The Riverwalk. The Alamo and its sister missions. The Pearl District. Six Flags and Sea World. These high-profile San Antonio attractions have rightfully gotten their share of ink (well, rightfully is debatable on the latter). But if your visit to Texas’s second-largest city stops here, you’re missing out on some unique travel experiences.
I know, because this was the path I took when I initially started making trips to San Antonio. My sister and her family moved to the city more than two decades ago. The first time I visited, I took one look at the sandy landscape, the looping eight-lane highways, and sprawling suburbs and thought, Nah. A lifelong Northeasterner, I was used to the dramatic mountain views, the wide-open rural neighborhoods, and lush green summers of the Northeast. San Antonio, I sniffed inwardly, could not compare.
I was wrong. As I’ve since learned, San Antonio has plenty to recommend itself. For starters, the city is far more diverse than my own little corner of the country, with a range of cultures and communities represented. The made-for-tourism downtown not only boasts big-name attractions, but also quirky little gems. Outside of it, there are dozens of colorful discoveries that make San Antonio a place that invites repeat visits.
Here are seven unique experiences you should try on your next trip to San Antonio.
1. McNay Art Museum
The Witte and the San Antonio Museum of Art are better known, but the McNay… chef’s kiss. Located in the Alamo Heights neighborhood, this is Texas’s original modern art museum. In the first half of the 20th century, artist and collector Marion Koogler McNay amassed 700 contemporary pieces by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall, as well as by Southwestern artists. The collection is now housed in her Spanish Colonial Revival home, set on 25 serene acres.
Today, the McNay is focused on “transformational art experiences,” taking a more inclusive view of the development of various art movements. You’ll find rotating exhibits on creative giants like Georgia O’Keefe, works that speak to the city’s uniquely Tejano and Indigenous roots, and contemporary exhibits on fashion or theatrical set design.
The McNay isn’t a huge museum, but you’ll want to plan for a couple hours’ worth of leisurely exploration. Don’t miss the sculpture garden (my profile picture was shot there), or the many striking details of the home itself. The tile stairway in the courtyard is one of my favorite spots for photos.
2. John T. Floore’s Country Store
Confession time: When I first walked past this warehouselike building on Bandera Road while visiting the Hill Country Farmers Market, I thought it sold flooring, or maybe home furnishings. Little did I know that this is one of the most revered spots in Texas, if not the entire American South, for music.
Floore’s Country Store is a 75-year-old honky tonk. It’s not all about country music, though legends like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson (who immortalized the venue in Shotgun Willie) have all headlined shows here. The stage at Floore’s has also welcomed Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Little Richard, and many more rock, folk, and R&B stars.
Currently, Floore’s is selling tickets only in groups of four, six, or for a “VIP table,” though that may change as pandemic restrictions loosen. Depending on the show and the day of the week, the place can get packed, and there’s no assigned seating. Get there early for best pickings.
The venue offers a full café menu. If you order only one item, make it the tamales, which are Texas treasures. Then plan to dance alongside hundreds of new besties.
3. Bracken Cave
Do you prefer your close encounters to be of the animal kind? Head to the outskirts of San Antonio and visit Bracken Cave, home to the world’s largest bat colony.
From May through September, Bracken Cave is critter heaven, with up to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats making their seasonal home on the premises. The warmth of the cave — it clocks in around 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit each day — provides the perfect incubator for bat bambinos. While you might be tempted to think of them as a nuisance, the winged hunters are important to the human food chain, consuming more than 100 tons of corn earworm moths and other crop pests per evening.
Visit Bracken Cave at night to view a truly spectacular sight, when hundreds of thousands of mini mammals erupt, lavalike, through a 100-foot-wide crack in the earth and flap into the air. It’s less horror movie and more graceful than you might imagine, as the voracious creatures swirl overhead, on the lookout for tasty insects. You must purchase tickets in advance to view this bat ballet in the sky.
4. Hot Wells Of Bexar County
Hot Wells Hotel & Spa, a short distance west of the San Antonio River, was a go-to destination for the Southern well-heeled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The grand resort, patterned after a resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1894 on the grounds of the Southwestern Insane Asylum — after sulfur was detected in the groundwater. Yes, sulfur. To turn-of-the-century thinking, the malodorous element possessed remarkable healing properties. (News flash: It does not.)
The original 80-room structure burned down in its first year of existence. It was replaced in 1900 by an opulent, 190-room Victorian complex, complete with a private rail station, a bathhouse, and three swimming pools. The resort drew a plethora of film-industry luminaries, including Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. Seventy silent movies were filmed at the resort — including Wings, the very first Academy Award winner for best film — leading to its nickname, “Second Hollywood.”
The structure went up in flames and was nearly leveled in 1925. It sat, yawning and largely vacant, until a motor inn and a restaurant/bar took over. Both had closed by the 1970s, and the site caught fire again in 1988 and 1997.
Today, Hot Wells, located within the Buffer Area of the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage site, looks something like the scenic ruin of a British country manor. In 2019, the site was tidied, reinforced, and opened as a public park. Leaving aside obvious puns about how “hot” the property is, it’s also rumored to be haunted. Some visitors claim to hear disembodied voices and footsteps, or catch a glimpse of a woman gazing out one of the now-gaping windows.
5. Rebecca Creek Distillery
Vodka and whiskey fans take note: Rebecca Creek has been churning out smooth, palate-pleasing craft beverages since 2009. Founded by two entrepreneurs from San Antonio, it was the first distillery built in South Texas, and remains one of North America’s largest craft distilleries.
The product range at Rebecca Creek might seem slim, but tight editing has allowed the team to hone their craft and develop ultra-premium spirits. Take the hourlong Distillery Experience and Tasting (Thursday through Sunday) to tour the facility and sample five products. Once you’ve chosen your favorites, belly up to the bar and order a glass, or a cocktail made with your spirit of choice and top-quality syrups and juices. I like to keep it simple with a vodka and blueberry lemonade — summer in a glass.
Weekends often bring live music and comedy shows to Rebecca Creek, as well as a local food truck dishing out Texas barbecue.
6. Feliz Modern
Light, bright, and, as its name implies, full of joy, Feliz Modern is less a shop and more an art-meets-home extravaganza. Owned by artists/designers Mario and Ginger Diaz, the store stocks an eye-opening range of local and global art, home décor, gifts, and doodads you didn’t know you wanted — nay, needed — until now.
The newer, second location, in the historic Pearl Brewery, is a blitz of color and energy. Pick up all manner of handmade occasion cards, sculptural and cheeky jewelry, Mexican-inspired embroidered throw pillows, and carved-and-painted Guatemalan skeletons. If I could fit the lamp shaped like the head of a Roman warrior blowing a chewing-gum bubble into my suitcase, he’d have a new, albeit colder, home up north.
7. Cha-Cha’s New Gen Café
In a largely residential neighborhood, next to a library and across from the Raymond Rimkus Park, you’ll find this lively little café founded by Bania Ruiz, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin. The restaurant pays loving homage to Cha-Cha’s, a Bandera Road landmark owned by her parents, which closed in 2016.
Ruiz has maintained several of the original restaurant’s favorites — fajitas, steak a la Mexicana, enchiladas, and chalupas. Alongside them, she serves lighter, healthier, and plant-based dishes, some made with vegan queso and soy chorizo. You can even get a smoothie supercharged with adaptogenic mushrooms, superfruits, or hemp powder.
The fajitas — my sister’s favorite — practically overflow with rice, beans, veggies, beef or chicken, and guacamole. As a mostly-vegan, I opt for the meat-free side of the menu, including the incongruous yet excellent red curry Thai eggplant.