Strung along a 10 mile stretch of the San Antonio River, five Spanish missions shimmer in the south Texas sun. Built in the early 1700s, with ornate limestone churches and picturesque bell towers, they make up the largest collection of Spanish Colonial architecture in the USA. In July 2015 the San Antonio missions were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, joining just 22 other American landmarks.

Impressive they may be, but getting there is also part of the fun. A new extension of San Antonio’s famous River Walk links the missions to the city centre, and you can now hike, bike or paddle your way to visit them. They make for a great, active day out in the nation’s seventh largest city.

Getting there: hiking or biking through history

While bikes aren’t allowed on the narrow paths of the River Walk’s downtown loop, they’re perfect for exploring the rest of the route. Hop on a B-Cycle, the city’s bike sharing scheme, and head south past the historic homes of the King William District. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you peddle on through the Eagleland section, where an ecosystem restoration project is underway.

San Antonio MissionsPaul Franklin © courtesy of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The bike path doubles as a hiking trail. In addition to historical markers and plaques, you can use your smartphone to scan QR codes for more information about sites along the way.

Lone Star Boulevard marks the start of Mission Reach, the newest addition to the River Walk. It runs for eight miles to the southernmost Mission Espada. Here you enter a wilder, open landscape where native wildflowers, grasses and trees have been planted along the riverbanks to restore its natural habitat.

Whether you zip along the relatively flat trail, or take your time spotting birds and wildlife, it’s a peaceful escape from the city. Side trails lead to parks and picnic areas, and to the other four missions.

Exploring San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Four of the missions stand some two to three miles apart and are part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Their historic churches are still active Catholic parishes today, some with descendants of the original community among the congregation.

San Antonio MissionsPaul Franklin © courtesy of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Entrance is free, and you can explore on your own or join a tour to learn how the Spanish and indigenous people lived and worked here. From north to south, they include:

Mission Concepción The highlight here is the lovely stone church, unrestored except for the warm colours of its interior. Look out for the original frescoes in some rooms.

Mission San José Known as the ‘Queen of the Missions’, this is the largest mission complex, with remains of a gristmill and granary. The much-restored church has impressive ornamentation, a superbly sculpted rose window and statues carved in Spanish colonial times. The park’s visitor centre is also here.

Mission San Juan The least prosperous of the missions, a larger church was never completed here, but its chapel has a striking three-arch bell tower.

Mission Espada A well-preserved section of the acequia – the Spanish irrigation system – can be seen here. Parts of it are still in operation at the Espada Dam and aqueduct upstream.

San Jose, San Antonio MissionsPaul Franklin © courtesy of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

On to the Alamo

The fifth mission, and the best known, is the Alamo which stands right downtown, a few steps away from the River Walk. Stroll there along its shady paths or take a river barge tour or a Rio Taxi.

It’s easy to forget that this now-legendary battle site was actually a mission church. Here, in 1836, frontiersmen David Crockett, Jim Bowie and a small band of Texas settlers barricaded themselves inside the Alamo and fought to the death against Santa Anna’s Mexican army.

Today the church is a shrine to those who died fighting for independence. Despite the crowds, it’s a moving place, still redolent with the aura of battle. Take a tour to hear the full story, and visit the Long Barrack Museum off the courtyard. Some of its fascinating artefacts are on loan from musician Phil Collins, an Alamo enthusiast. Entrance is free.

San Jose bell tower, San Antonio MissionsPaul Franklin © courtesy of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

A new perspective: kayaking the San Antonio River

Once you’re well acquainted with the missions, the most exciting way to explore the Mission Reach area is from the river itself – in a kayak. You can rent one from Mission Kayak, and they’ll drop you off at one of the access points for a two- to five-mile trip.

Floating low in the water between the lush banks, you’ll soon forget you’re anywhere near a city. The roar of automobiles is replaced by the scolding chirps of great-tailed grackles as you glide past egrets, heron, nesting swans and sunning turtles.

Though the river is fairly shallow, it’s got plenty of thrills as you paddle into a series of chutes that carry you down the rocky rapids. Mission accomplished!

Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USACompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month