I’m Captain Obvious here, but this town is an amazing place to raise a family and entertain out-of-town visitors. There’s rarely weather so terrible it prevents getting out and about, savory food and beverages abound, and you can sit your tired fanny down in a boat if you don’t feel like partaking in a city walking tour. Plus, it’s always festively decorated, and you can grasp the culture and vibrancy of the city both indoors and out.
After growing up in S.A. and hosting visitors with kids of all ages, I’ve got a large stock of downtown excursion ideas in my entertainment arsenal. Naturally, the most effective way to enjoy any excursions with kids is to plan ahead for parking, clump activities together, and definitely know where the bathrooms are located.
The list below highlights activities grouped together by proximity and includes where to park, what to visit, and where to eat:
1. Explore The Pearl and take a River Taxi
Parking: There are several spots to park at Pearl: covered lots under Highway 281, the Koehler Parking Garage, and flat lots near the Full Goods Building.
Activities: Ideally, visit on a Saturday or Sunday morning to hit up the Pearl Farmers Market, or catch Miss Anastasia’s Story Time each Friday at 10:30 A.M. at the Twig, but any other day will still give you a great backdrop for shopping, dining, and open space to run around. Fun photo ops include the Granary’s back wall featuring a giant pig, posing with the figures in front of La Gloria, Hotel Emma, playing near the yellow train engine by the Pearl Stable, and (of course) anywhere down by the river.
Conveniently located at the Pearl Amphitheater Station and the Springs Landing Station (across the river from La Gloria) are passenger stands for the Rio San Antonio Cruises River Taxi. Boats leaving from these stations won’t provide a river tour; they only provide taxi service. These stations are part of the Museum Reach; however, once on board, you may purchase tickets that will take you through the Downtown Reach as well and include 39 total stops between the two voyages. From the Pearl, this taxi ride passes under two bridges that have public art components and features the added excitement of passing through a lock and dam where they get to see the water (and the boat) rise and drop as the boat floats through the gates. Even though these boat rides aren’t official tours, the drivers are typically happy to comment on the surrounding area and public art and answer any questions you may have.
Bathrooms: You can access bathrooms in the Full Goods Building breezeway, and in the shopping area near the yellow train engine, as well as near the amphitheater.
2. Visit the Alamo, check out Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, take a river tour, grab a sweet treat, and take an open air bus tour
Parking: I’m a big fan of parking in the garages at the Shops at Rivercenter because they provide quick access to bathrooms before embarking on an outing and once again before hopping in the car for home. (I prefer to enter the garage off of East Crockett Street, rather than using the Commerce Street entrance.)
Activities: If you’re after a Rio San Antonio Cruises River Tour, go to river level and stay on the left side of the mall (closest to Highway 281) as you walk outside to access Clearwater Station. Boat tickets can be purchased with discounts for Bexar County residents (and don’t worry—you can fold up your stroller and take it on the boat).
To get to the Alamo, exit on the first floor of the newly-renovated walkway—the old Joske’s area. On your way to the Alamo, you’ll pass the Menger Hotel, which has are easily accessible bathrooms by its famous bar if you need to change a diaper and toss back a beer. The Menger courtyard is a nice oasis filled with rocking chairs should you need to take a walking break.
If it’s 9,000 degrees out and your kids are tired of the Alamo, you can walk into Alamo Plaza and buy a delicious raspa from a number of vendors and take a seat in the shade, or you can visit Häagen-Dazs next to the Menger.
Tickets for the San Antonio Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour bus ride are available for purchase on the big red buses parked at Alamo Plaza. Riding up top is rough on little ones with all the direct sunshine, so be ready to talk them into riding down below if you’re hopping on in the summertime.
If you’re truly not embarrassed to visit one of the eyesores across from Alamo Plaza (as much as I don’t think these businesses belong in their current locations, they’re fun to check out with kids), walk on over to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!. There are plenty of unique photo ops inside, and interactive brain games to boot. Be forewarned: some exhibits may be scary for youngsters, but the attraction is so jam-packed with oddities it’s fairly easy to steer them away from age-inappropriate displays.
Dining: In addition to Häagen-Dazs, there are several walkable restaurants for kids and adults. Restaurants at the Shops at Rivercenter include spots like Johnny Rockets, Which Wich, and Chipotle in addition to the food court on river level. If you feel like walking a little further from Alamo Plaza, Fuddruckers, Rainforest Cafe, Charlie Wants a Burger, Subway, and McDonald’s are within a block or two.
3. Visit The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum/The Texas Ranger Museum and dine at Rainforest Cafe or Schilo’s Delicatessen
Parking: Drive down Commerce Street and park in what I refer to as the “PARK” garage (the entrance is on the left just past restaurants Casa Rio and Schilo’s Delicatessen). This garage is a central location to walking toward La Villita, Magik Theatre, Briscoe Western Art Museum, and Hemisfair, or you can walk the other direction down Presa Street toward Buckhorn Saloon and Museum and Rainforest Cafe.
