Best known for its lovely River Walk area that cuts through the downtown area along the green and glorious San Antonio River as well as a little mission chapel called The Alamo, where brave men lost their lives in the battle for Texas’ independence, San Antonio offers a lovely south-of-the-border sensibility.
With its dramatic Spanish-style architecture and the sunny warm Texas-sized welcome that awaits, you’ll feel like you’ve slipped away to find a sliver of the Old Mexico of days gone by. But San Antonio isn’t a sleepy town. No, like colorful bits of confetti, fun spots are scattered all over—from one end of the famous River Walk to the other, from Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park to Sea World, from the hip new Stone Oak suburb to the historic Mission Trail. Even the club scene isn’t confined to just one area. So here’s a quick guide to help you map out just a few sizzling stops in this hot metropolis of music, salsa, and more.
Forget the Alamo. The River Walk is San Antonio’s most enchanting attraction. This corridor of quiet walkways, rambling just below street level, was begun in 1939 as a project of the WPA and features arched bridges, shade trees, and lush landscaping along the slender green San Antonio River. Romantic restaurants, clubs, galleries, and shops line narrow walkways. Float on a river barge by day, dine beneath colorful umbrellas at dusk, and sway to the sounds of Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band at The Landing after dark.
Kids love the kitschy Buckhorn Museum and Saloon and Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Louis Tussaud’s Wax Works at street level. Nearby the Battle of the Alamo blasts the big screen at the Rivercenter I-Max Theatre. Blocks away in Market Square, mariachis serenade you over a Tex-Mex meal at Mi Tierra’s. Stroll through delightful shops at La Villita Historic Arts Village, or take a glass elevator to the top of the Tower of the Americas in HemisFair Park.
For a budget-friendly hotel near the heart of it all, be sure to visit Courtyard by Marriott San Antonio Riverwalk on N. St Mary’s Street, downtown. It’s convenient to the River Walk, RiverCenter Mall, The Alamo, and all the best attractions downtown.
Enjoy a libation at the “Teddy Roosevelt Bar” in the historic Menger Hotel or at the hidden basement bar of the Hotel Havana. Grab a show at the Majestic Theatre, where terraced balconies depict a Spanish village scene so enchanting it steals the show. Afterwards maybe you’ll want to dine on a patio overlooking the River Walk. If so, enjoy Chef John Brand’s sparkling seafood spot, Pesca on the River at the beautiful Watermark hotel, a luxury boutique property with San Antonio’s best spa. Across the river, the Omni El Mansion del Rio hotel offers a fabulous brunch at Las Canarias. That hotel, with its romantic Spanish Colonial style, is always a good choice for a prime River Walk hotel property.
There’s also music, food, and fun at Sunset Station, and the Spurs and other sports teams are always heating up both the AT&T Center and the Alamodome, which happens to be the home of the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo each February.
And of course while in town, you’ve got to see the Alamo. Smack-dab in the middle of the city, with hotels and big buildings all around, the Alamo looks small and special—which it is. Once part of the old Spanish Mission San Antonio de Valero, the old church speaks to Texans of the many who died defending this place—including Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis. With lovely gardens surrounding the old mission church, the walled grounds and the chapel itself seem sacred. Knowing you stand on the spot where so many died is a humbling experience, and the story of the bloody battle will make you proud to be an American. It won’t take you long to tour the mission itself, but spend some time in the adjacent Low Barracks building to see artifacts from that era, listen to a free talk on the story of the Alamo outside in the garden, and visit the museum and gift shop before heading south to see more of the Alamo City.
HIP BOHEMIAN ENCLAVE
Just a short trolley ride from downtown, a vibrant arts district awaits comprising converted warehouses, industrial loft spaces, and Victorian-era buildings. Southtown’s hip bohemian enclave offers an eclectic mix of art galleries, taco joints, Cuban-fusion restaurants, tapas bars, sushi spots, vintage clothing stores, and hot music venues. By day, it’s a quiet strip where you can sip coffee and pop into shops, but by night the street pulses to a sassy salsa beat.
During the First Friday Art Walk, galleries stay open late, but almost every night, music and art spill onto the streets, and margaritas cool down the steamy scene. The Blue Star Brewing Company offers Jazz on Tuesdays at the Blue Star Arts Complex. On Fridays, fall down the rabbit hole of live local music at Madhatters’ Tea House & Cafe. On Saturdays, locals line up for soup specials at El Mirador (try the “Sopa Azteca”). Spice up Saturdays with salsa dance lessons at Azuca Nuevo Latino Restaurant & Bar, where you can sip minty mojitos and sample spicy paella, then Rumba into the wee hours.
One of San Antonio’s best-kept secrets is the five historic Spanish Missions situated along the San Antonio River. Once self-sustaining communities of native peoples and Spanish friars lived and worked here. Today, you can hike, bike, walk, or drive from one mission to the next, visiting these glorious National Historic Parks properties. Mission San Juan, Mission San Jose, Mission Espada, Mission Concepcion, and The Alamo (originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero) are all lovely places to visit for a day of quietude in the countryside on the nearby outskirts of town.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The old Pearl Brewery area has been revived since an expansion of the River Walk (called “The Museum Reach”) turned it into an arts and entertainment complex near the San Antonio Museum of Art. Chic restaurants like Il Sogno or Texas Farm to Table Café and exciting art installations along the river are a big draw for locals and tourists alike. Farmer’s market days are held there, too. Take a river taxi boat ride to get there to see it all.
