by Heather Mundt – If I were to ask you to name a Texas town that is hip, vivacious, and family-friendly, would your automatic answer be: Austin? If so, you’d be right.
But I’d propose heading about 80 miles southwest of Austin for another answer: San Antonio.
Offering visitors a vibrant art scene, tasty culinary innovations, and numerous family-friendly attractions, it boasts amenities to rival its noteworthy neighbor.
Synonymous with the number-one visited tourist attraction in all of Texas, The Alamo, San Antonio is so much more than the State’s symbol of independence.
“I think what’s hip now is having authentic, enriching experiences, enjoying something that broadens your sense of the world and the people in it,” says Sara Gruber, senior brand manager for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Visitors definitely get a great vibe from San Antonio.”
And the rest of the world is taking note. According to the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF), the city’s cost of living is among the lowest of any U.S. cities, particularly among large metropolitan areas. (It’s the country’s seventh largest municipality.) Add in an annual average temperature of 69.1 degrees, it’s no wonder SAEDF projects San Antonio’s population to have increased by more than 16 percent between 2010 and 2020.
In other words, y’all better get there soon with your family before the rest of the world figures out what they’re missing. In the meantime, here are some San Antonio highlights to help you plan a trip to this historic hamlet.
The Alamo & the San Antonio Missions
Texas’ most famous landmark was founded in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, a Spanish-culture stronghold near the headwaters of the San Antonio River. Relocated in 1724 to its present-day location along the river’s east bank, the mission era ended toward the end of the 18th century, leaving the compound open for use as a military barracks and outpost (later called the pueblo of the Alamo Company, shortened to The Alamo).
And while the site is due its proper reverence as a symbol of Texas independence, which it won from Mexico later in 1836, after the ill-fated Battle of the Alamo, I’ll admit I was surprised by its relatively small size. The main area comprises only a portion of the original compound, including the “face” of The Alamo, the iconic church or shrine; the site’s oldest building, the Long Barrack Museum; and the Gift Shop and Museum, built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial museums.
But what the site lacks in grandeur is outmatched by substance, from the Wall of History depicting 300 years of Alamo history to a lock of hair from famous frontiersman and Alamo defender Davy Crockett. Bonus? Admission to The Alamo is free. For more information, visit the official site here.
Next time: I’m visiting all five of San Antonio’s Catholic missions along the San Antonio River, the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America. They’re so noteworthy, in fact, to be designated in 2015 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 23 sites in the U.S. and a first for Texas.
I’ve visited numerous river walkways around the world, but none more lively than San Antonio’s famed River Walk or “Paseo del Rio.” Situated along the San Antonio River just steps from The Alamo, this network of walkways set 20 feet below street level is the perfect blend of Tex-Mex culture, history, and nightlife.
Condensed into roughly 5 miles of shops, hotels, restaurants and museums, there’s no better way to experience the River Walk with kids than a boat tour with Rio San Antonio Cruises. A 35-minute narrated history on the city’s highlights, the tour takes you past numerous cultural gems, from the Arneson River Theater to the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas, built for the 1968 World’s Fair. And don’t forget Marriage Island, an islet used for wedding ceremonies that’s said to bring couples good luck.
After cruising, head to one of the endless array of eateries, including the obvious fare: Mexican. Our local friends suggested Rita’s on the River, offering the perfect riverside perch along with tasty margaritas, mouthwatering Tex-Mex food and live mariachis.
Next time: I’m eating dinner at the Chart House in the second tallest observation tower in the U.S. (behind Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas), the Tower of Americas.
San Antonio Zoo
There’s one thing I know for sure about traveling anywhere with kids: They love zoos. And San Antonio’s is no exception. Credited as being one of the first “cageless” zoos in the U.S., opening the Barless Bear Terraces and the Primate Paradise in 1929, it’s also the only one in the country offering a separate children’s zoo area, Kronkosky’s Tiny Tot Nature Spot, aimed at kids ages 5 and under.
It’s the perfect place for kids to, “Get wet, get dirty, explore, and go wild,” says Stacy McReynolds, San Antonio Zoo vice president of education.
“We focus on how that time in nature is perfect learning for kids that age,” she says. “Want your child to be good at math? Sand and water play is the way. Want them to work well with others as adults? Outdoor play with kids of many ages is the way.”
Whether that’s helping make treats for the monkeys, exploring the area’s “campground,” or experiencing a bug safari, McReynolds says, this unique play space has provided an opportunity for more than eight million families to enjoy connecting with nature since its 2004 opening. Visit the San Antonio Zoo site for more information.
Next time: I’m going on safari in Natural Bridges Wildlife Ranch, 400 acres of protected land housing more than 500 animals from around the world. Equal parts education and preservation, the site explains, I want to see for myself if it’s as amazing as I’ve heard from other families.
Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa
I’ll admit at first I was disappointed that lodging availability along the River Walk was sparse during our springtime visit, forcing me to seek lodging farther from downtown. But doing so landed us at the trip’s most unexpected treasure: the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa.
Situated about 18 miles west of downtown San Antonio on 300 sprawling acres of a former ranch, this Texas charmer was everything I look for in a family-friendly hotel: large, plentiful pools including a water slide and lazy river, Ramblin’ River; on-site restaurants and activities; and lots of open space to run, explore and, most important, catch caterpillars from an abundant supply.
But my boys’ hands-down favorite was heading each day to Edge Falls to ride the FlowRider, a wave simulator for learning body, knee, and stand-up boarding techniques. After three days, they were confident “flowboarders,” due in no small part to the patient staff.
“Your son paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever heard,” said one of the instructors to me of my firstborn. “He asked me, ‘Why is everyone here so nice?'”
A big Texas welcome, indeed.
For more information or to make reservations, visit the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Web site.
Next time: I’m doing more than whetting an appetite for water fun by visiting the legendary Schlitterbahn Waterpark New Braunfels in New Braunfels, Texas, about 32 miles northeast of San Antonio. With 70 acres of pools and attractions, the “thrill level” ranges from “low speed” to “scary” and everything in between.
The San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau also suggest these family-friendly attractions:
- DoSeum New children’s museum that opened in June 2015.
- SeaWorld San Antonio
- Six Flags Fiesta Texas
- San Antonio Botanical Garden
- Festivals: Fiesta, holiday river parade, Dia de los Muertos, Luminaria Arts Festival
Disclosure statement: Aside from receiving a media discount on lodging, this was a family vacation funded solely by the author and her husband.
Freelance writer and Outdoor Families Magazine contributing editor Heather Mundt lives in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two boys. She writes about traveling with kids on her site, Momfari.com, inspiring parents to get out and discover the world with their children.