Having grown up in San Antonio, it is a bit odd (and challenging!) to write about it as a tourist destination–though it certainly is one. Of course, San Antonio has a lot of locations that make it a hot bed for tourism in Texas, but I didn’t set out to write this article in the same fashion as most others have. I hope to provide you more of a local’s perspective on the city, though I haven’t lived there in over 20 years.
I won’t cover everything in the above map, but I will add notes in the map in order to supplement the material in this article.
Like the above map, I’ll divide this article into 3 parts: Attractions, Dining, and Shopping. I offer these suggestions in no particular order.
Any real Texan knows the phrase “Remember the Alamo!” However, unless you grew up in Texas, there’s a good chance you won’t grasp the historical context. I’ll try and hit the highlights here.
Throughout the history of Texas, six flags flew over our state. The last flag to fly over our land before the Texas flag (i.e. – Texas as a nation) was the Mexican flag. Early Texas settlers were concerned with losing their rights and autonomy and were also concerned with their representation in the Mexican government. This led to rising tensions which eventually boiled over in the town of Gonzales, Texas (about an hour and 15 minute car ride from San Antonio.)
This led to a full-out war, with a pivotal battle taking place between General Antonio López de Santa Anna (Santa Anna for short) and William Barrett Travis’ Texian and Tejano soldiers garrisoned in the Alamo. Travis’ garrison of 180 – 260 soldiers fought off an army of 1800 Mexicans fighting under Santa Ana. They knew their cause was essentially hopeless, and they fought to the last man. (Legend has it that when Travis knew the attack was coming, he drew a line in the sand in front of the Alamo and asked all who would stand and die for their cause to cross the line–only one man declined.) Among the fallen defenders at the Alamo were Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. About a month and a half later, Sam Houston and his soldiers would take the same Mexican army (and Santa Anna) by total surprise near San Jacinto bay. As they slaughtered Santa Anna’s army, they yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” (The San Jacinto battleground is on the East side of Houston and boasts a very impressive monument–10′ taller than the Washington monument in DC.) The ownership of Santa Anna’s leg is still being fought over… but that is a different story entirely.
Due to the strong historical / political / war context, one of the most overlooked things about the Alamo is that it is one of the San Antonio Missions–which themselves encompass a National Historical Park. To help get a better picture regarding the historical context, I’d recommend seeing the movie “Alamo – The Price of Freedom” at the nearby (walking distance) movie theater at The Shops at Rivercenter.
The River Walk
In the heart of downtown San Antonio (walking distance from the Alamo), there’s almost a lower level to the city that has a vibrant district with shops, attractions, hotels, vendors, and restaurants. It’s a pretty area and definitely unique–often imitated in other cities, but never duplicated. The area is well developed with The Shops at Rivercenter (previously known as “Rivercenter Mall” flanking one end of the district.
It is touristy for sure, but it is a good amount of fun. This is probably the second most quintessential San Antonio experience you can have. Earlier in the day is more appropriate for families, and evenings are better for couples and those who want to hit the bars.
SeaWorld San Antonio
SeaWorld San Antonio is a lot smaller than its counterparts in Orlando or San Diego, but it is still is a great, high quality park—and one that I prefer over Fiesta Texas. The park is “high quality” and well maintained.
They may not have as many coasters as some of their competitors (see: Fiesta Texas, below) but the coasters they have are really awesome. Steel Eel is one of my favorite coasters in Texas—and perhaps may be my favorite. The “Wave Breaker – The Rescue Coaster” is a close second for me. The Texas Stingray just opened as of this writing, and for a wooden roller coaster, it is very smooth. (Hopefully time will be kind to it…) The Great White is my least favorite coaster there (due to all of the neck-tweaking inversions), but is still a lot better than some of the others I’ve been on.
Of course, SeaWorld offers all of the shows that you’d expect them to. And—don’t be fooled by the names! Just because the sea lion show has the “Sea Lion High” theme between San Antonio and Orlando (and quite possibly San Diego as well, I can’t personally confirm), there is a good amount of differences between the shows, and they are worth seeing in both locations.
Also noteworthy: SeaWorld has seasonal festivals & events year-round. They have a Mardi Gras festival during Carnival, a Bier Fest festival during September – November, a Halloween one (also beginning in September), a Christmas one from mid-November through the end of the year, and others. These events generally have special food & drink items, characters in costume (both face and “fur”), special shows & bands, and seasonal items for purchase.
Six Flags Fiesta Texas
Fiesta Texas has (unfortunately) become more of a standard “Six Flags” park, but still retains some of the charm of it being its original, independent “Fiesta Texas” theme. (It was actually built by the Gaylord Entertainment Company, based in Nashville.)
Much like the original “Six Flags” in Dallas (which had six themed areas, one dedicated to each of the six flags that flew over Texas in Texas’ history), Fiesta Texas has multiple themed areas which pay homage to the local culture of Southern and coastal Texas.
The areas are “Los Festivales” (due to the Hispanic culture in San Antonio), “Crackaxle Canyon” (a nod to the Texan boomtowns of the old West), “Spassburg” (an homage to all of the the German Heritage in Texas), Rockville (reminiscent of a 1950’s area) and “Fiesta Bay Boardwalk” (which has a boardwalk feeling, like Kemah in the Houston Area or the Pleasure Pier in Houston.)
