While the Alamo and the River Walk are the reasons most people visit San Antonio, the downtown area has many additional venues of interest, importance and entertainment.
The San Antonio story begins with the Spanish explorers who were the first Europeans to visit the area, naming it in 1691 in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua because they reached it on June 13, his feast day. In May of 1718, Franciscan priests and a military captain founded Mission San Antonio de Valero (later called the Alamo) to serve as a midpoint between the missions in northern Mexico and those in east Texas. At the same time, a presidio was established to protect the mission.
Today, you can visit Alamo Plaza to tour the Alamo (one of the city’s five Spanish colonial missions, collectively designated the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas) and visit the Spanish Governors’ Palace, a National Historic Landmark that once provided housing for the captain of the presidio and headquarters for the soldiers stationed here.
In 1731, 15 families from the Canary Islands in Spain arrived in San Antonio to establish a civilian population in the town. San Fernando Cathedral in Main Plaza served these families and has served their descendants ever since. Just inside the doors, you’ll find a crypt containing ashes of the defenders of the Alamo from the 1836 battle.
Don’t miss the 24-minute show by French artist Xavier de Richemont, “San Antonio The Saga,” in which lights projected onto the cathedral’s exterior tell the story of San Antonio from its beginning to today. Crowds gather in Main Plaza for this free, one-of-a-kind experience at 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Main Plaza is also a great place to relax with a cool drink and fresh cuisine from food trucks at the scene.
Included in our many notable downtown buildings is the Bexar County Courthouse, designed in the Romanesque style by architect J. Reily Gordon in 1891 and built of native Texas granite and red sandstone. In the Briscoe Western Art Museum, which occupies the Carnegie library building of 1929, you can experience the art, history and culture of the American West. Architect John Eberson designed the Majestic Theatre, built in 1929, with Spanish and Moorish influences for the atmospheric theatre’s detailed interior, which you can enjoy during a concert or Broadway-series play. A few blocks away on E. Travis St., the restored St. Anthony Hotel, built in 1909, offers the glamour, glory and unmatched hospitality that made it famous over 100 years ago. Stroll through the magnificent lobby on your way to restaurant Rebelle.
A few blocks north is the Southwest School of Art, located in a former Ursuline Academy and Convent established in 1851. Across the street is the “enchilada red” San Antonio Central Public Library, a 240,000 sq. ft. building of Mexican Modernist design by Ricardo Legorreta. A glass sculpture by internationally known glass artist Dale Chihuly towers 20 feet over the library’s atrium.
Public art takes several forms in downtown San Antonio, ranging from subtle displays of light and sound under River Walk bridges to the iconic Torch of Friendship sculpture presented to the city as a gift from the Mexican government. Lighting the Bank of America Plaza is “Kinetic Skyline,” an intricate LED lighting display featuring 10 computerized color-changing programs. Click here for a public artworks map.
Along the shade-covered River Walk just below street level, you’ll find a wide selection of shops, cafes, restaurants and cocktail bars. Choose the perfect spot for people watching while you sip a frozen margarita.
Looking for a market to pick up a few groceries? San Antonio-based H-E-B Grocery Company has a downtown location—the H-E-B South Flores Market. This 12,000 square foot store offers fresh food, quality items and meal ready offerings.
You can easily travel through downtown on foot or hop on a VIA streetcar. You can step into a river taxi or rent a B-Cycle bike. Hike and bike maps, as well as other guides, are available here.
Key Area Highlights
Market Square—Three historic blocks of shops and restaurants known as El Mercado are located on a plaza gifted by the King of Spain to the Canary Islanders in the 1730s. Venerable restaurants La Margarita and Mi Tierra and newcomer Viva Villa Taquería are must-visit locations for specialties such as sizzling fajitas and glorious Mexican pastries. You’ll find a good selection of Mexican pottery, clothing and jewelry in the El Mercado stores. Lively festivals are frequently underway with local musicians and performers.
Centro de Artes
—Also located in Market Square, Centro de Artes, or the Educational & Cultural Arts Center (ECAC) at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, offers visitors an understanding and appreciation of Latino arts and culture and their influences on the U.S.
