A river runs through it.
By Jan Butsch Schroder : Photos Jan Butsch Schroder
Spend a few days in San Antonio and eating a taco filled with pinto beans and cheese for breakfast won't seem unusual. Neither will colorfully clad skeletal shrines to dead people, a mariachi mass, a 24-hour Mexican restaurant that seats 500 or a compact, urban downtown layered over a river bordered by luxury hotels and spas.
When you consider the size of Texas, it's no wonder that the state's main cities have multiple - and very different - personalities. From the quirky liberalism of Austin (motto: Keep Austin Weird) to the gleaming skyscrapers and new money of Dallas, it's not all cowboy hats and boot scootin' boogies.
Even within each city you'll find a melding of traits and cultures, perhaps nowhere more than in San Antonio. With a population of 1.7 million, 60% of whom are Latino, San Antonio has been called the most Mexican city outside of Mexico. And with 21.7 million visitors a year, it is the most visited city in Texas. You could go and just visit the River Walk and the Alamo, but there is so much more to this Texas destination, including a revitalized arts scene and fine dining beyond barbecue and huevos rancheros. So travelgirl, come along for the ride.
Spend a few days in San Antonio and eating a taco filled with pinto beans and cheese for breakfast won't seem unusual. Neither will colorfully clad skeletal shrines to dead people, a mariachi mass, a 24-hour Mexican restaurant that seats 500 or a compact, urban downtown layered over a river bordered by luxury hotels and spas. When you consider the size of Texas, it's no wonder that the state's main cities have multiple - and very different - personalities. From the quirky liberalism of Austin (motto: Keep Austin Weird) to the gleaming skyscrapers and new money of Dallas, it's not all cowboy hats and boot scootin' boogies. Even within each city you'll find a melding of traits and cultures, perhaps nowhere more than in San Antonio. With a population of 1.7 million, 60% of whom are Latino, San Antonio has been called the most Mexican city outside of Mexico. And with 21.7 million visitors a year, it is the most visited city in Texas. You could go and just visit the River Walk and the Alamo, but there is so much more to this Texas destination, including a revitalized arts scene and fine dining beyond barbecue and huevos rancheros. So travelgirl, come along for the ride.
Although it's located near the Texas Hill Country, San Antonio is as flat as a tortilla. If you stay downtown you can walk or take a trolley just about anywhere. I found one of the charms of the city was just wandering around up and down bridges around the three-mile River Walk along the San Antonio River. If I were unsure of my direction I would consult one of the helpful maps posted on flower-potted street signs.
With its compact, urban downtown, San Antonio offers a variety of hotels, all located within walking distance from each other. The Drury Plaza Hotel River Walk, in the former Alamo Bank Building, has 50-foot ceilings and refurbished chandeliers in the lobby. The famous rooftop weather spire, once an indicator of temperature, is now programmed to light up in different colors to go along with current events in the city. The contemporary, luxury 213-room Hotel Valencia has the look of a Tuscan farmhouse, with beautiful river views. Although the hotel was constructed in 2003, it was built around the façade of the historic Maverick Building. Located adjacent to the Alamo, The Emily Morgan has been cited as one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival Architecture in America. The Hotel Contessa is an all-suite, contemporary property overlooking the River Walk with an Aveda spa on the rooftop. History buffs will love the Menger Hotel. Built in 1859, and located just 100 yards from the Alamo, the bar is a replica of the House of Lord's Pub in London and was a recruiting location for future-president Teddy Roosevelt when he was looking for men to be Rough Riders. Even if you don't stay here, be sure to visit the three-story Victorian lobby, furnished with rare antiques. For pure luxury, try the four-star Watermark Hotel and Spa, located on the River Walk. The 17,000-square-foot spa is four-star as well. Located across the footbridge is its companion property, the elegant Omni La Mansion del Rio.
Eat and Drink
The mural of the Cortez family located in the back room of Mi Tierra is worth the visit alone. The restaurant was founded by the family in 1941 as a three-table café for farmers and is now a San Antonio landmark, open 24 hours a day with a seating capacity of 500. The Tex-Mex food is very good and you can't leave without inspecting the goodies in the pastry case. To experience one of the last remaining German influences in San Antonio, visit Schilo's Deli. Open since 1917, it is still serving Reubens, sausages, and root beer served in a frosted mug, with a towering two-inch head. You can also go to the take-out window on the side for a fruit strudel to go. The four-star Restaurant Le Rve serves seasonal French cuisine. You must have reservations here and jackets are required for men. Located on the River Walk, Boudro's is always packed, with good reason. This Texas bistro serves everything from smoked shrimp to duck and sausage gumbo to pan-seared lobster tail.
