San Antonio is a FANTASTIC place for the family. It just ticks all the boxes for a fun-filled family vacation – sun, fun, food, and relaxation are all on the table here. That’s what really makes San Antonio a great destination, it’s variety. You can spend a day loafing by the hotel pool, rocketing through the air on roller coasters, or immersing yourself in centuries-old history, and all within about 20 minutes of each other. So, if you are headed to San Antonio and looking to dip a toe into everything the Alamo city has to offer including its vibrant history, but the family is tagging along and you don’t want the kiddos to be bored to tears, read on for our thoughts on which San Antonio mission is best for the kids.
History of the Missions in San Antonio
San Antonio’s history dates back more than 300 years when Spanish settlers arrived and constructed Spanish missions that were intended to spread the Christian message to the native peoples of Texas. These missions then became thriving communities of hundreds of people who lived and worked together.
In time, the spread of disease, famine, and violence among tribes decimated the populations of the missions and they were eventually abandoned. Today, the heart of each of the missions, their church buildings (a UNESCO world heritage site), still stand as monuments to the early societies of Texas and as places for continued religious worship.
San Antonio Missions You Can Visit
There are five main missions that guests to San Antonio can access easily: Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known by its popular moniker, the Alamo), Mission San José, Mission Concepción, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. All of the missions lie along the banks of the San Antonio river and are connected by a 10 mile long riverwalk path. For more information on all of the missions, check out our complete guide to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Which Mission is Best for the Kids?
While all of the missions are kid friendly and enjoyable to visit, one in particular stands out for offering the most comprehensive experience for families with children and that is Mission San Jose. Mission San Jose is far and away the largest of the missions in San Antonio and has some unique experiences you can’t find at the other missions.
As I said, San Jose is the largest of the missions. But in addition to this, it is also the most archaeologically intact of all the missions which means there is so much to explore. Kids will have a blast running in and out of the old mission walls where there are still rooms that snake through the surviving edifices.
The mission grounds at San Jose are also expansive with lots of room to run. While your older kids dart in and out of the buildings, your littles can toddle around the central spacious, grassy field of the mission (and hopefully wear themselves out in the process).
The Alamo, while the most popular mission, is not the most kid-friendly, especially since visitors are asked to remain quietly reverential while touring through it. Kids and quiet – two things that tend to be mutually exclusive. Thankfully, this same rule does not apply to Mission San Jose. Kids can make all the noise they want without being shushed by frustrated park rangers or anxious parents.
The one exception to this is the Mission San Jose church. While inside the church building, guests are asked to keep their voices low, but this is not strictly enforced and nobody will be upset if the kids are acting like kids and therefore making some noise.
Mission San Jose is the only mission of the four federally operated missions (San Jose, Concepcion, San Juan, and Espada) that offers daily guided tours. These tours, conducted by national park rangers, are absolutely fascinating and tailored to keep the kids engaged. In fact, many of the students who visit San Jose on school field trips report the tour as being their favorite part of the whole experience.
Tours are held daily at 10 am and 11 am, last for approximately 45 minutes, and are free of charge. And in the event that you can’t attend a guided tour, park rangers are on hand in the afternoons to answer questions and demonstrate some of the skills that were utilized when the mission was in operation such as wool spinning, assembling a musket, or shooting an atlatl spear. Depending on the day, kids may be offered a chance to try their hand at launching an atlatl to see if they have what it takes to be a successful hunter.
While each of the missions has a visitor center, the visitor center at San Jose is the largest, replete with exhibitions, a giftshop, and a short film detailing the history of the mission. On a hot San Antonio day, the visitor center is the perfect place to head indoors for a short rest from touring. Sometimes a dark, quiet, air-conditioned theater room is exactly what a kid needs to recover his energy for the rest of the day. And the parents too.
Junior Ranger Activity
Kids can play park ranger for the day by picking up a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet, available for free online or at the Mission San Jose visitor center. The booklet has a number of interactive activities that can be used to pique their interest in history as they tour through San Jose including a scavenger hunt of local plants and animals. Upon completion of the activity booklet, a park ranger will sign and stamp it, fully certifying that the child has met the required conditions to be a Junior Ranger.
Protip: But if completing it feels like too much work while on vacation, just finish one page. Parents can then email a photo of the page to the park service, and an official ranger badge will be sent out via the mail to the child. This is a great way to prolong the fun of a sensational trip to San Antonio.
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