Packed with interesting historic sights and excellent museums, the Lone Star State’s second-largest city San Antonio really is a treat to visit. Considered the cradle of Texan liberty, it is most famed for The Alamo and its brutal battle which eventually led to Texian independence.
What started out as a Spanish mission and colonial outpost in 1718 has since grown into a massive metropolis. This Hispanic heritage is still on show today at its bustling Mexican markets and the fun parades and parties thrown for the city’s signature Fiesta celebration.
While it can be expensive, there are also a wealth of free things to do in San Antonio with even The Alamo being open to all. These attractions enlisted below allow you to get a feel for the city and its sights without blowing a hole in your budget.
In this post, we'll cover:
15. Institute of Texan Culture
A must for those interested in history, the Institute of Texan Cultures shines a light on the countless communities that have helped shape the identity and development of the state. Admission to the ICT is by donation with its galleries full of enthralling exhibits and historic photos being fascinating to explore.
Located in HemisFair Park, its comprehensive collection of more than three million artifacts, photos and oral accounts now appropriately occupies what was once the Texas Pavilion at the 1968 World’s Fair. While perusing all the well-done displays and interactive exhibits, you’ll learn about everything from each peoples’ food and music to their stories, traditions and religions.
Together with life-size dioramas and oral testimonies, these present an in-depth look at over twenty national and ethnic groups that make up modern, multicultural Texas. The ICT also hosts plenty of classes and cultural events with dance shows and live music taking place.
14. San Pedro Creek Culture Park
A very peaceful and picturesque spot to spend some time, the San Pedro Creek Culture Park lies just a short walk northwest of downtown. Lined by lots of pretty murals and impressive public artworks, its numerous displays teach you all about the area’s age-old history.
For almost 12,000 years, people have been drawn to its refreshing waters with Spanish missionaries having settled here in the 1700s. Both the local community and tourists to the city can now wander along a 1,800-foot-long historic wall and various interpretive signs that recount San Pedro’s past.
Dotted about beside the charming creek are some terrific tiled benches for you to sit on while you admire all the park’s fetching fountains and flowerbeds. Thanks to all the water around you, it is the perfect place to cool off during San Antonio’s scorching summers.
13. Briscoe Western Art Museum
Lying just across the park alongside the winding River Walk is the outstanding Briscoe Western Art Museum. Somewhat similar in scope, it looks at the colourful characters and rugged landscapes that have shaped our image of the American West today.
Opened in 2013, its three levels are packed with incredible paintings and sculptures that depict the dramatic scenes of the Western United States. Cowboys and Native Americans of course feature prominently as do romantic old wagons, railroads and herds of bison migrating across the prairie.
Its striking statues and well-preserved artifacts highlight how life was during this iconic era and the profound impact it had on the development of the States. While residents of San Antonio and Bexar County benefit from free open days on the first Sunday of each month, active-duty members of the military enjoy free access year-round.
12. Brackenridge Park
Sprawling across a huge part of the north side of town is the ever-popular Brackenridge Park. Aside from paid attractions like the San Antonio Zoo and Witte Museum, it also has loads of playgrounds, playing fields and picnic spots for everyone to make use of.
Since 1899, generations of families have flocked here to enjoy its gorgeous green spaces and lovely landscaped gardens that lie all along the scenic San Antonio River. The Japanese Tea Garden’s floral displays, stone bridges and water features are particularly pleasant to stroll about while a myriad of shady trails wind their way amidst the park’s lush woodland.
Other than hiking and biking, you can take a cheap and cheerful miniature train ride about the park or attend some of the fun free community festivals that take place here each year.
11. McNay Art Museum
Yet another of the city’s main cultural institutes is the marvelous McNay Art Museum which boasts a delightful collection of nineteenth and twentieth century artworks. Each Thursday from 4 to 9 PM, guests can explore its grand galleries and stunning gardens for free.
Actually the first museum of modern art in Texas, it was set up in 1954 thanks to Ohio-born heiress Marion McNay who bequeathed her superb art collection to the city. In her former Spanish Colonial Revival-style mansion, visitors can now see masterpieces by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso as well as other Medieval and Renaissance pieces.
After viewing all the fine architecture and seeing important paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper, make sure to amble about the koi ponds and fountains outside. The museum is free from noon to 5 PM on the first Sunday of every month.
10. Witte Museum
Guaranteed fun for all the family, the Witte Museum houses a hugely impressive collection of scary dinosaur skeletons and ancient mummies from all around the world. Located in Brackenridge Park, its galleries are dedicated to telling the stories of the state and city from prehistory to the present.
Only recently renovated, its sparkling exhibition spaces contain all kinds of informative displays on the Lone Star State’s animals, landscapes and peoples. While replicas of log cabins teach you about the lives of early pioneers, incredible old cave drawings and intricately woven textiles highlight the rich heritage and culture of its Native Americans.
Now San Antonio’s most-visited museum, its enthralling exhibits and artifacts have delighted young and old alike since 1926 with admission being free each Tuesday from 3 to 6 PM.
9. La Villita Historic Arts Village
If you want to see some awesome art pieces or pick up some yourself as souvenirs, then the vibrant La Villita Historic Arts Village is certainly the place to head. Spread along the south bank of the San Antonio River, extensive art galleries and a handful of restaurants lie right in the heart of town.
Originally a Native American settlement, it was one of the first neighborhoods founded in the city with European immigrants from almost everywhere having settled here. Its quaint buildings reflect this cultural mix as one-room adobe houses and large Victorian mansions lie side by side along the River Walk.
In 1939, the whole area was preserved due to its unique architecture and in the following decades, it slowly morphed into the lively arts community we see today. In its scores of shops and studios, you can peruse handcrafted jewellery, ceramics and folk art before stopping for a coffee or snack at one of its cozy little restaurants.
