Get to Know Downtown San Antonio On This Self-Guided Walking Tour

Get a fantastic overview of the history, culture, and food of San Antonio with this 1.7-mile, self-guided free walking tour of Downtown San Antonio. Starting at The Alamo, it includes sites from the area’s earliest days under Spanish rule to a modern-day symbol of friendship between Mexico and the city of San Antonio.

One of my favorite ways to get acquainted with a new city is to take a walking tour. And with year-round highs between 60-90 deg F and a pedestrian-friendly downtown, San Antonio is the perfect destination for this type of introduction. 

This self-guided walking tour of Downtown San Antonio features ten stops that highlight the Alamo City, from the last remaining structure built to protect the San Antonio missions to a 65-foot contemporary sculpture. The walking tour begins at The Alamo, where paid parking spots are typically widely available.

Hotels.com asked me to share details of my self-guided walking tour of San Antonio.

 Sage Advice: Find the perfect accommodation in Downtown San Antonio with one of these hotels in the Alamo City.

Have You Explored Downtown San Antonio?

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This self-guided walking tour of Downtown San Antonio is a 1.7-mile clockwise loop that will take about 90 minutes to complete if you spend five minutes at each stop. But I definitely recommend lingering at the Downtown San Antonio attractions that interest you most.

Sage Advice:  See the sights faster by renting a bicycle or scooter in San Antonio.

1. The Alamo

Visitors walk toward the entrance of the Alamo

With more than 1.5 million visitors a year, The Alamo is one of the most popular sights in the Lone Star State. Officially named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the beautiful limestone-walled compound is the most famous of San Antonio’s five Spanish missions due to the role it played in Texas’s independence from Mexico. 

Significantly outnumbered, a group of about 100 Texans barricaded themselves in the Alamo during the conflict and battled to the death against a Mexican army of thousands. After the tragic loss, General Sam Houston rallied the remaining Texas troops with the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” Just a few weeks after the devastating loss at the Alamo, Texas gained its independence from Mexico. 

Watch a brief film and tour the shady grounds to learn more about this historic site and the men who gave their lives seeking independence from Mexico. 

Sage Advice: One of my favorite ways to see all five San Antonio Missions is to catch a ride to Mission Espada, the southernmost mission in San Antonio, and then bike the San Antonio MIssion Trail.

Menger Hotel

The front of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio

When you’re done exploring The Alamo, head south along N. Alamo Street. Your eyes will surely be drawn to the impressive Menger Hotel where horse-drawn carriages are often queued up in front of the sprawling limestone building with wrought iron balconies and striped awnings. Step inside the 19th-century hotel where Renaissance-inspired columns rise from gleaming marble floors and the soaring three-story Victorian Lobby will make your jaw drop. 

Sage Advice: Use this guide to take a self-guided tour of the Menger Hotel. 

Let me tell you a bit about the German immigrant couple who established the Menger Hotel. He was a successful bachelor known as the “Beer King” because he established the first brewery in Texas and grew it into the state’s largest. She was a widow running a boarding house near his brewery. As newlyweds, they turned the small boarding house into a magnificent, two-story, fifty-room hotel. (Today the hotel boasts 316 guest rooms.)

Once known as the finest hotel west of the Mississippi, the Menger Hotel has welcomed many famous guests over its 160-year history. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at the Menger during hunting excursions and when organizing the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum worked in a studio there, and Irish poet Oscar Wilde stayed at the Menger Hotel while touring the United States. 

When you’re done exploring the hotel’s interior, step into the Tropical Garden, a lush, rectangular oasis just past the main lobby. More than a century ago, bison and other wild game were hung on the trees in the garden until the kitchen was ready to carve them into elegant dishes for guests. And the small pool in the garden was once home to live alligators that were allegedly given to hotel founders William and Mary Menger by a guest who considered them partial payment for an outstanding hotel bill. Today the quiet courtyard is filled with palm and banana trees, and the only wildlife you’ll likely see are birds.

Fun Fact: On the National Register of Historic Places, the Menger Hotel is apparently one of the most haunted hotels in America. More than 40 spirits allegedly hang out at the hotel, including the ghost of Sallie White, a young maid who died at the hotel, and Captain Richard King, a Texas rancher who also passed away there.

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3. Torch of Friendship

As you continue south along N. Alamo Street, you’ll pass the Shops at Rivercenter just south of the Menger Hotel. And as you approach the intersection with E. Commerce Street, you’ll see the Torch of Friendship soaring 65 feet above the street. The ribbon-like crimson sculpture created by Mexican artist Sebastian is a gift to the city of San Antonio from Mexico.

Sage Advice: Much of this self-guided walking tour of Downtown San Antonio encircles the San Antonio River Walk. Watch for entry points and detour down a flight of stairs at any time along your journey to grab a bite at one of the waterfront restaurants or simply watch the colorful, flat-bottomed boats glide by.

