Surprise Yourself in San Antonio

Papel picado at El Mercado Mexican market San Antonio

Traditional Mexican papel picado banners waving in the Texas sunshine at El Mercado in San Antonio.

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“You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

With that, frontiersman Davy Crockett harrumphed out of his native Tennessee, got involved with the Texas War for Independence from Mexico, and met his untimely end in 1836 at the Misión San Antonio de Valero, more famously known as The Alamo.

He may not have been in south-central Texas very long, but Crockett’s fierce, proud, “y’all can bite me,” go-his-own-way attitude still resonates today in the Alamo City.

Colorful, casual, and distinctly Texan, San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., yet it also has a rich Spanish colonial heritage dating from the early 1700s (well over half of its residents are of Mexican descent.)

Its population of over 1.5 million is bigger than Dallas, but with so much travel hoopla directed toward nearby Austin – about 90 minutes away – I’ve always felt that this city doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.

Here are some ideas for your next visit:

Artistic San Antonio

Appreciation for the arts is certainly not new in San Antonio, but recent years have seen an explosion in vibrant contemporary and public art.

I spent a fun few hours hunting down some of the murals that are part of the San Antonio Street Art Initiative. That meant, among other adventures, poking around in the most colorful freeway underpass you’ve ever seen – the Murals at Midtown.

Murals at Midtown freeway underpass San Antonio TX Paul Garson pillar

Artist Paul Garson’s pillar in the Murals at Midtown freeway underpass in San Antonio TX.

16 artists went to work on the big underpass support pillars at the intersection of North St. Mary’s and East Quincy streets under Interstate 35, turning them into imaginative canvases in every style imaginable.

Murals at Midtown freeway underpass San Antonio TX Kelly Edwards pillar

Artist Kelly Edwards’ pillar in the Murals at Midtown freeway underpass public art installation.

There is plenty of parking under the overpass around the pillars; pull in off of North St. Mary’s Street. No question it’s one of the most Instagrammable places in town.

Other recent San Antonio arts innovations include the Essex Modern City community arts project in a former pallet factory, and the Ruby City contemporary collection, housed in a dramatic 14,000 square foot building designed by renowned architect Sir David Adjaye OBE.

Don’t let all the fuss about the “new kids” keep you from checking out other local stalwarts like the San Antonio Museum of Art (a quick walk from the Midtown Murals,) the Blue Star Arts Complex, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, or the beautiful McNay Art Museum.

The Smithsonian Affiliate Institute of Texan Cultures is another worthwhile stop; it covers centuries of Texas cultural history and profiles the many native and ethnic groups who live in the state. Current special exhibits include “Mabuhay Filipino Texans” and African-American narrative quilts.

Greek embroidery Institute of Texan Cultures San Antonio

Greek embroidery sample at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

You can also catch a dramatic visual and sonic representation of San Antonio history projected onto the San Fernando Cathedral downtown – “The Saga” is an artistic 24-minute video that plays for free on multiple nights during the week on the Main Plaza.


Historic San Antonio

The two things that most people know about San Antonio are the Paseo Del Rio – the River Walk – and of course The Alamo. Don’t let their fame dissuade you from seeing them, but do it in a smart way.

These are both venerable downtown landmarks that have survived a lot of inattention and bad ideas in previous years. The River Walk almost became a storm sewer with a street over it, and The Alamo is in the midst of a major plan to restore its historic footprint and relocate the somewhat ill-fitting entertainment businesses located right across from it, like Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and Tomb Rider 3D Adventure Ride and Arcade.

The Alamo in San Antonio at night (courtesy skeeze on Pixabay)

The Alamo in San Antonio at night (courtesy skeeze on Pixabay)

It may seem obvious, but do not try to visit the Alamo on a summer weekend. It is one of the top attractions in Texas, and the combination of crushing crowds and San Antonio’s oven-like heat and humidity will make you miserable. The buildings are not very large, and it’s hard to feel reverent about the brave defenders when you’re jammed in there with a bazillion other tourists.

Try to visit during off-peak times (after Labor Day until late May) and book an informative guided Alamo tour rather than showing up and winging it.

The most crowded part of the 15-mile-long River Walk is probably the horseshoe-shaped section bisected by East Commerce and West Market Streets in the heart of downtown. It’s also where people tend to look for a place to stay because of the convenient location, but review Google Maps carefully before you book anything. There are nice hotels in San Antonio neighborhoods like Alamo Heights, King William/Southtown, northwest near Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld/Aquatica, or northeast near Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island (seasonal play and water parks designed for people with special needs.)

Lobby of the Hotel Contessa on the San Antonio River Walk

Lobby of the elegant Hotel Contessa on the River Walk.

The phrase “on the River Walk” tends to be over-used by local businesses trying to attract visitors with a place they’ve heard of, so again, check a map. The pedestrian areas are not too crowded if you go early enough in the day.

Waterside views are certainly scenic, especially on a boat tour or shuttle, but don’t forget to explore the sections that run north and south from downtown. They are accessible on foot or by bike.

Part of the San Antonio River Walk

The River Walk’s Mission Reach stretches along the San Antonio River eight miles to the south of downtown.

