Things to Do in San Antonio

Things to Do in San Antonio

Take a river taxi from downtown to the Pearl Brewery. Don’t confuse the river taxis with the river cruises, which just follow a loop around the downtown portion of the river with narration. The cruises are worthwhile too, but they just take you for a ride. The taxis take you places and have regular stops. The taxis fly checkered flags to help distinguish them from the cruise barges.

You can get an all-day ticket for $16, and it can be purchased on board the taxi for cash. Some people think the river taxis are expensive–and actually the entire route is reasonably walkable, if it’s not too sweltering out and you don’t mind long walks (a bit under 1.5 miles). Whichever way you decide to go, the route along the river is a definite “must do.” The Riverwalk is one of the longest linear parks in North America, but most visitors only see a very small part (and arguably miss the very best parts!)

You can get some detailed maps here, but the following list includes a few of our favorite things (roughly in order going from downtown toward the Pearl Brewery):

  • The old Ursuline Academy, formerly a convent and girls’ school and now an art academy, is a group of interesting old buildings (as old as mid-1800s) with beautiful grounds. The buildings may or may not be open, but it is a beautiful place for a walk.
  • Hotel Havana, a Mediterranean revival hotel built in 1914, houses the Ocho bar, which is supposed to be the best place for cocktails in the city. I can’t vouch for that because we haven’t made it there yet–but I find the place totally intriguing and it’s on my “to do” list. Maybe you will make it there before me.
  • The lock and dam about half-way to the Pearl Brewery is maybe somewhat of a cheap thrill, but we always get a kick out of it.
  • The San Antonio Museum of Art is located in an old brewery and is worth checking out just for the building, but it also usually has interesting exhibits and is especially noted for its collection of Latin American art.
  • If you venture up from the river at the museum, you can also get a cup of coffee (ALMOST as good as Coffee Hound’s) at Rosella CoffeeThe Luxury (named with tongue in cheek) is a beer garden built from shipping containers. There are swings where you can drink your beer overlooking the river. Both are next door to the art museum.
  • If you are walking and enjoy quirky old buildings, you might want to take the old stone stairs up to VFW Post 76, the oldest VFW post in Texas, located in a 100+ year old, supposedly haunted Victorian mansion. Occasionally, they have festivals going on there, but, even if it’s closed, it’s worth a quick look around–a real blast from the past.
  • The public art along the river and under the bridges really can be better appreciated on foot. Some of the art under the bridges is lighted at night, so maybe walk there during the day and then ride back after dark? Pay special attention to the faux bois art pieces that are a special part of San Antonio’s heritage. These are concrete sculptures that are crafted to look like they are made of rustic wood. You will definitely notice the Grotto along the river, which is too big to miss, but these pieces are all over the city–often in the form of something as prosaic as a bench or a bus stop, so it might be fun to see how many you can spot during your visit.
  • The Pearl is a fun place just to wander–and it’s still a work in progress, so we are assuming it’s going to get better with time. If you can manage it, take a walk through Hotel Emma, which was recently opened and uses industrial equipment and architectural features from the old brewery in clever and surprising ways. I say “if you can manage it,” because, when things are busy, the staff sometimes stops people from just walking through unless they are staying in the hotel or going to the restaurant–both of which I find way too costly. (You could say you’re going to the bar, which may be a more reasonable splurge–and is one of the places you’ll want to see.) Our daughter loves the charcuterie at Cured (and its chef was just nominated for a James Beard award). We all love the French pastries at Bakery LorraineSoutherleigh Fine Food & Brewery, located in the old brew house, has a nice selection of southern dishes and beer at fairly reasonable prices. La Gloria is a casual place owned by one of San Antonio’s more famous chefs and featuring Mexican street food. There is also a farmers’ market on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Walk (or rent a Bcycle) to explore the Riverwalk south, including the King William historic district and Southtown, from downtown. The part of the river described above is known as the “Museum Reach.” South of downtown, the river is known as the “Mission Reach.” It extends 15 miles to the San Antonio missions–but, unless you are REALLY into walking or biking, there are probably better ways to reach the missions than walking there along the river (though the trail extends that far, so you CAN do it if you’d like!) Here are some of our favorite things within a walkable distance south of downtown:

