History buffs know of San Antonio as the home of the Alamo, where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie lost their lives defending Texas independence. But the city’s history stretches much farther back, to when American Indians settled on the shaded banks of a river they dubbed “Refreshing Waters.” After Spaniards arrived, the land was christened in honor of 13th-century Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, on his feast day. That was June 13, 1691, and the name San Antonio has remained in use ever since.
Today, San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the United States, its population a thriving reflection of the meeting and merging of cultures over the centuries. The greater metropolitan population of nearly 2.2 million is now a mix of Latino, white, black, and Asian. Boasting attractions that draw 26 million tourists annually, the city is also home to a strong military presence, with Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base, Randolph Air Force Base, and Brooks City-West. What used to be Kelly Air Force Base is now an industrial-business park called Port San Antonio.
The Spaniards built five missions in the area to Christianize the native population, and all still stand as reminders of Spain’s dominion and religious, cultural, and agricultural influence. The oldest and most famous of the missions was, of course, the Alamo, where the pivotal battle was fought in 1836. The mission is in the northeast corner of downtown close to the Convention Center, a towering attraction even if overshadowed physically by high-rise hotels and office buildings. The others, all south of downtown and run by the National Park Service, are Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada.
Another treasure is the well-known San Antonio River Walk. The vision of architect Robert H. H. Hugman, built in the late 1930s with Works Progress Administration funds, it turned a flood-control scheme into a model of urban planning. The park’s 21-block downtown walkway, one story below street level, winds past restaurants, bars, shops, an amphitheater, and the convention center.
A more recent landmark is Tower of the Americas, a 622-foot observation platform, which opened in 1968 to coincide with HemisFair, the Texas World’s Fair. Improvements to both the HemisFair site and River Walk, which is undergoing an ambitious north and south expansion, are part of a revitalization effort the city’s mayor, Julián Castro, has dubbed the “Decade of Downtown.”
While not a material asset, most San Antonians would agree that the city’s youthful spirit is one of its most valuable resources. The city loves a party, whether in its various neighborhoods, at the First Friday art gatherings in Southtown’s stately King William District, the spirited San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February, or, most famously, the annual Fiesta San Antonio. This colorful – some would say raucous – spring festival attracts throngs of visitors who join local residents as they line the streets for parades, attend music events, celebrate local cultures, arts, and history, and feast on their favorite Fiesta fare.
Food is itself an important attraction. Traditional San Antonio cuisine is a savory buffet of Tex-Mex, barbecue, steaks, and Texas home cooking. In the past 20 years or so, the dining scene has become increasingly sophisticated. Helping to build on this changing image is the recently opened, third American campus of the famed Culinary Institute of America, which is on the 23-acre site of the historic Pearl Brewery. The Pearl is presently being renovated and repurposed as a multiuse center, with parks, walkways, restaurants, residences, and shops.
Sports lovers also have their place in the Alamo City. Basketball fans love their Spurs, who have won the NBA Championship on several occasions in recent years. Hockey fans throng to the Rampage, while the Silver Stars shine in the WNBA. The San Antonio Scorpions will make their debut as part of the North American Soccer League in 2012. College football fans look forward to the Valero Alamo Bowl each December, and baseball lovers can cheer on the Missions, an AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
San Antonio’s charming blend of bygone eras, cultural fusion, and contemporary excitement hasn’t erased urban ills. Its rapid population growth – 16 percent over the past decade – has outpaced its transportation infrastructure. The city has fallen behind other metropolitan areas in embracing light rail and streetcar systems and is now determining how to catch up. Its schools have struggled to meet high school graduation targets, prompting Mayor Castro to inject city government resources, to an unprecedented degree, into San Antonio’s educational system.
Upriver from downtown San Antonio is a pair of locks enabling barges to cruise on the recently opened Museum Reach. The lock and dam complex is one sign of the engineering that over the years has gone into taming a flood-prone watercourse described by one writer as “this beautiful stream … so crooked it almost crosses itself.” A devastating 1921 flood claimed 50 lives and eventually led to the development of River Walk. But San Antonio’s public works projects actually date back to the early 18th century, when Spanish settlers began construction of acequias, or irrigation ditches. Initially serving the five mission complexes, seven acequia systems eventually became the first municipal water distribution system in North America. Some acequias are still in use south of the city. One component of that system, the Espada Dam, built between 1731 and 1745, has been declared a national Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Enthusiasts of unusual contstruction techniques will be drawn to the Tower of the Americas, remarkable not only for its slip-formed concrete core but also for the way the 1.4 million-pound top house was constructed. Built on the ground to house observation decks and a revolving restaurant, the structure was hoisted to the top with a lift-slab jack using 24 high-tensile steel pipes, some of which failed in a windy cold snap and were replaced by oil field drill stem pipe. The painstaking lifting process took 20 days.
The Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel, on the River Walk across from the Convention Center, also was built to open in time for HemisFair ’68. The 21-story building is a landmark of modular construction, having been designed and erected in an unprecedented 202 working days. The 496 guest rooms were fabricated off-site of lightweight structural concrete, fully furnished from beds to bottle openers, and lifted into place by crane in 46 days.
The Alamo City is rich with sites offering both entertainment and education. The venues listed below are family friendly as well. For a thorough listing of San Antonio attractions, visit the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website, www.visitsanantonio.com.
The Alamo, 300 Alamo Plaza, Downtown. The top attraction in San Antonio, Mission San Antonio de Valero (the first of the five missions built here) was established in 1718. Here, on March 6, 1836, 189 defenders in the Texian Army fell after battling Mexican General Santa Anna’s army. Admire the iconic facade, which is the mission’s chapel. Then, immerse yourself in history at the Long Barracks Museum and Library.
The River Walk, Downtown. Walk, dine, shop, relax, enjoy lush landscaping, and grab a photo of one of the charming stone walkways or bridges. The River Walk is being extended from three to 13 miles, and will connect museums and historic districts with the city’s 18th-century Spanish colonial missions.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, 2202 Roosevelt Avenue, (210) 534-8833. The four missions built by the Spanish in the 18th century were established to expand the Spaniards’ sphere of influence in the New World and convert American Indians to Christianity. They became trade and educational centers and the underpinning for the founding of San Antonio. At this park, visit the missions San José, San Juan, Concepción, and Espada.
Sea World, 10500 Sea World Drive, (800) 700-7786. Sea World is the largest marine life adventure park in the world. Watch trainers put the animals through their paces at Shamu Stadium, then tackle the Great White, Texas’s first inverted steel roller coaster, or get that floating feeling at the Steel Eel, which lets you experience weightlessness.
Six Flags Fiesta Texas, 17000 IH 10 West, (210) 697-5050. Shows, roller coasters, rides, and much more have made Fiesta Texas one of the top entertainment destinations in the United States. Snacks, restaurants, and water features are available in summer; a new Lone Star Nights Laser and Fireworks Celebration is a high-tech treat for the eyes.
San Antonio Zoo, 3903 N. St. Mary’s Street, (210) 734-7184. Considered one of the best zoos in the country, the San Antonio Zoo is open every day of the year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It features more than 3,500 animals of 600 species spread over 35 acres. Lots of fun opportunity is here for the kids.
The San Antonio Children’s Museum, 305 E. Houston Street, (210) 212-4453. Founded in 1995, this museum is dedicated to providing engaging hands-on experiences. Aimed at children up to 10 years old, the museum’s exhibits and programs are focused on early childhood learning, especially in the creative arts, sciences, and literacy.
The Pearl, 200 E. Grayson Street, (210) 212-7260. The historic Pearl Brewery, established in San Antonio in 1833, closed in 2001. But the following year, Silver Ventures purchased the 23-acre property, just north of downtown, and is now realizing its plan for a stunning multiuse area that preserves history while offering restaurants, farmers market, shopping, offices, residences, and more. Anchoring the Pearl is the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio.
San Antonio is justly famous for its Mexican food but offers far more than this appealing, spicy fare. Familiar names include Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House as well as popular Brazilian churrascarias, Texas de Brazil and Fogo de Chao. Rainforest Café, on the River Walk, and Johnny Rockets are family-friendly options.
Independent restaurants are also putting their unique stamp on the city’s culinary scene, including most of the venues listed here.
Ácenar, 146 E. Houston Street, (210) 222-2362. Looking for a River Walk eatery where the Mexican fare is presented with an upscale touch? Buttermilk-fried oysters on yucca chips, duck tinga chalupas, heads-on grilled shrimp in a garlic sauce, and a lively bar scene are all part of the serious fun here.
Biga on the Banks, 203 S. St. Mary’s Street, (210) 225-0722. Chef Bruce Auden has been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest on numerous occasions and helped pioneer national interest in Southwestern fare. He continues that tradition at his coolly modern restaurant, though his eclectic menu has acquired a savory mix of global influences as well.
Boudro’s: A Texas Bistro on the River Walk, 421 E. Commerce Street, (210) 224-8484. Book a barge dinner through this popular restaurant, if you can, or relax right on the river as your waiter prepares a bowl of lavishly seasoned guacamole tableside. Enjoy a prickly pear margarita or dine on Boudro’s signature blackened prime rib.
Fig Tree Restaurant, 515 Villita Street, (210) 224-1976. The verdant patio cascading down to the river is in a beautiful corner of the River Walk. From a secluded perch above the crowds, dine on continental fare that includes aged prime meats, fresh seafood, and local vegetables. End with baked Alaska flambéed tableside.
Las Canarias, Omni La Mansion del Rio Hotel, 112 College Street, (210) 518-1000. Chef John Brand serves a Texas take on French cuisine that is perfect for both dining riverside or in the airy Spanish-style dining room.
Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, 219 E. Houston Street, (210) 472-2600. This steakhouse is known for its special selection of Akaushi beef, a Japanese breed of cattle raised organically in Texas. The regular steaks are prime, seafood is flown in fresh from Hawaii, cocktails are handcrafted – all in a sumptuous, fine-dining atmosphere.
Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, 218 Produce Row, (210) 225-1262. It’s always Christmas at Mi Tierra, and a party atmosphere prevails at this restaurant, open 24/7. Mariachi bands stroll by as patrons choose from a large selection of Tex-Mex favorites, including sizzling fajitas, cheese enchiladas, tacos, and more. At the front of the restaurant, explore a vast array of Mexican-style baked goods, sweets, and cookies.
Zinc Bistro and Wine Bar, 207 N. Presa Street, (210) 224-2900. This wine bar stays open late in the evening, attracting locals who work in the area seeking a lively yet elegant place to wind down. The varied menu also includes what is locally considered one of the top burgers in town. Numerous champagnes by the glass are available.
Il Sogno, 200 E. Grayson Street, (210) 223-3900. Multiple James Beard Award nominee and chef/owner Andrew Weissman is in charge of this Italian osteria at the Pearl Brewery. It’s known for freshly made pastas, brick-oven pizzas, antipasto bar, house-made burrata cheese, and fresh seafood.
Josephine St. Café, 400 E. Josephine Street, (210) 224-6169. The front dining area of this Texas roadhouse was built around an enormous tree, the stump of which rises to the ceiling. Get an old-fashioned, thin-cut T-bone steak, pork chops with cream gravy, or fish steamed in parchment and a longneck on the side.
La Gloria Ice House, 100 E. Grayson Street, (210)-267-9030. Chef Johnny Hernandez has brought Mexican street foods indoors at this comfortable, family-friendly place where you can get tortas (Mexican sandwiches) filled with shredded pork, shrimp, or breaded beef cutlet. Or try one of a half-dozen ceviches with a michelada (Mexican beer cocktail) on the side.
Rosario’s Café y Cantina, 910 S. Alamo Street, (210) 223-1806. One of the best places to taste San Antonio’s famous Mexican food is here — from the fiery roasted blend of tomatoes and chiles in the salsa to a variety of enchiladas and tacos. Extensive selections of tequilas.
The Sandbar Fish House and Market, 200 E Grayson Street, (210) 222-2426. Oysters from the Atlantic, the Pacific, and occasionally France are only a few of the treasures to delight in at this casually upscale seafood restaurant in the Pearl Brewery. Everything, from the soups to daily specials by chef Chris Carlson, is a catch.
Timbo’s Burgers, 1639 Broadway, (210) 223-1028. For a serious burger fix, Timbo’s Jumbo, a whopping one-pounder, should do the trick. And while you’re waiting, try an order of shypoke eggs, a famous local variation on the nacho that features a round corn chip topped with white and yellow cheese cut out to look like a fried egg.
It’s not all country swing and Texas two-step. San Antonio’s active nightlife includes jazz, hip hop, rock, heavy metal, salsa, and more, both in town and at some of the landmark Texas roadhouses not far outside city limits.
Arjon’s International Club, 8736 Tesoro Drive, (210) 804-1419. Arjon’s features hip hop, salsa, merengue, cumbia, and more.
Azuca Nuevo Latino, 713 S. Alamo, (210) 225-5550. Downtown, nice patio, good pan-Latin cuisine, and entertainment with the same Latin-beat flavors.
The Bonham Exchange, 411 Bonham Street, (210) 224-9219. Popular, downtown historic nightclub with three levels for dancing and with diversity of clientele (gay, straight). And yes, it rocks.
Cowboys Dancehall, 3030 NE Loop 410, (210) 646-9378. Massive complex that offers live music and dancing, as well as games, bull-riding, and other quintessential Texas nightlife and entertainment.
Floore’s Country Store, 14492 Old Bandera Road, Helotes, (210) 695-8827. Located just outside San Antonio, this landmark roadhouse has hosted some of the greatest names in music, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and B.B. King, since it opened in 1946.
Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene Road, Gruene (New Braunfels area), (830) 606-1281. Built in 1878, Gruene Hall is the oldest continually running dance hall in Texas, giving a home to such notable musical groups as Ace in the Hole and such songwriters as George Strait.
Rosario’s Mexican Café y Cantina, 910 S. Alamo Street, (210) 223-1806. One of the city’s best Mexican food restaurants near downtown also has live music, a dance floor, and great margaritas.
Revolution Room, 8123 Broadway Street, (210) 320-4567. Motto is “Always a party, never a cover,” and it draws college age as well as military and urban professionals. There’s a new sports bar area as well as an “infamous” front bar with live music.
The Landing, 123 Losoya (Downtown, on the River Walk), (210) 223-7266. A pretty setting on the river, drinks, and more: jazz, Dixieland.
White Rabbit, 2410 N. St. Mary’s Street, (210) 737-2221. All ages, eclectic live music, including local, regional, and national: heavy metal, alternative, indie.
Bonnie Walker is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and copublisher of the website SavorSA.
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