Take advantage of the BCycle bike rental stations all along the way, because this is a perfect gateway to explore gorgeous architecture and mansions in the King William Historic District, and the four Spanish Colonial missions of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which is also the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.

(Tip: at noon on Sundays is a bilingual Mariachi Mass at Mission San Jose – all the Missions still have active Catholic congregations and services.)

Exterior of Mission Concepción in San Antonio TX

Exterior of Mission Concepción, one of the four Missions in the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

The Museum Reach part of the River Walk runs north from downtown, offering easy access to museums like the kid-friendly DoSeum and taking you all the way up to the historic Pearl District, which is another must-see thing to do in San Antonio.

From 1883 to 2001, this was the site of a Pearl Beer brewery. It has been transformed into a dining, shopping, and cultural destination, which of course means lots of condo and apartment development nearby because people want to live where the action is, and this has certainly become one of those places.

District shopping includes local landmark Dos Carolinas, where you can get your man into a custom guayabera shirt. No better way to beat the San Antonio heat in comfort and style.

Entrance to Dos Carolinas custom guayabera shirts in the Pearl District San Antonio

Entrance to Dos Carolinas – custom guayabera shirts in the Pearl District.

The Pearl District’s crown jewel is, without question, the exquisite Hotel Emma, built out of an 1894 landmark brewery building and one of the few properties that inspires me to want to slap down big bucks just for the experience of staying there.

Exterior entrance area Hotel Emma San Antonio

Entrance to Hotel Emma in San Antonio’s historic Pearl District.

I’m not normally a big fan of “industrial chic” (it feels cold and unfriendly) but the Hotel Emma’s designers have somehow made brewery pipes, boilers, and other mechanical paraphernalia feel warm and welcoming in both the hotel side and the restaurants attached to it.

The industrial chic lobby of the Hotel Emma San Antonio

Hotel Emma’s lobby, with many remnants of its past brewery life.

Every time I return to the Pearl there is something new, like the small Food Hall now open in the former Bottling Department. Stop by the Farmers Market if you’re there on a Saturday, too.

(Tip: Maybe you’re in town for a business conference and only have an hour or so to absorb some San Antonio history. If so, drop by the Casa Navarro State Historic Site, a quick walk from El Mercado/Market Square.)

Casa Navarro State Historic Site San Antonio surrounded by development and a detention center

Casa Navarro State Historic Site, surrounded by development. 

It was the 1850s adobe and limestone home of José Antonio Navarro, a Tejano statesman and one of only two native-born Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. It’s almost all that remains of the old Laredito neighborhood – that’s a hulking modern detention facility/jail built behind it in the photo. Thank you, preservationists who saved Casa Navarro from razing years ago.

Flavors of San Antonio

There are a lot of strong opinions about where to eat in San Antonio, but if you are in the city for the first time, just go to family-owned Mi Tierra Café y Panadería in Market Square. It’s been a culinary landmark since 1941, the food is solid, and best of all, it is open 24 hours.

Festive decor at Mi Tierra in San Antonio

Festive decor at Mi Tierra; yes, it looks like this year-round.

The last time I was in the city, I was running late for lunch, but I sat down at 3:20 p.m. and no one batted an eye. They even reminded me that breakfast was served 24 hours a day, with fresh-squeezed OJ and plenty of pan dulce in the attached bakery section.

Late lunch at Mi Tierra San Antonio Georges Special

This is “George’s Special” at Mi Tierra – beef taco, cheese enchilada, rice & beans, plus guacamole. Enjoy the chips, salsa, and fresh flour tortillas.

There are roving guitarists, too, if you’re in the mood for a serenade…. yes, they are freelance, so do tip generously.

For more Tex-Mex places, I’ve heard good things about Rosario’s, a lot of locals (plus me) like the unassuming but delicious Ajuúa! Mexican Grill northwest of downtown, and my favorite place to eat on the River Walk is Ácenar. Guenther House in the King William district is great for hearty breakfasts, sandwiches, and salads.

Next door to Mi Tierra is the largest Mexican market in the U.S. – El Mercado, or Market Square. It is full of vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs and Mexican curios, but it’s enjoyable to walk through and see what you can find.

Mexican wrestler luchador masks including one for the Spurs at El Mercado Market Square San Antonio

Part of the delightful mixture that is San Antonio – Mexican wrestling luchador masks with various U.S. sports team logos, including the local Spurs NBA basketball team.

I used to recommend historic La Villita (further downtown) as a shopping alternative, but in my last visit I found the wares less distinctive and artistic than I remember. If you’re going to get touristy as a shopper, might as well do it at El Mercado.

Talavera style ceramic sink El Mercado Mexican Market San Antonio

Finally, in the San Antonio spirit of “keeping it puro, keeping it real,” head out in search of one more culinary specialty – the puffy taco.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Let the Tacos of Texas experts explain:

Hope to see you soon, in surprising San Antonio.

(All photos by the author, except as noted.)

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  1. Rosemary Leon August 27, 2020
  2. Jerry Gonzalez January 5, 2021

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