What lies beyond the cluster of hotels, conference centers, and museums that line San Antonio's famous Riverwalk and surround the Alamo can feel like a bit of a mystery – but it doesn't have to be that way.
San Antonio is full of rich history, from the former Indigenous settlements of San Pedro Springs in Midtown to the Spanish-era Missions south of the city to the scent of cumin and steak sizzling in the city's Latino Westside. Venture beyond the main drag and you'll find there's a lot to delight visitors and locals alike throughout San Antonio's bustling neighborhoods. Here are seven of the best to start with.
Home to some of San Antonio's most iconic sights, including The Alamo, the River Walk, the San Fernando Cathedral and the Briscoe Western Art Museum, Downtown is a must-see for most visitors to San Antonio. You can catch up on your Texas history – the Briscoe's collection serves as a great visual introduction to the subject, while the San Fernando Cathedral is the oldest continuously functioning religious community in the Lone Star State.
You can also get acquainted with San Antonio's Tex-Mex flavors at restaurants like Boudro's overlooking the river or combine both eats and education at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, which is full of deer antlers, taxidermy, prickly pear margaritas, and is linked to the Texas Ranger Museum next door.
North of downtown near Trinity University, the 343-acre Brackenridge Park is named is a great place to spend a family day. As well as the San Antonio Zoo, you'll find the Kiddie Park, the San Antonio Zoo Eagle miniature train ($4), an old-fashioned carousel ($2.50) and the Japanese Tea Garden. Nearby Mahncke Park is a long, rectangular strip of greenway that links Brackenridge to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.
Bookending it all are the Fort Sam Houston military base and the Midtown neighborhood, which is home to yet another historic, important member of the San Antonio parks, San Pedro Springs. Once the site of an Indigenous village, it was later where European colonizers founded the city of San Antonio, and today houses a swimming pool, tennis courts, a library, and even a playhouse.
Just north of Midtown and its splendid parks, Alamo Heights is home to the McNay Art Museum. Originally it was a private Spanish Colonial revival-style mansion belonging to Marion Koogler McNay, a wealthy oil heiress who dedicated her life to studying, teaching, and collecting art.
Today it's filled with works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne, Munch, Rodin and many other greats. After you've soaked up the modernists, take a stroll through this tony old neighborhood full of other grand houses and funky vintage shops. Or you can get your blood pumping at Olmos Basin Park, where nature walks and mountain bike trails wind under a canopy of trees.
San Antonio's East Side neighborhood has all kinds of claims to fame – Joan Rivers was born here, for example, and one corner even inspired the Doobie Brother's song "China Grove." But its real history and heart comes from the Black community, who have been calling the East Side home since the Civil War.
The earliest freedmen's district blossomed along Ellis Alley, a strip north of Center Street that was later carved up by the construction of Interstate 37. You can still see some of the oldest homes in the East Side, though, at the 200 blocks of Ellis Alley & Chestnut & Center Streets, and delve into San Antonio history at the African American Community Archive and Museum.
Head to the Carver Community Center half a mile away at 226 N Hackberry to see an early 20th century music hall where blues and jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington played. It's kitty-cornered from St. Paul Square, which was the bustling center of San Antonio's Black community up until the midcentury. That decline, spurred by white flight and the rise of car culture, has since given way to rising gentrification in recent years. It also means the East Side had room for big stadiums like the AT&T Center that's home to the San Antonio Spurs.
You can still get a glimpse of the old school East Side at concert venues like The Espee, which is housed in the old Sunset Station train depot that once hosted Amtrak's Sunset Limited Line (don't worry, the later still stops nearby at Union Station). Tucker's Kozy Korner has been around since 1948, first as a gas station and bodega and later as a bar, live music venue, and restaurant. Today the menu is more Asian fusion gastro pub than sandwiches and beer, but it's still a true neighborhood hub. You can also support Black-owned businesses while getting a taste of San Antonio's southern cuisine at Mark's Outing, Sweet Yams, and Tony G’s Soul Food.
