Top 12 Free Things to do in San Antonio

Last Updated on February 19, 2024 by Emily Johnson

San Antonio is one of the top destinations in Texas, attracting over 30 million visitors per year. Famous for its historical sites like the Alamo and the San Antonio River Walk, this city also offers a variety of fun things to see and do for free.

ActivityDescription
The River WalkIconic riverside walkways, shops, and events.
The San Antonio Missions National Historical ParkExplore historic Spanish colonial missions.
The McNay Art MuseumFree art museum access on Thursdays.
Brackenridge ParkGreen space with trails and attractions.
Market SquareLively marketplace with cultural experiences.
The Spanish Governor’s PalaceTour a historic landmark of early Texas.
San Fernando CathedralVisit one of the oldest cathedrals in the U.S.
Main PlazaUrban park with historic and cultural sites.
King William Historic DistrictStroll through a historic neighborhood.
San Antonio Botanical GardensDiverse botanical displays and gardens.
Pearl Brewery ComplexShopping, dining, and free events.
San Antonio Public LibraryAccess books, events, and educational resources.
Hike or Bike the GreenwaysEnjoy nature trails throughout the city.

The River Walk

Name and Location: The San Antonio River Walk is a public park and pedestrian walkway, one story below downtown San Antonio, that follows the horseshoe bend of the San Antonio River.

History and Significance: The River Walk was conceived in 1929 after major flooding as a way to prevent future damage. It has transformed into one of the most popular attractions in Texas, known for outdoor dining, bars, public art, boat tours and easy access to downtown attractions.

What to Expect: Strolling along the 15-mile River Walk pathway reveals lush landscapes, stone footbridges, waterfalls and scenic views of downtown surrounded by cypress trees, flowers and decorative tiles that reflect San Antonio’s Mexican and Spanish cultural roots.

Visitor Information: The River Walk is open daily 24 hours for pedestrians. Boat tours operate 9am-9pm during peak seasons. Entry/access is free. Parking garages nearby offer paid parking with easy access points to the pathway.

The beautiful San Antonio River walk is one of the most iconic sites in the city. Visitors can stroll along the sidewalks and pedestrian paths that line the river in central San Antonio. See the sights of restaurants, shops, and more without paying a cent. The River Walk is especially lovely in the evenings when colorful lights reflect off the water.

During the holidays, the River Walk also hosts special light displays and events that are free and open to the public. Bring your camera and comfortable walking shoes to fully enjoy this one-of-a-kind urban waterway.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Name and Location: San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four Spanish colonial mission sites from the 18th century located near the San Antonio River south of downtown.

History and Significance: Founded to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity and expand Spanish territory, these frontier missions represent generations of blended cultural heritage that shaped Texas. Their architectural remnants depict early Spanish colonial influence still visible in modern San Antonio.

What to Expect: Visitors explore the limestone ruins of Mission Espada’s church, glimpse Mission San José’s restored walls and intricately carved stonework, stroll through Mission Concepción’s gardens and more while learning about Spanish colonialism, religion, agriculture and architecture alongside indigenous life.

Visitor Information: The park is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Hours vary by mission from 9am-5pm. Entry is free besides some site fees. Parking is available at all locations. Guided tours recommended to grasp the full historical context.

This National Park Service site protects the remnants of four Spanish colonial missions constructed in the 18th century as part of Spain’s efforts to colonize the region. Visitors can explore the grounds and structures of Mission San José, Mission Concepción, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.

At each mission site, you’ll find a church building with beautiful stonework, as well as workshops, living quarters, granaries, and remnants of aqueduct systems. Placards and signage provide insight into mission history and key figures. Don’t miss the chance to see these incredible examples of 300-year-old architecture and learn about San Antonio’s origins.

The McNay Art Museum

Name and Location: The McNay Art Museum is located at 6000 N New Braunfels Ave on the northeast side of San Antonio.

