Editor’s note: San Antonio is open for tourism, but travelers should check and follow all local guidelines. See Safer San Antonio for a listing of state protocols. We have offered links to suggested sites and activities in San Antonio. If you make a purchase, we may make a commission.
San Antonio might not be an obvious choice for holiday travel, but the relaxed Texas charm, warm weather, and festive spirit make it a wonderful season to visit. The city’s signature attraction, the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, is gorgeously decorated and buzzes with holiday activity.
Spending the Holidays in San Antonio
We flew from our chilly Colorado home on Christmas Eve to warm San Antonio. By the time we transferred to our hotel and dropped our bags, it was late and we were starving.
As we walked down Commerce Street toward the Rivercenter Mall searching for sustenance, restaurant after restaurant darkened their lights. Even McDonald’s was closing. Running out of options, the host at a diner shutting down as we tried to enter said if we wanted food, we should go to The Original.
“The original what?” we asked.
“The Original,” he repeated. “They’re always open. Go across the street and down to river level.”
When we found The Original Mexican Restaurant, a line of people a half-block long snaked between the river and the dining patio. However, the host assured us the wait was only 15 minutes. The line moved forward in quick bursts because as tables emptied of guests the staff swooped in to buss it for the next group.
At our turn, we were ushered inside the cavernous dining room and seated with chips and salsa and margaritas ordered in exactly 15 minutes. Our server even gave us a complimentary order of sublimely spicy queso to make up for the “long wait.” We enjoyed the lively food and atmosphere so much we returned once more during our stay.
Christmas morning began with hotel café lattes on the balcony of our 14th-floor room at The Westin Riverwalk. The air was too chilly for the hotel’s rooftop pool, but the bright sun and blue sky lured us out for a stroll that afternoon.
The River Walk encircled downtown as part of a larger trail system that followed the San Antonio River through the city. While the River Walk dazzled at night with 100,000 lights strung from cypress trees lining the path, during the day we marveled at the cobbled walkways and stone bridges as colorful tourist barges floated by.
Rounding a corner of the Paseo del Rio we noticed On The Bend Oyster Bar and Grill had an outdoor patio bar and the area’s only upper-level deck overlooking the river. With the deck mostly empty between the lunch and dinner lull, we took advantage of it to snack on seafood dip and my new favorite cocktail, the jalapeno cucumber mojito.
A Visit to the Alamo
The day after Christmas we made an obligatory stop at The Alamo to soak in Texas history. Only a few blocks from The Westin, The Alamo was a historic military fort and site of the famous Battle of the Alamo between the Republic of Texas and Mexico in 1836.
Today it was smack in the middle of a modern city, half museum/half city park with cats hanging out in the courtyard behind the historic buildings. Founded in the early 1700s, The Alamo began as a Spanish mission and the fort’s cathedral was its grandest building.
San Antonio Missions National Park
The Alamo is one of five historic missions along the San Antonio River. The other four make up San Antonio Missions National Park. Strung along the river south of downtown, these missions are easily accessible by car, bicycle, or bus. We chose VIA, the city bus system because there was a stop nearby and it was easy to download the VIA app to purchase day passes for $2.75 per person. The Route 40 bus served the missions with stops at each and enjoyed the comfortable seats and air conditioning.
We exited the bus route halfway at the park’s largest, Mission San Jose. Celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2020, highlights of this mission were the working grist mill and the massive baroque cathedral with holiday Nativity.
Mission Reach Hike and Bike Trail
Taking advantage of the sunny weather, we walked to a nearby playground to rent B-cycles, also by downloading an app, and biked the Mission Reach Hike and Bike Trail back to downtown. This wide greenbelt follows the river 15 miles from downtown past all four missions.
We used the trail to get to Mission Concepción, the most artistic of the four missions. When originally built, it was covered in colorful frescos and geometric designs, most of which have faded, but some splendid ones in and around the church survived.
From here we pedaled north to Blue Star Brewing Company for lunch at San Antonio’s first craft brewpub before using the app to find a station near downtown to return the bikes.
The Pearl District
North of downtown, The Pearl District was a neighborhood on the rise. This former industrial area, once home to Texas institution The Pearl Brewery, has been converted to condos, acclaimed restaurants, bars, shops, and an outdoor courtyard filled with patio furniture for families to gather on warm evenings.
We dined on organic house-cured meats and pickled vegetables at Cured, a James Beard award finalist restaurant. Afterward, we grabbed a craft beer from the outdoor service counter at Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery and settled at an outdoor table to watch revelers throw cornhole bags while kids played tag under the lights.
River Walk Talk
The next day we landed at Dirty Nellie’s Irish Pub for lunch. Our bartender Dan said that Dirty Nellie’s is the only original restaurant left on the River Walk as he pours Old English beers and Bloody Marys for guests. Dan asked us to guess how many people fall into the river every year. Twenty thousand said, one patron. A few hundred guessed my husband.
“The average is three,” laughed Dan, a surprisingly low number considering that of-age can carry their adult beverages around the River Walk in to-go cups.
“The best part is when they flail their arms around,” Dan continued. “Then someone will yell ‘stand up’ and the person stands upright because the river is only three feet deep.”
Go Rio Barges
Afterward, we take a ride on the famous Go Rio barges. Because the boats were electric, they float silently while the driver recited the history of the River Walk. After a deadly flood in 1921, the San Antonio River was dammed upstream, but that didn’t completely solve the flooding.
Local architect Robert Hugman designed an overflow channel through the city, but alongside it, he proposed a pedestrian-only walkway with floral-lined paths, beautiful bridges, and shops and restaurants.
The River Walk as we see it today was built in the mid-1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it took off in popularity. Many buildings from that era are still around including the Hilton Palacio Del Rio hotel and the Casa Rio restaurant.
On our last night in Texas, we splurged on club level tickets to see the 5-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs play the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center, a short Uber ride from downtown. Club level seats included a delicious buffet dinner and a dedicated cocktail bar.
After cheering the Spurs to victory, we were surprised to see the Pistons lounging in The Westin’s lobby the next morning while checking out.
San Antonio was the perfect present for our holiday travel wishes. From historic sites to delicious food, San Antonio will delight you too without any humbugs.
If You Visit San Antonio
About 20 minutes from downtown, the San Antonio Airport is served by all major US airlines.
- Paseo del Rio – https://www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com/
- The Westin Riverwalk – https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/satvw-the-westin-riverwalk-san-antonio/
- The Pearl District – https://atpearl.com/
- San Antonio Spurs/AT&T Center – http://www.attcenter.com/
- San Antonio Missions NP – https://www.nps.gov/saan/index.htm
- The Alamo – https://thealamo.org/
- VIA Metro Bus – https://www.viainfo.net/
- SA B-cycle – https://sanantonio.bcycle.com/
Author Bio: A member of the North American Travel Journalists’ Association, Carrie Dow is a freelance travel writer newly based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has written for a variety of publications for over a decade. Formerly the Local Editor of DrinkDenver.com, she specializes in finding the best happy hours wherever she travels. She is also the founder of What’s Pawsitive, a website covering animal welfare issues and animal-based travel around the world.