For a one-of-a-kind experience, get a group and book dinner on a barge. This isn't your usual bad-food, tacky-neighbors dinner cruise - you'll be served an elegant four-course dinner, while drifting slowly through the narrow riverbanks. Several other restaurants and hotels offer dining boats as well. For a more elegant dining experience, try Citrus, located inside Hotel Valencia. This sophisticated upscale steakhouse is gorgeous, with knowledgeable waitstaff. Go for lunch and experience the city's first paella bar. Be sure to step through the metal chain curtain to the intimate VBar. Pull out your favorite stilettos on Friday night, and you get $1 off your first drink for every inch of your heel!
travelgirl tip: If you're in San Antonio the third Thursday of the month, check out Martinis & Manicures. Salon Versi River Walk teams up with the bartenders at VBar for a martini and a manicure for $20, from 5PM to 9PM.
Biga on the Banks, a James Beard Award Nominee, has gained a loyal following for its contemporary cuisine and setting overlooking a bend in the river. A relaxing way to end an evening is to have a drink in Charles Court, a charming courtyard surrounded by tropical foliage located at the rear of Zinc wine bar. In Southtown, try the historic Guenther House to fuel up on a Texas-size breakfast on the lovely patio. The quirky Madhatters Tea House & Café, located in the King William Historic District, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Take a break during shopping at the coffeehouse, Casa Chiapas. For a lively dining experience and awesome margaritas, go to Rosario's, considered by many to have the best Mexican food in San Antonio. Go on the weekend for live music. travelgirl tip: Happy hour starts at 3PM Monday through Thursday, with house margaritas for only $3.50.
Of course you have to visit The Alamo. Originally a home for missionaries, its claim to fame is from a battle in 1836 during the Texas Revolution when Texan defenders held out for 13 days against Santa Anna's army. San Antonio's major attraction is the River Walk, which meanders through the city, just a short flight of stairs below the main streets. A fun way to see the sites along the river is on a short cruise. Sure, you'll look like a tourist - but so what!
travelgirl tip: The only time not to visit San Antonio is during January, when the river is drained. In 2008 and 2009, the dates are January 2-9. For a real party, visit in April for Fiesta, a 10-day festival. The entire city stops for the Battle of Flowers Parade. In 2008 the date is April 25th.
Check the listings to see what's playing at the Majestic Theatre. Built in 1929, it was designed to be one of the most ornate buildings in South Texas and was the first theater in Texas to be air-conditioned. Go early to get a seat at the mariachi mass at Mission San Jose every Sunday at noon. One of San Antonio's newest attractions is the bright pink Musea Alameda, located on the edge of Market Square. The nation's largest Latino museum, it is the first affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute and tells the story of the Latino experience in America. Be sure to check out the eclectic and vibrant gift shop. Created by a San Antonio artist, Franco Mondini-Ruiz, here you'll find items from high camp to high culture.
McNay Art Museum is a drive from downtown, but worth the effort. Located in a residential area of San Antonio, The McNay opened in 1954 in the Spanish Colonial home that was built in 1920 by Marion Koogler McNay, who was married six times, yet still found time to indulge her passion for art. You'll discover works from 19th and 20th century European and American artists. The grounds are stunning and the courtyard here is one of the prettiest, most tranquil places in San Antonio. The San Antonio Museum of Art, housed in a former Lone Star Brewery complex, features everything from Greek and Roman sculpture to Latin American folk art to an entire wing devoted to Asian art. A few items to note: a 3000-year-old mummy, a Chihuly hanging from the ceiling in the foyer past the lobby and a sand mandala. Constructed grain-by-grain by Tibetan Buddhist monks, these are usually dismantled after completion as a symbol of the impermanence of all that exists, but this one was painstakingly glued down and preserved.
