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Cheap Things to Do in San Antonio for Visitors: Freebies and Bargains

Vacationing in the USA can cost a fortune, no doubt. Although you can find deals almost anywhere, that’s a whole lot easier in a mid-sized city. You can find a lot of cheap things to do in San Antonio and I ran across a lot of great free attractions and events while I was there. 

Cheap things to do in San Antonio

I made my first trip to San Antonio recently and after walking around a while downtown and in the Pearl District, I was wondering what took me so long. Since I’m a resident of both Mexico and the USA, it seems like I should have been to this pivotal place in history at some point. It’s also one of the coolest places in Texas, a lot different than other parts of this giant state. 

I wrote a full feature story about my visit in Perceptive Travel and you can read it here: 

History and Hooch Along the San Antonio River

I mentioned some of the items below in that story, but since this is the Cheapest Destinations Blog, for here I’m focusing on what won’t cost you anything while you’re there and how to find great values otherwise when you visit San Antonio. 

Free Attractions in San Antonio

Free San Antonio attractions: Tim Leffel at the Alamo

San Antonio’s two biggest attractions are free, which is a rare thing in most cities. You can’t go into the chapel at The Alamo without paying (see the CityPASS section further down), but you can see the famous exterior and walk around the courtyard at any time. There’s even a free self-guided tour. I walked by it at night and was the only one there, then came back in the daytime after making my reservation. 

The city’s other claim to fame is the San Antonio Riverwalk, which will certainly give you plenty of options to part with your money in one section, but walking along it is free. Even in that main touristy area downtown it’s a nice stroll in the shade, with the walk lined with bars, restaurants, and shops. 

This is a very small part of the overall Riverwalk though, the little loop section in the middle for a pathway that extends for 15 miles.  Go to their Riverwalk site on the official tourism site to see all the areas to stroll along, bike along, or kayak along. They’ve also got listings of all the events constantly happening along the river. 

You can use the wildest part of that path to get to the San Antonio Missions, the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Texas. There are four grouped together in that distinction that aren’t the Alamo. I visited two of them, Mission San Jose and Mission La Concepcion, both impressive sites with churches that you can tour as well. If you’re on a bike or don’t mind a long walk, you can travel between these two on the river and see some wildlife and wildflowers. 

Free Missions to visit - La Concepcion

While admission and parking are free, you’ll have to pay for a tour if you want that. At San Jose though, there are regularly scheduled ranger-led tours that are complimentary. See more on the four missions here.

San Antonio Parks are numerous and free, including a few along the river and others located near downtown. If you’re with children, there’s no shortage of playgrounds and they can splash around in the water in multiple locations. Brackenridge Park is a large one just north of the city, with a Japanese garden even, and the Hemisfair Park right in the center has plenty for both kids and adults to enjoy. (A huge playground and splash area near a small craft brewery, for instance.) Stare up at the giant Tower of the Americas here. 

If you have a car and want to get into nature quickly, check out the Headwaters Sanctuary, a 53-acre getaway spot. I really liked the small but wildlife-packed San Pedro Creek Culture Park downtown, a revitalized area that birds flock to that also has some interesting art exhibits. 

The Fort Sam Houston Quadrangle and Museum is free to enter, so come check out a fort that’s been in place since the mid-1800s and see the military history displays inside. If you’re more of an art lover, head to the free San Antonio Art League and Museum (SAALM), with works from more than 600 Texas artists on display. The more contemporary Ruby Museum of Art is completely free every day. 

Saga show at San Fernando Cathedral

The Saga at San Fernando Cathedral blew me away. The cathedral itself is a beautiful free attraction, though they’d be happy if you dropped in a donation. At night the place really puts on a show though when a whole history of the city and the state gets projected onto the front of it, a mesmerizing 24-minute show. See more about it here

If you love historic homes and interesting architecture, take a walk around the King Historic District to see some mansions built by prominent locals. 

Free Events in San Antonio

Though touring a street market isn’t much fun if you’re broke, it is free to walk around and many of them stage free entertainment. Two of the best-known markets are the weekend one in the Pearl District, where the original brewery used to be, and the largest Hispanic market in the USA: Market Square/El Mercado. La Vallita Market Days are just off the Riverwalk on Saturdays and usually include performances. 

