Smoke Shack BBQ in San Antonio.

Best Things to Do in San Antonio

BY Fifty Grande Editors | September 5, 2020

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” San Antonio? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in San Antonio?”

San Antonio is a city where an artist created a 35-foot-tall cowboy boot sculpture and a bunch of high schoolers once made a batch of over 17,000 tamales (both are world records). Why? Maybe the worn-out “bigger in Texas” cliché is true. And maybe San Antonio has vowed to honor its history and culture bigger, better and downright weirder than anyone else, gosh darn it. How do you think they ended up eating puffy tortillas and turning old breweries into neighborhoods? This is a city of big shoes and larger-than-life characters, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders and Davy Crockett charged into battle. Where they remember the Alamo so intensely that they have graves for the cats. They’re mavericks who know where they came from, and who weave that past into inventive art, food, music, and celebrations. Here are all the best ways to explore San Antonio right now.

 

You’re here for puffy tacos

Instead of pan-frying or pressing their masa (maize) tortillas, San Antonians deep-fry them, resulting in a chewy-inside-crispy-outside puffy delight.

Ray’s Drive Inn in San Antonio.
#1
Ray’s Drive Inn in San Antonio.

Ray’s Drive Inn

822 SW 19th St, San Antonio, TX, USA

Ray’s is the San Antonio-style puffy taco godfather. The first to ever do it, they are still one of the best too. Plus they serve Lone Star beer, another longtime Texas staple.

Henry’s Puffy Tacos Cantina in San Antonio.
#2
Henry’s Puffy Tacos Cantina in San Antonio.

Henry’s Puffy Tacos Cantina

6030 Bandera Rd, San Antonio, TX, USA

In the 1950s, founder Henry Lopez got his start working at his brother Ray’s restaurant (sound familiar? See above). Today, Henry’s is a puffy taco machine, serving more than 1,000 a day.

Los Barrios in San Antonio.
#3
Los Barrios in San Antonio.

Los Barrios

4223 Blanco Rd, San Antonio, TX, USA

Family-style Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Their presidential puffy taco plate is the way to go. FYI: Wednesday is margarita happy hour all night long.

...and to sample Texas-style BBQ

When you hear people talking about “Texas-style barbecue,” 99% of the time they are talking about Central Texas BBQ, which starts and ends with brisket. You’re looking for a perfect black crust with that pink smoke ring on each slice. Everything after that — whether it’s sausage, chicken, or pork ribs — takes a backseat. You can ask for sauce, but you’ll probably get some funny looks.

Smoke Shack in San Antonio. Pic courtesy of smokeshacksa.com.
#4
Smoke Shack in San Antonio. Pic courtesy of smokeshacksa.com.

Smoke Shack

3714 Broadway, San Antonio, TX, USA

A traditional counter-service BBQ joint that doesn’t try anything crazy, just plates up classic smoked meats.

Alamo BBQ Co. in San Antonio.
#5
Alamo BBQ Co. in San Antonio.

Alamo BBQ Co.

511 E Grayson St, San Antonio, TX, USA

This is the family-oriented counterpart to the esteemed Two Bros BBQ Market. They have some of the same great food (peach-glazed baby back ribs) served on a patio big enough for a playground and a stage for live music.

2M Smokehouse in San Antonio.
#6
2M Smokehouse in San Antonio.

2M Smokehouse

2731 S WW White Rd, San Antonio, TX, USA

Don’t be put off by the long lines. This trendy spot offers a variety of meats and does all their pickling in-house. But it’s first come, first served, and the meat doesn’t last all day, so get there early.

...AND to celebrate these low-key food gems

They might not be flashy, but they dish out some of the city’s best eats.

Singhs Vietnamese in San Antonio.
#7
Singhs Vietnamese in San Antonio.

Singhs Vietnamese

2803 N St Mary's St, San Antonio, TX, USA

An unassuming spot on St. Mary’s Strip serving traditional Vietnamese fare and some incredible banh mi sandwiches.

Bottling Dept Food Hall in San Antonio.
#8
Bottling Dept Food Hall in San Antonio.

Bottling Dept Food Hall

312 Pearl Pkwy Building 6, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio’s first food hall cultivates community and gives local chefs a space to share their craft. It’s home to five diverse eateries and a bar.

The Jerk Shack in San Antonio.
#9
The Jerk Shack in San Antonio.

The Jerk Shack

117 Matyear St, San Antonio, TX, USA

For Caribbean fare, this West Side restaurant is a must. The obvious choice is their jerk chicken, but their jerk ribs and jerk tacos are worth a try too.

Playland Pizza in San Antonio.
#10
Playland Pizza in San Antonio.

Playland Pizza

400 E Houston St, San Antonio, TX, USA

It’s named for a bygone local amusement park, and the pizzas are no less of a ride. They feature a sourdough base topped with creative locally -sourced ingredients.

Discover the grassroots art scene

The proverbial heart of San Antonio’s local art is the Blue Star Arts Complex. It’s a mixed-use complex with several local art galleries surrounded by restaurants, cafés and lofts.

Blue Star Arts Complex in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#11
Blue Star Arts Complex in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

Blue Star Arts Complex

1414 S Alamo St, San Antonio, TX, USA

The complex’s busiest gallery, Blue Star Contemporary, offers a smorgasbord of exhibits, workshops, artist talks, film screenings and more. But for Latin and American “outsider art,” don’t miss the funky and eclectic San Angel Folk Art Gallery, which blends culturally significant historic works with contemporary ones from self-taught artists. Then discuss your favorite pieces over beers at Blue Star Brewing Company.

