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San Antonio is a boisterous, colorful, blatantly cheerful city. It vibrantly celebrates its multicultural history and culture on nearly every street corner. From La Entorcha de la Amistad (the Torch of Friendship) to the film installation San Antonio|The Saga, collective memory is palpable and a sense of deep reverence for the people of the city is infectious. It is impossible to spend time here without gaining a sense of the history of San Antonio, Texas, and the United States. The cherry on top is that it has to be one of the friendliest cities in the country! Smiles and conversations are offered up freely all over town – on the bus, on the street corner, and in the stores and museums. We didn’t go anywhere without making a friend or hearing someone’s story.
You could do an entire art history study on the city’s public art alone, but the multitude of accessible museums in San Antonio makes learning there even more enjoyable and unique. Visit the Alamo, the Witte Museum, the Institute of Texas Cultures, the Steves Homestead Museum, and the Briscoe Western Art Museum to learn about all who have come together to call this city home. Intersperse museum visits with eating, shopping, and sight-seeing in La Villita, Market Square, the River Walk, and the King William District. Each area has its own story to tell and you can’t help but hear it when you are there. These places are fully accessible to children and families, especially when you show up with a little background knowledge already in your pocket. We have suggestions for books, shows, and activities to help you get the most out of road schooling in San Antonio.
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Things to do in San Antonio with kids
Spanish settlers built the Mission San Antonio de Valero (later known as the Alamo) around 1718. It served as a mission, a home base for spreading the Christian religion and the Spanish way of life, for almost 70 years. After serving as a mission, it became a Spanish, and later a Mexican military outpost to help hold territory against the Native Americans, United States, and French. A few hundred Texan rebels who wanted Texas independence from Mexico gained control of the Alamo in late 1835 and held it until the famous 13-day siege by Mexican General Santa Anna in early 1836. Jim Bowie (known for his Bowie knife), Davy Crockett (legendary frontiersman), and William Travis (famously signed his letter from within the Alamo “Victory or Death”) all died inside the Alamo.
The tour of the Alamo includes a walk through the remaining buildings and beautiful grounds, several rotating exhibits, a very well-done movie on the history of the Alamo, and a living history exhibit. Without a doubt, the highlight of the mission for the kids is the living history exhibit in the back courtyard. We happily spent an hour listening to a soldier, a cook, a gambler, and a doctor speak about their craft and show us their tools.
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- Before visiting the Alamo, our family chose to read Voices of the Alamo by Sherry Garland because it presents many different perspectives on the Alamo, laid out chronologically from the 1500s to present day. It is written in short, easy-to-understand but poetic verse.
- The Alamo: Myths, Legends and Facts by Jessica Gunderson
- American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne
- The education page of the Alamo website has a brief biography on William Barrett Travis and a copy of his famous letter pleading for aid from within the Alamo during the siege by Santa Anna. Read the letter together and have your child write their own version pretending they were commander of the Alamo troops.
- Pick the person that most grabs your attention in Voices of the Alamo and do a poster, lapbook, or essay on their life story.
- Draw the Six Flags of Texas, label them with appropriate dates.
- Draw a picture of the way Davy Crockett described himself in his tall tales of the west.
- A few weeks before your visit to the Alamo, you can request to borrow a “history trunk” filled with clothing, tools, and luxury items that would have been used in the early to mid-1800s in Texas. The education page of the Alamo website has discussion questions and descriptions for the items.
- Visit the Kings X store (just up the block from the Alamo) or the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Both have full dioramas (in miniature) of the Battle of the Alamo. This really helped us form a mental picture so that we knew exactly what we were walking through when we got to the actual mission.
- Watch Timeless (Season 1, Episode 5 “The Alamo”): a fun science fiction show based on historical events.
- Build the Alamo 3-D Wooden Puzzle by Puzzled or make your own replica using LEGOs.
- Make homemade corn tortillas or tamales just like they did inside the Alamo during the siege, when they had to cook with only what they had taken into the Alamo before the siege started.