King William Historic District/Southtown
A pretty Victorian neighborhood that's retained some of its German and Austrian ties, King William and Southtown are a fun spot in San Antonio that blends the antique and avant garde. There are many beautiful old homes here, including the historic-home-cum-restaurant Guenther, but few are as much of a stunner as Villa Finale.
The Italianate mansion was built in 1876 by merchant Russel C. Norton and rescued almost a century later by Walter Mathis, the wealthy descendent of one of Texas' oldest settler ranching families who threw himself into preserving much of King William's architecture.
As for the new, the Blue Star Complex has been a hub for the local art scene since the mid 1980s, turning a former warehouse into gallery space and a venue for the city's annual Contemporary Art Month. It's connected to downtown by an extension of the Riverwalk and also serves as a starting point for the 7-mile Mission Reach trail that brings cyclists and pedestrians further south to San Antonio's historic missions. You can raise a glass to the city's artists at Blue Star Brewing Company – on Tuesdays they have jazz night when the COVID-19 pandemic isn't putting a damper on live music.
Last but not least, the Southtown neighborhood is full of shops, restaurants, and bars that feels a little like the San An version of what Los Angeles' Echo Park used to be. Here you'll find Liberty Bar housed in a former convent, Italian joint Battalion in a 1920s fire station, and the thirty year old La Tuna icehouse and grill under some classic Texas pecan trees.
San Antonio is world famous for it's Tex-Mex cuisine, a blend of north Mexican, Spanish, and southern American cooking styles born out of local Tejano kitchens. The Westside and pockets of downtown close by like the Mercado are absolutely one of the best places in the country to try one of the United States' favorite culinary genres right at ground zero. That's no joke – at the Mercado, San Antonio's Chili Queens popularized the beloved meat and bean stew that's now a part of mainstream American culture.
For even more local eats, go to Garcia’s Mexican Food, which has been family-run since 1962. It's technically on the wrong side of I-10, the border between downtown and the Westside, but it's a good place to begin if you want to eat your way from the River Walk all the way to SeaWorld San Antonio. La Margarita is also on the east side of I-10, but that can be forgiven if you believe their claim that they introduced Americans to fajitas served sizzling on the skillet. Even older is Jacala Mexican Restaurant – open since 1949 and featuring award-winning enchiladas and tamales – and Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery, which opened in 1941. Go to Ray's Drive Inn to try some of the city's signature puffy tacos, too.
The Westside isn't all tasty eats, though. You can learn more about the Chicano community at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Or go for a long walk – throughout the neighborhood are numerous examples of muralismo, a form of street art that dates back to pre-Colombian Central American cultures but took on new significance after the Mexican Revolution as an expression of both Chicano identity and politics.
Last but not least, head to Janie's Record Shop to dig through crates of vinyl and cassettes of Tejano, conjunto and Norteño tunes. Ask around and you might find some ultra-local wax featuring the Westside Sound, a blend of the aforementioned genres and early rock 'n' roll that came out of this neighborhood decades ago.
One of the oldest parts of San Antonio are the Missions that trail along the city's southern rim. Built in the early 1700s, the Missions were constructed to create a foothold for Spanish colonizers and to convert the Coahuiltecans who had lived in the region for tens of thousands of years. The Missions that are today part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park include Mission Concepción, Mission San José, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, but there are more in the area, too, including the famous Alamo. The so-called Mission Trail is a collection of the four main historic sites in south San Antonio, and is connected to downtown via an extension of the Riverwalk that leaps off from the Blue Star Arts complex.
You can also soak up the Southside's outdoorsy vibe at Confluence Park, a protected riparian woodland ecosystem full of hiking and paddling trails and modernist concrete pavilions where events like yoga classes take place. Riverside Golf Course is popular with putters and drivers, while the Mission Open Air Flea Market is a nearly 30 year old collection of 2,000 vendors selling everything from western wear to farm fresh fare.