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Best Things To Do in San Antonio

AOL PICK from our Editors
San Antonio is the perfect blend of old and new. Its entertainment district is built upon the river, where the city had its beginnings, and draws millions of visitors each year. It is steeped in history and monuments to the past—the Alamo, the Spanish Missions, the Spanish Governor’s Palace—will hold you in thrall. The city has also embraced its future and new attractions, such as water parks and world-class golf resorts, like the Westin La Cantera Resort, attract multitudes of visitors. There is a thriving art scene and we're not just talking about the renowned art museums like the San Antonio Museum of Art, but innovative developments like the Blue Star Arts Complex and, our favorite, ArtPace which bills itself as an international laboratory for contemporary art. Stand-alone galleries, such as Sosa Galleries in the burgeoning Southtown arts district, abound as well. Whether you’re walking the 12-mile Mission Trail, strolling the banks of the river or playing 18 holes on an Arnold Palmer-designed course, take advantage of the nearly year-round sunshine to see San Antonio from the outside, then work your way inward to the heart of the city.

San Antonio Zoo

Neighborhood: North Central
Situated on 56 acres on the grounds of Brackenridge Park, this is not a zoo where you’ll see frazzled parents pushing tired, fussy toddlers in their strollers. The under-5 set has its own interactive playscape called Kronkosky’s Tiny Tots Nature Spot, where little ones get to participate in cool activities like a ladybug release. Our favorite part is the zoo’s new Africa Live! 2 habitat, which opened in February 2010, and includes the endangered okapi (envision a very tall horse wearing zebra-print stockings) rarely seen in either the wild or in captivity.

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Witte Museum

Neighborhood: North Central/Alamo Heights
Tell your kids you’re taking them to a museum and the groans will be deafening. Not at the Witte science museum, located in Brackenridge Park, and famous for its four-story H-E-B Science Treehouse (in addition to a real two-story treehouse). Or how about the H-E-Buddy SkyCycle? Imagine tightrope walking except this is riding a bicycle on a cable. The kids can’t fall off—something to do with counterweight and gravity—and that’s why they’re here: to make the connection between science and real life in a way that’s fun. Admission is $8 for adults, discounts for seniors and children, free for children under three. Admission is free on Free Tuesdays from 3PM until 8PM.

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Museo Alameda

Neighborhood: Downtown/Market Square
The arresting hot pink and glass structure located in downtown’s Market Square opened in 2007 amid much fanfare as the Smithsonian’s first formal affiliate outside Washington, DC. Among the many Latino cultural contributions showcased at the Museo have been readings by prominent San Antonio author Sandra Cisneros, as well as locally-based artist Kathy Sosa’s collaborative exhibition Huipiles: A Celebration, which was also on display at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, the museum has been plagued by financial difficulties, but in April 2010 received a $500,000 lifeline from the City Council. A sense of optimism prevails—through Bank of America’s lending program, Art in Our Communities, plans are underway for the Museo to host a six-month exhibition of Miradas: Mexican Art beginning Feb. 15, 2011. Closed on Mondays, the Museo charges a nominal admission fee during the week, but offers free admission on Tuesdays from noon to 6PM. It definitely merits a visit; the architecture alone is worth seeing.

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McNay Art Museum

Neighborhood: North Central/Alamo Heights
The first museum of modern art in the state was, believe it or not, the product of a private San Antonio collector. Marion McNay collected over 700 pieces of art in her lifetime, which she displayed in her classic 24-room, Spanish Colonial Revival mansion set on 23 acres of land. When she passed away in 1950 she left the whole collection—building and all—to the state. Since then, the museum’s collections have grown to include over 20,000 works and the McNay is known for its Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. After you’ve finished gazing, stroll the grounds and take a look at the courtyard, stone bridge, and fountains. Save money by packing a lunch—one of the great things about McNay is that picnics are allowed. Closed on Mondays. Admission is $8 for adults, discounts for seniors, students, and military, free for children under 12 and members. On Thursday nights and the first Sunday of the month (which is Family Day), general admission is free.

