The historic city of San Antonio, Texas, took its end-of-the-year celebrations to new heights with the introduction of Holidays on Houston Street.
During the holiday season (November 24, 2023, to January 2, 2024), five blocks of Houston Street in downtown San Antonio, from The Alamo to Legacy Park, were decorated with 400,000 twinkling LED lights.
Outdoor movies, free concerts, and family-friendly events were held throughout this time.
On December 16 and 17, several blocks in the heart of downtown San Antonio were closed to traffic.
Visitors were treated to a European-style holiday market, carolers, live music, and Santa for the kids.
At the invitation of Visit San Antonio, Kel and I drove 95 miles south from Austin to Alamo City to experience the inaugural Holidays on Houston Street firsthand. We found an organized, well-attended, fun, and friendly experience.
Read on to find out why you should consider San Antonio as a future holiday travel destination.
Christmas Lights on the River Walk
After The Alamo, San Antonio's most famous tourist attraction is the River Walk, a historic riverfront area with bars, restaurants, and hotels.
Houston Street passes over the River Walk between Soledad Street and North St. Mary's Street; staircases offer easy access.
To celebrate the holidays, 100,000 multi-colored lights are strung from the cypress trees, transforming the River Walk into a more magical space.
A new element was introduced for December when 2,000 luminaries were placed along the River Walk. The decorative Mexican lanterns are made by putting lights in paper bags.
Traditionally, sand was added to the bag to weigh it down and hold a candle. Electric lights are standard nowadays for safety.
Experiencing the holiday lights along the River Walk is free. However, the narrow sidewalks can get crowded, especially on the weekends.
One way to enjoy the atmosphere without worrying about bumping into people is to take a river cruise.
GO RIO Cruises
GO RIO offers a variety of cruises, including a holiday lights tour and caroling cruises. The boats are small, as the bridges are low, and the water is only about three to four feet deep.
Our first night in San Antonio was spent on a 2.5-hour GO RIO dinner cruise, with food and drinks provided by Boudro's, a Texas restaurant on the River Walk.
As we sipped frozen prickly pear margaritas and dined on prime rib and salmon, other boats playing holiday music glided by, adding to the mood.
While you can cover the full River Walk on foot, it's only on a boat that you'll experience what it's like to go through the lock (that provides access to the northern part of the river). It's a mini Panama Canal with holiday music and a light show.
One of my favorite scenes from Holidays on Houston Street was watching kids sit with Santa in front of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in Alamo Plaza. The iconic facade of The Alamo could be seen in the background.
Additionally, for a small fee ($5 for adults, $4 for kids under 12), you could walk around the decorated grounds of The Alamo from 6 to 8 p.m.
Holidays on Houston Street Market
From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, December 16, 2023, the intersection of East Houston Street and North Alamo Street became the center of holiday celebrations in San Antonio.
Several blocks were closed to vehicles, creating a pedestrian-friendly outdoor experience extending to Alamo Plaza.
After sightseeing at the Tower of the Americas, San Antonio Missions (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Briscoe Western Art Museum, I was ready to see what the city had in store for us.
As I arrived, members of The Alamo City Symphony performed holiday music on a small stage.
Stiltwalkers and jugglers in holiday-themed costumes were also in the street, entertaining kids and adults alike. Cute holiday photo ops were everywhere.
The Polar Bear Express, a mini train on wheels, gave rides to kids around a polar bear display.
Food and Drinks
As it got darker, Kel joined me, and we browsed the local craft vendors at the European Christkindlmarket, buying edible souvenirs from Ms. Chocolatier along the way.
While I'm glad I arrived early to the event to get my bearings, I enjoyed the atmosphere more once it was dark and the Christmas lights were glowing.
The food available from vendors included:
- Olla's Express Cafe: hot Mexican chocolate, coffee, horchata cold brew, and sweet empanadas
- Texas Prime Catering: pulled pork sandwich, brisket-loaded tater tots, TX Prime chili
- Churro Star: churros and chocolate
Several bars offered drinks, including mulled wine, spiked eggnog, peach bellinis, beer, soda, and water.
For diners who preferred a sit-down meal, a handful of restaurants were participating in Holidays on Houston Street, including:
- Pinkerton's: one of Texas Monthly's top 50 barbecue restaurants.
- La Panaderia: an award-winning Mexican bakery.
- Bohannan's: an upscale steakhouse.
- Double Standard: restaurant and bar serving casual Southern food.
- Texas de Brazil: Brazilian steakhouse.
A final dose of holiday magic came in the form of a drone show above East Houston Street near Legacy Park. It was my first time witnessing one of these in person.
As we returned to the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk for a nightcap, we crossed the bridge over the river and got another glimpse of the Christmas lights.
A GO RIO cruise was heading toward us, and I caught a glimpse of the Grinch aboard, waving to those on land. It offered a lighthearted end to a fun night.
Holidays on Houston Street re-opened the next day, Sunday, December 17, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., offering another opportunity for locals and visitors to experience the events and atmosphere.
There's so much more to the holidays in San Antonio than what I could experience on a single weekend. Here are more activities to consider for your itinerary.
- San Antonio | The Saga: a "video art projection by international artist Xavier de Richemont depicts the historical discovery, settlement, and development of San Antonio" on the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral (est. 1737). This show is free and available year-round.
- Rotary Ice Rink: ice skating at Travis Park, opposite The St. Anthony Hotel, is available through January 15, 2024.
- Holidays on Houston Fun Run (5k): the inaugural race was held on December 19, 2023, followed by a free concert at the after-party.
- Holiday-themed Movie Nights at Legacy Park
Most of the events have wrapped up for the 2023 holiday season. Keep an eye on Visit San Antonio's events page in the fall to find out what's in store for 2024.
The inaugural Holidays on Houston Street in San Antonio was an enchanting experience for Kel and me.
Its vibrant atmosphere, historic backdrop, and various activities made it a memorable holiday destination. Dining under the pretty River Walk lights alone was worth the drive.
The European-style market, offering shopping, dining, and entertainment, was ideal for families and couples. San Antonio's rich culture and festive spirit shone through, mixing traditional holiday elements with Texan charm.
The city's warmth and hospitality were on full display, from river cruises to exploring historic sites like The Alamo. Consider San Antonio for your next holiday trip for a unique experience filled with joy and lights.