Originally, the themed areas were well themed and gave the park a lot of charm. After Six Flags took over, this started to dissipate, and now they have a Superman coaster in the German Spassburg section and a modern Batman ride in the Rockville portion of the park. These things really took away from the charm of the park, in my opinion.
It is a great collection of coasters though—most notably (in my opinion) the Iron Rattler. The original Rattler was a notable woodie in its day—the updated version is a lot smoother and I’d argue even more fun.
In short, if you like coasters (or if you have a Six Flags membership that will get you into this park), you should check out Fiesta Texas. If not, it is probably better to pass.
Venturing North of San Antonio a bit…
National Museum of the Pacific War (Fredericksburg)
This is one of the 4 national museums in the United States dedicated to a specific war. (The other three are the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, The National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO, and The National World War II museum in New Orleans, LA.)
Like the other museums on that list (as well as our national museums overall) it is great and well-presented. This museum is all about World War II, but specifically focuses on the Pacific theater of war. It’s a major museum that has a lot of impressive artifacts.
The museum is located in Fredericksburg, Texas as it is the boyhood home of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. In addition to the main museum, there are a series of exhibits in the nearby “Admiral Nimitz Museum,” which is housed in the nearby Nimitz Hotel. (Both museums make up the “Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site.”
There are other elements to the museum which weren’t open when I last visited (due to COVID-19) including the Pacific Combat Zone. Even the museum—by itself—is worth the day trip detour from San Antonio.
When you are done visiting the museums, walking around Fredericksburg is worth the time as well.
Cartoon Saloon (Comfort)
On your way to or from Fredericksburg from San Antonio, for a great photo opp, the Cartoon Saloon is a fun stop. You could also bring a picnic cooler with beers or snacks to enjoy the premises.
The “saloon” is more of an art installation. The installation consists of a couple of different buildings, including one that resembles an old-time saloon with lots of random stuff on the walls. This is a strange place, and there may be some very odd, random people there.
Note: This isn’t worth a dedicated trip, but is worth a quick detour and stop. Don’t expect to spend more than a few minutes.
Schlitterbahn (New Braunfels)
New Braunfels is a German town, and an important part of the German heritage of Texas. Floating the nearby Guadalupe River has become a tradition in Texas. This tradition isn’t unlike the “lazy river” found in most water parks (though “floating the Guadalupe” generally involves a lot more alcohol.)
Immediately off of the Comal river (which can also be “floated”) is the original “Schlitterbahn,” which means “Slippery Road” in German. Really, it’s two parks – Schlitterbahn East and West. Schlitterbahn East is more of your modern water park with a big wave pool, a bunch of slides, and a kiddie attraction area. There’s also a couple of basic lazy rivers in Schlitterbahn East and a Water Coaster (with laser effects!)
Schlitterbahn West is actually the original park, which originally opened in 1979. This side of the park retains the quaint feel that it has always had. There are still a number of water slides, but the most memorable thing to me of the park are all of the cool lazy river-style “rides.” (The “Congo River Expedition” and “Raging River” are notable standouts to me.)
In short, I love Schlitterbahn and wish I got to visit more often.
Note – I’m limiting myself to only describe 4 restaurants in detail, as there are SO MANY RESTAURANTS in San Antonio which are great. These include the following restaurants, not mentioned below: Ray’s Puffy Tacos (Mexican Street Food), La Fogata (Mexican), Mi Tierra (Mexican, but a lot of tourists go here), The Magnoila Pancake Haus (Breakfast / Brunch), Mary Lou’s Cafe (Mexican & Brunch—with excellent puffy tacos), Las Palapas (Mexican with an impressive specialty margarita menu), The County Line (BBQ), Paesanos (Italian), Fiesta Patio Cafe in Universal City (Mexican), EZ’s Brick Oven Grill, Bill Miller BBQ (fast food BBQ), and La Fonda (Mexican). Of course, there’s always Pappasitos (Mexican) / Pappadeaux (Cajun Seafood), but you can get those everywhere else in Texas (and in some cases, elsewhere).
I’ve been going to the Alamo Cafe since I was a kid and it was located on San Pedro. This original location was moved to the location off of Bitters, which is marked on the map above. There are now two locations, both of which are stellar.
I specifically call out the Alamo Cafe as they have two things that I always get when I go—one of which is probably the quintessential dish of San Antonio—the “Puffy Taco.” And no—if you live anywhere else (including Dallas) and you think you’ve had a “puffy taco,” you haven’t had one until you’ve had it in San Antonio. Puffy tacos of this caliber and type are unique to San Antonio.
Note that you can get a great puffy taco in other restaurants in San Antonio (La Fiesta Patio Cafe in Universal City comes to mind as another great one). But it should look like the ones from the Alamo Cafe. For an off-the-menu upgrade, I recommend ‘upgrading’ to Chicken Fajita Meat in your puffy taco.