Yanaguana Garden, in Hemisfair Park, hosts a mobile DJ playing music on Thursday evenings during the hot summer months. The Tower of the Americas has a free concert every first Friday in the summer. 

free San Antonio - movies in the park

During my visit, there was a free movie playing on a big outdoor screen in the park, part of a roaming location series you can see more about here. There are free movies once a month at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

There’s also a DJ set-up in the Pearl District every other week in the summer.

The Botanical Garden has a free jazz night every Wednesday in the warm months. Moonlit Melodies is a free Thursday night concert event in Legacy Park. Summit Night City is on the same schedule, sponsored by Texas Public Radio. 

Low-priced Attractions

There are plenty of cheap things to do in San Antonio that won’t hit your credit card very hard. Very few of the museums are costly and some of them, like the San Antonio Fire Museum, are five bucks or less. Some have free days, like Thursdays from 3:00 to 8:00 at the family friendly Witte Museum of natural history. Late day Thursdays are also free at the McNay Art Museum. 

If you don’t have a CityPASS and don’t want to pay $15 to go to the top of the Tower of the Americas, you can go spend that amount (or maybe less) and get the same view at Bar 601 at the Tower of the Americas instead. They have a happy hour too… 

View from Tower of the Americas

Amigo Free Walking Tours will guide you around downtown San Antonio and they operate on the usual model where you pay what you think it’s worth at the end. Just don’t take that name literally please: the guides are basically working for tips. 

Sightseeing with the San Antonio CityPASS

If you’re going to do a lot of sightseeing in San Antonio instead of buying Margaritas in go cups and hanging out at restaurants on the Riverwalk, it makes a lot of sense to buy the local CityPASS that covers multiple attractions. The way it works is, you pay $59 (or $49 for kids) and this just show your QR code to get into your choice of four attractions on a list.  

Here are the choices: 

Go Rio San Antonio River Cruises
San Antonio Zoo
The Tower of The Americas
The DoSeum
San Antonio Botanical Garden
Witte Museum
San Antonio Museum of Art
The Alamo – Exhibit and Church

This can end up saving  you a significant sum over what you would pay just walking up to these attractions and getting the retail price. For example, the San Antonio Museum of Art is $22, the DoSeum children’s museum is $18 for both adults and kids, and the zoo is $32 for adults, $28 for kids. 

SAMA on the CityPASS

I used two of my options within a few blocks from each other, for the Alamo extras and the Go Rio River Cruise. I wanted to get a feel for the Riverwalk and hear the background, so that narrated tour was a fun way to cover a lot of ground and get schooled on recent history of the city. 

Later I went to the top of the Tower of the Americas, which was kind of calling my name as I saw it from multiple points and at different times of the day and night. Yeah, I could have done the bar hack mentioned above, but I really didn’t want to hang out alone at the lounge and since I had the CityPASS, I used it to go up the elevator and get a panoramic view of the city. 

Get your own CityPASS here for this city or check prices here for other locations. 

Lodging and Getting Around

If you combine all the free and cheap things to do in San Antonio with the lower-than-normal lodging prices, a vacation here will cost you far less than in many other cities, including Austin. 

As I reported in the Nomadico newsletter a while back, San Antonio was named the most reasonably priced warm-weather destination in the USA in a WalletHub report this year. They said, “Among warm destinations, San Antonio has the lowest price for a three-star hotel room, $50, which is 3.9 times lower than Honolulu, the city with the highest at $196.” 

So it’s not going to cost you a fortune to get a regular chain hotel and some of those chains have free breakfasts, like the highly acclaimed Drury Inn chain. (See this related post on the best cheap hotel chains in the USA.) As a general rule, staying right on the Riverwalk is going to cost you more than being even two blocks away, so look around at other options and get some exercise! 

Search hotels in San Antonio here

Naturally there are plenty of apartment rentals in the area through Airbnb and the like too. There are a lot of downtown condos. 

If you take public transportation in San Antonio, it’s quite a bargain. A bus is $1.30 to $2.60 and you can get a full-day pass for $2.75 and a full week is only $12. Figure out the VIA system and it won’t cost you much to get around. Otherwise, use your feet downtown, use the Riverwalk, and then you can get Lyft or Uber when you need to go further.

city bikes to borrow

There are also scooters and city bikes available. The BCycle city bikes are $15 for one hour or $25 for unlimited rides all day. You just have to dock it within an hour each time to avoid additional charges. There are also more traditional bike shops around where you can take one out for longer. 

If you have found other cheap things to do in San Antonio when you were there, leave a note in the comments!