A city as old as San Antonio has hundreds of historic places of interest, but some have risen above the status of being just another building with a plaque to become true recognizable landmarks that capture the spirit of the city, then and now.
While downtown San Antonio certainly has its share of important landmarks, that’s not the only place to find them. Noteworthy heritage sites are tucked into every quadrant of the city.
Arneson River Theater at La Villita
All of the San Antonio River Walk could be considered a landmark, but the Arneson is perhaps the historic anchor to the miles of shopping, restaurants, museums and other attractions that line the water’s edge. The open-air stage faces across the river toward La Villita, the restored original SA neighborhood. The design is by architect Robert H.H. Hugman, considered the father of the River Walk because he saved the flood-control project on the downtown segment of the river from being paved over at street level. The Depression-era Works Progress Administration built the theater in 1939, which was named after the administration’s regional director, Edwin Arneson. Concerts, folklorico performances and plays have graced the stage over the years with as many as 800 audience members watching in the stone and grass amphitheater seating.
Carver Community Cultural Center
This East Side landmark was built as a community center in 1918 and became a segregated library for the city’s black population in the early 1930s. By the 1940s, it drew big musical acts such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. After desegregation it fell into neglect, but area residents realized its significance and formed a wall of bodies to protect it from the city wrecking ball in 1973. By 1977, under the ownership of the city, a renovated Carver reopened and has served as a go-to events facility, with a focus on African-American culture.
San Antonio Public Library (Central Library)
San Fernando Cathedral
The cathedral is considered the historic geographic center of San Antonio and serves as a tourist attraction, community gathering place and a symbol of the role of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The church is one of the oldest in the country, with the cornerstone of the 15-year construction project laid in 1738. Today’s visible landmark, however, is the result of an 1868 renovation in the Gothic Revival style. If you time your visit right, you can also take in a stunning light show of images and music telling the history of the city that’s displayed four nights a week on the façade of the church.
Sunken Gardens/Japanese Tea Garden
What was built as a “lily pond” in a former quarry as an extension of Brackenridge Park opened in 1918 with only a $7,000 investment, thanks to donations of plants and materials and the use of prison labor. In the early ’40s, the anti-Japanese sentiment that arose after the bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the city to change the site’s name to the Chinese Sunken Garden and wrest control of its restaurant and tea shop from the Japanese-American Jingu family that had operated it for roughly a decade. However, after a 1984 renovation, the name was restored and the Jingu family recognized for their contribution to the garden. The last round of major renovations was completed in 2008 and the restaurant reopened as Jingu House in 2011. The open-air Sunken Garden Theater next door was also a popular concert spot during San Antonio’s 1980s heavy metal heyday.
San Antonio’s five Spanish missions have long been a tourist draw. They are, after all, a national historical park. But an extension of the River Walk and bike trails to the missions and recent recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site have brought even more accessibility and recognition to the 300-year-old structures. Missions Concepción, Espada, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), San Josė and San Juan each have a story to tell, and the experience of the natives is given care and attention it didn’t have decades ago, when the focus was largely on Spanish colonialism.
Tower of the Americas
Built as a lasting centerpiece of the 1968 HemisFair — often considered modern San Antonio’s debutante ball — the 750-foot-tall structure boasts the Chart House restaurant and an observation deck that gives a full view of the city without leaving your seat as it revolves. Fun fact: a level of the rotating structure served as a discotheque during the days of mirror balls and polyester.
This historic West Side jewel has played host to many dignitaries and visitors including Pope John Paul II in 1987, a Mexican president and several U.S. presidential aspirants, including San Antonio’s own Julián Castro, a 2020 contender. It’s also the site of Fiesta’s “Piñatas en el Barrio” shindig, a Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebration of Mexico’s Independence from Spain and art events including Una Noche en La Gloria – Contemporary Art in the Cultural Zone.
Containing the fourth-highest geographic point in Bexar County, Comanche Lookout Park off North Loop 1604 provides one of the best views of the city. The hill was used by the Apache, and later the Comanche, during hunts and warfare, and according to the park’s website, it also served as a “prominent landmark for travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries.” The signature stone tower was built in the early 1900s as part of a never finished castle-like project.
Mission Marquee Plaza (formerly Mission Drive-In)
Mission Drive-In entertained countless numbers of car-bound moviegoers who came from all over the city from 1948 into the early 2000s. After the theater’s closure, the city purchased the site and now uses it for arts and cultural events under the supervision of the San Antonio World Heritage Office. May through November, movies still flicker across the original big screen, only viewers now sprawl on blankets or in lawn chairs across the green space.