekends.
Colorful and lively, the market is a fun place to listen to music, shop for Mexican imports, and enjoy cultural events. Locals say Market Square is like a trip across the border.
601 Dolorosa St.
Corner of Dolorosa and S. Laredo
A small, unassuming limestone house on a corner about two blocks from Market Square, the writer known by his pen name, O’ Henry, occupied the house from 1895-1896. During this period, he published The Rolling Stone, a weekly newspaper.
Known for his short stories and ability to define the essence of a place, O’Henry loved San Antonio, and his descriptions of life in the markets and saloons of San Antonio are some of his best work. The house is not open to the public, but you can arrange to have a docent meet you there if you wish to see inside. The number to call is located on the door of the house.
424 E. Commerce St.
If you explore San Antonio on a hot day (or regardless), step inside Schilo’s, the oldest operating restaurant in San Antonio (since 1917!) for a frosty homemade root beer. Don’t skip this because you can not buy Schilo’s spicy-sweet root beer anyplace else in the world. You can also chow down on some classic German dishes for a change from Mexican food. Favorites include split pea soup, Reuben sandwiches, and of course, schnitzel.
The Sternewirth at Hotel Emma
136 East Grayson St.
The Pearl Brewery District, located south extension of the San Antonio Riverwalk, is one of the hottest new developments in the city. The gem of the Pearl District is Hotel Emma, the latest it place to see and be seen; not only tourists but locals too, are finding their way to the Emma to enjoy a cocktail and a bite at the Sternewirth Tavern and Clubroom.
Part of the original Pearl brewery built in the late 1880s, Sternewirth is located in what was the taproom, where workers could enjoy a free pint. Today the room with twenty-five foot high ceilings beckons, with cozy leather seating arrangements and private corners.
If you plan to go (and you should) book a table in one of the old brew tanks. It’s hard to explain, but the seating is semi-private, cozy, and has a Morocco meets elegant vibe: low round table, semi-circular seating built-in, and lots of pillows. It’s so unique that when I was there people kept coming over to have a peek inside. (If you click on the link for the Sternewirth above, you’ll see it).
300 Alamo Plaza
Before you leave, take an hour or two to visit one of the country’s most iconic monuments, the Alamo.
The story of the Alamo is big—a lot bigger than the actual place is today, which often leads to disappointed visitors.
The problem is that the Alamo has been made to seem larger than life in Hollywood movies. Thanks to technology the website for the Alamo offers a chance to see what the Alamo originally looked like. It definitely puts things into perspective. For now, know this: the Alamo was originally a mission, and the original complex was approximately three acres.
The short story
Though the battle at the Alamo was lost, and few people survived, it inspired the Texans to continue to fight for what they believed was their right to freedom from rule by Mexico. Hence, “Remember The Alamo,” became the battle cry for the Battle of San Jacinto, which is where Texans finally won their independence.
In the near future
The city of San Antonio is building a 100 million dollar museum to create an Alamo experience that will better honor the history of this Texas National Historic site.
And, here’s an interesting tidbit…most of the artifacts for the new museum have been donated by Phil Collins! That’s right—the musician Phil Collins. He’s now an honorary Texan—and rightfully so! Phil has been fascinated with the history of Texas and the American West since he was a wee lad watching the Disney series Davy Crockett. Phil felt it was time to donate his collection back to its home. Still, Phil said that he will continue to collect Alamo memorabilia.
Many people go to the Alamo and only go inside the chapel, but there are also beautiful shady gardens. Take some time to stroll around the gardens, where you’ll find some interesting monuments that have been donated by people from all over the world, who remember the Alamo.
If you go:
Drury Plaza Hotel
105 S. St. Mary’s St.
Drury Plaza Hotel is an ideal location for anyone wanting to explore San Antonio on foot. It’s located across from the San Fernando Cathedral, minutes from the Riverwalk, a few blocks from Market Square, minutes from the Majestic Theater, and four blocks from the Alamo.
Housed in the former Alamo National Bank building, the hotel is an architectural treasure. Notice the stained glass window in the lobby depicting the Alamo, and on either side of the stained glass, the art deco sculptures commemorating FDR’s Works Project Administration.
Hotel perks include a rooftop swimming pool with excellent views of the city and fantastic sunsets. There’s also complimentary breakfast and happy hour. Take a room on the west side for the views of the San Fernando Cathedral and sunsets.
The Drury Plaza invested in the Riverwalk extension, making it possible to access the Riverwalk from the lower level of the hotel. This is the perfect home base from which to explore San Antonio. Walk outside, cross the river, and just on the other side is a peaceful water garden shaded by oak trees. Walk up the steps and you’re in Main Plaza, the oldest part of the city.
136 East Grayson St
If the latest upscale establishments beckon you, stay at The Hotel Emma, located in the old Pearl Brewery district just two miles away from Main Plaza. For the Hotel Emma, architectural firm Roman and Williams transformed a historic brewery into a 146-room elegant boutique hotel.
All of the interesting architectural elements of the brewery (constructed in 1884) were preserved in the renovation, adding character and texture to the new design. Lush materials and grand spaces feel inviting and exclusive all at once. Exposed pipes become art, and brew tanks a place to cozy up for cocktails.
I’m told that guests fly from all over the world to stay at the Hotel Emma, and business moguls come to study the revitalized Pearl District, which is not owned by a corporation, but by one man with a lot of vision.
All you need to know to enjoy San Antonio
is this: there are not many cities where you can see a UNESCO World Heritage site and a world-famous monument while experiencing a blend of cultures unlike any other in the United States. I’ve visited every major Texas city (especially Dallas) more than a few times; San Antonio gets my vote for the most unique city in Texas.