4. La Villita Historic Arts Village

A red sign welcoming visitors to La Villita in San Antonio

Shortly after you pass the Hilton Palacio del Rio on your right, take a right on Villita Street. Established in the early 1800s, La Villita was one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods. Today, the 300-year-old architecture in this historic district on the south bank of the San Antonio River is accented by art galleries and quaint restaurants. Browse the paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and other works from local and regional artists, or rest your feet while noshing on an appetizer or sipping a sexy coffee.

5. Tower Life Building (AKA Smith-Young Tower)

Continuing west along Villita Street, you’ll see the Tower Life Building at its intersection with S. St. Mary’s St. It’s impossible to miss the 30-story, octagonal brick building with a green terracotta roof and tall flag pole. While the skyscraper is considered art deco — after all, it does have gargoyle downspouts — I’d call it a low-key version, as its overall design is much more subdued than iconic art deco buildings like the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Fun Fact: Originally known as the Smith-Young Tower, the Tower Life Building was the tallest building in San Antonio until 1968 when the Tower of the Americas shot past it for first place.

6. Bexar County Courthouse

Continuing west along Villita Street, you’ll run right into the Bexar County Courthouse. Constructed of red sandstone, with one of its towers capped by a pyramid-shaped, green tile roof, the largest and oldest continuously operated courthouse in Texas consumes an entire city block. This building was designed by local architect J. Riley Gordon, who masterminded more than 70 courthouses and public buildings across the country, including the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.

7. San Fernando Cathedral (AKA Church of Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe)

About a block northeast of the Bexar County Courthouse stands one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States. This beautiful Romanesque Revival church with twin cross-topped bell towers has marked the city’s epicenter for nearly 300 years.  

Named for a 13th-century Spanish king who created a peaceful coexistence between Christians, Muslims, and Jews across the Spanish empire, the San Fernando Cathedral was founded by 15 families who arrived in San Antonio from the Canary Islands in the mid 1700s.

Visitors are welcome to enter the cathedral between 6:00 am to 6:00 pm daily. Don’t miss a chance to pay your respects to the heroes of the Alamo buried in a tomb inside the church. Also inside the church is a statue of Pope John Paul II in honor of the now canonized Catholic leader’s visit in 1987. Another notable sight is the carved baptismal font. Believed to be a gift from King Charles III of Spain, more than 900 new Catholics are christened in this carved basin each year.

Sage Advice: If you’d like to attend Mass at San Fernando Cathedral, services are held regularly throughout the week in both English and Spanish.

A 24-minute light show called “San Antonio: The Saga” is projected on the church’s exterior three times an evening, four days a week. Catch the free show in the main plaza and learn more about the history and culture of San Antonio as colorful lights dance across the cathedral’s facade.

8. San Antonio City Hall

When you’re ready to continue the walking tour, slip through the narrow alley on the south side of the cathedral and cross Military Plaza to reach City Hall. The rectangular Italianate Renaissance Revival-style building at the center of Military Plaza is anchored by a turret at each corner.

9. Spanish Governor’s Palace

Conquistador statue outside the Spanish Governors Palace in San Antonio

The next stop is the National Historic Landmark just west of City Hall. This cream-colored, single-story stucco building is known as the Spanish Governor’s Palace. It dates back to the mid-1700s and is the last structure of the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, a fortress of sorts built to protect the missions of San Antonio. Like most Spanish-style buildings of the time, it’s C-shaped with a tiled patio and flower-filled courtyard built into the square space out back.

Sage Advice: When you visit the Governor’s Palace, look for the keystone carved above the front entrance. The double-headed eagle topped with a crown is the symbol of King Ferdinand VI of Spain. 

10. Buckhorn Saloon

The head of a longhorn steer affixed to the corner of the Buckhorn Saloon in San Antonio

To reach the last stop on this Downtown San Antonio walking tour, head north to W. Commerce Street and walk east four blocks to the San Antonio River. Once you’ve crossed the river, take the stairs down to the San Antonio River Walk and follow it east along the north bank to the Hyatt Regency San Antonio Hotel. At N. Presa St. hike up the stairs to the street level and travel north for one block.

The Buckhorn Saloon is part bar, part museum, and full of history. The walls of the main bar and restaurant are filled with animal mounts from around the world. With his seemingly at-odds interests in protecting wildlife and killing exotic animals (like rhinos and elephants), I wasn’t surprised to learn that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed a drink or two here when he was recruiting his Rough Riders. And it’s rumored that Pancho Villa plotted the Mexican Revolution in the saloon.

