Our extended family (40+ people) just got back from spending a week in San Antonio, Texas. The Texas hill country is a beautiful place to visit almost any time of year, but it’s especially gorgeous when it’s all lit up and decorated for Christmas.
Today, I’m sharing all the fun and budget-friendly things we did while we were there, as well as providing a few tips for finding similar bargains in your neck of the woods.
I didn’t quote a single Bible verse in this week’s episode, but our family’s theme verse certainly fits: “Whether then you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
That goal should hold in public and private, at home and abroad, in our dealings with each other, with hotel clerks and waitresses and park rangers and valet attendants and cashiers and cleaning ladies and museum docents and fellow travelers. We want to treat everyone we come into contact with in a way that honors and glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ — at Christmas time, especially!
- Collin Street Bakery (in Corsicana, TX) – clean bathrooms, 10-cent coffee, free fruit cake samples
- Pearce Museum (also in Corsicana) – Civil War artifacts, extensive arrowhead collection, Western Art (not free, but well worth the small entry fee)
- Magnolia Market (in Waco, TX) – quaint shops and beautiful outdoor spaces where kids can burn some energy before hitting the road again
- Walkway of Lights (in Marble Falls, TX) – free display opens at 6pm every night in December
- Christmas Travel Bingo – free printables I pass out to the kids and grandkids before going through the walkway of lights; we treat it like a scavenger hunt
- First United Methodist Church (in Johnson City, TX) – has been hosting a live nativity for 50 years, also features free hot cocoa and cookies and an impressive collection of nativity sets
- Pedernales Electric Cooperative (also in Johnson City) – magnificent lighted trees, plus picnic tables where our family usually eats a light dinner of fruit & nuts, hummus & veggies, cheese & crackers, and summer sausage that we’ve brought from home
- Garden Ridge Farmer’s Market (San Antonio, TX) – huge indoor/outdoor market held monthly on the 2nd Saturday at Northeast Bible Church , all year long; don’t miss the free children’s activities, crafts, and games
- Midday Noels at First Presbyterian Church (San Antonio, TX) – concerts take place every Thursday in December at noon
- San Antonio Riverwalk (San Antonio, TX) ( – so colorful! bedecked with beautiful cyclamens and poinsettias by day and Christmas lights by night
- The Alamo (San Antonio, TX) – it is still free to tour the church and grounds; there is a fee to see the new collection of artifacts
- San Antonio Missions National Park (San Antonio, TX) – no entry fee; start with the largest, San Jose; try to arrive by 10 or 11 AM to take the extremely informative Ranger tour (free) and pick up a free workbook so your kids can earn a junior ranger badge while they are there; if you have time, visit the other missions on the trail; they are all just a few miles apart
- USA Factory Tours – this website is a great resource for finding businesses willing to give tours of their manufacturing plants
- SAS Factory ((San Antonio, TX) – make a reservation to take a free tour of San Antonio Shoes while you’re in town (ages 6 and up); and buy some 5-cent popcorn and 10-cent sodas from the general store once you’re done
- Witte Museum (San Antonio, TX) – you can get free admission to this amazing natural history museum every Tuesday night from 3-6 PM
- Japanese Tea Garden (San Antonio, TX) – beautiful sunken garden built in an old stone quary
- McNay Art Museum (San Antonio, TX) – the collections on display are sometimes hit or miss, but the building has some cool architectural features and unique outdoor spaces; they offer free admission the first Sunday (12-5 PM) and second Thursday (4-9PM) of every mont
- THE SAGA at San Fernando Cathedral (San Antonio, TX) – a free slide show that plays on the outside of this historic building several times a week featuring the art, music, and history of Texas
- Historic Pearl (San Antonio, TX) – throughout the month of December, they offer free holiday movies on Mondays from 7-9PM and a fun Christmas Market on Wednesdays from 6-9PM
- Hotel Emma (San Antonio, TX) – this unique hotel shares a parking lot with the Pearl, so walk on over and take a look around while you’re there
- Six Flags Fiesta Texas (San Antonio, TX) – we buy our tickets online from the Book of Free; every year they run a special just before Thanksgiving where you can get 8 tickets to Six Flags’ Holiday in the Park plus a $25 gift card plus several copies of their namesake saving book for just $99, which works out to less than $10 a ticket; if you go, be sure to watch their amazing stage production, Night of Miracles. I cannot recommend it highly enough!
- Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio, TX) – pet the deer that roam free in the quadrangle, then visit the free museum to see how the army has changed over the years.
