South Texas is unlike any other region of Texas. Its rich heritage and vibrant culture are woven into the sights, sounds, architecture and cuisine. Kick off your journey in San Antonio and head toward South Padre Island for a memory-making road trip.
Let’s begin in San Antonio, a city founded by Spanish settlers. Of course, no trip to this festive city is complete without a jaunt down the River Walk. Endearingly referred to as “the Little Venice of Texas,” this attraction brings in locals and tourists alike. A barge tour is the best way to take in the colorful surroundings and offers a front-row view of the Arneson River Theatre and its many outdoor performances.
Five beautiful colonial missions stand in San Antonio. If you don’t have time for them all, you can’t miss the famous Alamo, site of one of Texas’ most well-known battles. Be sure to stop for lunch in the Pearl District, a plaza surrounded by a neighborhood of charming restaurants, cafes, breweries and apartments. Grab an Ice Cream at Lick and stroll past the Culinary Institute of America to watch master chefs work their magic. Then rent a bike and pedal around Southtown, a 2-square-mile creative district filled with art galleries, boutiques and museums, and a great place to grab dinner and drinks.
From San Antonio, it’s a 2 1/2-hour drive to Laredo, a city sitting right on the border of Texas and Mexico. Here, we recommend walking around the San Agustín Plaza, the oldest part of this Spanish colonial settlement. The plaza is surrounded by historic buildings, like the San Agustín Roman Catholic Church, which was established in 1778, and the Capitol of the Republic of the Rio Grande, which functions today as a museum. The perfect place to find a unique souvenir is San Bernardo Avenue, a 40-block vendor area selling mostly Mexican goods. Then venture out of the city for an encounter with nature along the Paso de los Indios Nature Trail. There you’ll experience an unadulterated view of the Rio Grande in its natural glory.
Head out of Laredo along U.S. Highway 83, which follows the Rio Grande, and stop at Treviño-Uribe Rancho, a ranch home built in 1830 by settler Jesus Treviño. The building is a great example of preserved early settler architecture. Continue down 83 and you’ll hit Roma, Texas. Get out of the car and stretch your legs in the Roma Historic District. Originally a high-traffic Rio Grande trade route, Roma’s architecture mirrors that of its sister city of Ciudad Mier on the Mexican side of the river and is notable for its buildings of river sandstone, caliche limestone and molded brick.
A little farther south on U.S. Highway 83 and deeper into the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll find McAllen. La Lomita Mission on the outskirts of town is a small, quiet church that sits right on the riverbank and was built in 1865. It’s a peaceful place to get a close-up view of the architecture and religious history of the area. Also, be sure to check out McAllen’s entertainment district on 17th street for fine dining, lounges, clubs and bars.
Harlingen is up next, just a 40-minute drive from McAllen. Granny Claire’s Citrus claims to have the sweetest grapefruit in the world, and trust us when we say it’s worth the stop to find out. From there, head on over to the Jackson Street District, Harlingen’s historic downtown with a thriving art scene. If you hit it just right and end up there on a Saturday morning, you’re in for the treat that is the Harlingen Farmer’s Market. The History of Mexico and Mankind Mural is a quick and rewarding stop on your journey. It’s a beautiful art piece by Mexican artist Raúl Esparza Sanchez that’s a photo-op as well as a history lesson. Before you leave, grab a bite in the La Placita District, the colorful blocks surrounding Lt. George Gutierrez Junior Park.
South Padre is your grand finale! After all that traipsing around, give your tired feet a break on the beaches of this gorgeous island town. But before you lie down with your paperback beach read, we have a few more suggestions. Port Isabel Lighthouse is a must-see (and a must see from). Climb to the top of this 170-year-old structure for a beautiful view of the port. Then drive State Park Road 100 across the bridge and up South Padre Island. This road will hit all the to-dos and to-sees. The Birding and Nature Center is a great stop for those interested in the local wildlife. Don’t be fooled, it’s not just for bird watchers. The butterfly garden and alligator sanctuary are also unique draws. And just down the road are the sea turtles! Sea Turtle, Inc. is an organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sea turtles. It’s a must for any South Padre trip. End your day with a sunset boat tour off the coast where you can dine with the dolphins, take in the salty air and relax—because you’ve come a long way, friend.