KidTripster Teen: Like the legendary Tex-Mex food, it's hard to get enough of San Antonio.
Remember the Alamo! For those who’ve never visited San Antonio, it’s probably the first place that comes to mind when the city is mentioned. But my family recently spent a few days visiting this trendy, Texas town and found that there’s much more to explore besides the famous fort. Along with unique attractions, cool museums, amazing food, and great shopping, we discovered a rich culture and history proudly on display practically everywhere - all of which made for an unforgettable trip.
Photo courtesy: visitsanantonio.com
What to do?
Even though there are lots of great sights, the Alamo still tops the list of things to see in San Antonio. I was surprised to learn that the fort is situated right in the heart of the city. It was originally built in 1718 as a mission, but this Texas symbol of freedom went through many incarnations before becoming a national landmark. Taking a self-guided tour of the iconic building and historic grounds doesn’t cost anything, though guided tours are available for a fee. While exploring, keep an eye out for the historical re-enactors roaming about. They’ll be more than happy to tell you about what daily life was like at this celebrated citadel in the early 1800s, plus they pose for pictures! Cost: General Admission Free; Audio tours $7; Guided tours $15 (under age 8 is free).
KidTripster Tip: Everything is bigger in Texas, including the lines to tour the Alamo. Wait times can leave visitors standing in the Texas sun for more than an hour, especially on weekends and holidays. My recommendation is to get there before the doors open at 9 a.m. You’ll avoid the midday heat and be one of the first visitors of the day.
River Walk, another top destination in San Antonio, is modeled after the canals of Venice and is a truly unique feature of the city. This man-made waterway connects to the San Antonio River and provides visitors easy access to many of the attractions around town. It’s positioned below street level, so there are no cars and only walking paths. Some areas are bustling with shops and restaurants, while other areas offer serene parks and gardens to sit and soak up the scenery. It’s all linked with an intricate web of bridges and stairways.
Probably the best way to get the lay of the land is to jump on a GO RIO river cruise. The 35-minute, narrated tour gives an excellent overview of all the area has to offer and is hosted by friendly, knowledgeable guides who enhance the experience with historical facts and super corny jokes. GO RIO also operates an affordable water shuttle, if you’re only looking to get from place to place. It even runs private tours and dinner cruises, but arrangements must be made in advance. Narrated cruise cost: Youth (1-5) $6; Adult $12. Shuttle-only day pass cost: $12/person. Private and dinner cruises prices vary.
KidTripster Tip: Not unlike the Alamo, lines for the river cruises can get really long, especially later in the day. Take your cruise early to avoid excessive wait times.
One of the many cool spots to check out along the River Walk is the Main Plaza, where you’ll find my favorite place in San Antonio - San Fernando Cathedral. Built between 1738 and 1750, this Roman Catholic Church claims to be the oldest in Texas. It’s a operating church, but all are welcome to come in and marvel at its beauty. There’s an area inside that pays homage to the Alamo battle with a small coffin believed to entomb some of the fallen heroes from the siege. As you head back through Main Plaza, you may want to linger for one of the many events held throughout the week, such as farmers’ markets or musical street performances. If you’re visiting Thursday through Sunday, I highly recommend going back at night when the cathedral’s façade is transformed into a gigantic projection screen for San Antonio: The Saga. This 20-minute, multimedia show, created by French artist Xavier De Richemont, tells the history of San Antonio through a combination of music and video. The effect is purely magical. There are three showings at 9:00 p.m., 9:30 p.m., and 10:00 pm. If you can only do one thing while you’re in San Antonio, do this! Cost: Free.
For those in need of retail therapy, you’ll find plenty of places to get a shopping fix. Rivercenter Mall is great for the usual mall-type stores, but if you want something unique, check out La Villita Historic Arts Village on the River Walk. There are 18 wonderfully different shops displaying distinctive items, mostly made by local artisans. For wares made by craftspeople, take a 20-minute walk from downtown to the historic El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the United States. Spanning three city blocks, this lively bazaar is lined with tons of Mexican shops where you can watch working artists demonstrate how they create their crafts, which are all available for sale.
About a 10-minute walk from downtown sits an area known as HemisFair Park. Formerly the site of the World Exposition held in San Antonio in 1968, the space was revitalized about a decade ago into an amazing park where families can hang out and play. Kids will go crazy for all the activities here such as the splash zone, climbing structures, sand play area, and more. It’s a perfect spot for a family picnic, as well.
Another feature of HemisFair Park is the colossal structure that defines the San Antonio skyline - Tower of the Americas. This 750-foot tower was constructed specifically for HemisFair ‘68 and today houses an observation deck. An admission ticket grants you access to high-speed elevators that whisk you 65 stories in the air to the enclosed deck, giving you an aerial view of San Antonio and beyond. For the most jaw-dropping views, the best time to head to the top of the tower is at sunset. The exciting Skies Over Texas 4D theater ride is included in the ticket price. Cost: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-14) $10; Adults $13.
KidTripster Tip: Just one floor below the observation deck is the Chart House Restaurant which boasts a dining area that rotates 360 degrees, providing exquisite scenery while you enjoy a delicious meal. Bypass the lines for observation deck tickets, if you plan to eat here because admission to the deck is included when you dine. Make sure to call in advance for reservations because this restaurant is usually packed. If you feel like winging it, you also can grab a light snack at the lounge, but there’s limited seating on a first come-first served basis.
