History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I know. There are certain periods of history that I find just as boring as most teenagers probably do (coughRevolutionaryWarcough). But other than New Orleans, I can’t think of a city in the US whose history I find more fascinating than that of San Antonio. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit in the first place.
San Antonio’s background consists of a hodge-podge of cultures and one of the most storied and pivotal tragedies in American history. I found myself wanting to learn more about it all—the Spanish missionaries, the cowboys, the Battle of the Alamo, the influence of German immigrants on the region. I soaked up San Antonio’s history, and loved every minute of it.
If you’re a history fan, too, here are fifteen reasons you should visit San Antonio:
A National Historic Landmark, this is also the number one “must see” destination in San Antonio for any self-respecting historian. The Alamo was one of the Spanish Missions (Mission San Antonio de Valero) and later became a fort for the Army of Texas. It was, of course, the site of the Battle of the Alamo, a famous 13-day siege and massacre in 1836 that took the lives of legends like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and over 100 other men. It also became a turning point in the Texas War of Independence against Mexico. “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry when General Sam Houston and the Texas Army defeated Mexican General Santa Anna and his troops at the Battle of San Jacinto two months later.
While you will want to visit during the day to see the grounds, I also recommend a night visit. You won’t be able to go inside, but it’s worth it anyway. There will be few tourists around, so you’ll be able to appreciate the site and what happened here without dodging strollers and tour groups. The Alamo feels much more like sacred ground at night.
The Spanish Mission Trail
The best thing I did in Texas was visit the four missions along the Spanish Mission Trail. Spain sent missionaries and soldiers to the Texas region in the 1700s in an attempt to stake a claim on the area. They built a series of missions along what is now called the Spanish Mission Trail, which includes the Alamo in the center of San Antonio and the more outlying missions of Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada.
Each mission is unique and all but the Alamo are still in use as churches today. The history and stories of each mission is fascinating (you can learn about them at the Visitor Center at San Jose or via docents at the missions). Descendants of the Coahuiltecans, a nomadic and peaceful tribe of hunter-gatherers who settled in the missions, still make up a good share of the population of San Antonio. (Read my full review of the Spanish Mission Trail.)
The Espada Aqueduct
Also a National Historic Landmark, this aqueduct was built in the 1700s by the Fransiscan brothers of the Mission San Francisco de la Espada to carry water into the mission grounds for irrigation purposes. It’s in remarkably good condition for its age and is the only Spanish aqueduct still in existence in the United States.
San Fernando Cathedral
Founded in 1731, this Catholic church is the oldest cathedral in the United States. The structure was built by Canary Islanders between 1738-1750 and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also of historical significance as the location where General de Santa Anna hoisted a flag that marked the beginning of the siege of the Alamo and let everyone know he would show them no mercy. The remains of some of the Alamo’s defenders are buried within the cathedral. One of the Alamo’s most famous defenders, James Bowie, was married in this church.
As long as you’re visiting the Cathedral, you might as well wander across the plaza to check out The Bexar County Courthouse, a Romanesque Revival building built in the 1890s and featuring red sandstone. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places and remains in use as the County Courthouse today.
Spanish Governor’s Palace
This building is not a palace, nor did it ever house a Spanish Governor. But it is yet another National Historic Landmark and is what The National Geographic Society has called the “the most beautiful building in San Antonio”. It was originally occupied by the Captains of the military garrison (Presidio San Antonio de Bejar) stationed in the area in the 1700s and early 1800s. Later, it fell into commercial use (as a clothing store, pawn shop, and more) and changed hands frequently.
As you tour the building, you can see where different sections were added on to expand the house over the years. The building has been restored to what it would have looked like originally when the captains lived here. There’s a fine collection of Spanish Colonial period furniture in the house, some gorgeous carved wood doors and trim, and the inner courtyard is lovely.
So why is it called the Spanish Governor’s Palace? If I recall correctly, the name was coined by a local Tejana woman (Adina de Zevala) who was trying to drum up support to restore the building. I guess she thought it stood more of a chance with a romanticized name. (She was probably right.)
