San Antonio, home to the Alamo and full of rich cultural history, is a city we think is well-worth a visit with the family. Read on below for some background on this vibrant city and highlights for visitors, especially families.
Why visit San Antonio?
San Antonio, also known by a variety of nicknames including S.A., San Antone, Alamo City, and River City, is located in south-central Texas and is the state’s second largest city, as well as the US’s 7th largest city. While one of the fastest growing cities, San Antonio boasts a vibrant energy and welcoming spirit that makes even first time visitors feel a sense of home within its limits.
The city offers a plethora of activities and sights for families of all sizes, ages, and budgets. No matter when you visit, San Antonio is always alive with energy.
The Riverwalk is located in central downtown San Antonio and is a must-visit for anyone passing through the city. The San Antonio River and the sidewalks that run along its banks are located below street level and lined with restaurants, shops, historic hotels, and many other attractions. Tall trees along the river provide plenty of shade from the Texas sun and beautiful stone architecture, water fountains, and other greenery combined with a multi-cultural assortment of restaurants—German, Irish, Mexican, and more—can often leave you forgetting that you’re in Texas. The Riverwalk brings together both tourists and locals so be sure to take in some of the activities as well as the food. There’s always something fun going on, from the Fiesta de las Luminarias during December featuring thousands of candles along the riverbanks, to the River Parade during the annual Fiesta celebration in April.
Things to do along the The Riverwalk
Spoiled for choice you will be when it comes to choosing a restaurant. From traditional Tex-Mex to fine dining, there’s something for every family and every budget. For the sophisticated eats, check out Bella on the River, a restaurant with top-of-the-line food and located in a secluded spot at the west end of the river right before it turns to run north-south. For a relaxing lunch with young kids, head to The River’s Edge Cafe Patio + Bar which features great food with a sophisticated twist on kid’s favorites. For an upbeat weekend dinner along the river be sure to pay at least one visit to Barriba Cantina which features Mexican street food while you enjoy live music and look down onto the river. Wherever you choose to dine, you’ll want to factor in time to linger over the beautiful vistas offered by outdoor seating at these restaurants or leave time to just stroll along the banks of the river. (Check out more about these restaurants in the first installation of our new series called Dining for Foodies with Families).
One of the first things you’ll likely notice about the Riverwalk are the trademark red and blue boats that glide by every few minutes with a boat full of passengers. These cruises are run by Rio San Antonio and offer tours and taxi service daily from 9am until 9pm (and often later depending on demand). Tickets for cruises can be purchased in advance online or you can buy them on the spot at any of the 5 stations along the river. During the 35-40 minute-long cruise, boat captains narrate the city’s rich history along a mile and a half of the river. We recommend a boat tour as one of your family’s first activities, as it’s a great way to scope out the Riverwalk for restaurants and other things you’d like to see. Private tours and dinner cruises can also be booked.
Ever been to a performance at a river theatre? Probably not, so you’ll definitely want to consider a unique experience at the Arneson River Theatre at La Villita. The Arneson is an open-air theatre with the stage on the north side of the river and audience seating on the opposite south side. Performances include everything from mariachi bands, dance troupes, plays, to special events like the Easter Sunday Sunrise sermon. When no performances are scheduled, you can lounge with your family on the grassy lawn for a picnic or just to people watch. If you and your family are up for a little shopping, The Arneson is located in the La Villita historic arts village, one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods, which is now home to art galleries and shops (see below). For the ultimate concert experience in one of San Antonio’s most impressive historical landmarks head to the Aztec Theatre. The theatre is included in the book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die“, so at the very least be sure to pop in to glimpse the Meso-American architectural decor including sculptures, relief carvings, furnishings, and murals.
More to do on the Riverwalk
- Shop and dine at the Rivercenter Mall, a 4-level complex with over 100 stores, along with an IMAX and AMC theater.