History and Significance: Originally the estate of prominent artist and educator Marion Koogler McNay, the Spanish Colonial revival-style McNay Art Museum opened in 1954 as the first modern art museum in Texas, now containing over 20,000 objects spanning 700 to 1950 AD behind the facade of her former home.

What to Expect: Visitors encounter European and American modernist paintings and sculpture by famous artists like Paul Gauguin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Diego Rivera surrounded by historic architecture that resembles early southwest mission design on landscaped grounds also featuring outdoor sculptures.

Visitor Information: Open Tues-Weds and Fri 10am-4pm, Thurs 10am-9pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm. Closed Mondays and major holidays. General admission $20. Metered parking surrounds grounds with overflow lots across the street if needed.

Art lovers visiting San Antonio can enjoy free general admission every Thursday at the McNay Art Museum between 4-9pm. This modern art museum houses impressive collections of 19th/20th century European and American artwork.

Some standout pieces not to miss are paintings by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. And the museum hosts rotating exhibits featuring contemporary artists. Enjoy an evening appreciating fabulous works of art at no cost. General admission is always free for visitors under 18 years of age too.

Brackenridge Park

Name and Location: Brackenridge Park is a 323-acre public park located along the San Antonio River just north of downtown San Antonio.

History and Significance: Donated to the city in 1899 by philanthropist George W. Brackenridge, this historic city park provides open green space with recreation opportunities and iconic San Antonio attractions like the San Antonio Zoo and Witte Museum set alongside the riverwalk where the River Walk begins its loop.

What to Expect: Visitors enjoy walking/cycling trails, playground and picnic areas, sports fields, river access for fishing, train rides around the park and other family activities. Seasonal events and abundant heritage oak trees offer shade on hot days before exploring adjacent cultural destinations.

Visitor Information: Brackenridge Park is open daily 5am-11pm unless a special event is scheduled. Entry and parking within the massive park grounds are free. Nearby street parking surrounds its multiple access points off N St Mary’s St beyond I-35.

For a lovely green space in the city, head over to historic Brackenridge Park. Spanning over 300 acres, it contains walking trails, a creek, public pavilions, playgrounds and more. Visitors can enjoy picnicking, birdwatching, or just meandering through the peaceful grounds.

Don’t miss seeing the San Antonio Zoo located within the park, as well as the Japanese Tea Garden and Sunken Garden Theater. With so much natural beauty and fun sights, Brackenridge Park makes for a relaxing and rejuvenating free outing.

Market Square

Name and Location: Market Square is a historic public plaza located along the River Walk in downtown San Antonio comprising the El Mercado marketplace shopping area spanning three city blocks.

History and Significance: As the largest Mexican market outside Mexico, this site has over 150 years of retail history beginning as an open air marketplace. Today its festive shops and restaurants celebrate San Antonio’s cultural roots with authentic fare, events and artisan goods.

What to Expect: Visitors explore stalls stuffed with handcrafted pottery, decor, textiles and unique gifts as mariachi music fills the air. Nearby mi tambor arts and crafts stores front colorful buildings lining the interior walkways, known as El Mercado, offering Mexican food, spices and pinatas galore.

Visitor Information: Market Square on W. Commerce St is free and open daily 10am-8pm. Paid parking garages nearby offer easy River Walk access. Festivals/events with seasonal hours occur frequently in its plazas. Walk, take VIA buses downtown or ride share transportation to arrive.

For some authentic San Antonio culture, check out Market Square in downtown. Also called El Mercado, this lively area contains bustling shops, restaurants, produce stands and arts/crafts boutiques. Visitors can browse through the offerings of over 100 small businesses while enjoying live music and entertainment.

The Market Square is especially vibrant during Festivals like Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre. But any time of year, this area provides free, fun glimpses into Mexican and Texan culture while supporting local purveyors. Don’t forget to try some amazing Tex-Mex cuisine or shop for unique handmade souvenirs!