Zona Cultural—This specially designated downtown district’s mission is to support and develop historic, cultural, commercial and entertainment experiences that are authentic to San Antonio. The district consists of 44 contiguous blocks on the west end of downtown, including Market Square and Main Plaza, among others.
Hemisfair—The home of the Tower of the Americas and the Institute of Texan Cultures was developed for the World’s Fair in 1968. Today, 37 acres are being redeveloped into an urban district with multiple parks, residences and local businesses. The first park, Yanaguana Garden, offers a 4.1-acre playground environment, along with public art, picnic tables and innovative areas for climbing, swinging and playing in the sand. Adjacent to the park is the Henry B. González Convention Center.
La Villita Historic Arts Village—This settlement was one of the city’s earliest neighborhoods, dating back 300 years, when primitive huts served as housing for soldiers stationed there to protect the Alamo. In the 1800s, European immigrants built brick, stone and adobe structures for their homes and businesses. Today, the collection of shops and galleries offers distinct handcrafted items by artists from San Antonio and surrounding areas. Notable restaurants Fig Tree and Little Rhein Steak House are also located here.
The Shops at Rivercenter—Within sight of the Alamo, this mall features a 1,000-room Marriott hotel, six restaurants and more than 100 retailers, including Macy’s, IMAX, AMC Theatres and Dave & Busters. Let the kids spend some time in the play area on the second level, and then head down to the River Walk after a day of shopping. Don’t miss Battle for Texas: The Experience, an entertainment facility with multimedia reenactments of the Battle of the Alamo.
The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is a world-class venue for live performances ranging from theatre to pop artists. Incorporating the original facade of the historic San Antonio Municipal Auditorium, this state-of-the-art center includes a performance hall, studio theater and outdoor performance plaza connected to the River Walk.
The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, affiliated with the Majestic Theatre, is an intimate space for concerts, stage productions, dance troupes, stand-up comedy and other performing arts events.
Dating to 1926, the Aztec Theatre is a multipurpose venue considered by many “a Mesoamerican architectural work of art,” with dramatic columns, reliefs and artifacts. The theatre now has a tiered platform structure and state-of-the-art sound system for concerts and special events.
Casual and Fine Dining
Downtown San Antonio provides many dining options, including O’liva in Plaza de Armas, offering healthy, organic made-from-scratch salads and sandwiches. Bella On the River, a favorite of many locals, features Mediterranean dishes in a cozy atmosphere sometimes compared to a small Spanish bistro. Zocca Cuisine d’Italia at the Westin Riverwalk offers indoor or River Walk dining with fresh and flavorful Northern Italian specialties. For a romantic evening, visit the four-star Las Canarias at Omni La Mansión del Rio on the River Walk. To experience a European-style wine bar with a Texas accent, go to Zinc Bistro & Bar, where you can choose from more than 4,000 bottles of wine from across the globe.
Juniper Tar on W. Houston features a specialty cocktail menu with drinks such as the Profumo Affair and the Pamplona. Also on Houston St. are Bohanan’s with live jazz and The Last Word, which offers seasonal, handcrafted cocktails. The Esquire Tavern on E. Commerce opened in 1933 in celebration of the end of Prohibition and is a favorite of locals for drinks, burgers, soups, salads and more. Drop by the SoHo Wine & Martini Bar on W. Crockett for a Carrot Cake Martini and live jazz on Friday nights. Club Sirius on Losoya St. is the home of the Chamoy Margarita and specializes in over 100 kinds of shots. At Durty Nelly’s Irish Pub, peanuts, suds and sing-a-longs keep everyone smiling.
Offbeat, unique or quirky finds:
Haunt is a new cocktail bar in The St. Anthony offering classic cocktails inspired by the haunting legends of the hotel, and the bar at the historic (and also haunted) Menger Hotel is where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders
Since 1917, Paris Hatters has offered boots and custom-fitted cowboy hats.
The whole family will enjoy the eclectic collection at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum.
Enjoy the offbeat Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and the fascinating Louis Tussaud’s Plaza Waxworks.
Step aboard a Rio San Antonio Cruise for a narrative of the rich history of the San Antonio River Walk.