- Head to the Pearl District: Formerly Pearl Brewery, Pearl now represents the neighborhood north of downtown along the San Antonio River Museum Reach segment of the river, and boasts a plethora of activities in and of itself—cooking classes, a farmers market, restaurants, a park, and more.
- Head south to the Mission Reach segment of the Riverwalk for hiking, biking, canoeing and picnicking.
The Alamo (+ a brief history)
No visit to San Antonio, aka Alamo City, would be complete without a visit to this legendary mission and compound located in downtown San Antonio, just minutes from the Riverwalk. The history of the Alamo harkens back to the mid-18th century when it served as a home to Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries and indigenous Indian converts. Eventually, by the turn of the century, the compound had become home to Spanish soldiers and served as both an outpost and garrison, as well as the first hospital in Texas. Over the next few decades, with Mexico’s independence from Spain, native Texans and immigrant Americans populated San Antonio as the stage was being set for a revolution. By 1836, with the Texan Revolution well underway, Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna was determined to take back Texas and launched an assault on the Alamo. At the time of attack important figures such as Colonel Jim Bowie, Colonel William Travis, and famous frontiersman David Crockett sent by General Sam Houston were at the Alamo to remove artillery and abandon the complex. However, Bowie had realized the importance of San Antonio and its location in Texas’s independence from Mexico. In a letter he requested reinforcements and expressed that he and his men “would rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy”. Few reinforcements made it to the Alamo in time for the 13-day siege. The approximately 200 defenders of the Alamo were no match for the well over 1,500 Mexican soldiers, and nearly all the Texans inside the Alamo were killed. News of the Texans’ defeat flamed the resistance and Americans flocked to join Houston’s army. Santa Anna’s camp at San Jacinto would later be attacked by the Texan army and the famous cry “Remember the Alamo!” would be heard. The Alamo remains today a revered Shrine of Texas Liberty and has become the most popular tourist site in the state.
Admission to the Alamo church is free and is open year-round (except major holidays) from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM. History buffs as well as children and adults alike will enjoy the Long Barrack Museum (free to visit), which is the oldest building of the complex, where visitors can learn about the rich history of the Alamo through the long-running exhibit “The Alamo: A Story Bigger Than Texas”.
The Alamo Gardens (free to visit) are also not to be missed. The space is filled with tropical and native plants which provide a shady respite on hot Texan days. And if you’re lucky, you may catch actors putting on small performances in the adjacent Calvary Courtyard.
HemisFair park is just a short walk from the Alamo and the perfect destination for a family to unwind after an afternoon of sightseeing. Originally built to host the 1968 World’s Fair, the park encompasses 15-acres and includes, among many other points of interest, a great wooden playground, cascading waterfalls, and the Tower of the Americas.
The 750-ft tall landmark tower offers an observation deck which we think is a must-see for any visitors to the city. Also housing a cafe, restaurant, and 4D theatre ride, the Tower of the Americas is an attraction in and of itself. If your visit is short, we recommend heading to HemisFair Park in the early evening to let your kids check out the playground and explore the waterfalls and then concluding your visit with a trip up to the observation deck to catch a spectacular Texan sunset. Admission to the deck is about $5 for adults and $3 for children. If you have more time, HemisFair Park also houses Magick theatre, a nonprofit that stages children’s classics, the Institute of Texan Cultures, and the Mexico Cultural Institute.
For a little bit of history, culture, and shopping, from HemisFair Park you can cross South Alamo street and enter into the La Villita Historic Arts Village which sits adjacent to the south bank of the river. Listed on the National Register of Historic District, this neighborhood comprises a unique mix of architectural styles from simple adobe structures to Victorian houses. Within the limits of La Villita you’ll find shops and galleries selling art, textiles, jewelry and other goods, as well as galleries and restaurants. The Arneson Theatre occupies the part of the neighborhood that meets the river and hosts outdoor performances (see above).