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The Alamo

Neighborhood: Downtown
The Alamo is the perfect spot to begin a visit to San Antonio and get a feel for the city’s history. It is the hallowed grounds where Col. William B. Travis and his men fought Mexican Gen. Santa Anna and his troops in the struggle for independence, the Alamo (Spanish for “cottonwood”) actually had humble beginnings as a Spanish mission. It later became a military outpost and was occupied by various militias—Spanish, Rebel, and Mexican—until the Texas Revolution in 1835. After Gen. Santa Anna and his men arrived on February 23, 1836, the greatly outnumbered defenders were able to hold them off for 13 days. Their deaths became a symbol of the fight for liberty and freedom. Admission is free and, with more than 2.5 million visitors a year, the site is always crowded and there are often long lines (which move quickly), but plan to go as early in the day as possible, especially during peak season. (It’s interesting to note that the Alamo receives no state or government funding and is supported through donations and gift shop sales.)

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Japanese Tea Gardens (Sunken Gardens)

Neighborhood: North Central
Sometimes, the R & R part of a vacation gets lost in all the excitement and activity. If you want to achieve a more Zen state of mind, visit the Japanese Tea Garden located on the vast grounds of Brackenridge Park. Originally built in 1918 at the site of an abandoned rock quarry, the garden reopened in early 2008 after completion of a $1.5 million project to overhaul the infrastructure (further renovations continue). Wander the tranquil grounds from dawn to dusk—at no charge—and be rejuvenated by the sound of the 60-foot waterfall, the sight of Koi swimming lazily in the ponds, and the scent of the lush flower gardens. Fund-raising efforts are currently underway in order to restore the Jingu House, named after the family that lived and worked in the garden in the 1920s.

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San Antonio Botanical Garden

Neighborhood: North of Downtown
Most, if not all, major cities have botanical gardens, but San Antonio’s 33-acre garden has some unique features, including the Sensory Garden (Garden for the Blind), the Kumamoto En Garden—a gift from San Antonio’s sister city, Kumamoto, Japan—which was blessed by a Shinto priest, and the Native Texas Trail. If you’re limited on time, be sure to see the $6.9 million Lucile Halsell Conservatory, a complex of stunning glass buildings that house a diverse array of plants. Enter at ground level, walk through the 16-foot tunnel, and come out in the open-air courtyard. The gardens are open daily from 9am to 5pm year-round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children up to age 13, and $5 for military and seniors. Guided tours can be pre-arranged by calling, but you can still have a great experience walking through on your own. Plan your visit for the morning hours, then stay and have lunch at the Carriage House Bistro (closes at 2PM).

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San Antonio Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Downtown
Located in the historic Lone Star Brewery complex, SAMA includes one of the largest collections of western antiquities in the southern U.S., as well as impressive collections of Latin American Folk Art once belonging to former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller and Robert K. Winn. The Lenora and Walter F. Brown Asian Art Wing, opened in May 2005, established SAMA as the largest center for Asian art in the southern U.S. Self-guided and docent-guided tours are available. Arrange your schedule to visit on Tuesday, also known as "Free Tuesdays" because you can take a docent-led tour between 4 and 9PM free of charge. It's worth it having someone help you navigate this mammoth collection. Closed on Mondays. Admission is $8 for adults, discounted for seniors and military, and free for members and children under three.

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Morgan's Wonderland

Neighborhood: Northeast
In a city that already had SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, you might wonder if there was really a need for another theme park. The answer is a resounding “Yes!” And that’s because Morgan’s Wonderland is a place the special-needs community can call its own. Those without special needs will still find Morgan's Wonderland inspiring. The brainchild of Gordon Hartman and named in honor of his daughter, the newly-opened park (April 2010) has already attracted the attention of heavy-hitters in the special-needs community like CA Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Shriver. The 25-acre park, billed as the “World’s First Ultra Accessible Family Fun Park,” has unique features such as adaptive and wheelchair swings, “walk and roll” paths, and numerous sensory activities designed specifically for those with special needs. Important: reservations are required for each and every visit and can be made either online or by phone. Free admission to those with special needs; $5 for family members and caregi.

