12 Top Tourist Attractions in San Antonio & Easy Day Trips
On the San Antonio River and the narrow San Pedro Creek along the southeastern edge of the Texan tableland, San Antonio reflects the many different cultures that have influenced the history of the Lone Star State. The western and southern districts in particular have a distinctly Mexican character, but there are also traces of a once large German community. All these diverse cultures come together in the annual San Antonio Fiesta in April when the strains of conjunto music blends with polka, and the aroma of enchiladas and roast potatoes fills the air. The city can trace its roots back to 1718 with the establishment of the Spanish military post of Presidio de Bexar, along with the Franciscan mission of San Antonio de Valero. Soon afterwards, San Antonio de Bexar became the capital of the Spanish province of Texas, and after the expulsion of the Spaniards, the town was under Mexican sovereignty until Texas broke away from Mexico. The famous battle of the Alamo was fought the following year, and in April 1836, Texas achieved its independence from Mexico and, until the incorporation of Texas into the United States in 1845, San Antonio belonged to the independent Republic of Texas.
See also: Where to Stay in San Antonio
1 The Alamo Mission in San Antonio
On the east side of the city, on Alamo Plaza, is the most famous building in Texas: the Alamo. Taking its name from the Spanish word for cottonwood, the Alamo was part of the mission station established here in 1718, its church built by Franciscans in 1744 and converted into a fort in 1836. In that year, during the Texan war of independence, a small force entrenched themselves in the Alamo against a Mexican army of 3,000. All 187 defenders were killed, including legendary figures Davy Crockett and James Bowie. The Alamo soon became the cradle of Texan independence, and the phrase "Remember the Alamo!" became a battle cry. The former mission is now a National Monument visited by two-and-a-half million people each year, all here to see the restored mission buildings and the cenotaph commemorating the fallen Texans. Also of interest is the nearby historic Menger Hotel, built in 1859 and a favorite stopover of the Chisholm Trail cowboys (it was also where Teddy Roosevelt famously recruited his Rough Riders).
Address: 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio
2 Editor's Pick The San Antonio River Walk
The wonderful River Walk runs for several miles through the city center along the San Antonio River past numerous restaurants, shops, and hotels. Lying a level below the streets above, this long stretch of pedestrian-heaven is a great place to explore, a veritable oasis in the midst of this large and otherwise bustling metropolis. As popular among San Antonians as it is with visitors, it's perfect for those wanting to spend time enjoying the many outdoor patios and dining areas lining the paved walkway, or to simply sit and watch the world pass by (boat tours are also available, many stopping at or near the city's major attractions).
Address: 110 Broadway, Suite 500, San Antonio
3 Tower of the Americas
Overlooking HemisFair Park, scene of the World's Fair of 1968, stands the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas, the tallest building in Texas outside of Dallas or Houston. Boasting magnificent views over the city from its observation platform and revolving restaurant, it's well worth a visit, especially if you also take in the Skies Over Texas 4D Theater Ride with its thrilling aerial views of Texas and its many landmarks.
Address: 739 East Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard, San Antonio
4 San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Consisting of four of the five Spanish mission stations founded between 1718 and 1740 (the fifth being the Alamo), the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a must-visit. The missions preserved include Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1731; Mission San Concepción, completed in 1752; Mission San Francisco de la Espada from 1740; and the "queen of missions," Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, built between 1720-31 and notable for its beautiful church doorway and carved sacristy window - the "Rosa's Window" - as well as its Indian huts and corn stores.
Address: 6701 San Jose Drive, San Antonio
5 The Spanish Governor's Palace
To the west of the San Antonio River and within easy reach of historic San Fernando Cathedral is the Military Plaza (Plaza de Armas), home to the Spanish Governor's Palace. This one-story whitewashed palace - more fort than mansion in appearance - was built in 1749 with materials imported from Spain and is the only surviving aristocratic early Spanish home in the state. Preserved as a National Historic Landmark, the building now serves as a museum and includes 10 rooms, the grand courtyard with its fine gardens, and a fountain.