  • Eat breakfast at the Guenther House, located in the restored 1860 home of the founder of Pioneer Flour Mill. The best place to sit is on the patio outside the house, and the best time to go is on a weekday because otherwise you may have a long wait. However, you should take a look inside the house, which is open to the public for free–and check out the little store inside, which specializes in Pioneer mixes but sells an interesting assortment of other items as well. The mill is still in operation and is located right next to the house (but is not open to the public).
  • Walk around the King William neighborhood (located right next to the Guenther House), which is full of beautifully restored Victorian houses, including both mansions and cottages. Self-guided walking tours are available. If you like to tour old houses, you can check out the Steves Homestead or Villa Finale.
  • The Blue Star Arts Complex started out as low-rent studio and exhibit space for artists–and is now a mixed-use development. In addition to the Blue Star Contemporary art museum, there are a number of restaurants and brew pubs.
  • Across St. Mary’s and Navarro Streets from King William is a more transitional neighborhood, Lavaca, San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood. This area was originally part of the Alamo farmlands, with residential development beginning around the 1870s. There are a few restaurants in this area that we really love. For fine dining, try chef-owned Bliss, another one of our daughter’s favorites. Rosario’s is a great place for Tex-Mex with a contemporary flair. There are a few other restaurants that look interesting but that we haven’t tried, including Feast and LaFrite Belgian Bistro.
  • This is a bit random, but I figure there is a chance you like to browse restaurant supply stores (like me). If so, there are two in this area. AceMart at 1220 S. St. Mary’s has more stuff, but there is also Mission right next door.
  • Back on the King William side, The Friendly Spot is a great example of another San Antonio tradition-–the ice house. Originally neighborhood purveyors of ice, they expanded into neighborhood social hubs offering beer and music in a backyard atmosphere. When I was a kid, we still referred to convenience stores as ice houses–but that’s in the past now.
  • Madhatters Tea House offers traditional afternoon tea in an atmosphere that feels more like a hippie hangout than a proper British tearoom.

Explore the central downtown. It is more touristy, but there are still things we like to do there–and, actually, even people who live in San Antonio go down to the river. The challenge there is probably cutting through the clutter, so here are a few suggestions.

  • You probably should see the Alamo, if the line isn’t too long. Admission is free, so time is all you have to lose! Very little of the Alamo remains–and much of what used to be Alamo battlefield has turned into tacky tourist traps like Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It’s an embarrassment San Antonio is finally working to correct. There are lots of plans to improve the Alamo and its surroundings over the next few years, so you might want to check back at some point.
  • Another interesting site in the area is the Menger Hotel next door to the Alamo, especially the bar, which features lots of intricate woodwork and is where Teddy Roosevelt recruited many of his Rough Riders. You can just walk through–no need to stop and have a drink (unless you’re ready for one). The hotel was built in two phases, and I find the juxtaposition of the two styles especially interesting. The main lobby was built in 1949/1950 and has a retro feeling of mid-century luxury, but the old 1859 lobby is still there, and its Victorian features have been retained. The hotel rambles a bit, so you may have to do a bit of wandering to see everything, especially the bar.
  • The San Antonio Visitors Bureau Information Center is across from the Alamo on St. Mary’s Street and is probably worth a stop for brochures and info on current events. Next door to the Information Center is a passage to the Riverwalk that goes through the Hyatt Regency Hotel. When the passageway was excavated, they found remnants of the original Alamo walls, which they have left open and covered with plexiglass, so be sure to look for those.
  • The downtown bend of the Riverwalk is lovely but crowded, especially on weekend evenings. You might want to go there on a weekday evening instead. You can just walk around or take a river barge, which is a better experience than you might expect. The guides actually do a pretty good job of narrating the tours, and some of the views are better from the middle of the river than from the sidewalk. One of our favorites is coming around a bend in the river to see the Tower Life Building all lit up.
  • We love the idea of eating on the river but must admit we sometimes feel we are sacrificing great food for great atmosphere. Plus it seems like the places with the best food are never the ones with the best views. (Sad!) You can look through Restaurants on the Riverwalk to see what looks interesting to you. Here are notes about some we’ve tried and would recommend considering:
    • Bella on the River: Some of the best food but there is very little (and rather cramped) river seating, and it’s a bit pricey.
    • Biga on the Banks: I haven’t eaten there, but Mike and our daughter have–and they say it’s excellent. Also a bit pricey. It is owned by one of San Antonio’s most noted chefs, Bruce Auden.
    • Casa Rio: One of the original Riverwalk restaurants–it might actually have been the first. It’s definitely not the best Mexican food in San Antonio, but it’s hard to mess up Tex-Mex. It’s a great location–often featured in Riverwalk photos because of its colorful patio umbrellas and scenic location.
    • County Line: Like Casa Rio, one of the best dining locations on the river, and it’s barbecue–hard to mess that up really.
    • The Esquire Tavern: Another long-time Riverwalk establishment, known mostly as a bar, it’s been getting wider recognition for its food (mostly casual dishes)–and it was just nominated for a James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program. The bar has a great atmosphere–like you’ve stepped into the past. Unfortunately, there is very limited riverside seating.
    • Paesano’s: An old-time San Antonio restaurant formerly famous for its Shrimp Paesano. It now has multiple locations–and I don’t think it’s as good as it used to be–but it is still pretty good. If you get there early, you can get a table right next to the river.
    • Schilo’s Delicatessen: Not exactly a Riverwalk restaurant. I think there is no way to get in except at street level. However, it’s technically “on” the river and has been in San Antonio since 1917, in its current location since 1927. With its high tin ceilings, I’m sure the building hasn’t changed much since it opened. If you go, consider trying the pea soup and root beer. As a plus, its prices are very reasonable.
  • You might also take a walk through La Villita. This was San Antonio’s original residential district. It has a few good art shops and some cafes (nothing notable), but it’s mostly a festival space—so there may be some sort of special event when you go. It was recently taken over by the City of San Antonio, so we are hoping something good happens here soon. Not currently much to it, though. As you walk around, you may see the entrance to the Arneson River Theater, an outdoor theater with seating on one side of the river and the stage on the other. It used to be primarily a venue for flamenco. Now I’ve lost track of what types of performances are held there.

