San Antonio things to do: River Walk, San Antonio, Texas
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
Mention you are headed to San Antonio and nearly always the reaction is, “Oh, you can visit the Alamo.” Yes, the famous fortress is a mainstay on all “San Antonio things to do” lists, but there is so much more.
In addition to a rich historic past, San Antonio has museums, lively districts, shopping, great dining, outdoor activities and the beautiful River Walk. The second most populated city in Texas is also one the cleanest and most well-cared for cities you’ll find, with fountains, waterfalls, flowers and massive cypress trees around every turn.
San Antonio: Where to stay
When in San Antonio, you, of course, want to stay on the River Walk, but not all locations along the river are the same. A hotel with a perfect spot, close to everywhere you want to be, but also in a quiet segment of River Walk, is Hotel Contessa. An all-suite hotel, Hotel Contessa is a beautiful hotel with large contemporary suites, a rooftop pool and hot tub, spa, a fabulous restaurant and bar, and a stellar staff.
San Antonio: Things to do
The River Walk
There’s so much to love about the River Walk. Also known as Paseo del Rio, the River Walk is 15 miles of walkways lined with restaurants, bars, hotels, and boutiques, that wind through San Antonio next to the San Antonio River.
A stroll along the River Walk is a visual delight, with bright colors accenting the way as the paths lead to different areas of the city, looping through the downtown and beyond. With towering cypress trees overhead, the paths meander through arched stone bridges and lush gardens as squirrels and birds play in the heart of the city.
Rio River Cruises
A guided cruise down the San Antonio River is a wonderful way to experience the River Walk while also learning about San Antonio’s history and landmarks.
The narrated boat tours are about 40 minutes and allow visitors to relax and take in the beautiful scenery as they glide along the river in San Antonio’s downtown district. In addition to the tours, Rio Taxi service stops at 39 spots continuously throughout the day. Taxi boats are identified by the checkered flags displayed on the back of the boats.
La Villita Historic Arts Village
One of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods, La Villita was transformed in 1939 and today is a charming arts community located in downtown San Antonio.
Adjacent to the River Walk and the Arneson River Theatre, La Villita is home to galleries, boutiques, restaurants, plazas and courtyards and hosts many events, festivals and concerts.
San Antonio has a diverse food scene, with culinary options to satisfy every palate. As no visit to Texas is ever complete without at least one Tex-Mex fix, a stop by long time standouts like Mi Tierra is always on the agenda (be sure and get take home pastries from the bakery).
But, far from just great Tex-Mex and barbecue, San Antonio’s restaurants are gaining widespread notoriety for their farm to table offerings using fresh local ingredients. Innovative eateries abound in the city, from the growing number of restaurants at Pearl, to the countless River Walk options that deliver creative cuisine against one of the most beautiful dining backdrops around.
Briscoe Western Art Museum
Named in honor of the late Texas Governor, Dolph Briscoe, Jr., the Briscoe Western Art Museum is a beautiful museum focused on the art, history and culture of the American West.
Located in the former San Antonio Public Library building along the River Walk, the museum has nine galleries on three levels. Highlights of the collection include Pancho Villa’s saddle, an Alamo diorama, a Wells Fargo Stagecoach and works by Frederic Remington.
Buckhorn Saloon & Museum and Texas Ranger Museum
Seventeen-year-old Albert Friedrich first opened the Buckhorn Saloon in 1881 and soon discovered that patrons liked to partake of a beverage even when their pockets were empty. Coming up with a creative solution, Friedrich began accepting horns and antlers in exchange for drinks in the saloon. Albert married and his bride, Emile, decided jars of rattlesnake rattles would also be a good form of barter for a whiskey or beer. Interesting couple.
So, the collection grew and grew and grew. Legend has it the Buckhorn is where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders and where Pancho Villa planned the Mexican Revolution. Today, the Buckhorn Saloon features over 520 species of wildlife from around the world, displayed in over 40,000 square feet, with multiple museums and attractions under one roof including a Carnival of Curiosities, the American Sideshow and the Texas Ranger Museum.
At the Carnival of Curiosities, Dr. Phineas Phiasco welcomes visitors to the attraction, where curiosities await ranging from a mystery mine where water flows upwards to an elephant the size of a tiny peanut. PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill holograms shares stories at the American Sideshow, which features shrunken heads and two-headed calves.
The newest of the exhibits, the Texas Ranger Museum is home to hundreds of Texas Ranger artifacts, a recreation of San Antonio in 1900 called Ranger Town, and a Bonnie and Clyde exhibit with a replica of the couple’s getaway car.
Shopping San Antonio style
For those seeking some retail therapy, San Antonio has a vast array of shopping options from boutiques, to galleries, to malls. While large shopping malls can be found throughout sprawling San Antonio, if visiting downtown, Rivercenter Mall is a prime shopping spot, located along the River Walk with over 100 retailers including major department stores, restaurants, a comedy club and an IMAX® theater.
Market Square – El Mercado
El Mercado, or Market Square, is the largest Mexican market in the U.S., with over three blocks of restaurants, shops, and produce stands.