8. San Fernando Cathedral
One of the oldest churches in the United States, San Fernando Cathedral rises dramatically above one side of the city’s Main Plaza. Built between 1738 and 1750, the distinctive landmark showcases some exquisite architecture with its illuminated interior being just as attractive.
Still at the center of Catholic religious life in San Antonio, its imposing Gothic Revival-style facade is flanked by two tall bell towers. Inside are some interesting old artworks and elaborate handcrafted shrines with rows of ornate columns lining its nave.
On Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 9, 9.30 and 10 PM, The Saga is projected on the front of the colossal cathedral. A must-see when in San Antonio, the dazzling 24-minute-long light show depicts the discovery, settlement and development of the city.
7. King William Historic District
Just south of downtown is one of the city’s most affluent and elegant neighborhoods: the charming King William Historic District. Home to a huge number of historic houses, its tree-lined streets are a treat to stroll about with fine architectural features and lush landscaped gardens wherever you look.
The first residential area to be established in San Antonio, it was divided out by wealthy German merchants in 1866 who named it for the then King of Prussia. During the Gilded Age, they built many of the marvelous mansions and parks that still lie along the city’s winding river today.
Nowadays, some of these stately homes have been converted into art galleries or museums with lots of cafes and boutiques also scattered around the suburb. Other than ambling about and taking in the outstanding architecture, you can enjoy its monthly art walk event or the annual King William Fair when a parade and music performances take place.
6. San Antonio Museum of Art (free on specific days)
Boasting a huge collection of paintings, ceramics and sculptures, the San Antonio Museum of Art’s collection impressively spans over 5,000 years of human history. Also located along the River Walk, it is particularly known for its extensive Asian, Latin American and Native American holdings.
Set just a short walk west of Broadway, its 30,000 artifacts and artworks occupy what was once the historic Lone Star Brewery. Spread across the four floors of its striking castle-like building are light and airy galleries home to ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art pieces. Others focus on amazing Mayan bowls or carvings from Oceania with the Far East, India and US also being represented.
Bexar County residents can visit the magnificent museum for free each Tuesday from 4 to 7 PM and on Sundays from 10 AM to 12 PM.
5. Market Square
One of the best places to shop, dine and go out in the city is the bustling Market Square in the heart of San Antonio. The largest Mexican market in the States, its enormous outdoor plaza is lined by loads of authentic restaurants and specialty shops selling everything under the sun.
While the El Mercado part of the market hosts around thirty shops, the much larger Farmers’ Market Plaza has a whopping eighty or more for visitors to wander around. Outside some of them, you’ll see refined handmade jewellery and pottery while other boutiques specialize in musical instruments, paintings or folk art.
After browsing its souvenir stores, you can stop for a delicious Mexican meal at one of the market’s many excellent restaurants. During the year, it puts on dozens of fun festivals and events celebrating Hispanic culture.
4. Japanese Tea Garden
A very scenic and serene spot, the gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden lies within Brackenridge Park, not far from both the San Antonio Zoo and Witte Museum. Home to countless colourful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, its picturesque paths take you past reflective ponds and over rustic stone bridges.
Originally a rock quarry, it was developed into the oriental-style oasis it is today between 1917 and 1918. At the entrance to the gardens is a traditional torii gate while a pavilion-like pagoda and pretty floral displays line its weaving walkways. Several waterfalls also dot its peaceful confines with one even towering sixty feet in height.
Guests can also stop for a drink or a snack at the Jingu House Cafe and watch the multicolored koi slowly swim about its waterways. While the lovely locale is always free to visit, the Sunken Garden Theater’s top-class plays and concerts can be quite expensive.
3. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Strung out along a nine-mile stretch of the river south of town is the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Offering a fascinating insight into the past, it protects four atmospheric old Spanish frontier missions and their grounds with informative plaques teaching you all about their history.
While the 1731 Conception and 1720 San Jose missions attract the most people as they are closer to the center, both those of Espada and San Juan are equally well worthwhile visiting. All exhibit some exquisite architecture with sturdy stone towers and faded old facades lying next to crumbling walls and other ruined structures.
Connecting the colonial missions is a trail to hike or bike along with free buses transporting you to the park from in front of the Alamo. A fantastic visitors centre also teaches you all about the walled compounds from which the priests tried to convert the Native American settlements around them.
2. River Walk
Simply put, no visit to San Antonio can ever be complete without strolling along the River Walk at some point. Lined by hundreds of shops, restaurants, hotels and bars, its rambling route connects many of San Antonio’s main attractions and numerous neighborhoods.
Remarkably enough, its colourful network of walkways stretches over fifteen miles in length, along both banks of the meandering river. Set one level down from street level, it is a very relaxing spot to explore as lots of public art installations and greenery lie alongside its tranquil waters.
Other than grabbing a drink at one of its chill outdoor patios, you can stop by some of its attractions or enjoy some of its free artisan shows and boat parades. The Fiesta Noche del Rio for instance features both flamenco and folklorico performances while over Christmas and New Year, the whole River Walk is decked in millions of magical little lights.
1. The Alamo
One of the most important historic sights in the entire country, The Alamo can be found right in the centre of San Antonio. Now protected as part of a museum, the centuries-old Spanish mission takes you on an enthralling journey through an important part of American history.
Built in 1744 by Roman Catholic missionaries, it later became a military fortress with the armies of five different nations having occupied the complex at one time or another. It is most known though for the Battle of The Alamo in 1836; a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution which eventually saw the state successfully secede from Mexico.
Visitors can now explore its iconic chapel and surrounding grounds for free by reserving a time slot in advance. For a small fee, you can also enter its well-preserved barracks which house exhibits on the site’s 300 years of history next to old uniforms and original weapons.