Also, don’t miss the Chili Con Queso here. It’s a unique, mild queso that always comes with a HUGE chip in it. I recommend getting a big one and also asking for some tortillas to dip into the queso. This is one of my favorite things to eat in Texas.
The Barn Door
The Barn Door is another San Antonio mainstay. The restaurant has been around for over 60 years. This place is the embodiment of the family steakhouse, done “Texas Style.” The building resembles a barn, and the restaurant sprawls into multiple rooms. Old antiques are on the walls of each room, and each room really has its own character.
Of course, all of the food is great. Everything is also reasonably priced, as well. This may be my favorite “comfort food” place in Texas. We always used to come and get mesquite grilled steaks here, but anymore I can’t get past the chicken fried chicken. (One serving is plenty to split.) The dinner rolls are also delicious.
The Gristmill is great—and so is Gruene. Near New Braunfels, Gruene is a former German town. The restaurant location is within the ruins of an old cotton gin overlooking the Guadalupe river and capitalizes on this feature by providing diners picturesque views of the river while they dine.
The restaurant itself is essentially a Texan steakhouse. This is not unlike the Barn Door, but a little fancier with a very different feel. It is a very unique place. Immediately adjacent to the Gristmill is the famous Gruene dance hall, antique stores, and (of course) the Gruene water tower. The whole area is “Old South” meets “Texas.”
Clear Springs Restaurant (New Braunfels)
While I’m on the topic of unique dining locations in the New Braunfels area, I must mention Clear Springs. The restaurant is actually in “Clear Springs” Texas, a teeny Texas town located between New Braunfels and Seguin.
In a more casual way, there’s definitely an “old Texas” feel to Clear Springs as well. This feel is very authentic, as the restaurant building dates back to to the early 1870s when it was built as a cotton storage facility. Later, it was a grocery store. Eventually it became a dance hall, and now it is the restaurant that it is today. Antiques are stashed all over the restaurant, including an original Colonel Sanders sign from one of the old Kentucky Fried Chickens, old circus advertisements, old school banners, baby buggies—you name it.
The food is great comfort food. Specifically, they are famous for their tall onion ring towers. These onion rings are fresh and perhaps the best I’ve ever had. They also serve an incredible chicken fried chicken and chicken fried steak, or you can always order the famous catfish. (As you pull up to the restaurant, a yellow catfish lays on the sign, welcoming you in.)
The shopping destinations below are my favorite shopping locations in San Antonio. Honorable mentions not detailed here include The Shops at Rivercenter (and shopping on the river walk), the Alamo Quarry Mart, and North Star Mall. (North Star mall is worth a photo-stop for the giant cowboy boots out front.)
Historic Market Square
Located downtown, Market Square is a 3 block plaza encompassing an outdoor area and multiple indoor areas. Market Square is the largest Mexican market in the United States.
Market Square has a certain organic feel to it. It really feels like you are in a Mercado in Mexico. Many of the items are authentic and directly from Mexico. From dresses to pottery to tequila sets to toys to handmade leather goods to loteria sets to dia de los muertos items, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more authentic Mexico experience this side of the Rio Grande. There’s a lot of great stuff here—cheap.
Unlike Mexico, though—prices are all in USD, which make things a lot easier for us “gringos.” If you can speak Spanish, that’s a bonus, but not expected. Also, you don’t have to worry about buying and eating / drinking fruits and fruit juices here—“Montezuma’s revenge” is not a problem.
One other quick tip: Don’t be afraid to barter with the vendors. If you aren’t bartering here, you’re a chump.
This outdoor market (right next to Fiesta Texas) are the fancy shops around town. I wouldn’t expect to find super cheap deals here, but these are the more premier shopping outlets in town. With over 1.2 million square feet of retail space, you’ll find all of the bigger name designer outlets here.
It’s a pretty area to poke around in. Also nearby are golf courses, resorts, and spas (which gives you an idea of what the area is like.)
San Marcos Premium Outlets (San Marcos)
Of course, this is in San Marcos, which is about halfway to Austin, but it is worth a mention. This is generally accepted by “those in the know” to be the best outlet mall in Texas. (The one in Cypress outside of Houston has its merits, and so does the one north of Fort Worth, but this one is really bigger, better, and has the overall best selection of stores.)
There’s two sides to this Outlet mall—the “Tanger Outlets” and the “Premium Outlets” (i.e. – the side owned by Simon.) Both sides have some great stores, but the “Premium” side has the more impressive / higher-end store selection. The premium side stores have architecture based around an Italian / Venetian theme. The more notable outlet stores here are (in no official order):
- Williams Sonoma
- Pottery Barn / Pottery Barn Kids
- Vineyard Vines
- Janie and Jack
And many, many others. With the two sides, it’s more like 2 standard sized outlet malls in the same locations.
If you see all of these things, you will have only scratched the surface of all that San Antonio has to offer. There’s many other things here that deserve a mention, including Natural Bridge Caverns & Wildlife Ranch, the San Antonio Zoo, Cool Crest Miniature Golf, Landa Park, The Buckhorn museum, The Witte Museum, The McNay Art Museum, and so many others.
Think I missed any essentials? Let me know!