If you and your family are in the mood for museums, you won’t be disappointed. For kids especially, there is a cluster of museums situated in the Alamo Plaza adjacent to the Alamo, including Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks, and the Guinness World Records Museum. A short walk north of the Alamo Plaza you will also find the San Antonio Children’s Museum, with three stories of interactive exhibits, and the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum which features wildlife exhibits from all over the world. The Saloon also contains the Texas Ranger Museum for history enthusiasts young and old. Located street-level along the river is the Briscoe Western Art Museum which houses art and artifacts from the American West from over five centuries. Beyond downtown, you’ll find the San Antonio Museum of Art, about 15 minutes by public transportation. A little further north, by the zoo, is the Witte Museum featuring history, science, and South Texas heritage.
Downtown West: Market Square & San Fernando Cathedral/Main Plaza
Another area of downtown not to be missed is Market Square, the largest Mexican market in the US, located about a mile east of the Alamo (walkable if it’s not too hot, or take a city trolley). You’ll find shops and vendors with budget-friendly souvenirs, but the real draw to Market Square is the fun and festive atmosphere. If possible, go on a weekend afternoon when there’s an event of some sort which is usually accompanied by live music and entertainment, as well as wonderful smells of authentic Mexican food cooking in the streets. If you’re in the mood for shopping, many vendors sell similar items so don’t be afraid to haggle the price down. For serious souvenir shopping, we recommend heading to La Villita.
After you’ve had your fill at Market Square, head east back towards the Riverwalk area to the Main Plaza. Serving as the central hub of San Antonio from the mid-18th century, this historic plaza is home to San Fernando Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in the US. During the day, linger in the plaza among the trees and fountains. Tables are available for a picnic or grab a bite to eat from the food trucks. On Tuesdays, vendors fill the plaza for a farmer’s market. Whatever you do, make it a point to return at night for “The SAGA”: a video art installation projected onto the front of the cathedral that tells the history of San Antonio (check out the schedule here for showtimes).
The San Antonio Zoo is only 3-4 miles north of the downtown and hosts over 750 species of animals. The zoo is set within Brackenridge Park, a 300+ acre park with playgrounds and walking trails. Also within the park are the Japanese Tea Gardens, featuring lush gardens and floral displays along with ponds and waterfalls, and the Sunken Garden Theatre, a huge open air amphitheater.
When you and your family are ready to cool off at a water park, Splashtown is about 5 miles northeast from downtown. If you’ve got a car to travel a little further, SeaWorld & Aquatica Waterpark are about 20 miles west of the city. Further still, about an hour’s drive in New Braunfels is Schlitterbahn Waterpark & Resort. There’s also a Six Flags about an hour from downtown.
Where to Stay
An obvious choice you can’t go wrong with is a hotel on the Riverwalk (book your room early enough to get a room with a view overlooking the river). There are also a cluster of hotels literally a few steps from the Alamo. The Crockett Hotel offers spacious rooms the families will appreciate (especially families porting a crib). Next door is the historic Menger Hotel (pictured above). Over 150 years old, this hotel owns the title for the longest running hotel west of the Mississippi River. If you don’t stay here, you’ll want to at least pop in after a visit to the Alamo to glimpse the grandeur of this hotel.
If you want to stay outside downtown, check out La Cantera Resort and take in some beautiful Texas countryside at this resort located about just 20 minutes from downtown.
Happy Travels! ¡Buen viaje!
Looking for more family-friendly destinations in the south and beyond? Check out these great guides:
Photo credits: Arneson River Theatre and La Villita photos adapted from Heather Cowper (CC BY 2.0); Collaged Arneson River Theatre photo adapted from Ed Hart (CC BY-ND 2.0); Market Square adapted from Mr.512 (CC BY 2.0); San Fernando Cathedral SAGA show from Mainplaza.org; Japanese Tea Gardens adapted from Amy Ashcraft (CC BY-ND 2.0). All others by Laura.