As we set out to build “Live Like a Local,” our evergreen city guide with the depth you love from the San Antonio Report, we knew we wanted to make a list of our favorite “puro San Antonio” experiences.
As any local knows, this is a city like no other — a center of culture and commerce, arts and tourism. Military City USA. The Alamo City! Whatever you call it, San Anto is a place for fun, family and community. To capture that spirit, we asked our staffers to tell us their favorite things you can only do here.
Here are 15 places and experiences that capture the essence of San Antonio. How many have you tried?
Hang out at Yanaguana Garden
In 1968, HemisFair Park hosted a World’s Fair, landing San Antonio an enduring spot on tourist itineraries. Now known as Hemisfair, the park features apartments, a children’s theater, restaurants and Yanaguana Garden, named for what natives called the San Antonio River before the arrival of Franciscan missionaries. The garden is popular among families, who bring kids of all ages to climb the sculptural jungle gym, pet the big glass-tiled panther made by popular local artist Oscar Alvarado, pop pingpong balls on freely accessible tables and generally exhaust themselves running around arbor walks and corkboard-floored fountains.
Savor flavor at Carnitas Lonja
It doesn’t get much more puro than a restaurant that features a single dish: carnitas. Chef Alejandro Paredes opened Carnitas Lonja in 2017 to feature the traditional dish he knew from his native Michoacan: chopped pork stewed in fat. Eschewing fancy terminology such as “confit” (though the term applies), the simple menu offers a choice of a half-pound or a pound, served with pico de gallo, salsa and pickled onions. The dish has won Paredes accolades from around the nation, and the James Beard Award-winning chef has been featured on PBS and in the New York Times. Lonja regulars will note that on weekends, the back patio shares space with Fish Lonja, offering a rotating seafood-focused menu of Paredes’ traditional Mexican favorites.
Stroll across the Robert L.B. Tobin Land Bridge
Named for the affable former mayor, Phil Hardberger Park opened in 2010 as a natural area split by busy Wurzbach Parkway. A conservationist effort resulted in completion of the 150-foot-wide, landscaped Robert L. B. Tobin Land Bridge, connecting the east and west sides of the park and named for a prominent local philanthropist. The wheelchair-accessible bridge spans the parkway below to allow people — and wildlife! — to pass freely and safely over the road, for uninterrupted views of the 330-acre park’s natural surroundings. Artistic sculptural blinds allow visitors to discreetly gaze at wildlife, and night-vision cameras allow researchers to track the land bridge’s effectiveness in conveying animals across.
Play a round at Cool Crest
Located in the quaint Deco District, the design of Cool Crest Miniature Golf recalls the art deco era and takes advantage of the putt-putt course’s location on a gently sloping hillside just northwest of downtown San Antonio. Two meticulously maintained 18-hole courses offer fun and challenge, with ample shade provided by flourishing greenery. The coronavirus pandemic inspired Cool Crest’s owners to open the Metzger Biergarten, an entertainment-driven outdoor patio that hosts live music, food trucks, a monthly craft market and Singo, a musical take on traditional bingo, with putt-putt golf gift cards offered as prizes.
Explore local art at First Fridays
Each first Friday of the month, hundreds of locals gather at the Blue Star Arts Complex for the First Friday art walk. Artists and artisans open their studio and gallery doors to the public for crowds to stream through and possibly take home a handcrafted artwork that appeals to their liking and their pocketbook. The ever-changing array of accessible visual arts is complemented by restaurants, a brewpub, a small grocer and live music.
Go global at San Fernando Cathedral
Musical Bridges Around the World is a local nonprofit organization that aims to unite global cultures through art. Its performance season runs for six months in fall and spring, with free Sunday concerts inside historic San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio’s downtown anchor for nearly 300 years. Concerts feature music of countries and cultures around the world, from Argentina to Ukraine, and touch on styles from jazz to classical piano.
March with thousands for MLK Day
San Antonio hosts what is often proclaimed the largest MLK Day march in the country, and that was true long before it became an official federal holiday. Hundreds of thousands join in, from local residents to marchers from across the country, who walk the Eastside route from MLK Park to Pittman-Sullivan Park, where Negro League professional baseball teams once played. The march serves as the culmination of the citywide Dreamweek celebration — actually several weeks — of San Antonio’s Black communities. After two years of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city should be ready for a strong return to the march in 2023.
