Given its size as the second-largest city in Texas in terms of both population and area, and as the seventh most populous city in the United States (more than 1.5 million), San Antonio promises to boast a vast array of things to see and do. And it delivers. From my hotel, I was able to walk to a few of them, including some of the city’s best architecture. But to reach many of the city’s best attractions, you’ll need a set of wheels—San Antonio spreads out over nearly 500 square miles. These are my favorites.
#1 Bike the Mission Drive
When it’s not 103˚, hop on a bike (or in your car if the heat is oppressive) and set out on Mission Drive, an easy 12-mile route that leads you from the Alamo directly to four other missions, each about 2.5 miles from one another and all of which are part of the National Park Service. Spanish colonists established these contained communities to convert Native Americans to Catholicism while they produced everything they needed to survive. Heading south, you’ll arrive at the first one—Mission Concepcíon (officially, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepcíon de Acuña), founded by Franciscan friars and famous for its church. Dedicated in 1755, it remains the oldest unrestored stone Catholic church in the United States and stands almost exactly as it did more than 250 years ago. With its acres of fields once cultivated for agriculture and for livestock herds, the next mission, Mission San José, is the largest and most beautiful of the four. Once the social and cultural community for more than 300 Native Americans, complete with its own granary and gristmill, this mission features a church built in 1782 with an elaborately carved portal, statues, and a rose window that comes with a legend.
Seemingly insurmountable problems plagued the third mission, Mission San Juan Capistrano: epidemics of smallpox and measles that wreaked havoc on the Native Americans within the compound; raids by other Native Americans; and political vagaries outside the perimeter walls that swayed the ebb and flow of support for the mission. Nevertheless, the mission prospered. The church was completed in 1756 and is still used for services. By 1762 more than 200 Native Americans were residing at the mission, working in the granary, the forge, and the textile and carpentry shops. They also raised crops, including peaches, melons, pumpkins, beans, and sugar cane. About 3,500 sheep and just as many cattle added to the mission’s self-sufficiency. The oldest of the four comes last. Mission San Francisco de la Espada, with its friary (1745) and church with three iron bells (1756), was the first established mission in what is now Texas. The missionaries taught the resident Native Americans carpentry, masonry, stonecutting, blacksmithing, and weaving, all of which made Mission Espada an elaborately built place. Part of the irrigation system that brought water from the San Antonio River to the mission’s agricultural fields is still in use today, the only such system functioning in its original form from the Spanish colonial period in the United States. The trail isn’t a loop, so you’ll have to head back to the start if you haven’t arranged a pickup at its terminus. Make it a fun return by keeping an eye out for prickly pear cacti, pecan trees, a variety of birds, and the occasional snake or two.
#2 Weave Your Way Around River Walk
The San Antonio River, which runs through the city, used to flood regularly, with deathly and costly results. To permanently stop the destruction, the residents wanted to pave over it. Instead, in 1914 the city turned the river into a park, and during the Depression the WPA created the River Walk, which is now one of the city’s top attractions. A total of 15 miles of cobblestone paths wend their way along the banks of the river, 20’ below street level and crossed by 35 arched footbridges. It’s utterly charming—and very crowded with tourists, who flock to the abundant hotels, shops, restaurants, and attractions. You’ll never know what will pop up here—anything from a mariachi festival to a parade with boats and barges floating down the river. Once you stroll beyond the core of River Walk, the crowds thin out and you’ll get to enjoy the cypress trees, lots of greenery, and chirping birds in a quieter setting. Make sure to visit at night, too, when lanterns and lights illuminate the walkways and are reflected in the water.
#3 Soak in the Luxury of the King William Historic District
One of the most beautiful historic districts in the United States started out as farm acreage used by the Spanish priests at the Alamo mission. Once the land was parceled out, it became San Antonio’s first suburb. Prosperous German merchants settled here in the late 19th century and named the area after Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia. Wealthy bankers, merchants, ranchers, and businessmen soon began to erect grandiose homes in the 25-square-block neighborhood. With just over 50 listed properties, the historic district abounds with beautiful homes, starting with the Anton Wulff House (1870), now the headquarters of the Conservation Society of San Antonio, where you can pop in and pick up a self-guided tour map. All of the grandest homes feature wonderful porches for its residents to escape the indoor heat, and they all vary in style, including the Italianate Charles Hummel House (1884), the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival Max L. Oppenheimer House (1900), and the Colonial Revival Alexander Joske House (1900). The Steves Homestead, a Second Empire beauty from 1876, is open as a house museum, so be sure to visit to check out its spacious rooms filled with period furniture. The district also includes a few parks and is fringed by some excellent Mexican restaurants. If you really love it, you can stay in one of the homes that have been converted into bed and breakfasts.
#4 Visit the McNay Art Museum
When the museum itself vies for attention with the art it houses, you know you’re someplace special. About six miles north of the Alamo, the McNay Art Museum was founded as the first modern art museum in Texas, in 1954. Created from a bequest by Marion Koogler McNay, an American painter and art teacher who inherited a hefty oil fortune upon the death of her father (and who was married and divorced or widowed about six times), the museum holds more than 22,000 works of art, with a primary focus on 19th- and 20th-century European and American works, including those by Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera, Mary Cassatt, and Edward Hopper. The other star of the show is the museum itself. Although expanded into other buildings since its founding, the core of it lies in McNay’s 24-room 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival–style mansion. As you admire the art, make sure to notice the wrought-iron grilles and gates, coffered and stenciled ceilings, intricately paneled doors, and ceramic tile details, including one depicting Don Quixote. Then head outdoors to the surrounding grounds. The 23 acres feature a variety of sculptures as well as fountains, a fishpond, manicured lawns, a courtyard, and a Japanese-inspired garden.
#5 Step Back in Time at La Villita National Historic District
Originally, La Villita (the Little Village), San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood, was a settlement of primitive buildings inhabited by Native Americans. Spanish soldiers stationed at the nearby Alamo moved in next, with their Indian wives and children, and erected primitive huts to live in. A flood in 1819 wrecked it all, and more substantial adobe, brick, and stone structures were built. Late in the 19th century, German, French, and Italian immigrants moved here, setting up their lives as retailers, bankers, educators, and craftsman. The whole district fell into poverty for a while and became a slum until artisans revitalized it in the 1930s. Now it resembles a Mexican village with European architectural elements that doubles as an arts colony. It’s a delightful collection of plazas, restaurants with shaded patios, and craft shops where you can pick up regional folk art, pottery, jewelry, metal and rock art, paintings, and copperware. The district abuts the clever open-air Arneson River Theatre. Built in 1939 (and prominently featured in Miss Congeniality), rows of stadium-style grass and stone benches lead down to the San Antonio River and the River Walk, with the stage on the opposite side of the water. Attend a performance here as the perfect way to top off your visit to San Antonio.
- Remember to go to the Alamo
- Commune with nature at the San Antonio Botanical Garden
- Ascend the Tower of the Americas
- Explore the Japanese Tea Garden
- Catch a show at the Aztec Theater
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