The Spanish Governor’s Palace

Name and Location: The Spanish Governor’s Palace is located at 105 Plaza De Armas St, on the west side of San Antonio’s Main Plaza.

History and Significance: Originally the Presidio San Antonio del Bexar, it served as home and offices to the captain of the military garrison around 1722. It was restored and opened as a museum to represent an early Spanish colonial residence reflecting military leadership and political influence.

What to Expect: Visitors tour the beautiful Courtyard House with arched stone entryways surrounding gardens and fountains. Inside they’ll explore artifacts, decorative furnishings and architectural elements depicting Spanish, Mexican and American history with influences from indigenous neighbors as well.

Visitor Information: Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm. Closed Mondays. Entry costs $5 Adults, $3 children. Validated parking in lots off N. Alamo or Camaron St. Closed some holidays. Walk ins welcome but reservations recommended.

History buffs will relish exploring this National Historic Landmark located in downtown San Antonio. Also known as the Palace of the Governors, this architectural gem was constructed in the 1700s as the official residence for the captains of the Spanish colonial government.

Visitors can tour the beautifully-preserved structure free of charge (small donations welcomed). Marvel at the spacious courtyards, regal stonework architectural details. Interior rooms contain period furnishings, artifacts and displays showcasing life in the 18th century. Make sure to see this incredible example of early Texas history firsthand.

San Fernando Cathedral

Name and Location: San Fernando Cathedral is located at 115 Main Plaza in the heart of downtown San Antonio, directly across from the historic Spanish Governor’s Palace.

History and Significance: Founded in 1731, this house of worship is one of America’s oldest continuously functioning religious buildings. Its facade reflects Spanish Colonial influence with added Gothic Revival architectural elements. Burials in crypts below the cathedral include the remains of Alamo defenders.

What to Expect: Visitors admire the cathedral’s stunning gilded sandstone altar, paintings, carved woodwork and more Catholic iconography while learning about its deep roots in Texas history. Public Mass services still held regularly with visitors welcome to view the historic interior before or after.

Visitor Information: Self-guided touring daily 9am-5pm unless religious ceremonies are underway. Entry is free, donation-based. Audio guides are $3. Validate parking ticket from lots off Commerce St for discount access nearby or take VIA bus routes to the site.

As one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States, the San Fernando Cathedral deserves a visit for both its architectural and historical significance. This house of worship located adjacent to Main Plaza is open free of charge to visitors daily (except during worship services).

Guests can explore the interior of the cathedral, which contains stained glass windows, carved stonework, and an 18th century reredos (altar screen). A museum in the cathedral highlights religious artifacts and paintings. Visitors can also pay respects at the marble coffin containing the remains of the Alamo heroes James Bowie and David Crockett.

Main Plaza

Name and Location: Main Plaza is a public square located in downtown San Antonio bounded by Commerce, Dolorosa, Presa and Current Streets.

History and Significance: Established around 1722 as the centerpoint of San Antonio with sources of water and gathering spaces, this historic plaza area remains an active city square allowing visitors to immerse themselves in authentic local culture while admiring preserved Spanish colonial-era resources and architecture.

What to Expect: Visitors might catch lively music filling the plaza outside San Fernando Cathedral, smell delicious food from the nearby Mi Tierra Cafe, or hear the hourly chimes of the Mexican-style bell tower ringing over community activity in what’s considered the “Heart of San Antonio.”

Visitor Information: Main Plaza is open 24 hours daily with free public entry. Nearby street parking and parking garages offer easy walkability via Houston or Commerce Streets. VIA bus stop access from numerous lines servicing downtown San Antonio.

At the heart of downtown San Antonio lies Main Plaza – a beautiful urban park area always buzzing with activity. Visitors can relax on benches beneath shady trees, or meander along the brick-lined pathways and lush lawns dotted with monuments. Live music and entertainment are often hosted here as well.

