Texas Travel

Essential Texas Trips: Rediscovering San Antonio

Time machines both literal and metaphorical abound in the Alamo City.

By Bill Wiatrak July 18, 2016

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The Japanese Tea Garden at the San Antonio Zoo

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You know you've been to SeaWorld too many times when Shamu recognizes you. You know you've walked past Ripley's Believe it or Not too many times when you've started to believe it. You know you've visited the Riverwalk too often when you can no longer get lost along it, no matter how hard you try.

Have you been to San Antonio too many times? Perhaps. Have you missed something? Definitely. There are lots of fun things to see in San Antonio that somehow get overlooked or eclipsed by the more obvious spots. Below, my list of some amazing attractions you should check out on your next visit:

Japanese Tea Garden

Just 10 minutes drive from the Riverwalk is the San Antonio Zoo. If you have kids, you may have explored the menagerie, but passed right by the neighboring Japanese Tea Garden. This beautiful little oasis is a great stop for a short walk across the bridges to feed the colorful koi fish. The gardens were converted from an abandoned rock quarry and had a complete restoration and updating in 2008. There's even a restaurant on-site, Jingu House Cafe, that serves sushi, salad and sandwiches alongside hot and cold tea. This little spot is so picturesque, it seems there's always a wedding or magazine photographer capturing it on film.

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Mission Concepción is one of four missions in the large national park.

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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The Alamo gets most of the press, but last year the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four distinct visitor areas that comprise the national park are joined by a six-mile hiking path and are distinctly different from each other in appearance and condition, but taken together they provide a unique look at what Spanish missions were all about. Besides converting the Native Americans in the area to Catholicism, the missionaries showed them modern farming techniques, taught them how to speak the Spanish language and protected them from attacks by some of the fiercer natives. Interestingly, the Alamo—while once a mission unto itself—is not part of the park, but is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

McNay Art Museum

Considered by many to be one of the finest modern art museums in this area of the country, the McNay Art Museum holds an impressive collection of over 20,000 objects. Henri Matisse, Georgia O'Keefe, and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the artists with works in this converted 24-room mansion. Gaugin, Rivera and Cezanne round out this impressive collection, which is a short, 12-minute drive from the Alamo.

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Who needs a salad bar when you can have a salad car?

Magic Time Machine

If you've overdosed on Riverwalk tourist food and would prefer a place with a little more personality, look no further than Magic Time Machine. This restaurant on the north side of town opened in 1973 and is a collection of wacky cubbyholes, mismatched furniture and iconic collectibles. The salad bar is actually a salad car—yes, it's an automobile with the top cut off and trays of greens and condiments scattered within the interior (you might not be sure what kind of "carbs" you're really looking at). The best part: everyone who works there is an impersonator, cartoon character or film persona. Anyone from Jack Sparrow to Minnie Mouse could pop up to wait on you. In keeping with its 1970s theme, the menu has prime rib and lots of other classics as well as some funky drinks. During my last visit, I ordered something that came in a giant bowl made for two. It was bright blue, smoking and bubbling. I asked my waiter, who was a dead ringer for the Dread Pirate Roberts from Princess Bride. what was in it. His tongue-in-cheek answer? Iocane powder. Though I was disappointed that there wasn't actually real iocane powder in the drink—since, well, it's a fictional poison—I was still very amused that the Dread Pirate Roberts never broke character, even when serving drinks.

The Witte Museum

About 15 years ago I accidentally stumbled onto a very interesting museum near the Riverwalk that featured a vast collection of circus memorabilia called the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum. The museum hosted a huge assortment of circus posters, handbills, and lots of rare props from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Tom Thumb's carriage, vintage magic illusions and everything else that you could imagine from the golden age of circus shows. The next time I visited, the museum was closed. It turns out that in the collector, Harry Hertzberg, willed it to the Witte Museum should the city of San Antonio decide not to retain it. The collection got a brand new home adjacent to the San Antonio Zoo, making it a bit more accessible and giving the Witte Museum a world class exhibit to add to its extant collection of Texas artifacts, paintings, textiles and some dinosaur bones. If you ever enjoyed the circus, you'll appreciate this amazing slice of life from the Big Top.

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Stalactites inside Natural Bridge Caverns

Natural Bridge Caverns

Half an hour northeast from the Alamo is Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest cave in Texas. The chambers are impressive and the name is derived from a giant limestone slab arch that resembles a bridge. This all seems exciting enough, but even more interesting is that this cave system is home to the largest bat colony in the world. From March to October, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats roost in the cavern and around dusk, they come out to feed. It's a truly amazing sight to see the swarms of bats flying out of the cave and filling the sky. Bracken Cave is a protected area and adjoins the section of the cave that visitors tour. To see the bats, you need to reserve a spot, and there's even an option to join the Bat Conservation club.


The small town of Bandera is a little over an hour west of San Antonio, but the drive through the Hill Country to reach it is possibly the prettiest you'll find in Texas. Bandera has cute shops, fun bars and some interesting history from the cowboys and Czech settlers that made the town what it is today. It's also a popular stop for bikers that ride the trail between the Cowboy Capital of the World to Kerrville. If you want to take the long way around, you can stop in Luckenbach for some live music or Fredericksburg to visit Enchanted Rock.

So next time you're driving past the giant Buc-ee's on I-10 wondering what you can do in San Antonio that you have't already done, try a few places on my list. You won't be disappointed.

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