Take a walk, heading west on Commerce and back east on Market Street to central downtown, if you would like to just walk around and get a feel for San Antonio. Here are some points of interest to watch for on the walk:

  • Rivercenter Mall: Don’t waste your time going into the mall, but you might be interested in knowing the river was extended so this building could be part of the Riverwalk. The mall is an extension of the old Joske’s department store at the corner of Commerce and Alamo Plaza.
  • St. Joseph’s Church: The church was built by German immigrants in the 1860s, and parishioners refused to sell when Joske’s was built in 1945. As a result, the church is now surrounded by the old Joske’s/current Rivercenter Mall on three sides.
  • Aztec Theater: Former 1920s movie palace, now a special events/performance venue backing up to the river. (After you pass the Aztec and cross St. Mary’s, you will see the street-level entrance to the Esquire Tavern on your right.)
  • Main Plaza: As an old Spanish city, San Antonio was originally built around several plazas. You might be interested in walking through San Fernando Cathedral on the west side of the plaza. The original structure was built in the mid-1700s and was incorporated into the current structure, which was built in the 1860s. Contrary to signs you will see posted inside, the Alamo defenders were not buried in the cathedral. At 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, you can see performances of The Saga, a video art installation/light show representing the history of San Antonio in images projected onto the cathedral. It takes about 25 minutes, and is quite a unique experience.
  • Military Plaza: This plaza is right after Main Plaza but no longer looks like a plaza since the City Hall was built right in the middle of it. However, it is the site of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, which was one of my favorite historic sites in San Antonio when I was a kid–though I’m not sure why; it’s really not very palatial. However, it has a wonderful courtyard garden and is definitely worth a visit.
  • El Mercado (or Market Square): As you walk the next couple of blocks, you might wonder whether I’m trying to lead you astray, but don’t give up. After you cross Santa Rosa St., you will see Milam Park on the right–and across Milam Park, you will see Santa Rosa Hospital, which is historic because it’s where I was born. On the left is El Mercado, which you may love or you may hate. Some people find it “awfully” tacky and others find it “wonderfully” tacky. (Katie Bishop loved it, especially the Mexican Elvis impersonator.) If you’re more on the “wonderful” side of tacky, you might try to go there on a weekend. It can be a bit dead at other times. For the most part, you can just wander around here for as long as you like (or can stand it). However, I would definitely suggest going to Mi Tierra. It opened in 1941 while El Mercado was still a real produce market. It is now a riot of color and light, shiny and sparkly stuff, and traditional and popular culture. The food is good, so definitely eat there if you’d like. Even if you aren’t hungry, check out the authentic panaderia in the lobby and maybe buy some pan dulces to eat later. Also, make your way to the dining room at the far north end of the restaurant and take a look at the art. There is a mural with portraits of notable San Antonians that you probably won’t be able to appreciate–but there is also a shrine to Selena and a painting of Bill Clinton running in a Mi Tierra t-shirt, along with other totally weird and wonderful art.
  • Head back toward downtown, east on Dolorosa. At the corner of Dolorosa and Laredo, there is a tiny house set at the corner of a parking lot. That’s the O’Henry House–but that’s not its original location. It’s been moved a couple of times to save it from demolition. It is now a museum, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it open, so I have to admit I’ve never been there.
  • If you take a quick detour one block south on Laredo St. to Nueva St., you can see another historic residence–the Casa Navarro State Historic site, home of José Antonio Navarro. Navarro was one of only two native-born Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence, which makes for an interesting story. The site has a complex of three buildings, including a free-standing kitchen from the 1830s.
  • After going back to Dolorosa St., you will pass the jail and several court buildings on the right, as well as several hotels. After Main Plaza, the name of the street changes from Dolorosa to Market.
  • After crossing Presa Street, you will see the Briscoe Western Art Museum on the right. This used to be the San Antonio Public Library. We haven’t been to the museum yet, but I know it’s noted for its collection of western art, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