Main Plaza sits adjacent to historic Spanish architecture like San Fernando Cathedral and the Bexar County Courthouse. Special seasonal events like art shows, holiday celebrations and music/food festivals happen here too. Snap photos by the towering cenotaph memorial or just soak in the charming, quintessential San Antonio ambience for free at Main Plaza.

King William Historic District

Name and Location: The King William Historic District resides just south of downtown San Antonio near the Blue Star Arts Complex. It spans about 18 residential blocks listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

History and Significance: First inhabited by German immigrants in the mid-1800’s attracted to the area for farmland, merchants and politicians soon constructed elegant Victorian homes that make up one of America’s largest historic districts of this architectural style today conveying the city’s early affluence and unique culture.

What to Expect: Visitors admire rows of lovingly-preserved mansions that reveal influences from Greek Revival, Italianate and Second Empire design marking the neighborhood’s post-Civil War growth. Self-guided tours feature landmark family estates that dominate tree-lined streets.

Visitor Information: Free public access daily to stroll sidewalks. Limit activities causing excess noise as many buildings remain private homes. Street parking is available throughout but metered zones apply. Walking/biking provides nicer touring pace options.

Take a lovely stroll through one of the oldest neighborhoods in San Antonio: the King William Historic District. This riverside quarter contains over 30 blocks of glorious Victorian and Italianate-style architecture constructed in the late 1800s.

Visitors can spend hours gazing at the beautiful mansions lined up along the streets, many of which have been immaculately restored. Standout homes not to miss include the Steves Homestead, Glaeser House and Mahncke House. With towering palm trees and relaxing river views, the King William Historic District makes for a scenic free walking tour.

San Antonio Botanical Gardens

Name and Location: The San Antonio Botanical Gardens is located at 555 Funston Place in San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park.

History and Significance: Open to the public since 1980 after decades of planning, these family-friendly gardens on 38 acres showcase floral displays, fountains, sculptures and children’s areas as an urban oasis displaying native plants from the western United States and Mexico reflecting regional ecology and heritage.

What to Expect: Visitors traverse trails passing cactus/wildflower gardens, water features, a conservatory with tropical species, aromatic herb garden, rose pavilion and the expansive Texas Native Trail loop revealing ecosystems spanning from coast to desert within this living museum documenting botanical diversity.

Visitor Information: These public gardens at 555 Funston Place are open daily from 9am-5pm besides most holidays. Entry is $12 for adults, $9 children/seniors. Parking and transportation access via the adjacent San Antonio Zoo lot (fee applies).

Nature lovers can explore diverse botanical life spanning 33 acres at these stunning public gardens open 365 days a year. Self-guided tours allow you to traverse trails past a Texas native plants area, a tropical conservatory, aromatic herb gardens, water-wise displays and much more for free.

Don’t miss special highlights like the Kumamoto En Japanese Garden, the Lucille Halsell Conservatory with orchids galore, and seasonal exhibits (additional fees apply for those). With so much lush flora to take in across multiple gardenscapes, visitors can easily spend hours at this natural oasis nestled within Brackenridge Park.

Pearl Brewery Complex

Name and Location: The Pearl Brewery Complex is located at 200 E Grayson St, along Museum Reach section of San Antonio’s River Walk in the historic Pearl District neighborhood slightly north of downtown.

History and Significance: The Pearl began operating in 1883 as a brewery but fell into disrepair when it closed in 2001 after acquisition by Pabst. Local developers Silver Ventures stepped in, transforming abandoned brewhouse structures into vibrant commercial spaces retaining historic architecture that now comprise San Antonio’s largest neighborhood culinary and cultural destination.

What to Expect: Where beer once flowed, visitors now find renowned chefs, independent shops, performing arts venues, farmers markets, a luxury hotel, and the third location of Austin’s popular family-friendly Easy Tiger bakery/beer garden, all set around picturesque courtyards linked by the River Walk where history still permeates sleek revitalization.