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Spanish Governor's Palace

Neighborhood: Downtown
Despite being proclaimed “the most beautiful building in San Antonio” by the National Geographic Society, the Palace is somewhat overshadowed by the Alamo and Spanish Missions, but well worth seeing. (Honestly, we find it’s not so much the stucco building that’s beautiful, but the architectural details—the keystone and coat-of-arms, the carved wooden door—and the cobblestone courtyard and fountains.) The keystone above the entry door reads, “año 1749 se acabo,” (finished in 1749), making it a contender for the oldest building in the state that is not part of a mission. Before you go, take time to read the Legend of the Door on the website, explaining what each of the carved symbols on the Palace’s front door has been said to represent. If you love mystery as much as we do, you'll be interested to learn that locals believe the place is haunted. Admission for adults is $4 with discounts for military and seniors; children under seven free.

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The Spanish Missions

Neighborhood: Downtown Various locations (see website)
The four Spanish missions—Concepción, Espada, San Jose and San Juan Capistrano—were built in the early 1700s and helped spark the birth of San Antonio. They lie on the same river (then known as the San Antonio de Valero) as the Alamo. Go back in time as you walk or cycle between the four separate locations on the Hike & Bike Trail (wear comfortable shoes as you will log anywhere from six to 16 miles), and allow half a day (four hours or so), if you want to see all four. Whether you'll want to see all of them depends on your interest in history. Start by hitting the Concepcion Mission and take it from there. The missions are located in a national park and architecture buffs will be impressed at how well preserved they are. The mission churches are active Catholic parishes and regular services are conducted in both English and Spanish (some services are bi-lingual).

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Sea World San Antonio

Neighborhood: Northwest
Since 1988, San Antonio has been home to the world's largest marine-life theme park. The city is nowhere near the ocean but you won’t feel that way once you’re here. 2010’s new show Azul: Lure of the Sea showcases beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and “human acrobats.” The animals are the star attractions, but SeaWorld also hosts musical events, 4-D movies, and celebrity appearances. Adrenaline junkies will want to ride The Steel Eel, a hypercoaster with a top speed of 65 mph. The park is open daily from late-May through late-August. (Check the website for other dates during the year.) Animal interaction programs and camps are held throughout the year. One-day ticket prices range from $49.99 to $58.99 with children under three free. (Other pricing options are available.) Expect crowds and long lines during peak season. With all of the rides and shows, this park really merits a two-day visit.

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Six Flags Fiesta Texas

Neighborhood: Northwest
Fiesta Texas is a combination theme/water park. You could spend the day doing nothing but riding roller coasters—all eight of them! (Goliath is our favorite and features an 80-foot drop.) The park is known for its entertainment, including a summer concert series. Fiesta Texas is open from the beginning of March through January 2nd; White Water Bay is open from late May through early September. Expect crowds and long lines during peak season, although the summer weekdays tend to be somewhat less crowded. Purchasing a Flash Pass through the ride-reservation system is another way of avoiding long lines for the most popular rides. (Prices start at $34.) General ticket prices start at $36.99 (“buy and print” option) with a variety of passes available. Fiesta Texas is also an example of the city’s investment in new development—the park opened in 1992 as part of the La Cantera master-plan to attract visitors.

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River Walk (Paseo del Rio)

Neighborhood: Downtown
The river goes back to the city’s very origins and continues to be San Antonio’s star attraction. A three-mile stretch along the river, the River Walk is actually a public park below street level—open 365 days of the year—with luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, one-of-a-kind shops, and historical attractions built along the banks of the river. While it is a huge draw for tourists, locals also frequent the River Walk for its restaurants and nightlife. Once you arrive at the River Walk, you can move from one venue to another on the cobblestone footpaths or—even more fun—by river taxis, which run from 9am to 9pm and stop at 39 locations along the river. Tickets can be purchased from hotels, onboard the taxis or online. (A 24-hour pass is $10 with other options available.) The 35-minute narrated cruise of the river, available through Rio San Antonio Cruises, lets you see the River Walk from a different vantage point. The River Walk is particularly magical at night when the outdoor lights come on and are reflected off the water. A $279-million expansion project currently underway will increase the River Walk from three miles to 13 miles, and by 2014 extend south to the Spanish Missions. Go to the River Walk website to download maps of the River Walk or to view a digital copy of Rio, the official magazine of the River Walk.

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