Institute of Texan Cultures
The heart of the Institute of Texan Cultures, Texans One and All, has exhibits for each of the twenty-six settlement groups that have come together to shape the culture of Texas. Most of the exhibits have some sort of hands-on aspect to them, often being dress up clothes for the kids. My daughter was literally in chaps one minute and Polish clogs the next; she just could not get enough of the costumes! My 10-year-old son even got in on the fun when he saw a full Buffalo Soldier uniform. The museum is big so if you just want the highlights, the exhibits on the indigenous people of Texas, the Tejanos, and the African-Americans are the standouts with lots of interactive elements.
READ and WRITE: The education page of the Institute of Texan Cultures’ website has a comprehensive lesson plan to accompany a visit to the museum. There is detailed information on each of the settlement groups, from Swiss to Filipino and everywhere in between, and a well thought out introductory lesson to get kids thinking about why people immigrate and what challenges they face during the process. These lesson plans could easily be done as a read aloud, family discussion, or individual reading comprehension projects.
DO: San Antonio|The Saga at the San Fernando Cathedral is a video art installation projected onto the front facade of the Cathedral and set to music. The show was the perfect way to wrap up our afternoon at the Institute of Texan Cultures.
King William Historic District
The King William Historic District, often ranked as one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country, was the heart of San Antonio’s thriving German community in the second half of the 19th century. According to the 1880 census, San Antonio’s population was one-third German at that time, meaning that many Texans today claim German heritage. While a walking tour of the neighborhood may not hold your child’s attention for very long (although it is beautiful!), take them inside one of these homes and the stories may start to come alive. We toured the Steves Homestead Museum, built in 1876. The tour guide was phenomenal and more than happy to cater the tour to the kids’ interests, giving us all the juicy details of this family’s rise from being German immigrants to one of the most prominent and generous families in the city. For us, the tour completely personalized a beautiful immigration story.
Just across the street from the Steves Homestead is the Guenther House. It was built in 1860 as the home of C.H. Guenther, German immigrant and founder of what would become Pioneer Flour Mills (the oldest continually operated milling company in the United States). The home currently houses a small museum, store, and restaurant serving indulgent breakfast items like plate-sized cinnamon rolls and on the lighter side, sandwiches, and salads.
READ: A Paradise Called Texas by Janice Jordan Shefelman was a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee and tells the story of a German family immigrating to Texas in the mid-1800s.
Other Noteworthy Museums and Neighborhoods
La Villita was one of San Antonio’s first neighborhoods, established in the 18th century. The area was originally part of the Alamo’s lower farmlands, where the nearby presence of the military enabled residents to farm and prosper in relative safety from Native American raids. The area was a site of revolutionary activity during Texas’ battle for independence from Mexico. When revitalized in the 1930s, special care was taken to pay homage to Pan-American heroes like Mexican president Benito Juarez and South American liberator, Simon Bolivar. Today, it houses artisan shops, galleries, and a café.
The Centro de Artes is an art gallery in Historic Market Square focused on the Latino experience in South Texas. It is free and open to the public daily except Monday. There are over 100 locally owned shops in Market Square, often referred to as the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico.
The Mexican Cultural Institute, located in Hemisfair Park, is a small but worthwhile modern art museum. The exhibits we saw were captivating and we perused them easily in about half an hour. Admission is free, so it is the perfect little stop to take a break from the heat. Hemisfair Park has a beautiful water garden, playground, and is also home to the Tower of the Americas.
The recently renovated Witte Museum has top-notch science and history exhibits. Especially relevant to the culture and history of San Antonio are the People of the Pecos exhibit (pre-historic people of Texas) and the exhibits in the South Texas Heritage Center (Texas art, history of ranching, oil and gas exploration). Short, live-actor plays bring the stories of cowboys and entrepreneurs of 19th century Texas to life.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum is home to an amazing collection of saddles, paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts from Texas and the western United States. Highlights include Pancho Villa’s saddle, Santa Anna’s sword, an awesome miniature diorama of the Battle at the Alamo, and a listening station for different genres of western influenced music. There are not a lot of hands-on elements, so this museum is better for the 8+ crowd. We especially loved the miniature diorama of the Alamo here because it has recorded stories, told in the first person in bite-sized chunks, for lots of the main characters of the battle.
Looking for more exciting things to do in San Antonio? Check out our guide for summer fun!
Looking for a place to rest your head? We loved the location and views of the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk.
Featured photo by: Bigstock/SeanPavonePhoto