Art lovers also need to check out Artpace, a unique combination contemporary art gallery and residency program founded by the late Linda Pace, heir to the Pace Foods Company. Nine artists a year are invited to live here, create whatever they want, and put it on display. "We provide the means and opportunity to create and show their work, and give them the opportunity to experiment," said Director Matthew Drutt. "Anything goes. We never know what we're going to get. That's the beauty of the program."
The charming 1896 Sullivan Carriage House houses the gift shop at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, which has 38 acres with Texas wildflowers, scrub, formal gardens, an herb garden, a Japanese garden and even a garden for the blind.
Venture a few miles south of downtown and you'll be in the Boho section of San Antonio with the Blue Star Arts Complex and the urban artists' village of Southtown. The warehouses and lofts at Blue Star have been converted into galleries, retail shops and the Blue Star Brewing Company. If you're lucky enough to be in San Antonio for the First Friday of the month, don't miss First Fridays, a gallery walk in Southtown with live music and craft vendors where up to 7,000 people fill the streets during the summer months. Visit the Garcia Art Glass, where glassblower Gini Garcia can be seen in the back, fashioning her gorgeous original hand-blown creations. While you're in the area, be sure and tour through the King William Historic District, where you can stroll and admire the homes - each one unique.
You have to visit the Rivercenter Mall, if only to stroll through the five-story art deco Dillard's. For galleries and shops with a more identifiably San Antonio flair, visit La Villita, an historic arts village on the river. San Antonio's first neighborhood, the site was originally home to huts for Spanish soldiers, which were replaced with stone and adobe homes after a flood. European immigrants moved here more than 100 years ago, adding to the Mexican and American cultural mix.
For the latest fashions as well as alternative selections, check out the numerous boutiques on Broadway Street. While you're there, head over to North Broadway for a custom-fitted hat at Paris Hatters, topping heads since 1917.
travelgirl tip: Got a chapeau in your closet that has seen better days? Paris Hatters has a hat restoration service as well.
A big tourist draw, Market Square is worth a walk through and a good place to pick up cheap souvenirs. Get your piñatas and sombreros here. My favorite shop was Earth to Market, where you can find Mexican imports such as painted switch plates, iron crosses and hand painted ornaments.
The Shops at Southtown are housed along South Alamo Street in former homes. Many of them don't open until noon, so check times before you go. Visit Pulquerios for lots of handmade jewelry and gift items. Inter Artisan sells international folk art, hand-blown glass and Oaxacan woodcarvings.
The Robert Hughes Gallery has a selection of ethnic furnishings and contemporary art. Sure I'll remember the Alamo. But there is so much more to this rich, vibrant city that the memories will only start there.
top 5 things for a travelgirl to do in san antonio
A worker at Garcia Art Glass
After you've seen the Alamo, strolled down the River Walk and enjoyed a cool beverage on its banks underneath a brilliantly colored umbrella, what's next?
1. Dine at the oh-so-sophisticated and romantic Citrus restaurant in the Hotel Valencia. The gorgeous dishes almost look too beautiful to eat. Step next door to the elegant VBar, sip a Cosmo and enjoy the view of the river. Wear your stilettos on Friday night and get $1 off for each inch of your heel!
2. After viewing the works of Cézanne, van Gogh, Rodin, Matisse and Picasso at the McNay Art Museum, relax in the gorgeous sun-dappled courtyard and ponder the life of Marion Koogler McNay. She used oil money she inherited from her father and built this home to live in with husband number six. In her will, she left the home to be converted into the first museum of modern art in Texas.
3. Visit the gift shop at Museo Alameda, where you're sure to get a chuckle from the quirky collection of high kitsch coordinated by attorney-turned-artist Franco Mondini Ruiz. Where else can you find art that reads "Make Tacos Not War"?
4. Watch the glass blowers at Garcia Art Glass in Southtown, a fascinating look at this seemingly dangerous art. Glassblower Gini Garcia made 150 glass pumpkins for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and has done commissions for Volvo, AT&T and Warner Brothers.
5. Visit ArtPace, a contemporary art gallery, to view the latest exhibits of the visiting artists, who have been given the chance to fulfill an artists' dream - a place to live, funding and no limitations on their creations. Admission is free as Director Matthew Drutt says, "We don't want any barriers to people experiencing art. An admission fee is a barrier."