San Antonio, Texas, will forever be associated with the Battle of the Alamo. But the city's Hispanic culture is just as important to its identity. San Antonio is a bit of Mexico, a bit of slick U.S. promotion, and it has an energy that we never get tired of.
San Antonio's identity is shaped by a confluence of cultures: Spanish colonial plazas dating from 1731, German-influenced architecture from the late 1800s and an ambience that came directly from Mexico (which once possessed the land where San Antonio was developed). There are four U.S. military bases and five Spanish missions, including the Alamo—a symbol of Texas itself. With such a distinctive mix, it's little wonder that this city is one of the most popular destinations in the U.S.
Tourism, too, has played a role in San Antonio's development. The 1968 World's Fair prompted a citywide renaissance that spawned HemisFair Park and the Tower of the Americas, and turned the River Walk into a pedestrian-friendly area. Today, San Antonio is one of the top convention cities in Texas, hosting hundreds of events (and thousands of visitors) each year, and it continues to market its educated workforce, family ambience and low cost of living to attract more business to the city.
In recent years, the city's population has grown so much that it's now the second-largest city in Texas, and seventh in the nation. It will soon boast one of the largest medical training centers for the military and its flourishing high-tech companies are giving the city the nickname of "Little Silicon Valley."
The San Antonio River serves as a defining city landmark. All five missions are near its banks, with the Alamo being the northernmost of the chain. The River Walk (Paseo del Rio) offers most of its commercial attractions along a horseshoe-shaped bend of the river in the heart of downtown. (The tips of the horseshoe face westward.)
If you start at the northwest tip of the horseshoe and walk east to the bend, you'll arrive within a stone's throw of the Alamo before curving south toward the Rivercenter Mall, Convention Center, the Institute of Texan Cultures and HemisFair Park. Turning westward after the other bend of the horseshoe, the River Walk passes La Villita, a restored original settlement full of artisans' shops.
SeaWorld and Six Flags Fiesta Texas are a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. The city's development is moving north and northeast toward Austin, where the corridor is fast filling up with signs leading to new residential compounds and businesses.
San Antonio's history begins, appropriately enough, with the Alamo. A Franciscan priest founded a mission along the banks of the San Antonio River in 1718 in what is now south Texas. The mission was called San Antonio de Valero, but its name was changed in the early 1800s when a Spanish cavalry unit from Alamo de Parras, Mexico, occupied the mission. The cavalry began calling the mission "Alamo," though it is not known if the men renamed the place for their hometown or for the cottonwood trees (called alamos
in Spanish) that lined the riverbank.
By then the Alamo was one of five missions in San Antonio, which had become the largest city in the region. After the Mexican War of Independence against Spain ended in 1821, the city became part of Mexico, but most of its residents were Americans who had arrived from Tennessee, Kentucky and states along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. Unhappy with Mexican rule, they created their own government—a decision that eventually drew the wrath of Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana and led to the famous Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
Though the Texans lost the fight at the Alamo, they won their independence a few weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto, where they defeated Santa Ana's troops and sent him to Washington, D.C., to negotiate a peace treaty with an iron ball attached to his foot. By 1845, Texas had joined the Union and San Antonio boomed. Germans, in particular, flocked to the city, establishing the King William District on the city's south side and opening breweries. Between 1876 and 1942, five military bases opened in the city (only four remain open today), and the military remains an important part of the current economy.
The Alamo is the city's most widely recognized symbol. Enshrined by Texans as a monument to Texas grit and military bravery, the Alamo was also a Spanish colonial mission—one of five within the city.
But San Antonio best reveals itself on the River Walk (Paseo del Rio). If not for the river, the Spanish would not have chosen the spot to lay down plazas and build adobe walls. (And without the River Walk, locals would have no place to corral the tourists.) Above the River Walk, you can get to know the city by walking through its compact downtown, or by taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
West of the river's main channel is the stunning International Conference Center and the original colonial downtown, where San Fernando Cathedral overlooks Main Plaza. Farther west is Market Square, San Antonio's old market area, which now contains shops and stalls selling standard tourist goods imported from Mexico. At the southeastern corner of downtown is HemisFair Park, the site of the 1968 World's Fair. The park is dominated by the Tower of the Americas, which affords the best view of the city. Just south of downtown is the Southtown Arts District, encompassing the King William Historic District, eclectic shops and restaurants, and the Blue Star Arts Complex.
South of the King William District are the rest of San Antonio's Spanish missions, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Texas. Mission San Jose is our favorite, but each of the others offers something distinctive worth seeing: Mission Concepcion still has some of its original frescoes, Mission San Juan Capistrano offers a short woodland trail and Mission San Francisco de Espada has a triple bell tower that is frequently photographed. They all are part of the well-marked Mission Trail. You can pick up a map of the trail at the Visitor Information Center downtown (across from the Alamo). With the 12 mi-/19-km trail bordering the missions, you can not only drive along the route, but also bike, hike or kayak your way to the end.
San Antonio has a number of excellent museums, but two in particular stand out: The McNay Art Museum has an eclectic collection, from medieval to modern, with an emphasis on theater arts and impressionist and postimpressionist pieces; the San Antonio Museum of Art contains a remarkable collection of Mexican folk art.
Animals small and large are on display at the San Antonio Zoo, and others perform at SeaWorld San Antonio. These, along with the giant amusement park Six Flags Fiesta Texas, are sure hits with children.
San Antonio has a hardy mix of after-dark options. The South Bank Complex on the River Walk is the most consistent party scene, but there is entertainment beyond the River Walk, too. Trendy types head for the Pearl with its bars and jazz club, while urban cowboys will find beer specials, country music and dancing at Cowboys Dancehall.
Most nightspots close around 2 am, but a few stay open later.
San Antonio is a Tex-Mex mecca, and natives have been known to experience withdrawal symptoms if away from their favorite eatery for very long. The best tacos still come from street vendors, who unpretentiously roll out fresh tortillas before your eyes, especially during Fiesta or other outdoor festivals. That said, excellent options are available from neighborhood restaurants and food trucks, too.
Even if you're allergic to salsa and chips, you won't starve. All that ranching in south Texas yields some hefty meat specialties: charbroiled steaks, chicken-fried steak (steak dipped in batter, fried and smothered in gravy—better than it sounds) and barbecue.
Over the years, the city has attracted many cultures to its fold: German and French restaurateurs during the 1830s and 1840s and, later, Chinese-Mexican cooks. More recently, Thai and Vietnamese immigrated to the city and opened their own restaurants. Some of the restaurants along the River Walk even offer barge charters, so you can dine while floating down the river.
Ever since San Antonio opened a branch of the Culinary Institute of the Americas, celebrity chefs have begun finding their calling here, opening world-class restaurants like never before. As proof, the city was recently honored by UNESCO, which designated San Antonio a Creative City of Gastronomy for its local food movements and rich culinary heritage. It's the second city in the US to receive the award.
Among the neighborhoods benefitting from the new culinary wave are Southtown, which counts 588 restaurants per square mile/kilometer; the River Walk, where tough competition assures top-notch new eateries; and the Pearl, where a trendy, creative vibes pervades. Food trucks are popping up in their own parks all over town and winning national competitions for the quality of their food.
With all these new additions, vegetarians and vegans should have no problem finding menu items catering to them in most restaurants.
General dining times are 7-10:30 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 5:30-10 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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