San Antonio is a major city in south-central Texas. Considering its size, however, it is very accessible. It is also pretty and hospitable. Its tourist appeal centers largely on two of the city’s two most iconic sights: The Alamo and The Riverwalk.
But while it is absolutely worth visiting both of these attractions, San Antonio has much more.
When one thinks of San Antonio, or indeed, the history of Texas, one can’t help but think first of the Alamo. The Alamo serves as a poignant symbol of the state’s commitment to freedom, perseverance, and sacrifice.
The Alamo is an impressive sight. More impressive yet is the building’s history and its role in shaping, symbolizing, and telling the story of the state’s independence and self-reliance. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas raised the money to renovate and operate The Alamo and does an incredible job in bringing this story to life.
An excellent introductory narration humanized the Alamo’s famous defenders especially Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Travis. It tells how Santa Anna, the general of the Mexican army, sought to subdue the territory’s rebellion and explains everyone’s motivations. It highlighted the futility of the battle and the sacrifices of the 200+ volunteers who accepted certain death (not to speak of the future of their families) by defying a 5,000-person army that was ordered to take no prisoners. The narration also debunked many of the myths perpetuated by legend and the John Wayne movie. For example, the state of the weapons allowed each defender to get off only one or two shots before they were engulfed by the attacking army.
Then a History Channel movie and detailed multi-room interpretive display provided the facts—the history of Texas settlement, the reasons that the initially satisfying relationship with Mexico soured, and the role of the Alamo battle in the broader war for Texan independence. Alamo Park also has a very pretty garden, a huge, ancient oak tree, and, of course, a large gift shop.
San Antonio has taken full advantage of its river. After building locks and new channels to protect the city from another devastating flood, it turned the river into one of the city’s premier tourist attractions and the centerpiece of its tourist economy. It renovated and gave new lives to hundreds of historic buildings along its banks, used its waters to create lovely waterfalls and features, and even integrated it directly into some buildings (such as the Hyatt Hotel) and designed a few (especially the convention center) to accentuate its now tranquil waters.
Sure, the Riverwalk has been totally commercialized and is filled with restaurants that we are told may be mediocre. However, it is still lovely and makes for a relaxing stroll. It is even fun and interesting to take one of the Riverwalk boat cruises, where you learn about the history of the river and the buildings. It is especially nice in the evening when the restaurants are filled, the bridges and water features are lit, music is playing and tourist-filled river boats are plying the waters.
The Riverwalk extends well beyond the downtown area. A walking/biking trail stretches miles outside the city and is dotted with parks, tables, and grills, where people can eat and even cook their own meals.
King Williams Historic District
Other than the Alamo and the Riverwalk, we find the King Williams Historical District as the most interesting part of the city. Self guided tours take you past some beautiful 19th-century ornate homes—some of which are available for tours. The BlueStar Art Complex (built around the BlueStar Brewery and brewpub), contains art, food, and drink. You can also pick up a rental bike there.
South Alamo and Saint Mary’s Streets Historic District
While the area is a bit more rustic, it still contains a number of historic and nicely restored buildings. The original section of Thomas Butler Bonham Elementary provides a Victorian core of the oldest continually operating school in the city (contradictory records suggest either 1889 or 1893). It has been sympathetically extended with an addition that does not detract from the original historic section. The neighborhood’s surrounding streets also contain several historic residential buildings that range from small, barely renovated structures to lovely, multi-storied residents with nice detail.
This Spanish Colonial neighborhood was made feasible by the city’s extensive irrigation work, which was home to both civilian and military populations in the early 18th century. Its current residences, commercial establishments, and a historic fire station (since converted into condos) range from themed-19th through early 20th centuries. It was also home to a 1959, pre-Civil War armory that served a network of surrounding forts including several that expanded effective U.S. control well into Mexican territory, at least until it was forcibly turned over to Texas when it joined the Confederacy.
The early 1700s adobe and stone building was built as a home and office of the Presidio’s captains. While it is supposed to have lovely hand-carved wooden doors and tile floors, we arrived too late to enter the impressive building.
This Mexican Marketplace is filled with colorful local Mexican craft shops and stalls with a wide range of pottery, paintings, and crafts.
The modern commercial and entertainment complex is a few miles out of the town center along the Riverwalk. It is also home to a branch of the Culinary Institute of America.
McNay Art Museum
McNay is a modern art museum and sculpture garden that focuses on 19th and 20th-century American and European art. It is located in a Spanish Colonial mansion on 23 landscaped acres located about 5 miles outside the city. Marion McNay, an heiress, artist, and art educator created the museum. The wonderful collection includes paintings, prints, sketches, and sculptures from artists including 19th/early 20th-century masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne, through Abstract Expressionists (Pollock, Rauschenberg, etc.). More contemporary artists such as Joan Mitchell, Larry Poons, David Smith and many others are also exhibited.
Its Culture Garden spills from indoor galleries to the expansive lawn. Complementing these are a lovely courtyard, art glass collection, Southwestern art (including an amazing Georgia O’Keefe sunset and a few galleries of 14th-16th-century works (especially religious).
The museum also hosts special exhibitions including one when we were visiting on extravagant Opera and Broadway Musical Costumes.