Activities: If a trip to the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum and Texas Ranger Museum is your thing, keep going on Presa Street, past Crockett Street, until you get to Houston Street. The Buckhorn is a total trip with over 520 species of animals on display and kooky-fun exhibits. Visiting the Hall of Horns when it was located at Lone Star Brewery was a right of passage as a kid growing up in San Antonio, and it’s definitely still a total trip in its new location. Purchasing tickets to tour the museum will get you a dining discount in the saloon where they also have a kids menu.
Dining: Hands down, my favorite spot to eat with the kids is Schilo’s Delicatessen. In one location or another, it has been in operation since 1917. We often eat here if we park in the PARK garage. The homemade root beer, split pea soup, and hot mustard cannot be beat. My kids love their PB&J and chips, hot dogs, and grilled cheese.
To get to Rainforest Cafe, you will need to walk down Presa Street. You will cross a bridge with access to an elevator on your right near the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Take it down to river level to walk to Rainforest Cafe. (My kids always enjoyed a quick trip inside the Hyatt Regency to take a ride in their glass elevators and see the water inside the hotel.)
4. Walk through La Villita, visit The Briscoe Western Art Museum, and play on the playground and splash pad at Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair
Parking: Park in the same “PARK” garage off Commerce Street as listed above, but walk in the opposite direction down Presa Street (and just try not to let Zinc Bistro and Wine Bar tempt you in for an appetizer and cocktail). Alternatively, if you’d prefer to park a little closer to Hemisfair, Magik Theatre, and La Villita, there is a paid lot at St. John’s Lutheran Church located off East Nueva Street behind the Fairmount Hotel.
Activities and Dining: Turning left on Market Street to walk east toward the convention center, you’ll see the Briscoe Western Art Museum directly across the street. It’s filled with amazing art and artifacts to give your visitors another Texas experience and has a top notch gift shop.
Continue walking on Market Street, turning right on South Alamo Street. Duck into La Villita for some shopping or just to let the kids run around. There are also bathrooms here. A fun place to take a snack break is on the steps across from the Arneson River Theater. As long as a show is not going on, it’s free and open to sit and wave at passing river cruises. My kids love walking in to the Scent Chips store to sniff out the fragrances and see the chips being made. La Villita Cafe is a delicious spot for breakfast and lunch with many healthy, fresh options and serves a great selection of local craft beers.
To get to Hemisfair (which, when not under construction, gives unfettered access to the playground, Magik Theatre, the Mexican Cultural Institute, Tower of the Americas, and UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures), cross the street at Nueva Street in front of the Fairmount Hotel (there is a bathroom located inside, downstairs from the lobby entrance). This entire area is currently being redeveloped into “an urban district with multiple parks, residences, and local businesses.” My kids love the beautifully unique Yanaguana playground, featuring ping pong tables, a giant chess board, and wonderfully clean bathrooms, as well as the splash pad and sand pit. There are always fabulous local events scheduled here for all ages.
5. Explore Brackenridge Park, visit the Witte Museum, ride the Zoo Train and visit the Zoo, check out Kiddie Park, play at The DoSeum, and walk through the Japanese Tea Garden
Parking and Activities: The covered garage across from the Witte Museum off Avenue B is ideal. From the garage, you can walk around the backside of the Witte to the river and watch the ducks. Brackenridge Park’s paved paths are easily accessible, and the Joske Pavilion and playground just behind it are close by. There are bathrooms at the playground. This is a terrific shady spot to get close to water and also see the backside of the San Antonio Zoo. If you walk along the pavers behind the zoo, it will lead you toward the Koehler Pavilion and the zoo train depot (and again, more bathrooms). We love to explore this part of the park and (carefully) walk across the stones where cars can drive over the water.
If you feel like exploring the park before visiting the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte Museum, Kiddie Park, the Japanese Tea Garden, or the DoSeum, hop on the zoo train to ride to your destination. When I’ve got hot children descending into madness from humidity, it is well worth the nominal fee to ride the train a short distance back to the parking garage or another destination (rather than walking).
This entire corridor is one of the best spots to take children. If one spot seems too crowded, you can try another. And, if it’s an exceptionally great day, you may be able to hit two to three places.
A nearby hidden gem of a fun spot is the Old Time Wooden Nickel Company and Museum. Located east of Broadway near Fort Sam Houston off Old Austin Road, this spot is “one of the oldest manufacturers of custom printed wooden nickels in the United States.” The museum has over one million wooden nickels and is home to the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel. It’s open Monday–Friday, 10 A.M.–4 P.M., and by appointment on weekends.
Dining: There are several options close by. We love the Taco Cabana across from the DoSeum, Cheesy Jane’s (click here to get a coupon for a free kid’s meal with purchase of an adult meal), and Jim’s Restaurant (kids eat free Sunday and Monday, 5–9 P.M., with purchase of adult entree), and (if you’re willing to drive a tad farther) Earl Abel’s on Austin Highway (kids eat free Monday through Thursday, 5–8 P.M., with the purchase of an adult entree).
Of course, these five itineraries are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve got some personal “go-to” activities and dining options, please share them in the comments.
Before you go, CLICK HERE FOR DISCOUNT COUPONS to many great San Antonio attractions mentioned above like the Briscoe Western Art Museum, the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum and Texas Ranger Museum, the DoSeum, San Antonio Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour, UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, the Witte Museum, and more.
Happy hosting and exploring!