If you have time, I would definitely recommend touring at least one of San Antonio’s missions. I believe it’s now possible to reach them by walking along the river, but it’s probably best to take a bus. The San Antonio transit service (VIA) offers a service called VIVA that offers three routes that take riders to points of interest outside of downtown. Bus 40 runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It leaves from the Alamo and goes to the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site that includes Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose and Mission San Juan. The San Antonio Missions are a national historic park and were recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The City of San Antonio also has a website on the missions that may have more information. If you want to tour just one mission, I would suggest Mission San Jose. It’s probably the most extensive, well-restored mission. San Antonio and the missions are noted for their acequias. You may need to get directions to find what’s left of them, but I think they are fascinating. You can get a bit of a look by finding the ruins of the old mill outside the walls of Mission San Jose.

You can also use VIVA bus 11 to further expand your explorations outside of the downtown area. It goes to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Witte Museum, the DoSeum (children’s museum), Brackenridge Park, which includes the San Antonio Zoo and Japanese Tea Garden, north of downtown—and to Southtown and the Blue Star Complex, which I’ve already described, south of downtown.

  • If you enjoy art and old mansions, I’d suggest you consider visiting the McNay. The house and grounds are remarkable—and it has a varied and interesting art collection. While you are in San Antonio, they will have special exhibits including works by Klee, Monet, Matisse, and Renoir. If you go, you might consider breakfast or lunch at Twin Sisters Bakery & Cafe, located in the Sunset Ridge Shopping Center, a retro shopping center with a few interesting shops. (While I was in college, I lived in the Sunset Ridge Apartments behind the shopping center; they are now cool—but not so much when I lived there.)
  • If you have time, a quick stop at the San Antonio Zoo might also be worthwhile. You don’t have to go into the zoo, but this stop will give you a chance to see a bit of Brackenridge Park—and you can also walk through the Japanese Tea Garden, a unique garden with a sort of sad history. Also, you can see another example of faux bois art, which was used to create the Japanese gate at the entrance to the garden. The garden was built (using prison labor) into an old rock quarry (as was the zoo), and was managed by a Japanese family for over 20 years until they were evicted as part of Japanese internment during World War II. Because of anti-Japanese sentiment, the garden was renamed to the Sunken Gardens and represented as a Chinese garden, which is how I knew it growing up in San Antonio. Just recently (in 2008, I believe), the city recognized the injustice of what had happened and restored the original name, recognizing the family who had been so important to the garden. This story seems especially relevant to me now, given what’s happening in the Trump administration.

This should give you a place to start—and allow you to see quite a few sites without a car. However, you will be missing the Texas Hill Country altogether. If you have any interest in taking a quick trip into the hills, let us know. We would love to meet you in San Antonio. We could just meet for dinner—or, if you’d like to see the hill country, we could take you for an afternoon drive. If you would like to know more, tell me and I will put together some suggested destinations. We could just drive and see the scenery—or we could tour some wineries or breweries, or even visit the LBJ ranch.

Texas Hill Country and Wine Tour: Located north of San Antonio and west of Austin, the Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the second largest AVA in the United States and the largest overall in Texas. It’s 9 million acres are situated on the Edward’s Plateau with rolling hills and steep canyons dominating the landscape. Elevations range from 425 feet to 2,100 feet, with the highest elevations located in the central and western parts of the region.

William Chris Vineyards: We focus on low impact 100% Texas wine. Owners and winemakers, Bill Blackmon and Chris Brundrett both grew grapes and made wine for other companies until 2008 when they broke out and started William Chris Vineyards. We farm about 40 acres all over Texas including Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Tannat, Mourvèdre and Trebbiano Toscano. We are a family owned, super premium, boutique winery. William Chris Vineyards focuses on hand crafted Texas wine. We use minimum handling, low-impact techniques to produce a high quality product. Barrel tastings include a complete 1 and 1/2-hour winery tour and several tastings directly from the barrels. Cost is $50 per person.