To see more taxidermied exotic animals, purchase a ticket to the Buckhorn Museum. The red building with a Longhorn cow head protruding above the intersection of N. Presa and E. Houston Streets is also home to the Texas Ranger Museum. Inside you can view antique guns, historic photographs, and other artifacts that tell the story of the Texas Rangers and their role in shaping the Lone Star State.

To return to the Alamo, the starting point of this Downtown San Antonio walking tour, follow E. Houston Street two blocks east to N. Alamo Street and turn right.

Have You Visited San Antonio?

What did you like most about your time in the Alamo City? What were your favorite Downtown San Antonio attractions? Are there other stops you’d recommend along this route? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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Texas Longhorn at Sunset

  

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30 thoughts on “Get to Know Downtown San Antonio On This Self-Guided Walking Tour”

  1. Danik the Explorer

    I have to admit I dont know much about San Antonio, just a city in Texas for me. However I know about the Alamo so I would hit that up when I eventually visit Texas (and this would be a great education lesson for my children as well, I want them to know about American history as well as European history). I love the looks of the cathedral, so European and the light show on it looks amazing. Would love to check out this city now and walk freely. Mr Corona needs to go now so I can get back stateside.

    1. Like most US cities, each town in Texas is truly unique. That said, San Antonio may be one of my favorite places in the Lone Star State!

  2. I LOVE San Antonio! My brother used to live there, and we spent three Christmases in a row on the Riverwalk, which is just so magical! I think the only thing I haven’t done on this list is the Buckhorn Saloon. I bet my dad would have loved that Texas Ranger Museum! Maybe my family will make it back there someday and I can recommend that.

  3. Did you use any app for this self-guided tour, or created it completely by yourself?
    I feel like there should be more apps helping us navigate in cities, but then again, my phone never has enough space to download these. And then, if they’d only work offline 🙂
    What I typically do is I just mark locations I’m interested in on Google map for offline use, and then try to connect the dots by walking the best I can

    1. I made this walking tour myself. It may sound nerdy, but I like to design walking tours or mural tours before I visit a city. It helps me learn about the history of a place and more before I go so I don’t miss anything. Then, I fill in the gaps when I get there!

  4. I have been to San Antonio at least twice and sadly I dont remember either trip. The last time was back in 2003 when I was driving cross country back home from San Diego to New Orleans and we stopped off in San Anton to check out the Alamo.
    So I really need to get back. I am sure Darcee would love the Alamo but she would absolutely love hanging out at the Menger Hotel. She loves Victorian Decorations so that lobby sounds cool plus I am becoming more and more intrigued with Teddy Roosevelt. So that history of his rough riders there is intersting to me too!
    As for the Mass at San Fernando Cathedral, we love churches and it looks beautiful from the outside. Is it nice inside though? I find St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans is gorgeous outside but kind of boring inside. But the light show must be fun too.

    1. I thought the San Fernando Cathedral was pretty inside. It’s definitely one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States (and it shows), but to me, that’s part of its charm. After all, no one wants to explore the brand new churches of Europe. They want to see the centuries-old ones!

    1. I absolutely fell in love with San Antonio. And, there were a lot of Air Force graduates (and their families) when we visited!

  5. Have never been to Texas. San Antonio seems to be a lovely town. I consider walking to be the best way of exploring a new town. From your San Antonio guide, I particularly liked the Alamo and the San Fernando Cathedral.

  6. Although I dislike the reason why there are missions in the Americas, I still like to visit them. Most of the time, there are crazy and interesting stories behind those walls. However, my favorite building is Bockhorn Saloon – so beautiful and I bet the museum is interesting, too.
    I actually love self-guided tours. Although I might miss out on some historic detail, I prefer to visit at my own pace. Often, I only read later about what I’ve seen so that there is a lot of Ahaaa, so that was this and that 😀 – I know it’s not the smartest way of doing it 😉

  7. Such a great guide to San Antonio, very detailed and helpful in the trip planning. The town charmed me, and I would like to come back to San Antonio. It has beautiful architecture, an interesting story, and great cuisine. The Alamo, with its reach history, is amazing.

  8. This sounds like a wonderful place to visit with lots of history to discover. I love walking tours of cities and when they are self-guided you can please yourself how long you stay in each location.

  9. This is a fabulous walking tour. Take it from me, I am a native Texan and love visiting San Antonio. You have covered the highlights of the city for sure 🙂

  10. I love to do guided or self-guided walking tours when exploring a new city. I have never been to San Antonio so it would be a great way to learn about the city. Thanks for the useful information and great tips!

    1. The tableside guac at Boudro’s along the San Antonio River Walk is the most delicious guac on the planet! They actually publish their recipe — the secret ingredient is to use an orange for part of the citrus — and we’ve gotten to close making it at home. But that will be the absolute first place I visit first when I go back! 🙂

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