The place to find everything from decorative items to leather goods to toys, Market Square is a vibrant center celebrating the sights, sounds and flavors of Mexico. In addition to the shops, Market Square has several restaurants and is home to numerous working artists that set up along the plazas creating pottery, jewelry, paintings and other works of art.
San Fernando Cathedral
The seat of the archbishop, Cathedral of San Fernando is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States and the oldest continuously functioning religious community in the State of Texas.
Founded in 1731, the church is located on the west side of the San Antonio’s Main Plaza. The walls of the original church form the sanctuary of the cathedral as it stands today.
The cathedral has played an important part throughout San Antonio’s history. At the Battle of the Alamo, the Mexican army’s General Santa Ana flew a red flag from the church tower to signal no mercy to the Texas Army. The cathedral has also been reported to house the remains of some of the men who died at the Alamo.
A beautiful cathedral, San Fernando is especially brilliant in the twilight just following sunset. For those seeking a bit more modern adaptation, a multimedia video show, involving light being projected onto the structure, is held after dark a few days of the week. The Main Plaza is also home to periodic events, festivals and evenings of music.
Home to a weekend farmers market, dining, shopping and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) San Antonio, Pearl is a vibrant neighborhood community located in the area that formerly was the sight of the Pearl Brewing Company. While at Pearl, be sure and stop by Local Coffee, a hot spot in the trendy urban district that serves up premium coffee creations using beans from their own roasting facility, Merit Roasting Co.
King Williams Historic District
Meandering the tree-lined historic streets of the King Williams District provides a glimpse into San Antonio’s elegant past. Built by affluent German immigrants who originally settled in the area in the 19th century, today the elaborately designed homes of the area are used for cafes, art galleries, and museums, as well as many remain occupied as residences.
While visiting the area, the Edward Steves Homestead, an elegant three story Victorian home built in 1876, is open for tours, allowing a glimpse into life in the late 1800s.
Also located in the King Williams Historic District, Guenther House is a popular restaurant, museum and store in the former home of Pioneer Flour Mills founder Carl Hilmar Guenther. Built in 1859 as Guenther’s private residence, the Guenther House sits along the San Antonio River in the shadow of the Pioneer Flour Mills and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Bexar County, Texas.
Blue Star Arts Complex
Home to the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, art galleries, shops, studios, restaurants and a micro-brewery, the Blue Star Arts Complex is a mixed-use development in former warehouse buildings on the edge of the King Williams Historic District. With over 20 exhibitions each year, featuring both emerging and established artists, Blue Star is the city’s creative hub, enriching and inspiring visitors to explore San Antonio’s contemporary art scene.
Tower of the Americas
Panoramic views of San Antonio await at the 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas in downtown San Antonio. Built in 1968 for the World’s Fair, the Tower of Americas is home to the revolving Chart House Restaurant, an Observation Deck, and a 4D Theater ride.
On February 23, 1836, General Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio with his Mexican army, launching an assault on the Alamo Mission. The siege continued for the next 13 days, with the Texians and Tejanos willing to give their lives rather than surrender in a battle they considered to be critical to the defense of not just the Alamo, but the State of Texas.
On March 6, the Mexican army scaled the walls of the Alamo and the defenders were unable to fend off the final attack. According to historical accounts, nearly all of the estimated 189 to 250 men died in defense of the Alamo. The nearly 20 women and children in the Alamo during the siege were spared.
Today, the Alamo remains hallowed ground serving as a memorial to those who died in their fight for freedom.
Over 2.5 million people visit the Alamo each year. The complex covers 4.2 acres with a variety of exhibits covering the Texas Revolution and Texas history in addition to the tours of the Shrine. Photography is not permitted inside the buildings and admission is free.
Know before you go
Getting around. We rented a car, drove it to the hotel, and never used it again until we returned to the airport. The River Walk makes the city highly walkable, so bring a pair of comfortable shoes and get out and enjoy San Antonio at your own pace. To get to locations a bit further out, such as Kings Williams District or Pearl Brewery, several hop-on, hop-off buses depart from Alamo Plaza. We used City Sightseeing San Antonio, which covers all the major sites in downtown area and nearby districts.
Other transportation options include water taxis and Bcycle bike sharing, where you can rent a bike at various kiosks throughout downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to explore the city. Horse drawn carriages are also available in the downtown area.
- In the winter months (December-February), days average in the 60s (62°-67°F/17°-19°C) with lows averaging around 40°F/4°C.
- The spring months (March-May) are wonderful, with average highs ranging from 74°F-86°F/23°C-30°C and lows normally getting down to 50°F-65°F/10°C-18°C.
- The summer (June-August) is hot. Highs average 91°F-95°F/33°C-35°C and lows are typically around 73°F/23°C.
- Fall is beautiful (September-November). While summer tends to hang around in September with highs averaging 90°F/32°C and lows around 69°F/21°C, it soon cools off and by November highs average 71°F/22°C and lows run around 49°F/10°C.
Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau and Hotel Contessa San Antonio for hosting us as their guest. Additional thanks to City Sightseeing Tours San Antonio, Rio San Antonio Cruises, and Tower of the Americas. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.