Grab a brief garden respite

It might be small, but the Japanese Tea Garden is a peaceful haven for weary go-all-day types. This former rock quarry features stone arch bridges, a lily pond, a waterfall, a pagoda and lush gardens. If you’re the sit-and-observe type, you could spend all day here, but you only need about an hour to see everything and take in the tranquility.

Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#12
Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

Japanese Tea Garden

Japanese Tea Garden, Mary's, North Saint Mary's Street, San Antonio, TX, USA

Cool nabes to hit

Where locals hang and San Antonio’s creative spirit shines through.

St. Mary’s Strip in Midtown San Antonio
#13
St. Mary’s Strip in San Antonio has it's own website and logo. Cool! Check 'em out at stmarysstrip.com

St. Mary’s Strip in Midtown

St. Mary's Strip, San Antonio, TX, USA

St. Mary’s was a big-time party spot in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was pretty much the only place to drink and catch garage rock shows. Now, after years lying dormant, it’s resurging. Hit Rumble or The Mix for cocktails, Faust Tavern for a Lone Star and pub food, then Paper Tiger or Limelight for a show.

The Pearl District in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#14
The Pearl District in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

The Pearl District

Pearl District, San Antonio, TX, USA

The centerpiece of this flourishing neighborhood is a giant former brewery, transformed into a mixed-use space with some of San Antonio’s hippest eateries and shops, l. Like Bakery Lorraine, which serves Instagram-worthy pastries, and Cured, the venture of Steve McHugh, a 2020 James Beard Award fFinalist for Best Chef: Texas. The Pearl is also home to one of only three Culinary Institute of America locations.

Go caving

The Hill Country surrounding San Antonio is beautiful, but the city’s coolest local nature excursions are underground.

Bats at Bracken Cave in San Antonio.
#15
Bats at Bracken Cave in San Antonio. AHHHHHH!!!

Bracken Cave

Bracken Bat Cave, San Antonio, TX, USA

Full disclosure: This cave is full of bats. 20 million of them. It’s the summer home to the world’s largest maternity bat colony, but that’s what makes it a one-of-a-kind experience. You’re not going to go spelunking here (don’t try). Instead, if you make a reservation, you can sit at dusk and watch a swirling vortex of bats emerge from the cave.

Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#16
Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

Natural Bridge Caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns, Natural Bridge Caverns Road, San Antonio, TX, USA

Skip the aboveground touristy stuff and go for their subterranean tours, where you’ll see vast, naturally formed caverns 180 feet below the surface.

 

See historical San Antonio

San Antonio was one of the earliest Spanish settlements in Texas and later an important outpost in the Mexican-American War. That history is still woven into the fabric of the city today.

The Alamo in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#17
The Alamo in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

The Alamo

The Alamo, Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, TX, USA

Visit this historic site, to see where the Mexican-American War’s most legendary battle happened.

Mission Concepcion/ San Antonio Mission/ Mission Concepcion on the Mission trail, a world heritage site, in San Antonio, TX,
#18
Mission Concepcion/ San Antonio Mission/ Mission Concepcion on the Mission trail, a world heritage site, in San Antonio, TX. Pic via Shutterstock.

Mission Trails

Mission trails, San Antonio, TX, USA

This hiking/biking trail will take you past San Antonio’s five colonial Spanish missions (including The Alamo).

San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.
#19
San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. Pic via Shutterstock.

San Fernando Cathedral (don’t miss the light show)

115 Main Plaza, San Antonio, TX, USA

The first church built in San Antonio, this 18th-century cathedral is known for its Gothic architecture and a light show called “The Saga” that illuminates the building on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Catch a live show

If you want to dip a toe into San Antonio’s live music scene, here are some starting points.

Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio.
#20
Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio.

Sam’s Burger Joint

330 E Grayson St, San Antonio, TX, USA

A laid-back café where you can catch some of the city’s best folk and Americana acts, with some indie rock, country, soul and funk mixed in. It’s worth a trip for their burgers alone.

Hi-Tones in San Antonio.
#21
Hi-Tones in San Antonio.

Hi-Tones

621 E Dewey Pl, San Antonio, TX, USA

A cool, artsy bar on St. Mary’s Strip that hosts local rock and blues acts, as well as DJ nights. They’ve got cheap drinks, so down a couple of their famous pickle shots and get dancing.

Shop at Historic Market Square (El Mercado)

Three blocks of a colorful Mexican Market, where you can browse 100 locally owned shops and vendors and grab some food, all to the tune of live music. It’s a distillation of San Antonio’s Mexican cultural influence and the site of the city’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Historic Market Square in San Antonio. Pic vis Shutterstock.
#22
Historic Market Square in San Antonio. Pic vis Shutterstock.

Historic Market Square

514 W Commerce St, San Antonio, TX, USA

Cool off at a swimming hole

In case no one told you, Texas is hot. But the San Antonio area has several natural swimming holes where you can spend an afternoon cooling off. Jacob’s Well is a spring-fed natural pool with super clear water and, if you want to push the boundaries, its 30-foot-deep underwater caves. A calmer spot below.

Guadalupe River State Park
#23
Guadalupe River State Park

Guadalupe River State Park

Guadalupe River State Park, Park Rd 31, Spring Branch, TX, USA

Huge, old cypress trees stand guard over the river’s calm waters. It’s also a great place to camp, fish and float.