The Menger Hotel and Bar
The Menger was built in 1859 by a German businessman, William Menger, as “the” luxury hotel of its time. It’s a member of the Historic Hotels of America and contains antiques and paintings collected by Menger. The architecture is stunning—particularly in the bar, which features a cherry wood paneled ceiling, French mirrors, and solid cherry bar (a replica of the taproom in the House of Lords Club in London, England). Teddy Roosevelt recruited some of his Rough Riders from this bar, making it another key stop on our historical tour of San Antonio. In the bar, you’ll find some mementos of that time period encased in glass.
Guenther House in the King William Historic District
The King William Historic District is a 25-block section of San Antonio where wealthy German merchants settled in the 1800s. You can find historic mansions here. It’s worthy of a walk-around on its own.
The Guenther House is a restored 1860s home once owned by the founder of the Pioneer Flour Mill, German immigrant Carl Hilmar “C. H.” Guenther, and then by his son, Erhard Guenther. Today, it houses a bakery, restaurant, museum and retail shop—all overlooking the San Antonio River. Do yourself a favor and come here for a pastry, breakfast or lunch and tour the building while you’re at it. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Institute of Texan Cultures
When you visit San Antonio and want a crash course on Texan culture, where do you go? The Institute of Texan Cultures, of course. Here you can get a sense of the amazing multicultural diversity of the state and its history from a cultural perspective.
There are 50,000 feet of exhibits representing the 27 ethnic groups who settled in Texas. Normally, you’ll see a lot of school groups at the Institute, but on the day I visited, I was lucky enough to have the place almost to myself—including the undivided attention of some knowledgeable docents who educated me on the history of the cattle drives in Texas and on “jacals”–the primitive dwellings of Native Americans and early settlers in Texas.
Housed in an old mercantile exchange building from the 1800s, Schilo’s is one of the oldest continually operating restaurants in Texas. The restaurant was founded by Papa Fritz Schilo and his family circa 1917. The deli continues to be owned by a German family, but not the Schilos. Still, it is a dining institution in San Antonio that retains that old-school diner atmosphere of friendly, efficient service and good, inexpensive German food. Be sure to grab a frosty mug of their homemade rootbeer; it’s the best I’ve ever had.
The Buckhorn Saloon
Do you remember what you were doing when you were 17? Albert Friedrich probably had you beat. He opened up the Buckhorn Saloon in 1881 when he was 17. In addition to housing the freakiest museum in San Antonio, the Buckhorn has been serving up food and drinks for over 130 years (though not in this particular space). The Saloon is really a beautiful space, especially the original cherry wood bar with marble columns. It also houses the Texas Ranger Museum, which has a fine collection of law enforcement antiques and information on display.
La Villita Historic Arts Village
Sitting on the south bank of the San Antonio River (along what is now the Riverwalk), La Villita was San Antonio’s first “neighborhood” a makeshift community of very basic housing for Spanish soldiers stationed at the Alamo. When General Santa Anna marched on Texas during the Battle of the Alamo, his army established the cannon line here. Later, it became a neighborhood of German and French immigrants. Since 1939, it has been a thriving arts community.
The Witte Museum
History doesn’t get much older than dinosaurs, folks. Okay, so the Witte’s exhibit on dinosaurs is more “natural history” than “textbook history”, but the museum also features an exhibit on the humans who lived in Texas thousands of years ago, too. The South Texas Heritage Center, located at the Witte, features interactive exhibits, artifacts, and live performances that bring the history of South Texas to life. Learn how things were done “back in the old days” at the Witte.
Historic Market Square/El Mercado
Back in the 1820s (before Texas was a U.S. state), this square housed a pharmacy, a dry goods store, and a food marketplace. San Antonians have been shopping here ever since, though the nature of the square has evolved. Today, it is home to numerous shopping kiosks and stores and restaurants, like the famed Mi Tierra. If you’re going to bring home souvenirs from your trip to San Antonio, I recommend buying them here. You’ll find a lot of Latino art, clothing and jewelry here, as well as cowboy hats and sombreros.
The Majestic and Aztec Theaters
Both of these downtown San Antonio theaters are historically significant. The Majestic, built in 1929, is the second largest theater in the US and a National Historic Landmark. Home to the San Antonio Symphony and regular host of Broadway touring shows, the Majestic features a “Spanish Mediterranean” architectural style. The Aztec, located on the Riverwalk, was built in 1926 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its architecture is described as “Meso-American.”
There. That ought to keep even the most ardent history lover busy for a week in San Antonio. And it’s probably not even a complete list of historically significant sites to see here. Do you know of any I’ve missed that you would include?