Address: 105 Plaza De Armas, San Antonio
6 Institute of Texan Cultures
The exhibits at the Institute of Texan Cultures depict the contributions of the many ethnic groups that settled in Texas. Displayed through rotating exhibits, the collection comprises the state's main center for multiculturalism. Highlights include regular exhibits; educational programs; and events such as the popular Texas Folklife Festival, held here every year since 1972. In addition to its vast collection of artifacts and fun interactive displays, the facility boasts a well-stocked library with numerous rare books and manuscripts, photos, and oral histories.
Address: 801 César E. Chavez Blvd, San Antonio
7 San Fernando Cathedral
Famous as the burial site of the heroes of the Alamo, the Roman Catholic San Fernando Cathedral (Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe) is one of the oldest cathedrals in the US and is listed on the National register of Historic Places. The walls of the original church, completed in 1750 and built by settlers from the Canary Islands (hence the painting of the Virgin of Candelaria), now form the cathedral's sanctuary. The building also played an important role in the siege of the Alamo, for it was here that the Mexican forces let it be known that "no quarter" would be given.
Address: 115 Main Plaza, San Antonio
8 San Antonio Botanical Garden
Opened in 1980, the San Antonio Botanical Garden features a variety of quiet areas with individually designed gardens. Highlights include a children's garden, a conservatory, a garden for the blind, a butterfly garden, and a rose garden, along with a variety of other exhibits and fun events.
Address: 555 Funston Place, San Antonio
9 San Antonio for Kids: Zoos and Theme Parks
There's no shortage of kid-centric fun in San Antonio. One of the most popular outings for those traveling with children is the San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium, a 35-acre site with some 3,500 animals from 750 species. In addition to the animals, the zoo also boasts a narrow gauge railroad, the San Antonio Zoo Eagle, as well as a fun carousel. Also worth a visit for animal lovers is the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a "drive-through" safari with more than 50 free-roaming species from around the world. Six Flags Fiesta Texas, another tourist attraction designed with kids in mind, is a theme and water park set in a former rock quarry, complete with traditional rollercoasters and wilder rides for those with stronger stomachs. Another popular wet park is Splashtown San Antonio, boasting more than 50 rides and attractions, as well as a number of exciting waterslides. Finally, although a 16-mile trip northwest of San Antonio, a visit to SeaWorld will keep young and old alike entertained for hours. Along with its numerous shows, attractions, and exhibitions are killer whales, a botanical garden, and a large whitewater run.
Address: 3903 N. St. Mary's Street, San Antonio
10 San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Art Museum
Idyllically located adjacent to the superb River Walk, the San Antonio Museum of Art features first-rate collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, as well as Asian, European, American, and Latin American art. Highlights include many fine examples of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artworks, as well as Chinese ceramics in what is the largest collection of Asian art in the southern US. Another facility of note is the McNay Art Museum with its large collection of modern art, including contemporary Indian art. On the former estate of Marion Koogler McNay, in a large Spanish Colonial Revival house, the museum also boasts numerous works from Medieval and Renaissance periods.
Address: 200 W. Jones Ave, San Antonio
11 Natural Bridge Caverns
About 17 miles northeast of San Antonio are the spectacular Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest commercial caves in Texas. Boasting more than 10,000 different stalactitic formations in chambers bearing names like Sherwood Forest, this awe-inspiring attraction is named after the massive 60-foot limestone bridge that spans its entrance. Highlights include the 40-foot-high King's Throne in the Castle of the White Giants, a huge wall of stalactites. A convenient and educational way to explore the caves is on the Natural Bridge Caverns Underground Walking Tour, which includes your admission ticket and an expert guide. After the tour, you have the chance to do a little above-ground exploring along the Canopy Challenge, a treetop excursion with ropeways, platforms, and ziplines.
