City on a Mission: A Guide to San Antonio
With mild winters, some-like-it-hot summers, a romantic River Walk, big-name theme parks, hike and bike trails, and historic Spanish architecture, San Antonio is a dynamic destination drawing more than 26 million visitors each year. The third fastest-growing city in the U.S., the active, young-spirited metropolis is the perfect place to soak in Old World charm and contemporary cultural delights.
SOUTH BY SOUTHTOWN
Of course the famous Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza; 210.225.1391) is a must-visit. But it’s just one of five historic Spanish missions in San Antonio, and the four others are just as interesting — and even more architecturally arresting.
As you drive south to check out the missions, first take a small detour through the Southtown neighborhood just a few blocks from downtown, which boasts an active arts community and eclectic restaurants and bars, like The Monterey, a patio-perfect gastropub (1127 S. St Mary’s St.; 210.745.2581). Also try the trendy cocktail and nosh scene at Feast (1024 S. Alamo St.; 210.354.1024).
Art galleries, coffee shops, salsa clubs, taco stands, and more fill this old neighborhood, and First Friday Art Walk events draw big evening crowds year-round. Rent a bike at the Blue Star Arts Complex (116 Blue Star; 210.227.6960) so you can spin past the stately Victorian Mansions of the adjacent King William Historic District, a great place for a walking tour, including along the famed River Walk (coming up ahead shortly).
Next: Drive, hike, bike, or kayak along the route of the new Mission Reach of the San Antonio River to reach the four missions of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, just a few miles from downtown. There, check out the Mission San Jose Visitor’s Center. Each of the four missions is still an active parish, so you might even stumble on to a Mariachi mass one Sunday.
DOWN RIVER, DOWNTOWN
Of course San Antonio’s most famous attraction after the Alamo is its romantic River Walk, a scenic man-made promenade rambling through the heart of downtown, featuring arched bridges, a tree-lined path, hotels, restaurants, boutiques, cafés, and shops. Be sure to dine beneath a colorful umbrella at a café like those at Casa Rio (430 Commerce St.; 210.225.6718) or walk a few blocks to shop for colorful Mexican imports and local artisans’ wares at Market Square. Also recommended: Dine amidst the glow of thousands of twinkling Christmas lights at the 24-hour shrine to Tex-Mex cuisine, Mi Tierra Cafe Y Panaderia (218 Produce Row; 210.225.1262).
Then take a Rio Taxi, walk, or drive the route of the new Museum Reach section of the River Walk, where public art installations hang from the bridges. That stretch of the River Walk ends at Pearl, which is sure to be a favorite stop.
PEARL: SAN ANTONIO’S NEWEST GEM
Locals love Pearl (303 Pearl Pkwy), a former brewery turned into a lively new fine art, entertainment, shopping, and culinary arts complex. Take a cooking class, peruse the year-round Saturday farmers market, grab a taco, shop a little, and enjoy a local brew. Pearl is home to restaurants, shops, bakeries, and ice cream stores, a Culinary Institute of America cooking school, and even a micro-brew pub. Construction is nearly complete at Hotel Emma, a luxury boutique Kimpton property set in the main brewery building, slated to open summer 2015.
For the perfect nosh spot, stop by Cured at Pearl (306 Pearl Parkway; 210.314.3929), owned by Chef Steven McHugh, who cures his own meats and hand-crafts sausages and pates. Cured’s charcuterie and small-plates menu, along with innovative craft cocktail selections and late-night hours, are crowd pleasers.
Another favorite Pearl place for a true taste of San Antonio is La Gloria, restaurant of native son Chef Johnny Hernandez, offering “Mexican street foods” in a casual setting along the end of the River Walk Museum Reach (100 E. Grayson St.; 210.267.9040). Hernandez has become quite the celebrity chef, owning numerous Texas restaurants and opening a new La Gloria restaurant in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in March 2015.
Carnivores will love El Machito (7300 Jones Maltsberger at Quarry Crossing; 210.314.3971), Hernandez’s newest Alamo City restaurant, a shrine to Mexican barbecue set across from the Quarry Market.
ALAMO CITY ART
Just a short drive from Pearl, you’ll find the nearly 100-year-old, pet-friendly (and breathtakingly beautiful) Japanese Tea Garden at Brackenridge Park (3853 N. St. Mary's St.; 210.212-4814), and the standout Witte Museum (3801 Broadway; 210.357.1910), beloved by San Antonio children for its hands-on exhibits.
For a taste of art from all eras, visit Texas’s first modern art museum, the nearby McNay Art Museum (6000 N. New Braunfels; 210.824.5368), which is set in a Spanish hacienda and also includes works by the Masters. But San Antonio’s newest and most cowboy-friendly museum stands downtown on the banks of the River Walk: the Briscoe Western Art Museum (210 W. Market St.; 210.299.4499). Adjacent to the Briscoe, the McNutt Courtyard & Sculpture Garden fills a shady garden space, open to the public and free of charge during regular museum hours.
BACK IN THE SADDLE, BUT WEARING SPURS
Ready to bust loose, Texas-style? Boot-scoot on by the oldest dancehall in the state, Gruene Hall, in the enchanting Gruene Historic District outside New Braunfels, about 30 miles from downtown (1281 Gruene Rd.; 830.606.1281). An authentic Texas ghost town turned entertainment destination, Gruene (pronounced “Green”), is the Texas you’ve been looking for.
For more Texas-sized fun, it’s easy to explore further afield. Austin is only about an hour away from San Antonio (70 miles), and the Texas Gulf Coast beaches and the border of Mexico are both only a two-hour drive away, too. Even Houston is about two-and-a-half hours from downtown, so San Antonio is easily accessible to most everything you’ll want to see or do in the Lone Star State. (That is, if you’re traveling by Zipcar—no guarantees on your route if you’re riding horseback.)