4.0 Cellars: The name 4.0 Cellars is inspired by the three separate wineries that came together to form a matchless fourth winery, but the name also encompasses our common goal of striving for 4.0 perfection. Texas Cheese & Wine Experience at  11 am or 1 p.m on Sunday, April 30. $25 per person. Join us as we sample five artisan, raw cow milk, Texas cheeses from Veldhuizen Cheese Company paired with five wines selected from 4.0 Cellars. These hand crafted and cave-aged cheese are known for their distinctive flavor and quality. Features wines from several  top Texas wineries. (No vineyards.)

1851 Vineyards: Tasting and tour of wine production facilities and vineyard. $25 per person. Reservations required. Newer winery with historic buildings. Carl Hilmar Guenther started building Pioneer Flour Mills on the property in 1851, only to relocate later in downtown San Antonio, after floods washed away his mill. While the mill, once located on the edge of the Live Oak Creek no longer exists, the original barn, main house, guest house, and smokehouse built on the heart of the property still remain today and serve as a Texas Historical Landmark.

Grape Creek Vineyards: Tours include a visit to our entire production complex. With the addition of our new tank room and crush pad, and complete renovation of our existing facilities, Grape Creek now utilizes a state-of-the-art wine production complex with over 35,000 sq ft of crush, production, cellaring and bottling space. Grape Creek is a boutique winery that only offers our wine through our wine club, tasting rooms and online. This allows us to limit our production volume to focus on “hand-crafted” winemaking standards. Barrel tasting and tour for $35 each. Sunday times available for reservation: 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00.

Pedernales Cellars: Our winery is nestled in the heart of the Texas Hill Country and the epicenter of Texas wine tourism, on 145 acres of oak-shaded land, with unparalleled views of the beautiful Pedernales River Valley. We are a boutique winery focused on handcrafted, small-lot wines, and working with varietals that thrive in the rugged Texas Hill Country terrain. We not only strive to make the highest quality wines in Texas, but we are equally committed do so in a sustainable way. For the ultimate Pedernales Cellars experience, book a private tasting in our Library. Tastings will be conducted by a dedicated, knowledgeable server, who will give you a tour of the facilities as well as a full tasting with cheese and charcuterie pairings.

Becker Vineyards: As you make your way down Becker Farms Road, alongside our estate Syrah, you arrive at the Lavender Haus, Tasting Room and Winery. Adjacent to the winery is the original homestead log cabin circa 1890. In the Texas summer months, The Verandah of the winery, hosts an outdoor tasting bar.  Have a glass and take a moment to rest in full view of the lavender fields, antique windmill and artichoke test plot. Guided tours are conducted hourly on weekends and on a limited basis during the week. Tours are offered subject to staff availability and winery production. Tasting fees are $20 for six samples.

Wedding Oak Winery at Wildseed Farm: Come enjoy our wines of distinction, grown from 100% Texas wine grapes, as you stroll through the incredible setting of Wildseed Farms on Wine Road 290! We are nestled inside Wildseed Farms, with beautiful views from our patio, over looking fields of wildflowers. (No vineyards.)

Hilmy Cellars: At Hilmy, we strive for quality in farming, and work to achieve harmony amongst the factors contributing to quality wine growing. We practice an integrated approach to pest management, utilizing our animals (guinea hens, goats, sheep, Grand Pyrenees, and cat) to keep balance in the vineyard.We personally hand-harvest our Estate Vineyards at dawn, and bring the grapes in small containers directly to the winery. The result, eventually, ought to be a wine that offers a pure expression of our site.  So far, we have not been unhappy with the wines, even if they aren’t commercially available at present. Hilmy Estate Varietals include Petite Verdot, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Tenat. Tasting fee is $10 per guest.

Torre di Pietra: Enjoy delicious offerings from the Torre di Pietra picnic market which includes a wonderful selection of cheeses, including CKC Farm Fresh Goat Cheese, crackers, Torre Di Pietra wine infused chocolates and other delectables to accompany your wine. Tastings are $12 per person. Tours available Saturdays only.

Redbud Cafe: Owned by two pottery artists, the cafe is not vegetarian but features a nice selection of salads and vegetarian salads on the square in Blanco. Our food is made fresh daily using premium products, local and organic whenever possible. We also use filtered water in everything we make. Redbud Cafe proudly serves Blanco’s own Real Ale Brewing Company beers on tap, along with a number of other local and national bottled beers.

Alamo Springs Cafe: Though this is a burger place, the menu includes quite a few veg-friendly options. At dusk, diners can watch the bats emerge from the abandoned railroad tunnel at Old Tunnel State Park.