Texas’ second largest city, oldest civil municipality, and a one time Spanish provincial capital, San Antonio is today known as the ‘Alamo City’, ‘Mission City’, and ‘River City’, nicknames that pay homage to its most visited attractions. Located at the headwaters of the San Antonio River, today’s city was once a camp of the Payaya Indians under the name Yanaguana, meaning ‘refreshing waters’.
Explorers visited the area in 1691 and five Spanish missions were established by Father Antonio de Olivares in 1718 along with a nearby presidio (garrison), titled San Antonio de Bexar. The mission San Antonio de Valero was not named for Father Antonio, but for the Portuguese Friar Antonio of Padua; the new settlement lie along what had been tribal trails and became known as the Old San Antonio Road, a major route for both people and goods. The settlement was officially chartered in 1731 under the name San Fernando de Bexar and a scheme was concocted to transport settlers to Texas from the Canary Islands. With a couple dozen families imported in this fashion, the town prospered and became known as San Antonio by 1837.
By 1793 the missions were in the process of being secularized and what had been Mission San Antonio de Valero became a barracks and known as the Alamo by 1801, meaning Cottonwood. Mexico gained independence in 1813 but by 1835, Texas had its own aspirations and San Antonio became the site of the infamous Battle of the Alamo. Once Texas entered the Union, the city became a key military location through the Civil War and both World Wars.
The railroad arrived in 1877 and new migrants arrived from the southern states and Mexico. San Antonio thus became a key supplier of cattle drives and housed a wool market as sheep were introduced to the nearby Hill County. In 1968, the city housed a world’s exposition, HemisFair, as a celebration of its 250th anniversary.
Today, HemisFair Park’s Tower of the Americas rises 750 feet to overlook the city and visitors to San Antonio discover 18th century Spanish landmarks beside shiny modern skyscrapers. San Antonio is only 150 miles from the Mexican border and has developed a signature Tex-Mex cuisine, but also has had Germanic influences dating back to the 1840’s, making the city a true ‘crossroads of cultures’.
The Alamo receives the most visitors as a historical site in Texas; this iconic institution of Texas history shares the story of the 1836 siege and battle, which while an initial loss for the freedom fighting Texans, became an inspiration and a rallying cry to turn the eventual tide in their favor. The Alamo is conveniently located to San Antonio’s other most known attraction, the fifteen mile long River Walk which follows the San Antonio River a level below the city streets. Flooding of the city in 1921 inspired the construction of a new dam and bypass channel; initial plans for a storm sewer were scraped in favor of developing the city waterfront. Today, visitors to the River Walk enjoy a vibrant scene of dining, nightlife, shopping, public art, and boat rides.
Several other attractions are located along the River Walk, including the other four Spanish missions that form the UNESCO site Missions National Historic Park. As it winds through the central city, River Walk encounters the La Villita downtown arts community which includes galleries, souvenir shops, jewelry, and pottery, and the sixteen block Pearl District, a former brewery turned trendy urban space.
Downtown is also home to the 1927 landmark Tower Life Building, at 404 feet and 31 floors, it was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and former world’s fair site at HemisFair Park. Museums in downtown San Antonio include the San Antonio Museum of Art, home to a worldwide collection of fine art pieces, and the 1954 McNay Museum of Modern Art, the first modern art focused museum in the state of Texas. The three blocks of Market Square host the country’s largest Mexican market since 1820 while the privately run Buckthorn Saloon and Museum houses the Texas Ranger Museum.
The central core of San Antonio is rich with attractions, such as the 33 acre non-profit Botanical Garden, established in the 1940’s, and the Japanese Tea Garden (also known as the Sunken Garden), opened in the early 1900’s in a former limestone quarry, which features a sixty foodt waterfall and many resident Koi. Combining natural history and art collections, the 1926 Witte Museum tells Texas’ story through photographs, artifacts, cave artwork, dinosaur bones, and locally crafted sculpture. The 22 block King William Historic District just south of downtown was once the mission’s irrigated farm land and was settled by Germans in the 1840’s. The city’s first historic district, King William today contains many fine examples of Greek Revival, Victorian, and Italianate homes, many from the late 1800’s.
A world away from the city’s history, many visitors come for the theme parks to be found in the San Antonio area, namely the largest branch of SeaWorld (and its associated waterpark, Aquatica) and big name thrill ride focused Six Flags Fiesta Texas. For more home grown amusements, check out the nation oldest children’s amusement park, the 1925 Kiddie Park, the privately funded purpose-built accessible to all Morgan’s Wonderland, or the 40+ waterslides at Splashtown.
Just a half hour’s drive can bring you to both Natural Bridge Caverns- discovered in 1960, they are Texas’ largest commercial caves and have an extensive ropes obstacle course setup on site, and the quaint Hill Country gateway town of New Braunfels with its 1800’s era Germanic buildings. Round out your day with a stop by turquoise blue Canyon Lake, where you can swim, fish, golf, canoe or kayak at this Guadalupe River reservoir. Another half hour’s journey out of town can allow a visit to 12,000 acre Government Canyon State Natural area, where you can hike beside 110 million year old dinosaur footprints.