San Antonio is Texas’s second largest city. 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, which serves as a poignant symbol of the state’s commitment to freedom, perseverance and sacrifice; and
- The River Walk, which turned the flood-prone river into a beautiful and highly lucrative tourist attraction.
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 the entire state, one thinks first of the Alamo. It is indeed an impressive sight. More impressive yet is the history of the building 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 operates the site does an incredible job in bring this story to life.
An excellent introductory narration humanized the famous defenders (especially Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis) as well as Santa Anna, the general of the Mexican army that sought to subdue the territory’s rebellion, explaining their 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. It also debunked many of the myths perpetuated by legend and the John Wayne movie, such as by explaining that the state of the weapons allowed each defender to get off only one or two shots before they were engulfed by the attacking army.
The following 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, after building locks and new channels to protect the city from another devastating flood, has taken full advantage of its river. It turned it 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 it’s now tranquil waters.
Sure, the River Walk has been totally commercialized and is filled with restaurants that (from what we expected and were told—although we didn’t try them ourselves) may be mediocre. It is, however, still lovely and makes for a relaxing stroll. It is even fun and interesting to take one of the River Walk 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.
And, as we discovered on a venture out of the city, River Walk extends well beyond the downtown area, where 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. This area (as is the case with much of Hill Country) is especially lovely in springtime, when the wildflowers are in bloom.
Other City Neighborhoods and Attractions
While you are in the downtown area, you can also make brief stops at a few of the city’s other sites. These include:
- La Villita, the original section of the city that has been converted into shops and galleries and a beautifully restored old church, with a fun artistic construction that is particularly striking at night;
- The Historic and also beautifully renovated Menger Hotel, with its multi-story, stained glass-topped entry;
- The Buckhorn Tavern, with its kitschy shop, bar lined with dozens of stuffed animal heads and two museums (neither of which we visited).
- HemisFair Park, a 15 acre park built in the city of the 1968 World’s Fair, that is build around the 750-foot tall “Tower of the Americas”, with its “4D” theater, games and, of course, its own revolving restaurant.
For our money, however, the most interesting part of the city (other than the Alamo and the River Walk) is the Southtown area. This is the location of some of the most beautiful old homes (especially the King William Historic District), the still aspiring BlueStar Art Complex (build around the BlueStar Brewery and brewpub) and many of the city’s best and hippest restaurants.
We also ventured about five miles south of the city to visit the really historic (250 years old) Mission San Jose National Historical 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 did provide more than enough information to help us understand how the mission was used and the lives of the missionaries and the Native American residents.
And since the driver of the cab we took from the city to the Mission told us of the River Walk Park, we even took a lovely, wildflower-filled walk back to the city, where we conveniently exited the path at the Blue Star Arts Complex. Had we realized the distance and the convenience of the city’s B-Cycle Bike Sharing program (with pick-up and drop off spots right outside the Mission and in the BlueStar complex) we would have taken bikes.
After a brief BlueStar refresher, we took a self-guided walking tour of the King William District and ate dinner in Southtown. Since the neighborhood has so many good restaurants, we couldn’t decide on just one. So we didn’t. We decided on a grazing dinner, with dishes at two of the neighborhood’s restaurants and one of its food trucks.
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 second night formal restaurant stops included:
- The Monterey, which was most highly recommended by our new Facebook foodie friends. Given the weather, we chose to eat on the large outside patio. Since I managed to misplace the copy of the menu on which I wrote the two specials we had for the evening, I cannot, unfortunately, fully explain the dishes. From memory, however, our three-course “appetizer course” consisted of a half dozen freshly shucked oysters, topped with a foam that complemented the oyster’s saltiness, a huge lightly fried soft-shell crab sandwich with lettuce, tomato and light aioli on a brioche bun and one on-the-menu dish, fried gulf oysters on toast with Chinese sausage jam and manchego cheese. Each of the dishes was wonderful, as was the atmosphere and the service. A must-stop San Antonio dining experience.
- Feast, where we managed to confine ourselves to two decent, but only modestly satisfying dishes: grilled glazed Texas Bobwhite quail (with kale, lemon confit, cream and olive oil) and sweet corn fritters (with poppy seeds and jalapeno cream cheese);
- Alamo Street Eat Bar, a bar, outside eating area, nightly music and a half-dozen food trucks. Since we just happened to be there on “Crawfish Tuesday”, we couldn’t help to get a pound of the tiny, nicely spiced crustaceans. Our only problem was finding a free table at which to sit at the popular food truck park.
- Bliss, was the one San Antonio restaurant at which we ate a full dinner, which consisted of a number of appetizers. Since we are addicted, we shared another restaurant’s version of fried gulf oysters (sliders with candied bacon, buttermilk chive biscuits, spinach and brown butter hollandaise) and soft-shell crab (this time 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 favorite, a porcini salami and a Spanish cheese that is similar to a manchego.
We did, however, eat at one downtown restaurant. Since we didn’t have time to venture down to Southtown (of course!) to visit Rosario’s, the city’s most highly recommended Mexican restaurant, we visited the second choice:
- Acenar is a counterintuitively modern restaurant that has a patio on the river (although not on the River Walk). Although it was our second choice, we enjoyed the food, the service and the riverfront atmosphere. We began with a delicious guacamole with homemade tostadas chips. While Joyce ate healthily, with a Citrus Salad (spinach, orange, grapefruit, Manchego cheese, candied pecans and grilled shrimp), I enjoyed the Crab Tinga Taco with fresh gulf blue crab, tomato, onion, chipotle and avocado.
Then we also had to make a stop at at one more extraordinarily highly recommended restaurant, or rather food experience, for breakfast:
- Taco Haven is, according to our Facebook sources, THE place to go for breakfast tacos (make mine a ham and cheese). The restaurant was, as we were warned it would be, packed. Service, however, was fast, efficient and helpful and the taco, very good.
- 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 the 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.