A few miles away, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center hosts events year-round, including a Tejano Conjunto Festival, ballet folklorico performances, and film festivals. And on McCullough Ave., the Olmos Bharmacy—an old drug store/soda fountain turned late-night hot spot—offers Wednesday night tango lessons.
In the Stone Oak area, where new upscale neighborhoods and shopping centers abound, locals flock to stylish restaurants like Pavil, a French brasserie where Chef Scott Cohen’s peppered New York strip and fabulous French onion soup are sure to please (Pavil also hosts Argentinean tango lessons); The Watermark Grill, with its cool oyster bar; and the newest Paesano’s location, legendary for owner Joe Cosniac’s coveted recipe for Shrimp Paesano.
MILES & MILES OF TEXAS
To the northwest, The Shops at La Cantera are the cure for those craving high-end stores, and the golf courses, pools, and grounds at the Westin La Cantera Resort and the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort attract families visiting nearby Sea World and the Six Flags Fiesta Texas Theme Park. Another nice shopping area with a Bass Pro Shop, IMAX movie theatre, and great retail stores is The Rim. Its close proximity to Six Flags Fiesta Texas is a plus for families.
Perhaps my favorite place in that area is the Westin La Cantera Resort. Standing at one of the highest points in the city just northwest of downtown, La Cantera gives visitors a taste of the gorgeous Texas Hill Country region just north and west of town. The resort has stunning view of lovely live oak groves, pretty white limestone outcroppings, and green fairways. And though you’re close to downtown, you feel as if you’re hidden far away at a place that lets you enjoy the “miles and miles of Texas” and “all the stars up in the sky,” as the famous old cowboy song goes.
La Cantera is home to six pools, three hot tubs, health club and spa services, tennis courts, fabulous restaurants, a kids’ club, and flexible, spacious meeting spaces. But the star attraction is most certainly the golf: 36 holes of handicap-testing bliss, anchored by the 18-hole championship Resort Course at La Cantera, designed by noted golf course architect Jay Morrish and PGA Tour professional Tom Weiskopf. Adjacent to this stunner is The Palmer Course at La Cantera designed by the master himself, Arnold Palmer.
The resort is home to 11 private individual “casitas” or little houses where you can enjoy the amenities of a world-class hotel while experiencing a truly private luxury getaway hidden in the hills and trees with patios, pools, and so much more. And the main building at the resort has walls of windows offering stunning views of the great outdoors. The resort is close to the Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park, making it a perfect place for families to stay if the park is on their San Antonio “to do” list.
My favorite restaurant at the Westin La Cantera is their award-winning eatery, Francesca’s at Sunset. The name is apropos because stunning views and sunsets inspire diners each evening. It’s also a great place to taste fine wines and the scrumptious farm-to-table cuisine of Chef Ernie M. Estrada—who turns to local “Farmer Bob” of nearby Uncertain Farms of Seguin for fresh produce.
HIDDEN IN THE HILLS
Head just a little farther north of town on I-10, and you’ll be up to your boots in cowboy culture in the Hill Country. Saddle up at a dude ranch in the Old West town of Bandera, meander through shops in the hamlets of Boerne and Comfort, and taste the jäger schnitzel at the Welfare Café in Welfare (pop. 10). Book a B&B and visit a biergarten in the German settlement of Fredericksburg or climb to the top of Enchanted Rock, a giant granite batholith nearby. Wineries, lavender farms, wildflower centers, and ghost towns like Gruene and Luckenbach, which Willie Nelson made famous in song, are hidden in these hills.
No map is large enough to chart all the fun you can have, but here along the cattle trails where cowboys once roamed, all things converge to create a Texas-sized adventure in San Antonio. So go ahead: Remember the Alamo next time you’re planning a vacation.
For more information about San Antonio, visit www.visitsanantonio.com or call 800-447-3372. Ask for the free Travel & Leisure Guide.
• San Antonio Missions National Historical Park: www.nps.com/saan; 210-932-1001
• The Alamo: www.thealamo.org; 210-225-1391
• Courtyard by Marriott San Antonio Riverwalk: 210-223-8888
• Omni La Mansion del Rio Hotel (& Las Canarias Restaurant): www.omnihotels.com; 210-225-2581
• The Watermark Hotel (& Pesca on the River Restaurant): www.watermarkhotel.com; 210-396-5800
• Pavil Restaurant & Bar: www.brasseriepavil.com, 210-479-5000
• The Watermark Grill: 210-483.7600
• The Westin La Cantera Resort (& Francesca’s at Sunset): www.westinlacantera.com; 210-558-6500
Janis Turk is a travel writer and divides her time between Seguin, Texas, and New Orleans