Cool down at Las Nieves
There’s no way around it, San Antonio summers get hot. Thankfully, locals get creative in providing relief, and the line runs around the block most summer evenings at the three locations of Las Nieves Fruit Cups & More. The store touts its Mangonada specialty, with the mellowness of mango fruit and the savory spice of chamoy, but the list of Italian ice tropical fruit flavors is long: cantaloupe, piña colada, coconut, pineapple, “limon loco” and more. Frito pies are popular here, and Las Nieves has a variety featuring Flamin’ Hot Cheetos topped with melty cheese and jalapeños. Corn in a Cup is another local specialty, a take on the traditional elotes cob corn street snack. To keep the chill going and keep it all in the family, have a fruit paleta at El Paraiso Ice Cream, run by the same Flores family.
Browse for foodie treats at the Pearl
Ever try a gelato made from grass-fed water buffalo milk? If such tasty delicacies spark your interest, look no further than the Pearl Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Makers Market on Sundays. Long known for its finely curated mix of boutiques and restaurants, the Pearl hosts weekend markets that focus on local vendors. Orobianco Italian Creamery’s small-batch gelato joins a lively list of local producers including popular Holdman Honey, Tio Pelon salsas, Three Six General butchery from nearby San Marcos and produce from several farms. The newish Makers Market introduces food-related artisans to the mix, including Barclay Pottery and Meechi Ceramics.
Experience Day of the Dead
With echoes of its indigenous, Spanish and Mexican heritages, San Antonio comes alive for Day of the Dead. Just after Halloween, catrina masks and makeup appear with papel picado decorations and special pan dulces, all to honor ancestors who have passed on to the next world. Many families maintain quiet ceremonies at home and in neighborhood cemeteries, but the whole city turns out for two big festivals, the popular Muertos Fest at Hemisfair, and the newer Day of the Dead Festival at La Villita. Muertos Fest features music, food and a parade the whole family can join, while the Day of the Dead Festival aims to be the biggest Día de los Muertos — as the holiday is called in México — celebration in the U.S., with live coverage on national television of its flagship river parade.
Catch a live set at Floore’s Country Store
Located just outside Loop 1604 in Helotes, the honky tonk known locally as Floore’s has hosted such “local” legends as Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen, as well as a host of up-and-coming country pickers, grinners, pluckers and crooners. Be prepared to dance with the crowds in the spacious interior — or just people watch the lively oldsters and smiling youngsters gliding in pairs across the floor — or enjoy shows on the outdoor stage.
Attend Mass at the missions
San Antonio’s missions might be 300-year-old tourist destinations and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, but they also host weekly masses for local congregations, with many attendees continuing a generations-old tradition. Visitors are welcome, and the ancient grounds are ideal for strolling after Sunday services, particularly in summer when the Pride of Barbados, Esperanza, and other colorful local flowers are in bloom. Get there early for the annual “double solar illumination” at Mission Concepción, though, as the small church fills up quickly for this treasured annual tradition.
Behold the bats at Bracken Cave
The swirling cloud of bats that emerges from Bracken Cave, the world’s largest known bat colony providing a summer home to an estimated 15 million bats, is so dense it shows up on weather radar. The spectacular display can be seen from May through September by reservation only at a preserve just north of San Antonio. In the early evening, visitors can witness the whirlwind of Mexican free-tailed bats headed out on their nightly search for food, gobbling up millions of mosquitoes that might otherwise harass area residents.
Cowboy up at the stock show and rodeo
The vaquero tradition runs deep in San Antonio, merged in this multicultural city with southwestern cowboys, now joined by cowgirls and vaqueras. Each February for two-plus weeks, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo takes over the AT&T Center for a good old-fashioned rope-’em-dogies, bull-riding rodeo, with multiple nights of country music stars. Family events include Mutton Bustin’ for kids, who must remain on their shaved sheep for 6 seconds to win, and the Western Heritage Parade and Cattle Drive, where onlookers can gape as cowboys drive hundreds of longhorn steer right through downtown.
Paddle the San Antonio River
San Antonio prides itself on its namesake river, which can be enjoyed on foot along the River Walk or riding Go Rio river shuttles. But intrepid adventure seekers can take matters into their own hands and rent a kayak for self-guided tours along the 13-mile stretches of the River Walk’s north and south stretches, known colloquially as the Museum Reach and the Mission Reach. At points you might forget you’re in the seventh largest city in the country, surrounded by native plants and tangles of live oak forest. The Mission Reach gets a star turn during the city’s annual Fiesta celebrations with the Fiesta Flotilla event. Members of the public can sign up to join the floating parade, festooned in festive Fiesta gear, and show their oar-handling skills on a competitive watercourse.