If you love museums, you won’t want to miss two that are just a 10-minute drive from downtown. The Witte (pronounced “Wi-tee”) is a natural history museum with a Texas twist. Most of the exhibits focus on different aspects of San Antonio and Texas culture and heritage. My favorite area is the South Texas Heritage Center, where it’s all about the settling of Texas and how pioneers lived back in the day. There’s even a display of the different saddles that ranchers used, which you’re able to try out. Other hands-on exhibits include the EcoLab with live tarantulas and tortoises and H-E-B Body Adventure that teach kids about wellness and healthy living. Cost: Youth (3 & under) Free; Youth (4-11) $9; Adults $11.
Right next door to The Witte, you’ll find The DoSeum. This 21st-century learning center flaunts three stories of family fun. Since its opening in 2015, it’s been dedicated to serving as an interactive laboratory for all kids from birth to age 10. It’s so amazing that young visitors won’t even realize that they’re learning. I met adults who said they go here without kids because it’s so much fun! Cost: $14/person.
KidTripster Tip: Both museums offer lots of outdoor space for letting kids burn off energy.
If you’re up for adventure, want to see a world relatively untouched by man, and have time for a 30-minute drive from the city center, Natural Bridge Caverns merits a visit. This place is a series of caves with many different tours available, but the two most popular are the Discovery and Hidden Passages tours. I had never been in a cave before, and all I can say is that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a wildly unique experience that’s hard to describe, but believe me, it’s anything but boring. I will warn you that the caverns are very dark, and the spaces are tight, so know your kids’ limits. For those nyctophobic individuals (people afraid of the dark), you can opt for zipline and ropes courses or gem and fossil mining instead. I can guarantee you that no matter what you choose - caverns, ziplines or mining - this place totally rocks! Cost: Varies by activity.
KidTripster Tip: San Antonio has an epic Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebration. If your kids are fans of Pixar’s Coco, consider visiting during late October and early November to experience the spectacle.
Photo courtesy: visitsanantonio.com
Where to eat?
With close to 400 restaurants, San Antonio has no shortage of dining options to accommodate everyone’s tastes. The River Walk has a massive selection of dining choices, but the majority of it is Mexican food. Rita’s on the River is one of my favorites. It serves funky Mexican fare with some Texan flair. I ordered the shrimp fajitas, and they were super yummy. The entire restaurant is open-air, so no matter where you sit, you’ll get views of the river while you chow down on some mouth-watering nachos. A great spot on the River Walk that isn’t Tex-Mex is The County Line. Here you’ll find some of the best barbecue in downtown San Antonio. As long as you’re a meat-eater, you’ll certainly leave feeling full.
KidTripster Tip: One of the most charming parts about dining on the River Walk is the mariachi players that roam from table to table playing traditional music. However, you need pay for them to play, and they don’t take credit cards, so remember to carry some cash.
KidTripster Tip: Everyone wants to eat on the River Walk, so restaurants get packed during prime lunch and dinner hours which means sometimes the service leaves a bit to be desired. Try to time your meals during off-peak hours for better service.
If you’re looking for a fancier dining experience on the River Walk, go to Omni La Mansion del Rio Hotel’s Las Canarias. It offers entrées for slightly more sophisticated palates and provides an atmosphere that’s elegant but still low-key. And, like most restaurants on the River Walk, it has al fresco seating available, so you can people-watch while dining. It also frequently has local musicians playing live music.
The River Walk isn’t the only spot for great grub in San Antonio. Mi Tierra, a famous dining establishment in Market Square, serves traditional Mexican food in the most festive atmosphere that you’ll ever walk into. Your eyes will pop from the colorful banners and piñatas that greet you. While the restaurant and its food is fantastic, it’s not even the main attraction here. Mi Tierra has a bakery that makes authentic Mexican desserts that are enough to give you a sugar rush with just one bite! Be careful when selecting your sweets, as you may leave with more confections than you can eat. My personal favorite is the coconut candy!
Another area outside the River Walk that everyone raves about is the Pearl District. The Pearl, as locals call it, is a hipster neighborhood around the Pearl Brewery that’s rich with trendy, culinary options. Be sure to stop by the CIA’s (Culinary Institute of America) Nao and see what some of the students are cooking up. Another fashionable spot plant-eaters will love is Green, a completely kosher and vegetarian establishment.
Photo courtesy: visitsanantonio.com
Where to stay?
While there are many cool hotels in San Antonio, choosing a place along the River Walk is a great option. My family and I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk. It’s just steps from the Alamo and located right on the River Walk. In fact, the river flows into the ground floor of the building, delivering a dramatic effect upon entering the hotel’s lobby. The hotel makes a special effort to cater to families. During Spring Break and holidays, the hotel offers all sorts of kid-friendly extras like face painting at breakfast and a toy chest filled with awesome goodies. The hotel also has a rooftop pool, perfect for cooling off after playing tourist in the Texas heat. Rooms start at $169/night.
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Photo courtesy: Hyatt Regency Riverwalk
San Antonio has its own airport (SAT), located just eight miles from downtown. The city is approximately 80 miles southwest of Austin, so it’s possible to rent a car and conquer two Texan cities in one trip.
For KidTripster’s picks in Austin, click here. Or if you’re looking for unique accommodations (treehouses!) in nearby Texas Hill Country, click here.
Laine Messier is a homeschooled high school student, who currently splits her time between Los Angeles and New York City. She’s lucky enough to be able to explore the globe with her parents and is always on the lookout for unique and exciting experiences. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her surfing, jamming on her guitar or searching for new adventures with her trusty canine sidekick, Tess.