- San Antonio Aquarium (San Antonio, TX) – check Groupon for discount tickets; that’s how we got ours
Tips for Taking Your Own Family Trip
1. Plan Plenty of Stops along the Way
Take time to stop and smell the roses. Instead of making everybody miserable rushing as fast as possible to your destination, make the journey into part of your vacation, as well, by planning interesting stop along the way.
In our case, whenever we travel to San Antonio, we make our first stop in Corsicana. It’s only about an hour and a half down the road, but they have clean, spacious restrooms, free fruitcake samples (try their pine apple pecan fruitcake — yum!), a small display upstairs that detail’s the company’s history with dioramas, news clippings, and photographs, day old bread marked 50% off (and still delicious, especially their jalapeño cheese rolls), and a large selection of freshly baked and reasonably priced cookies, scones, and muffins.
Other stops we commonly make are in Waco to visit Magnolia Silos, in Marble Falls for their Walkway of Lights, and in Johnson City for First United Methodist’s living nativity followed by a picnic dinner at Pedernales Electric Cooperative.
2. Consult the Events Calendar for the Area You’re Visiting
Most places have seasonal events and activities going on all through the month of December, and one of the best ways to find out what is available is through the city events calendar. You can usually find something of that nature posted on their chamber of commerce website — or at least locate a lead as to where you might find it.
That is how we found out about Midday Noels at the First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio. Every Thursday at noon throughout the month of December, they host free hour-long Christmas concerts. This year, we heard an extremely talented soprano sing traditional carols, but in years past we’ve heard string quartets, brass quintets, and an organ recital.
We’ve found free holiday movies in the park and Christmas markets and church pageants and music festivals that way, too.
3. Search Museum Websites for Free Days
In San Antonio, I know the Witte Museum always offers free admission every Tuesday from 3-6 PM and the McNay Art Museum is free on the second Thursday of each month from 4-9 PM, so guess what? That is when I schedule our visits.
If you will be staying in a city for any length of time, research what days the area museums might offer free admission. Such information is usually listed on the museum’s website, so look for it and plan accordingly.
4. Delve into the City’s Unique History
In San Antonio, that obviously means a trip to the Alamo and other historic missions. Check any area you plan to travel to or through for historical markers, battlefields, missions, homes, or other buildings you may want to visit while you are there. State Capitol Buildings are always fun and free to tour and offer a great glimpse at the history of the region.
5. Consider a Factory Tour
Factory tours are often free, fascinating, and educational. Our family takes advantage of these as often as we can. In San Antonio, that means visiting SAS for a 45-minute tour of their manufacturing plant to watch the 100+ steps that go into making their shoes. That will give you a new appreciation for footwear!
But we’ve toured a huge variety of factories all over the country and seen firsthand how guitars, potato chips, glassware, chocolate candy, granite headstones, hand-thrown pottery, and much, much more is manufactured. And most of those tours didn’t cost a cent! To find factory tours in the area you plan to visit, consult the USA Factory Tours website.
6. Visit a Local Garden
In San Antonio, the Japanese Tea Garden is free and open to the public. It is stunningly beautiful in all seasons of the year. Google gardens, arboretums, or botanical societies in the area you’re visiting to see if you might find something equally lovely to walk through.
7. Check Out Area Parks and Playgrounds
If you are traveling with young children or even teens, let them burn off some energy playing at local parks and playgrounds. There are several we like to visit while in San Antonio, but my personal favorite is a playground called Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair Park. It’s fabulous and can keep our kids entertained for hours.
8. Look for Bargains on Anything You Can’t Do Free
Groupon is a great place to find discounted admission to local attractions. We’ve saved as much as 75-80% off ticket prices bought that way, so check their site first.
In San Antonio, we love to go to Six Flags Fiesta Texas (as much for their Night of Miracles stage performance as for the fun rides), but we don’t want to pay $86 a head (summer) or even $45 (winter) to get through the gates.
Fortunately, I found a site called the Book of Free that offers Six Flags tickets at drastically reduced prices year round, but the week before Thanksgiving, they run a special where I can get 8 tickets + a $25 gift card + several copies of their coupon savings book for just $99. Subtracting out the gift card (and the cash back I earn through Rakuten), that means the tickets cost me about $9 apiece, which is a substantial savings over gate pricing!
9. Keep Good Notes for Next Time
Last of all, be sure to write down everything you did in the area you visited, and what you thought of each activity — especially if you plan to return to that part of the country with any regularity. That way, you can re-visit all your favorite places and add to the list as you try new ones.
For us, San Antonio offers far more than we could possibly fit into a single week, so every year, we re-do all our favorite activities and also try several new ones (our Thursday itinerary has remained unchanged for all the years we’ve been going to San Antonio in December, but Wednesday continues to be in flux).