Article by Brent Salter, founder and Chief Amigo at Amigo Walking Tours.
Texas is world-famous for being a land of big things. Just in San Antonio alone, there are cowboy boots rising 40 ft. (12 m.) into the sky at North Star Mall, margaritas the size of melons on the River Walk, and a 3 lb. (1.4 kg) cinnamon roll that could be found at Lulu’s Bakery near downtown until the pandemic came along.
However, something else that is big in Texas is the differences in culture, spirit, and DNA of the state’s largest cities. This is brilliantly illustrated by San Antonio and Austin, two cities that are near each other geographically but worlds apart in every other way. These neighboring cities absolutely belong on the itinerary of every visitor to the Lone Star State, and here are five reasons why….
You know that kid at school who always had cool clothes, made people laugh, and showed up to all the parties? That’s Austin, a city that’s an oasis for foodies, musicians, artists, environmental activists, hipsters, tech companies (both start-ups and Fortune 500), and state politicians. The city’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits festivals draw celebrities and companies from across the nation together, and it all looks great on Instagram.
You know that person you go to for advice or to explain something about times before you were born? Perhaps a parent or grandparent or elderly friend? They’re not really concerned about being popular or suave, but they’re wise from age and lessons learned the hard way. …and they have a lot of stories. That’s San Antonio, the oldest city in Texas and the site of a famous battle in the War for Texas Independence. It’s a hotspot for lovers of history and lovers of margaritas alike, where people can visit the UNESCO World Heritage trail of missions and then sit down to eat at a 100-year-old restaurant. Mexican and Spanish heritage is a vibrant thread in the city’s tapestry, reflected in architecture and the warmth and gracious spirit of locals.
Compared more literally, Austin is one of the healthiest, wealthiest, best-educated, most costly, and most progressive cities in Texas. Meanwhile, San Antonio is one of the least healthy, poorest, most affordable, most conservative cities in Texas. One has a downtown largely defined by glass and steel; the other colonial revival styled buildings of limestone and stucco.
Austin is a great destination for live music and food. Throw in several parks, some murals and street art, along with scores of craft breweries, and the list of activities rounds out quite nicely for some travelers. But just down the road in San Antonio, visitors are met with entirely different options. Play the part of the stereotypical tourist along the River Walk, or assume the role of a local strolling the streets of King William District or having dinner in the Pearl District, where the plate glass windows of the Culinary Institute of the Americas provide a glimpse into where some of the top chefs learn to cook. Go shopping at La Cantera, or dedicate the day to childhood fun at amusement parks like Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio. …or do it all! There is a buffet of options for visitors who decide to visit both of the Texas cities that draw tens of millions of visitors each year.
Texas is a land of legends and myths known around the world. But at its heart, there’s beauty and complexity that is easily overlooked by the casual visitor. It takes time and ideally a couple different perspectives to see the Lone Star State’s true nature. Drawing conclusions about Texas after visiting only one city is similar to forming an opinion about ice cream after only trying one flavor. No matter where you are in the state, you will find a tenacious pride of identity and independence. But there are so many nuances and differences from one city to the next – some tangible and others not. If you want to say you have visited Texas, you can go anywhere. But if you want to say you understand Texas, you have to experience at least two cities. …and while El Paso and Lubbock would technically qualify (as would any other cities), ATX and SATX are an absolute classic combo!
Rivalries make the world a much more interesting place, and certainly there’s no lack of competition between San Antonio and Austin. Sure, the two cities’ airports are in a constant contest for direct flights, and both cities are eager to bring Fortune 500 companies to town. But the real battle is one of culinary prowess. Austin serves up mean barbeque and innovative cuisines, while San Antonio’s strength is in traditional Tex-Mex that has proven tried and true for ages. San Antonio is designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, recognizing its cultural heritage of cuisine with roots that are Spanish, German, and Mexican. If you really want to be the judge of food in both cities, then try breakfast tacos in both places – a favorite regional breakfast of a tortilla filled with egg, cheese, meat, potato, and sundry other options. It’s an excellent way to start the day, and both cities lay claim to having the best breakfast tacos!
Even though discussions of connecting the cities by high speed rail have yet to materialize, there are still several options of getting from Austin to San Antonio – a trip of just 80 miles (129 km). Ruling out hitchhiking and riding a horse, the options boil down to travel by bus or car. Megabus and FlixBus both offer affordable options, while Vonlane provides a seasonal service that brings luxury, comfort, and more convenient departure/arrival locales.
If you want the greatest experience in Texas, then definitely plan to visit both Austin and San Antonio on your trip. You’ll gain not only a wider array of memories but also a mastery of ways the state can be radically different from one place to the next. And if you need some ideas on how to get from one city to the other with some awesome stops along the way, check out this guide to an awesome road trip between Austin and San Antonio.
Once you’ve put a pin in the map of Texas and begin planning your next trip elsewhere, then check out all the great options the Free Tour Community makes available to travelers who want authentic experiences and local understanding during their journeys!