As a native Texan (now Californian), I’ve been to San Antonio many times in the past. Based on this background, you could assume that I know the region well, right? Well, you would lose that bet as my last visit acquainted me with a Texas town I had not yet met.
The nation’s seventh largest city and the state’s second in size, San Antonio is no small place. Yet, its downtown is modest, quaint, and easy to stroll through, but it is unlike most major U.S. metropolitan areas. Its Made-in-Texas hallmarks are distinctive: the Alamo, the River Walk and an international history that’s a colorful combo of Western cowboys and Spanish vaqueros, blended with a German population.
In 1718, five Spanish missions were located along the river, one of these missions, San Antonio de Valero, became a military barracks known as the Alamo. The fortress’ impressive 13-day battle during the Texas Revolution forever put this surprisingly tiny structure on the map. Nearby, The Spanish Governor’s Palace, now a National Historic Landmark, is one of Texas’ oldest standing residential buildings.
Add to the mix brew houses that were long ago erected and now repurposed as exciting, different venues, and you have today’s San Antonio. The former Lone Star Brewery houses the San Antonio Museum of Art. Pearl Brewery Company’s 22-acre complex (locally known as Pearl) may have brewed beer from the 1800s to 1999, but today it’s become a 21st century “culinary gathering place.” It is the address of 12 restaurants, 12 retailers, a Saturday farmer’s market and the third campus of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
The River Walk takes you deep into the heart of Texas and the moment you step onto its cobblestoned footpath, you’re immersed into this distinctive destination. Running alongside the city’s eponymous river, flowing one story below for approximately two miles of downtown streets and miles beyond, it is a lush network of walkways and stairways. An annual magnet for millions, the tropical setting is green with cypress and palms and scattered with al fresco eateries, toe-tapping music venues and an assortment of hotels and boutiques, all commingling with back-in-the-day structures.
With the River Walk’s recent expansion to 15.5 miles, it represents America’s longest linear park. It not only connects tourist attractions like the Alamo, Pearl and the San Antonio Museum of Art, but also hiking and biking trails that reach other areas such as Missions Concepción, San José, San Juan Capistrano and Espada (nominated for UNESCO World Heritage site status, along with the Alamo). For those not exploring on foot or by bike, there is Rio San Antonio Cruise’s 45-minute narrated boat ride and the Rio Taxi’s 39 River Walk stops.
Photo Courtesy of Briscoe Western Art Museum
Along the river sits La Villita or “little village,” a thriving arts center and former garrison that housed the Alamo’s soldiers in the late 1700s. Though a contemporary setting for art galleries, one-of-a-kind shops and specialty restaurants, the past is still omnipresent. Fast forward to the 1968 World’s Fair and HemisFair held in San Antonio. The 96-acre site of the event is now a multi-acre downtown green space and home to the Institute of Texas Cultures, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and the iconic 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas (now an observation deck and restaurant).
Newest on the River Walk is the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Having opened in October 2013, and named for Dolph Briscoe, a former governor of Texas and the state’s largest private landowner, the museum showcases everything western, from a replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach and collection of more than 100 spurs to Pancho Villa’s last-known saddle and an interactive diorama of the Alamo’s noted battle.
Photo Courtesy of Éilan Hotel Resort & Spa
With 18 properties given AAA four diamond status, there is no shortage of hotels for luxury-loving cowboys, nor are there a lack of choices. Though Éilan Hotel Resort & Spa is 20 minutes north in Texas Hill Country, a stay at this Tuscan-inspired hotel is rewarded with three pools, a 10,000-square-foot spa and its signature restaurant Sustenio, created by award-winning Stephan Pyles in collaboration with Executive Chef Mike Collins. Opening in February 2012, it is one of two Texas hotels named to Leading Hotels of the World.
Or travelers can book a night at the Omni La Mansion del Rio which replicates a stay in a grand hacienda with its Spanish colonial architecture, classic European appointments and the romance of its River Walk location. Upon entering the marble lobby of Hotel Contessa, the striking portrait of the hotel’s Spanish matriarch Lady Contessa sets the stage for a world-class visit. Punctuated with such appointments as wooden framed mirrors, colorful tile bar tops, exposed brick walls and expansive archways, it’s been named as one of the country’s Top 100 Hotels. Its restaurant, Las Ramblas, features an exhibition-style kitchen.
Photo Courtesy of The Sandbar Fish House & Market
San Antonio is indeed a happening place. “Of all of the things going on in this town, its culinary scene is the most amazing,” said a long time resident. In Pearl City, the two-time James Beard Award nominee Chef Andrew Weissman features dual eateries: the five-star Italian café Il Sogno Osteria, and the upscale oyster bar, The Sandbar Fish House & Market. Called a “gastropub with a hill-country feel,” Cured is the delicious child of Chef Steve McHugh (former Chef de Cuisine for New Orleans’ Chef John Besh). Located in Pearl Brewing Company’s administration building (circa 1904), its menu showcases cured meats and brewer’s crackers made with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Rounding out Pearl’s offerings is Blue Box, a self-described “swanky, hip cocktail bar.”
Photo Courtesy of Casa Hernán
Jason Dady is a local celeb chef with such eateries as Umai Mi, known for its spin on Asian fare; Tre Trattoria, an Italian restaurant; Two Bros. BBQ Market described as “true Texas pit-to-table” barbecue and DUK (Dady’s Underground Kitchen) Truck, an on-wheels cookhouse that roves San Antonio and features an ever-evolving gourmet menu.
When detailing San Antonio’s lively food scene, homage must be paid to Chef Johnny Hernandez, a native San Antonian and grad of New York’s CIA. Inspired by his restaurateur father and his own travels through Mexico, his take on Mexican food is entrenched in tradition. His restaurants include La Gloria, inspired by street foods from the interior of Mexico; Fruteria - Botanero reflecting the country’s fruit stands; El Machito featuring all things meat and his monthly barbacoa brunch at Casa Hernán. This urban hacienda home is always a sold-out affair.
Though traditionally known for its crave-worthy Tex-Mex cuisine and barbequed meals, San Antonio’s culinary dance card has expanded to offer a great range of styles such as Asian and Italian options. Add to this lineup the expanded River Walk, an inventive museum scene and the revitalization of its storied past, and you have a city that shouts, “Visit!” After sipping, tasting and exploring the state at its Lone Star best, it’s clear that “You can take the girl out of Texas…” well, you know the rest.