The Best San Antonio 3 Day Itinerary: Historic Sites, Biking, Tex Mex & More
July 17, 2020
San Antonio is a city that really exceeded my expectations. It is the most visited city in all of Texas, but it doesn’t feel that way. The vibe is completely different than the other major cities in Texas because of the city's walkability, beauty and culture.
The San Antonio Riverwalk sets the city apart the most; it allows for pedestrians, bikers and tourists alike to travel below street level and at a safe distance from cars. Of course, the city is most known for the Alamo, the most visited tourist attraction in all of Texas. However, there is so much more to San Antonio than the Alamo.
San Antonio makes for an amazing quick trip from Dallas or from anywhere else.
I stayed at an adorable Airbnb in the King William Historic District. This is a beautiful neighborhood within walking distance of downtown San Antonio and has direct access to the Riverwalk.
This Airbnb is a guesthouse in someone else’s yard and has beautiful landscaping, friendly cats and a cozy atmosphere. The guesthouse is small but is great for couples wanting to feel like they are secluded while still being close to everything.
If you prefer hotel accommodations, I recommend the Bed & Breakfast Inn on the Riverwalk to sleep in a historic Victorian home with great views of the Riverwalk. For a luxury hotel, check out Hotel Emma which is right next to the Pearl District.
The city of San Antonio is great for walking and biking! The San Antonio bikeshare is really great - when I visited, they had a special and we were able to rent bikes all day for $6 each! There are a lot of stations to check in the bikes (you have to check them in every hour) and they have electric-assist bikes along with regular bikes.
Don’t let the name fool you: The Original Donut Shop is known more for breakfast tacos than their donuts!
The restaurant has a drive thru line that tries to divide the cars between orders for donuts or tacos, but it didn’t seem like it really mattered which one you choose. The line of cars was down the street when I visited but they were very efficient and quick. The breakfast tacos were delicious - I got a bean/cheese and a potato/egg and they were fantastic and very filling.
Eating Tex Mex is a must while you’re in San Antonio! There are so many Tex Mex restaurants, but we choose to get carry-out from Henry’s Puffy Tacos, a popular restaurant that has been open since 1978.
The puffy tacos are literally puffy; they are deep fried Mesa corn dough that puff up. While not the healthiest, the texture was totally unique and delicious. I tried the bean & cheese and guacamole puffy tacos and they were delightful.
Another great Mexican restaurant is Rosario’s, a popular restaurant with delicious food, contemporary atmosphere and a great selection of vegetarian options. I recommend trying the Potato Flautas Especiales!
Mexican fruit cups and raspas (shaved ice) are very popular in San Antonio and perfect for beating the heat. A popular drink is the chamoyada - a combination of fruity shaved ice (often mango) and chamoy sauce (a sauce with the flavor of hot sauce without the heat). At some places, you can get your cup loaded up with lots of gummies, fruit and even pickles! Your taste buds will experience a unique mix of tart and sweet!
Bike Between the San Antonio Missions, visit the Hot Well Ruins and Historic Market Square and have dinner at the Riverwalk.
Most people have heard of the Alamo, but there are so many more beautiful Missions in town! San Antonio has four other historic missions that are part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. I spent most of the day using the city bikes to travel between the four missions.
When I visited, the Alamo was closed because of Covid. Also, native Texans might not agree with me but I visited the Alamo several years ago and was a bit underwhelmed. I found it much more exciting to explore the lesser known Missions!
The northernmost Mission is Mission Concepcion, and it is the oldest unrestored stone church in America.
Next is Mission San Jose, which was the most beautiful and picturesque in my opinion. It is known as the “Queen of the Missions” and is the largest. It was fully restored to its original design in the 1930’s.
Further south, Mission San Juan was founded in 1716 in eastern Texas and moved to its present location in 1731. During the mid 1700s, it was a thriving community of self-sustaining farmers and had established a trade network expanding from Louisiana to Mexico.
Finally, the southernmost mission is Mission Espada. It was the first mission in all of Texas, founded in 1690. It was moved to its present location in 1731 and a friary and church were built along with it.
I biked between all four missions and rode on the Riverwalk trails as much as possible. The missions are varying distances from the river, so you have to bike on a couple public streets to get to them. We tried to follow the biking trail that I found from the National Park Service, but on several instances it takes you on roads when you could be following the trail along the river.
I recommend following the river trail as much as possible and using google maps to get between the missions. The total distance from Mission Conception to Mission Espada is about 7 miles each way on the river trail. I began in the King William Historic Neighborhood and completed the whole trip in around 5 hours.
I was so impressed with the riverwalk trail. There are bathrooms, art and beautiful bridges in the trail between the missions.
