When you think of Texas, you probably think of Austin. And when you think of (if you think of) San Antonio, you probably think of the Alamo and the Riverwalk. The city is often overshadowed by the newer, hipper capital and its startup community. But after spending a few days in the former Catholic mission, I firmly believe that San Antonio is one of the most underrated destinations in America. It has all the perks of a place like Austin (ie. food, temperature) at a much lower cost. Sure, it has your big chain hotels and restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and Pat O’Brien’s in the original part of the Riverwalk, but there’s so much more beyond that two-mile stretch. Head north to see where the locals live and play, especially the Pearl, a former brewery turned mixed use development. Spend a few days in San Antonio and you might find yourself staying indefinitely.
Climate and Location
San Antonio is located in Texas’s Hill Country so the winters are very mild (I wore short sleeves most days) while summers can be relentlessly hot. The fall and spring are the best times to visit for this reason. It’s also only an hour and a half from Austin, two hours from Corpus Christi and three hours from Houston, making it an easy stop on a Texas road trip.
Founded in 1718, the city of San Antonio is actually older than the United States. Well before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries, the Payaya tribe lived here for its access to water. Today it has a population of over 1 million residents from all different backgrounds.
It’s home to the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the state of Texas, San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, and only the 23rd in the United States as a whole. You can visit The Alamo, the place where Davy Crockett and his companions defended themselves against the Mexican Army and the bar of the Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders. Another important landmark and National Park site is the Spanish Governor’s Palace and Casa Navarro State Historic Site. Both show what life was like for people in the early days of San Antonio.
The lights display on the San Fernando Cathedral, known at "The Saga," is the perfect introduction to San Antonio's history. The 20 minute presentation is played three times a night and three times a week throughout the year. Vibrant colors and music make this much more than your standard tourist attraction. The colonial cathedral acts as a canvas but is also worth a visit during daytime hours to see the burial tomb of the men who died protecting the Alamo.
What makes San Antonio’s attractions so great is that many are free to visit, namely the Alamo and the Missions. The Saga, pictured above, is a weekly light show displayed on San Fernando Cathedral, which is also where those who died at The Alamo are buried. It’s free and open to the public.
Admission is well worth it for the Witte Museum, where you’ll learn more about the history of the region. It also includes the South Texas Heritage Center. The Briscoe Western Art Museum showcases art from the American West, including Texas onward. The Buckhorn Museum includes the Buckhorn Saloon, which features a former Prohibition-era bar covered in antlers and a museum for Texas Rangers.
Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio are the most popular attractions in town, along with Bracken Bat Cave, which is the world’s largest bat colony. The city also has the San Antonio Botanical Garden, which showcases the flowers and plants of the region.
Food and Drink
Because of San Antonio’s place near Mexico and its early Spanish and Native American influences, much of the culinary landscape of the city is thanks to those flavors. But immigration over the years has also brought European and Caribbean flavors. There’s also an outpost of the
There’s also an outpost of The Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, only the third in the nation. It was opened to reflect the heavy Latin influences in American cuisine. You can dine at restaurants where culinary students work and meet the future of restaurants in the United States. At the Pearl complex, where CIA is located, you can also dine at all styles of cuisine, including French, vegetarian, American and Italian.
And with a thriving food scene comes the beverage scene. I was impressed to find cocktail bars like Paramour, a rooftop bar at a law firm that overlooks the river and downtown. The Luxury is what I imagined Texas bars to be like: casual beer gardens made of shipping containers. I didn’t make it to Blue Box, a craft cocktail bar at The Pearl, but I heard good things. Sternewirth is another winner with booths in former boiler tanks in the Hotel Emma, a former brewery. Speaking of breweries, it wouldn’t be San Antonio without a visit to at least one, whether it’s Freetail Brewing Co., Blue Star Brewing Company or the smaller breweries that open regularly.
Green Vegetarian Cuisine– You won’t miss the meat here and may not even notice. I had a buffalo “chicken” sandwich that tasted like chicken.
Mezcalería Mixtli– This cozy restaurant specializes in mezcal cocktails and small plates. I recommend the braised beef cheeks!
Bakery Lorraine– Grab a few pastries and macarons to go or dine in for a breakfast sandwich on a croissant with a cappuccino.
Supper– I had much more than supper at the restaurant in Hotel Emma. Go for breakfast for their delicious scotch eggs, pictured above, and for dinner of bronzini or apple and parsnip soup.
Nao– Staffed by CIA students, Nao focuses on Latin food as a whole, borrowing elements from different countries. I enjoyed a steak and tacos.
Southerleigh Fine Food and Brewery– This restaurant brews their own beer and pairs them with dishes like snapper necks, macaroni and cheese and grits.
Starfish– This SouthTown restaurant focuses on all things seafood and does it well. No matter what you order, the presentation will be fantastic and it will taste as good as it looks.
Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia– Dine in at this colorfully decorated restaurant or grab a pastry and coffee to go.
Despite a Google search for San Antonio street art, I happened upon the Kelsey Montague piece (a new one!) on my walk to the Alamo. This is one of many murals and pieces of street art around town. The Riverwalk has also been a major factor in public art, as most overpasses have some form of art in them. This includes light installations, murals, mosaics and even a piece of sound art. There’s even an art walk every month in Southtown.
In the more traditional sense of art, the city is home to two art museums. The San Antonio Museum of Art is in the former Lone Star Brewery and right on the upper Riverwalk. The sprawling museum features exhibits on American, Asian, ancient Greek and Roman, Islamic and contemporary art. It would be easy to spend an entire day here, especially between the Chihuly sculpture and changing exhibitions.
The McNay Art Museum is in a former mansion and focuses on Latin American, Medieval and Renaissance, and European works. The courtyard also includes sculpture pieces. They host regular exhibitions, including their current one on Miró.
San Antonio has thousands of hotel rooms, including the large chains you’ll find in any major city and classic hotels like the Menger Hotel or The Emily Morgan Hotel, but there’s also been a rise of boutique properties. Hotel Emma is the city’s newest hotel, opened in a former brewery complex. I’ll be talking entirely about the hotel soon, but this property has reused mechanical elements of the brewery into its furnishings. It has its own library and onsite bars and restaurants. Hotel Havana is another boutique property, offering eclectic furnishings in studio to suite arrangements. It’s also located on the Riverwalk and is home to Ocho Restaurant. El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel is another Riverwalk property inspired by the resorts of Acapulco. The hotel, which opened in 1962, has hosted many celebrities over the years.
Parks and Paths
What most surprised me about San Antonio was its walkability. Coming from a city that is slow with public walking and biking paths, San Antonio has it covered. The Riverwalk runs 13 miles, well past the tourist zone and the extension runs north beyond the Pearl Brewery. To the south is the Mission Trail, which runs through the Missions park. In all, the city has 41 miles of developed trails, which is a runner or cyclist’s dream. Bring your own bicycle, borrow from your hotel or even rent from B Cycle, a company found in destinations throughout the United States. Simply pay for a $10 membership and top up with hourly amounts using their app. When you’re done, dock it at one of the other stations. Hemisfair Park is a hub for activity as it’s where locals come together with visitors. There are large spaces for playing and museums for learning. It’s also home to the Tower of the Americas.
Have you ever been to San Antonio? Would you want to now?
My visit to San Antonio was organized by Geiger Public Relations and Visit San Antonio.