Other Art Museums
The San Antonio Museum of Art is located in the former Lone Star Brewery. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Latin American, and Spanish Colonial art are featured as well as modern and contemporary pieces.
The Blue Star Arts Complex is also at the former Brewery. It contains art, galleries, and art studios.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum, as the name suggests, seeks to preserve the art of the American West and the many cultural influences that shaped it. While tempted, we did not visit either of these museums.
La Villita was an original section of the city dating back to the 1700s. Today, its cobblestone streets are lined with shops, galleries, and a beautifully restored old church.
Teddy Roosevelt used the hotel bar to recruit volunteers to join the Rough Riders in what would become its successful charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. The multi-story historic and beautifully renovated hotel has a nice stained glass-topped entry.
The bar was established in 1943. It has a kitschy shop and is where you can eat and drink under dozens of stuffed animal heads. It also has 2 museums: The Texas Ranger Museum and an exotic animal collection.
The 15-acre park was the site of the 1968 World’s Fair. It is built around the 750-foot tall “Tower of the Americas”, with its “4D” theater, games, and, of course, its own revolving restaurant. It contains numerous Spanish Colonial buildings.
Five miles south of the city is a 250-year-old historic park. This so-called “Queen of the Missions”, the largest Spanish Mission in the U.S., has been fully restored. Although we managed to just miss the last tour of the day, the introductory movie, the visitor center and interpretive exhibits within some of the restored buildings provided more than enough information to help us understand how the mission was used and the lives of the missionaries and the Native American residents.
San Antonio Restaurants
To our culinary surprise, we found the San Antonio restaurant scene (at least in Southtown) to be more interesting than we expected. Our grazing and formal restaurant stops included the following:
- Supper is at the Hotel Emma Pearl Entertainment complex. Our very nice dinner began with smoked snapper cornmeal fritters with green goddess dressing and littleneck clams with chorizo and fingerling potatoes in their broth. We followed with two tasty entrees—smoked crispy quail with Carolina Gold Rice grits and seared sea scallops with Muzquiz pecan broth and charred avocado. Our wine was a pleasant 2017 Domaine Chanson Marsannay.
- Biga on the Bank, another winner, is located in the center of the Riverwalk. The restaurant offers very attractively priced half portions that provide opportunists to sample multiple dishes. We capitalized on the opportunity with Buttermilk Cornbread and two appetizers: Texas Chicken Fried Oysters with squid ink pasta, pancetta, swiss chard, and mustard hollandaise was good. But the best dish of the night was seared Hudson Valley foie gras with apple/apricot/raisin chutney, duck cider jus, and brioche toast. We then had two half-entrees: baked North Sea salmon with bacon-braised cabbage, roasted potatoes lemon beurre blanc, and a more disappointingly spiced antelope and quail with goat cheese tart, brussel leaves, chestnuts, and cranberry-cabbage date chutney. Accompanying the meal was a Gamay-based Beaujolais 2021 Jean-Paul et Charly Thevenet “Vielles Vignes” from Morgon.
- Rosarios is an excellent Mexican restaurant in the King William district. We were most impressed by the shrimp nachos butter-garlic shrimp, pico de gallo, queso Monterey and guacamole. We found the crispy chicken taco (with lettuce, tomato, and cheddar) dry and somewhat tasteless. And since we were in a Mexican restaurant, we had to add traditional marguerites to our meals.
- Domingo is a lovely, relaxing spot on the Riverwalk. Although we didn’t eat here, we did enjoy several pre-dinner marguerites: the Signature (our preference) with tequila, orange liqueur, and lime, and a Passionfruit with tequila, lime, and passionfruit.
- Bliss. We had a number of appetizers for dinner here. The fried gulf oyster sliders had candied bacon, buttermilk chive biscuits, spinach, and brown butter hollandaise. Our soft-shell crab was a Shiner Bock battered crab with cilantro cole slaw and jalapeno corn remoulade. We finished up with a charcuterie and cheese plate with prosciutto, coppa, and an Italian cow and sheep milk cheese, as well as our two favorites, a porcini salami and a Spanish cheese that is similar to a manchego.
- Acenar is a counterintuitively modern restaurant with a patio on the river (although not on the Riverwalk). We enjoyed the food, the service, and the riverfront atmosphere. We began with delicious guacamole with homemade tostadas chips. Joyce had a healthy citrus salad with spinach, orange, grapefruit, Manchego cheese, candied pecans, and grilled shrimp. Tom enjoyed a crab tinga taco with fresh gulf blue crab, tomato, onion, chipotle, and avocado.
We have stayed in several places in San Antonio.
- Westin Riverwalk. We were disappointed by this Westin and feel we would have been happier at another place. While the room was fine, it did not feel at the level we would have expected from a Westin and the price. The room only had 2 towels in it although they did supply more when we asked. They claimed they were having a supply issue. The location on the Riverwalk was the best part of our stay.
- Arbor House Suites. This complex of four restored Victorians consists of suites, each named after and decorated with prints of Alamo heroes. The Davy Crockett Suite had a pleasant, period sitting room, king-sized bedroom, and bath. Although the building, suites, and yard are all lovely, our bed was a bit soft and shook when either of us moved. We were also not able to get any information from the manager, since the only time he was onsite (at least when we were there) was when we checked out. All other communications, including telling us where we could park and how to get into the locked house, were by phone.