For a name that looms so large in the history of the West, the Alamo (founded by Spaniards as Mission Valero in 1718) is a small structure, occupying a petite plaza in downtown. The reverse is true of the city itself. Although the Lone Star State’s second-largest metropolis in both area and population, “Alamo City” feels both intimate and laid-back.
“It’s a large city,” said Bryan Rindfuss, “but with a small-town vibe and genuine warmth.” A writer and photographer, Rindfuss spent 15 years in New York City but found himself longing for his hometown. “People come for the River Walk,” he said. “And there’s a lot more to see.”
The three sections (downtown, Museum Reach and Mission Reach) tie many of the city’s attractions together like a ribbon, and the “American Venice” is a great place to begin exploring the city.
Originally constructed to control flooding, the River Walk is one story below street level. The wide promenades are shaded by bald cypress, landscaped with sunken gardens, and traversed by graceful staircases leading to arched bridges.
Get a boats-eye view with a 40-minute cruise on a colorful Go Rio barge. Then check out the galleries, boutiques and restaurants lining the walk. (Tableside guacamole and prickly pear margaritas at Boudro’s are a favorite.)
Many attractions are located in the city’s walkable downtown. Start at the Alamo, where outnumbered Texans gave their lives fighting for independence. Across the Plaza is the Menger Hotel. Operating since 1859, the hotel’s bar is an exact replica of London’s House of Lords Pub.
One of the oldest neighborhoods, La Villita has cobbled streets and serene courtyards. Walking west, admire the iconic Art Deco styling of the Tower Life Building and the imposing Bexar County Courthouse. A block northeast on Main Plaza is the San Fernando Cathedral. Founded in 1731, it’s the oldest operating religious sanctuary in North America.
Continue downstream to the Southtown Arts District.
“San Antonio has a robust contemporary arts scene,” said Rindfuss. “There’s a lot of bold work on display.” Rindfuss recommends the Blue Star Arts Complex, First Friday art walks and Liberty Bar, a funky restaurant housed in a former convent.
More art beckons along Museum Reach. Public artworks include a faux cave, a sound installation and a school of colorful fiberglass sunfish. The San Antonio Museum of Art has an outstanding collection, and the walk extends through Brackenridge Park, home to the Japanese Tea Garden and the San Antonio Zoo. The Witte Museum and the San Antonio Botanical Garden are nearby.
Barge traffic stops at the former Pearl Brewery. Opened in 1883, the complex is now a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. There’s a weekend market and a number of eclectic retailers and restaurants, like the acclaimed Asian fusion at Best Quality Daughter and the city’s first food hall.
The Pearl brewhouse was the tallest building in San Antonio when it was constructed in 1894. Now one of the city’s hippest lodgings, the Hotel Emma is named for Emma Koehler, who took over after her husband, Pearl president Otto Koehler, died in 1914.
Connecting Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada — four of the five colonial missions that compose the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site — Mission Reach highlights the city’s colonial history. Each limestone mission was built three miles from the next, with river water flowing into irrigation channels that supplied the missions and surrounding fields.
A draw for outdoor enthusiasts, this reach has trails, bike paths and an eight-mile paddling trail for kayaking and canoeing. More than 20,000 trees and vegetation support the native wildlife, and anglers compete with cormorants and eagles to snag catfish and bass.
Authentically San Antonio
The city keeps topping “best of” lists, luring 35 million annual visitors who come for fun, fiestas and food.
“San Antonio is an authentic city,” said David Gonzalez, vice president of media relations and communications for Visit San Antonio. “And nothing shows our culture more than our authentic culinary scene.”
Gonzalez points to more than 100 new chef-driven restaurants that have opened recently. “We’re the culinary capital of Texas, and our chefs are telling their stories through food,” he said.
UNESCO agrees, naming San Antonio the nation’s second “Creative City of Gastronomy” in recognition of its unique culinary heritage and culture.
“San Antonio keeps getting better,” Gonzalez said, “and 2023 is no exception.”