If you're looking to go south for a sunny family vacation, you're probably thinking of Orlando, with its countless kid-friendly hotels, restaurants, and amazing theme parks.
But if you're interested in someplace a little more off the beaten path, shift your gaze to the west and consider San Antonio, Texas. This cool little tourist town offers attractions similar to those in Orlando, plus a lot more variety -- at half the cost and with half the crowds. For children, a stay in San Antonio can be a wonderful multicultural experience that's fun and educational. Here are 10 reasons to check out this Texas city.
Give your kids a taste of frontier life at the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum (buckhornmuseum.com; $15 for adults, $13 for kids 4 to 11, and free under 3). The exhibition features an authentic Western-style bar and restaurant, tons of cowboy paraphernalia, and an eye-popping display of animal antlers and horns. Kids will get a kick out of the quirky tour guides, dressed in leather vests, pointy boots, and ten-gallon hats, who will tell tall tales of Texas outlaws. There's more for little cowpokes at the Institute for Texas Cultures, including costumed ranch hands, Native American tepees, and an old-time chuck wagon (texancultures.com; $7 for adults, $4 for kids 3 to 12).
Located 150 miles north of the border, San Antonio is a great place to introduce your kids to Mexican culture -- without having to convert your pennies into pesos. Spanish is widely spoken here, Tejano music plays everywhere, and the streets are lined with shops selling Mexican crafts and cuisine (sink your teeth into some real tacos and tamales for a change). Make sure you stop by El Mercado, a Mexican-style marketplace full of colorful booths. Afterward, grab a memorable meal at the nearby Mi Tierra, a homey restaurant owned and operated by the Cortez family since 1941. Open 24 hours a day -- refried beans for breakfast, anyone? -- it's got a fantastic kids' menu and a mariachi band stops at each table to entertain.
Give the kids a painless (we promise!) lesson in American history at The Alamo, an early-18th-century adobe structure originally used to convert Native Americans to Christianity. It's better known as the stronghold where Texas settlers made their last stand to fight off the Mexican "invaders." Don't miss the Davy Crockett exhibit, then let your little ones roam around the park-like complex (thealamo.org; free admission). If your children aren't pooped out, visit the nearby San Antonio Missions National Park to see four more missions and other historical sites (nps.gov/saan/; free admission).
The centerpiece of the city is a two-and-a-half-mile cobblestone path that borders the San Antonio River and meanders just below street level through the popular downtown district. Lined with kitschy tourist shops, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and hotels, it's a neat place for a walk any time of day. (But hold little ones by the hand or keep them in strollers; there are no guardrails!) You can also hit the river on a relaxing 40-minute boat ride (Rio San Antonio Cruises river tours, 210-244-5700; $7.75 per person, $2 kids under 5). In the evenings, the mood along the river changes. Find a babysitter, and take a romantic stroll with your sweetie or check out one of the honky-tonk bars.
San Antonio loves celebrations: There's nearly one a month, often more. Popular fiestas include a big fireworks display on the Fourth of July, a jazz festival in September, holiday parades in November and December, a rodeo in February, a 10-day carnival in April, and a famous Cinco de Mayo party. Log on to sanantoniovisit.com for a list of all the fun festivals.
There are plenty of great theme parks. Head to Six Flags Fiesta Texas to kick things off (sixflags.com/parks/fiestatexas; $47 for adults, $32 for kids under 48 inches, free under 2). Located about 10 miles from downtown, the park has five themed areas of rides, including the ultra-thrill experience, Tony Hawk's Big Spin. Another family favorite is SeaWorld, which is just as good as the one in Orlando. Besides the cool marine wildlife displays and dolphin shows, the park has some super-fun water rides (seaworld.com; $49 for adults, $39 for kids 3 to 9, free under 2). And save time to cool off at Splashtown, a 20-acre water park with more than 50 different rides and slides, including kiddie ones for the youngest crowd (splashtownsa.com; $25 for adults, $19 for guests under 48 inches, free under 2).
You'll find rodeos, horseback riding, cattle drives, and cowboy breakfasts at the guest ranches in nearby Bandera, known as "The Cowboy Capital of the World," and just about an hour's drive from downtown San Antonio. Why not spend a few nights in the city and a few nights on a ranch? Log on to banderacowboycapital.com for more info.
The massive San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium is home to more than 3,000 animals. Kids will really get a kick out of the "Texas-size" salamanders, cute prairie dogs, and a delightful butterfly exhibit. (sazoo-aq.org; $9 for adults, $7 for kids 3 to 11, free under age 2).
At the San Antonio Children's Museum, you have access to three floors of awesome interactive exhibits, all of which were created with kids ages 2 to 11 in mind (sakids.org; $7). If you have a little ham on your hands, catch a live stage show at the Magik Theater, which features performances for the under-10 set (magiktheatre.org; $10 for adults, $8 for kids 3 to 17, $2 for age 2, and free under 2).
As Texas's most touristy city, San Antonio has many lodging options for families on any budget. If you're up for a splurge, a good choice is the Marriott Riverwalk Hotel (marriott.com; family rooms run about $300 per night), which has amazing views of the water below. A more affordable pick in the center part of the city is the Comfort Inn (comfortinnsanantonio.com; double rooms start at $130 per night). It's an old jailhouse -- your kids will love this bit of trivia -- that's been converted into a basic but convenient family hotel. Or check out sanantoniovisit.com for more accommodation ideas.