Address: 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Road, San Antonio
12 San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden
In the city's popular Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden makes for a pleasant escape from this otherwise bustling city. Established in the early 1900s and often referred to as the Sunken Gardens due to its location in a former limestone quarry, the site contains many interesting features, most notably its unique entrance, a replica of a Japanese Torii or temple gate. Other highlights include its lush gardens and tree-lined pathways, numerous lily ponds stocked with koi carp, a splendid waterfall, and a large stone pavilion with a vast thatched roof that provides a perfect place to rest while you reflect on the lovely surroundings. Also of interest is Jingu House, built in the 1920s and named after a local Japanese-American artist who cared for the property during the interwar period (it's now a restaurant with a patio overlooking the gardens).
Address: 3875 North Saint Mary's Street, San Antonio
Where to Stay in San Antonio for Sightseeing
To experience San Antonio's charm and unique ambience, the downtown area, with the famous Riverwalk, is the best place to stay. Luxury and mid-range hotels can be found right on or near the Riverwalk, and budget hotels are generally a 10-minute walk away. Below is a list of highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Right on the Riverwalk is the posh Mokara Hotel and Spa, with large rooms and a lovely rooftop pool, and the Westin, with a garden-style pool setting and large balconies that look out over the river below. If you prefer something a bit more hip and trendy, the boutique Hotel Valencia is a smaller property with stylish rooms and quaint dining and lounging areas.
- Mid-Range Hotels: The recently renovated Holiday Inn, at the northwest end of the Riverwalk area, is a large property with a contemporary design. A two-minute walk from the action and housed in a historical 24-story former bank skyscraper is the beautiful Drury Plaza. Perfect for families and also in a historic building is the Homewood Suites, with a variety of room sizes and layouts.
- Budget Hotels: A short drive from the Riverwalk and the Alamo is the newly renovated Red Roof PLUS+, and just down the street from here is the Comfort Suites Alamo, with large rooms and a free shuttle to the Riverwalk area. Both properties have outdoor pools. Closer to downtown and in a more convenient location is La Quinta Inn, with a beautiful pool area and restaurants nearby.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to San Antonio
- Sightseeing Tours: A fun and convenient way to see San Antonio's top attractions and learn about its history without the hassle of driving and parking is the San Antonio Grand Sightseeing Tour. An experienced guide picks you up at your hotel for this full-day tour, which includes a visit to the Alamo, the Spanish Governor's Palace, and a relaxing riverboat cruise on the Paseo del Rio (River Walk), among other attractions. Entrance fees are included. For maximum flexibility, consider the City Sightseeing San Antonio Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour. Accompanied by an audio commentary, this fun tour on an open-air double decker bus takes you to San Antonio's top sights and historical landmarks, and you can hop on and off the bus at any of the 12 stops. Depending on your schedule, you can choose from a 24- or 48-hour ticket.
Day Trips from San Antonio
The Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
In the hill country northwest of San Antonio, there's still much evidence of German settlement, a prime example being the pretty town of Fredericksburg. But what you're really here for is the wonderful Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a pink granite dome rising 425 feet out of the ground, which from certain angles, could almost be mistaken for a miniature Uluru, the striking red monolith in Australia. It's a fascinating place to explore, and although listed as a National Natural Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors are allowed to climb over the rock (it's well worth the effort for the amazing views).
Address: 16710 Ranch Road 965, Fredericksburg
National Museum of the Pacific War
The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg features the history of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the town's most famous resident, as well as the role of the US in WWII. Highlights include the Admiral Nimitz Museum, housed in the old Nimitz Hotel and detailing the Admiral's life and career, along with the old hotel itself, once owned by his grandfather. In addition to its many fascinating displays relating to the conflict, the Pacific War Museum boasts a large collection of both allied and Japanese aircraft, tanks, and guns. Best of all are the superb realistic re-enactments of key events of the fighting during this deadly conflict.
Address: 340 E. Main Street, Fredericksburg