Kid-friendly San Antonio

By Vidya Pradhan
Travel tip No. 1. If vacationing in winter, make sure your connections are not through blizzard prone areas. I learnt this the hard way when we missed our connecting flight through Denver the week of the big snowstorm. After scrambling around for alternate flights we finally found some tickets on Southwest 2 days later. Of course we did get snowed by the full price fares. Sigh! Anniversary and birthday presents are on indefinite hold now.

San Antonio is such a little known holiday destination among my friends and acquaintances that everyone I told about it assumed we were visiting relatives. But the idea came from some website which assured us that kids would have plenty to keep them entertained. And raising a couple of Gen Z kids with low attention spans and boredom thresholds made that the most important criterion. 

At first glance from 10,000 feet above ground, the city has a small town feel. Even in winter, it seems green and wooded. We stayed at the Residence Inn, Marriott because of its suites with kitchens. If you are willing to have the kids eat out at every meal, a better option would be to reserve a room overlooking the ‘Riverwalk’.


San Antonio is sometimes referred to as the ‘American Venice’. I haven’t visited Venice but I can assure you that this is a typical case of American marketing hyperbole. In the early 1900’s a bend in the San Antonio River was identified as having economic and tourist potential. Since then the city has carefully developed the area around it, trying to find a balance between historical architecture and prime commercial real estate. The end result is a touristy but charming stretch of water dubbed the Riverwalk, surrounded by restaurants serving Tex-Mex cuisine, and a glass walled mall.

Ideally, you need about 3 days to experience most of what the city has to offer. The following day plan is tailored to people with young kids so if you’re looking for ideas for a romantic get-away, read no further. It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what that means.

Day 1: Despite being land-locked, there is a SeaWorld in San Antonio. Possibly the franchise bought into the whole ‘Venice’ thing and thought there would be more water. At any event, it is unavoidable if you have little or even not so little kids. We saw a new show called ‘Viva’ which incorporated interaction between human acrobats and Pacific dolphins. Not bad. The kids got a kick out of feeding the seals and lorikeets and we spent some time just watching the dolphins at the Dolphin Cove who were just hamming it up for the tourists. Ok, this is a true story. The guy next to us tried to tickle a dolphin under its chin( yes, you can pat the dolphins if you have long arms). The dolphin feinted and pretended to bite his hand, then swam away making a chittering sound that, I swear, sounded like it was laughing. Hubby and I just stood there and gaped for a few moments.

Day 2: San Antonio has a long history of missions, of which the most famous is the Mission San Antonio de Valero, also known as the Alamo. This where a raggedy band of Texans fighting for independence held back the powerful Mexican army for several hours before being massacred. Today, just the shrine and some parts of the barrack still stand with the rest swallowed up in the downtown development. But it is an interesting history lesson, made vivid by a History Channel movie that shows every half hour in one of the rooms. Visiting the Alamo will not take more than half a day but it is located in the heart of downtown and there’s plenty to do around it like the Ripleys and Guiness museums which are basically freak shows which my 4 year old refused to enter. We ended up spending the afternoon at the San Antonio zoo. This is touted as one of the best zoos in the country and while not glitzy, has a fair amount of diversity in its exhibits to excuse its pride.

Day 3: Time to take a tour of the city. We opted for the Alamo Trolley Tour where we purchased a Hop On/Hop Off pass that let us well, hop on and hop off where we wanted and catch another trolley later. The tour covers some of the historic areas of the city like the missions and markets. Mission San Jose is worth visiting mainly because the entire mission, including the American Indian homes and barracks, is very well preserved. There is even a granary with a working water wheel that runs on the site of an old aqueduct built by the missionaries. Kids can pick up a Junior Ranger kit that helps them navigate the mission and quizzes them on some of the features. My 10 year old enjoyed that. We also decided to check out El Mercado which is supposedly a recreation of a Mexican flea market but turned out to be kitschy. All the shops sell souvenirs and veggie food in the food court is hard to find. The Mi Tierra café and bakery in the market square is famous but also very crowded. We had to take numbers and wait which we opted not to because the kids were getting restless. A better option is La Villita which is an artist’s village set in a restored part of old San Antonio. The prices are higher but the products are made by local artisans.

Day 4: About 30 minutes from downtown are the Natural Bridges Wildlife Ranch and the Natural Bridges Caverns. The caverns have stalactite and stalagmite formations but unlike others that I have seen in California, they are not well named and the kids and I had fun discovering shapes. The tour down the caverns takes about an hour and is steep and slick in places. It might be a challenge for very young kids. Right next door is the ranch which is like a giant petting zoo. You stay in your car and drive around the preserve with a bag of food and animals come up to the car to get fed. Though there were clear signs that we were to simply drop the food on the ground around the animals, everyone ahead of us had their hands out. After a while I got tired of being the evil witch and let my kids do the same. I think the animals liked it too. They refused to eat off the ground. It was a big thrill for the kids to feed llamas, addaxes, wapitis (that’s elk to you) and Barbary sheep.  I drew the line at ostriches since they can be pretty aggressive. The animals are what you would find in a temperate to tropical climate and they seemed to have a lot of space. It might have been a poor excuse for a Kenyan
safari but the kids had a memorable time. You pay by person though, not by car so it can run a bit steep.

 

Every evening we hit the Riverwalk to saunter along the shops or take the cruise along the river. We were lucky to get a really funny guide but the inadvertent comedy came from all the references to the 4th largest building or the 10th most significant event. They try so hard. It still has a small town soul which is evident the moment you step out of the ritzy downtown. The streets and stores look run down and the houses have large unkempt lots. The fact that there aren’t enough Starbucks’ pretty much sealed the deal. Still, it’s a great place to take the kids without traveling too far out of your comfort zone. The weather is usually good, if a bit humid, and all the attractions are a short drive away.

 

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