Visitor Information: The Pearl is open daily with most restaurants operating 11am-10pm. Public spaces have no admission fees. Nearby parking garages offer rates from $8-20 with validation discounts from area merchants valid for up to 12 hours of access.

The sprawling Pearl Brewery Complex north of downtown offers plenty to see and do without spending a dime. This vibrant adaptive reuse development contains shops, eateries, green spaces and cultural sites housed within the former Pearl Beer brewing facilities originally constructed in 1881.

Visitors can explore the full grounds, dipping into the various restaurants and businesses. On weekends, the outdoor areas come alive with a farmers market, pop-up retail shops and live music performances – all free to enjoy. And the Hotel Emma onsite provides free hourly tours of its stylish interior design paying homage to the structure’s history.

San Antonio Public Library

Name and Location: The San Antonio Public Library’s Central Branch Library is located at 600 Soledad St in downtown San Antonio.

History and Significance: Established in 1913 with funding support from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a permanent neo-classical style main library opened in 1930 that anchors today’s 27-branch city library system while serving as a historic architectural statement conveying civic pride and offering community access to information resources.

What to Expect: Visitors enter the grand multi-story entrance atrium and admire original murals, sculpture and paintings alongside arched hallways, garden reading nooks, special exhibit spaces and various public amenities catering to reading, work sessions or accessing the local history collection among shared resources. The Library Foundation offers scheduled museum walking tours spotlighting design details and history.

Visitor Information: Free access available six days a week. closed Sundays. Public computers, printing services and reservable meeting rooms provide utility with the expected book borrowing services patrons expect. Self and underground parking garages nearby on Soledad St enable visits.

Book worms can immerse themselves in literature across 29 branches of the San Antonio Public Library system. In additional to expansive book collections, visitors can enjoy free WiFi access, computer labs, local history archives, genealogy research tools, adult continuing education opportunities and much more.

Libraries also host events like author talks, ESL classes, technology training workshops and children’s reading times. So take advantage of all these enriching resources available at your fingertips with just a free library card.

Hike or Bike the Greenways

Name and Location: The San Antonio Greenways trail system currently spans over 50 miles of paved urban multi-use paths following creekways and rivers across San Antonio with 130 more miles planned.

History and Significance: Initial Greenways segments constructed in 1998 sought to beautify urban drainage infrastructure by incorporating walking trails that also link neighborhoods. Its growing success led to voter-approved funding in 2015 to expand pathways promoting recreation, fitness, nature appreciation and non-motorized transportation routes across the metro.

What to Expect: Visitors and locals take advantage of pedestrian, cycling and even equestrian access along scenic trails branching across the Salado Creek Greenway, Leon Creek Greenway, Museum and Mission Reach sections paralleling water routes dotted by public artworks, native landscaping and views of downtown along some routes.

Visitor Information: As linear parks, the Greenways provide over 300 access points across the city enabling both transportation utility and leisure usage with free public entry during 5am-11pm daily hours besides some overnight lit sections like the River Walk path allowing 24-hour access for those routes.

Outdoors enthusiasts can traverse San Antonio on over 80 miles of hike/bike urban trails winding through greenbelts across the city. The Howard Peak and Leon Creek Greenways offer easy terrain with plenty of scenery to soak up along the way.

Pack a snack, bring proper footwear and refreshments, and spend the day traversing these trails to get your dose of nature and sightseeing without any cost. Folks looking for more rugged terrain should check out the Friedrich Wilderness Park trails offering access to steep ravines, rocky hills and scenic vistas prime for hiking and mountain biking as well.

With its vibrant culture, rich history and an abundance of natural beauty, San Antonio offers so much for visitors to experience at no cost at all. From exploring iconic sites downtown to roaming riverside parks and peaceful neighborhoods, these activities provide a well-rounded itinerary for vacationers or staycationers alike. So take advantage of all there is to soak in across this wonderful city for free!

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