Located right off of the riverwalk, well preserved ruins of a historic hotel and health spa remain at the Hot Well Hotel Ruins. The hotel was once visited by the rich and famous due to sulfurous water that was thought to have healing properties.
The hotel operated until the early 1920s and then was destroyed by a fire. The ruins have been preserved as a county park in recent years. You can walk around them and even see the remains of 'No Diving' instructions on the walls.
The vibrant Historic Market Square makes up the largest Mexican market in the United States. It's bustling with shopping, entertainment and handcrafted goods. Colorful flags hang above the walkways and festivals such as Cinco de Mayo have celebrations here every year. It’s a great place to do some shopping, try some local food or just enjoy the atmosphere.
The downtown portion of the Riverwalk is the most popular area and where you’ll find the most crowds. There are a variety of restaurants, hotels and shops along the walk that overlook the river.
There are also colorful barges that take people around the river and where you’ll learn a lot of facts about San Antonio. We didn’t do a boat tour this trip but I was happy to see that they were enforcing masks on the boats and cleaning them between each ride.
While you’re there, be sure to check out Rosita’s bridge and the Arneson River Theater. Rosita’s Bridge is named after Rosita Fernandez, who was named San Antonio’s First Lady of Song by Lady Bird Johnson in 1968. The Arneson River Theater does dance and opera performances in open air for people sitting or riding on the barges to watch.
The Riverwalk really sets San Antonio apart and makes the city feel like it would not be found in the middle of Texas.
Visit the Japanese Tea Garden, have lunch at the Pearl District and visit an art museum.
The Japanese Tea Garden is located just north of the Pearl District and is definitely worth visiting if you have time. It has stone arch bridges, waterfalls and a collection of exotic plants.
The garden has an interesting history; the area was formerly a cement plant and was converted into a Japanese Garden by a Japanese family in the early 1900s. However, during the period of forced Japanese-American internment during WWII, the family was forced to leave the gardens. The garden then became the Chinese Tea Garden for the next 40 years. Then in 1984, Mayor Henry Cisneros decided to honor the garden by returning its original name. A sign for Chinese Tea Garden still remains, reminding visitors of this history.
This incredible garden is also free! It's a really popular photo spot and has one of the largest koi ponds I've ever seen.
Just south of the Japanese Tea Garden and along the riverwalk, you will run into the Pearl District. The Pearl District is a mixed used area with a wide variety of shopping and eating, including a farmers market on the weekends. There is also a large lawn space to spread out and relax.
The area is known as Pearl Brewery because it was formerly a brewery operating from 1883 to 2001. For food, check out the Asian fusion restaurant Botika, Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery for beer and southern food or Supper for high end American food.
The Pearl Brewery has a beautiful mix of industrial and greenery elements. It's full of life on the weekends during the farmers market. You can grab a drink and a bite, sit on the lawn and listen to live music.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, or SAMA, is located in the former Lone Star Brewery building. It has a great mix of historic and contemporary art and you can spend hours immersing yourself in the galleries.
The Blue Star Contemporary and the area where it is located is really fun to visit. Blue Star is located right off of the riverwalk and is the longest-running non-profit space for contemporary art in San Antonio. They always have interesting and thought provoking exhibits.
The complex that is attached also has other galleries, shops and restaurants. Check out Stella Public House for pizza, Blue Star Brewing Company for craft beer or South Alamode Panini & Gelato Company for amazing gelato.
The Fort Sam Houston Quadrangle and Museum is located on a military base. The Quadrangle is special because deer and peafowl live and roam freely within the walled off area. The museum is free and its exhibits tell the history of the military base. The base is still active today, making it one of the oldest active military posts in the United States.
Take a day trip out of San Antonio to go hiking or visit a cave.
San Antonio is located on the edge of Hill Country, meaning there is no shortage of beautiful nature to explore nearby. Just 30 minutes outside of the city, you'll find Government Canyon State Natural Area. This park has hikes for all skill levels and is home to dinosaur tracks and canyon walls.
You'll also find two popular caves within an hour's drive of San Antonio. Cascade Caverns is a 40 minute drive, and features an underground waterfall, a beautiful Cathedral room and interesting wildlife like salamanders, bats and cave beetles.
A Cave Without a Name is a 50 minute drive and is known for amazing natural acoustics; so much so that they regularly have concerts inside the cave. Both caves have campgrounds and other things to do on the grounds above the cave.
Another great option to get your fill of Hill Country beauty is the Guadalupe River State Park. This park is less than an hour's drive from San Antonio and is close to both of the caves.
The park is known most notably for its river access, where you can canoe, tube or swim. However, it also has a variety of hiking trails where you can explore both prairie grasses and cliffs that overlook the river. The park is especially beautiful in the fall when the leaves change colors.
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