Great Things to See and Do in San Antonio
Just about everyone has heard of the famous San Antonio River Walk, with its guided boat tours and restaurants overlooking the scenic inner-city river flowing through the downtown area. But this city, the second largest in Texas and seventh largest in the United States, has a wealth of other attractions for visitors.
San Antonio’s greater metropolitan area, which includes the charming German town of New Braunfels to the north, is home to about 2.2 million people. Many originally moved to the area because of the five large military installations the city hosts, but they stayed for the beauty and warm climate. The city has now blossomed into a major center of business and industry as well as a place known for its history, traditions and educational opportunities.
As big as the city is, it is still quite easy to see many sights in just one or two days. Many historical spots are in the downtown area (making it easy to drop by the River Walk afterward), and the city boasts a viable transit system for getting to other sights you may want to see while there.
Visit the San Antonio Zoo, Sunken Gardens, and Ride the Eagle Train in One Morning or Afternoon
The San Antonio Zoo, though perhaps not as large and famous as some others in the country, is well worth a visit. It’s open from 9-5 daily, every single day of the year (although zoo members can get a head start at 7:30 a.m.). The zoo has free parking, just a few yards away from the front gate, and excellently designed and maintained exhibits.
City leaders assembled a collection of animals in the 1800s, and the current zoo opened its gates in 1914. Today, nearly 9,000 animals (from 779 species) are fed and cared for in habitats reminiscent of everything from African desserts to tropical rainforests.
From March to November, visitors can enter a contained butterfly exhibit where hundreds of the beautiful, delicate creatures fly freely, often landing on the shoulders and heads of surprised patrons. The butterflies are imported from breeders across the world while still in the pupae stage and spend their short (2-3 week) lifespans in this safe environment, where thousands of visitors admire them each year.
Regular Zoo admission is $12 for adults and $9.50 for children 3-11 years old, with free admission for children younger than that and discounts for various special age groups or populations. Some special features, such as the butterfly exhibit, have a small extra charge.
The Sunken Garden and the Eagle Train
The Sunken Garden (Japanese Tea Garden)
This exquisite spot should actually be called the Hidden Garden – the San Antonio Sunken Garden it is almost too easy to miss. Across the street from the Zoo parking lot, you will see a sign and some stairs leading up the hillside. At the end of the short climb, you will find an oasis-like lagoon with water lilies, stone bridges, tropical flowers and a 60-foot waterfall, all created from an old rock quarry.
Take your camera – you will want to capture shots of the ferns, koi fish and seasonal plants you’ll see as you walk the pathways. Admission is free.
Ride the Eagle Train!
Kids of all ages (ahem!) will love taking a ride on the zoo’s Eagle Train. You can get tickets at its cute depot next to the parking lot, which also has a gift shop, and soon you’ll be chugging along the banks of the San Antonio River, through the tropical trees and around the zoo’s park.
The Witte Museum, the Alamo, and the Famous San Antonio River Walk
If you got an early start and you’ve seen the zoo and sunken gardens, stop by the Witte Museum or Market Square in Downtown San Antonio to escape the heat of the day before heading for the Alamo and River Walk (just be sure to get to the Alamo before it closes!).
The Witte Museum offers a variety of long-term as well as themed (temporary), such as ongoing displays of Texas wildlife and ecology and special exhibits on topics ranging from Darwin to how royal coronations are staged.
Market Square in San Antonio is a historic area with an authentic Mercado (featuring shops filled with items from Mexico) a Farmer’s Market and restaurants. You can buy anything from souvenirs to leather goods and fine jewelry in the maze of shops, and the restaurants in the square are among the landmark eateries in the city.
Every first-time visitor should see The Alamo and experience the genuine feel of history the grounds impart. If you haven’t seen this historic site before, you will be surprised at how small it looks. Tucked between high-rise commercial buildings in the downtown area, it is dwarfed by modern architecture and came close to being razed for ‘progress’ in the early half of the 20th Century, until local historians fought to preserve it.
The Alamo is also part of the San Antonio Mission Trail, but is operated separately due to its unique place in Texas history. It is open daily (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guides explain the displays and various ways the series of rooms in the building were used, and visitors should spend a few minutes contemplating the events that happened there. Be sure to visit the gift shop and gardens while you’re there.
The San Antonio River Walk is undoubtedly the most widely known feature of the city. Located right across the street from the Alamo, it is the next logical stop on your tour of the downtown area. It’s also the perfect place to stroll as the sun goes down and the heat fades, and you’ll likely want to have your evening meal at one of the dozens of restaurants overlooking the river.
You can also take a guided boat tour, which is a great way to learn how the River Walk came to be, and the history of the development of the area. As you round one of the corners, the guide may point out the stage on which a scene from Miss Congeniality was filmed (the bathing suit competition).
If you reach the River Walk before 5 p.m., ask for directions to La Villita, which is at the top of the stairs opposite the stage mentioned above. This tiny enclave of preserved streets and restored houses now holds shops and galleries, and it’s a pleasant place to stroll and shop during your trip to the River Walk.
San Antonio’s Historic Missions
Many people may not know of the San Antonio’s rich history of missions; there are five missions in or on the outskirts of the city. Four are preserved through the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park; the fifth mission is actually the Alamo, which many people may not realize has a religious heritage as well as a political one in Texas’ history.
The history of the area’s missions has a cultural impact that altered the lives of the original settlers in Texas, the American Indians. After attacks from the north by Apache tribes, and after deadly illnesses brought up from Mexico threatened their populations, the Native settlers in Tejas (Texas) converted to Christianity and adopted Spanish lifestyles and customs as a form of survival.
Mission Espada: This mission was established in Augusta (near what is now Weches, Texas) in 1690 and moved to its current location in San Antonio in 1721. Mission San Juan Capistrano: Established in 1716, it is one of several that was moved after it was originally founded. Mission San Jose: This mission was founded in 1720, and the park’s Visitor Center is located next to it on its grounds. Mission Concepcion: Founded in 1716 in East Texas, it was moved to San Antonio in 1731. The Alamo: The fifth of the missions, is now a greatly revered historical site in Texas.
Other places of interest in San Antonio:
San Antonio’s highlights are too numerous to list in just one short article, but here are other spots you may want to see:
River Center Mall: This large indoor mall is right on the River Walk, has a parking garage and offers easy access to the River Walk and Alamo. The stores, restaurants and food court are favorite places to browse and enjoy.
Alamodome: Not far from the downtown area, this arena hosts everything from major sports games to special events. Parking is a bit awkward at times (as with any gigantic facility), but the ‘Dome’ is a great facility and a popular venue for many purposes.
Fort Sam Houston Museum: This small but interesting museum has an exhibit of the U.S. Army’s history and activities at the site dating to 1845. Its displays include uniforms, arms, flags and many other artifacts documenting the military evolution of the fort.
Sea World San Antonio: This popular destination has educational exhibits, entertainment and fun attractions for families of all sizes and age groups.
You’ll find Texans to be friendly, hospitable and happy to answer questions. Plan to see as much as possible during your visit to San Antonio, and plan to return often!