We were shocked at the number of cheap or free things to do in San Antonio. This city has a lot to offer in terms of cuisine, culture, and history. You can easily spend a ton of money here, but luckily you don’t have to break the bank.
We spent a few days exploring the city taking in the colors, smells, culture, and vibe of this charming southwestern city. If you’re looking for fun cheap or free things to do in San Antonio, here are the top activities to do.
Visit the Missions
One of the best free things to do in San Antonio is to visit the San Antonio Missions. The Alamo is by far San Antonio’s most popular and famous mission. But there are many more missions around the city.
The five missions are National Historic Parks within the National Parks Service. Normally, a National Park requires a paid entry fee, but the five missions are completely free to visit.
Mission San Jose is known as the “flagship” mission. It’s super well-preserved and gives visitors a good feel of what life here might have looked like. It’s also where the visitor center is located and one of the larger Missions of the five. The mission’s biggest accomplishment was its aqueduct. It was built to irrigate crops and supply water to all five of the Missions.
A side note to visiting the Missions. While they are incredibly beautiful and an important part of America’s history. However, it has a dark side as much of our US history does. In the early 1700s Spanish Franciscans established five missions, Alamo included, along the San Antonio River.
The missions were more than mere churches. Each was a fortified village, with its own church, farm, and ranch. The missions provided Natives a safe haven from drought and disease which was rampant at the time. It offered an escape from violence and a refuge from the disease brought over by European explorers. The natives were openly welcomed to the mission as long as they converted to Catholicism. This meant leaving behind their traditions, practices, and beliefs.
It’s a significant piece of Texas’s history. But nonetheless, sad the natives were forced to choose their safety over their culture and beliefs. Many of the descendants of the native people still practice their religion in the Mission’s Church. We visited Mission San Jose on Good Friday. There was a huge procession and catholic service happening outside with fifty-plus people in attendance.
Visit Historic Market Square
One of the next free things to do in San Antonio visits the famous Historic Market Square. This market is the largest open-air Mexican market in the United States. The market had some resemblance to the markets we’ve come to love in Mexico, but overall it was very touristy.
The market was filled with cowboy hats, Mexican-style embroidered shirts, dresses, and shoes, woven Mexican rugs, hand-painted bowls, and ceramic dishes. There were lots of small tchotchke items like trinkets, magnets, and dream catchers. It wasn’t our favorite stop in San Antonio. Although it is a great way to spend some time without having to spend money.
Visit the Alamo
A visit to the Alamo is a must when visiting San Antonio. This mission is located in the historic area of San Antonio near downtown. It’s historical significance and attractive location in the city center means it’s one of San Antonio’s most popular attractions.
Admission to The Alamo is free, but reservations to tour the church are required. We recommend booking your tour well in advance as spots will fill up quickly.
We did not pre-book a tour so missed out on getting to learn more about the history. There were several displays sharing historical information about the Alamo. Including the famous battle that ultimately gave Texas independence from Mexico in 1836.
One fun fact we loved learning: The Alamo was much much bigger when the battle happened. When you’re standing outside of the front of the Church you’re actually in the middle of the original stone walls.
San Antonio Riverwalk
Other than the Alamo, San Antonio is most widely known for its river walk. Brightly colored umbrellas cover a historic stone path that winds throughout the city along the river. Restaurants, bars, and shops are scattered throughout. You could easily spend money at any of these establishments, but exploring the area is completely free.
If you’re interested in the history of the Riverwalk, you can take one of the boat tours. We opted for walking along the path admiring the beauty of the city from below.
Visit the Pearl
The Pearl is one of the newest and most popular spots in San Antonio. Operating as a mixed-used property it has apartments, shops, restaurants, a food court, an outdoor area, and a farmers market. Making it a fantastic spot to visit in the city.
We went on Saturday specifically for the farmer’s market. Not having done much research on the Pearl as a whole, we were blown away by its size and diversity. There were a lot of vendors and a range of fresh produce, meat, cheeses, prepared food, and local brews (yum).
After grocery shopping, we spent the rest of the day walking around the shops, restaurants, and brewery. We could have easily spent a fortune here but you also don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it either.
Go to the McNay Modern Art Museum
Additionally, If you enjoy art a fun free activity to do is visiting the McNay Modern Art Museum. This museum normally requires an entry fee, but on the first Sunday of every month, entry is free. Dennis a previous art major and avid photographer, drawer, and art admirer, was excited about the special exhibit they had at the time for Kehinde Wiley’s paintings.
This exhibit was a collection of 30 Americans from the Rubell Family Personal Collection. It featured many African American artists that have contributed greatly to American Art and culture in the past few decades.
We had to pay to see the special exhibit but felt it was well worth the price since we were interested in the specific artists that were being featured. The museum was originally the personal residence of one of the wealthiest people (a woman to boot) in Texas’s history. As an artist herself, she passed her home on to the city to become a museum.
There are tons of other things to do in San Antonio for cheap or free, including visiting the Texas Air Museum or walking or riding bikes along the Mission hike and bike trails. But this is a great list to get you started as you’re exploring. Let us know what your favorite cheap or free things to do in San Antonio are in the comments below.