Tex-Mex Time Out
Say adios to an ordinary vacation, and explore San Antonio’s colorful cultural and culinary treasures.
Traditional folk dancers in Market Square
Deep in the heart of San Antonio, traffic buzzes past upwardly mobile architecture and buildings reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting. Blackbirds sing slide-whistle cries in the Alamo’s shadow. Mournful, yet merry, a mariachi mass serenades the faithful inside San Fernando Cathedral. Oil sizzles on a food vendor’s grill, releasing the aroma of corn tortillas into the balmy air. As a barge threads the lock and dam of the San Antonio River, its wake lends a soft refrain to the soundtrack of the city.
Underneath San Antonio’s urban façade is a big-hearted Texas town that’s not too busy to smile. America’s seventh largest city is a blend of Old World traditions and New World ambitions that’s fascinatingly foreign and friendly at the same time.
Settled by Canary Islanders and Hispanics, the city began as a mission/fort complex in 1718. Eventually, it became known as “Villa de Bejar,” the most significant town in Spanish Texas. Today, locals shorten that to “Bear Town.”
With Southwest Airlines’ direct flight from Orlando and a hotel room overlooking the River Walk, you can make the most of a San Antonio sojourn. When exploration morphs into exhaustion, slip into siesta mode at the Westin Riverwalk. Or relax with a dip in the hotel’s 10th-floor pool and a visit to the on-site spa.
Just below street level, the San Antonio River meanders to the beat of a different drummer—indifferent to workaday concerns. Accented by Crayola-bright barges, its jade waters snake beneath cypress tree canopies. Restaurants, bars and cultural venues hug the margins along the River Walk. The 15-mile linear park is the tie that binds this sprawling city of 1.9 million. “The River Walk is our heart. It’s where we go to celebrate,” says boat captain Cara Davis. Recently expanded, it’s a conduit connecting people with museums, missions and parks beyond downtown.
The river is especially magical at night, when lights shimmer across its surface. Savor the sights and some Southwest cuisine by chartering a dinner cruise (riosanantonio.com lists participating restaurants).
Waking in an unfamiliar city, it’s tempting to take the breakfast path of least resistance to the hotel restaurant. Instead, tap into the tempo of the town. Stroll to Market Square, one of the largest Mexican markets north of the border. Passing historic Bexar County Courthouse and San Fernando Cathedral, make a mental note to return. For now, another cultural treasure awaits.
Run by the Cortez family since 1941, Mi Tierra is a must-see. Not yet fully awake? Just step inside. It’s like Santa went on a decorating spree with eight attics’ worth of Christmas bling and colored lights. The bright-eyed décor and tasty Tex-Mex fare banish any trace of morning grumpiness. If you’re up for a big breakfast, Chorizo Mexicano is worth every calorie.
Fully fueled, explore Market Square’s El Mercado shops. Tourists appreciate the abundance of affordable folk art and lack of “Made in China” labels. Locals enjoy outdoor booths selling brisket and mango con chile.
It’s not easy to leave, but remember the Alamo. Few places carry as much emotional weight for Texans as the Lone Star landmark. In March 1836, about 200 men sacrificed their lives defending this turf against thousands of Mexican soldiers. By April, “Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry as settlers defeated Mexican General Santa Anna and established the Republic of Texas. Reflecting on the Alamo battle, guide Jesus Campo, whose ancestors fought on both sides, said, “There were no bad guys here. Everyone had a purpose.”
For a more lighthearted history lesson, amble two blocks over to the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum. The oldest saloon in Texas still serves beer and beef (BBQ), where countless cowboys cooled their heels. The nearby Texas Rangers Museum showcases Lone Star lawmen like Frank Hamer, Bonnie and Clyde’s nemesis.
After folksy markets and frontier history, explore San Antonio’s sophisticated side. The Broadway Reach section of the River Walk is an A to Z cultural scene including art museums to zoos, with public gardens in between. A seven-day pass offers significant savings. If you arrive before January 4, 2015, visit the McNay Art Museum’s Intimate Impressionism exhibit. On loan from the National Gallery of Art, it’s part of a worldwide tour.
Wrap up your trip with an Alamo Trolley Tour of San Antonio Missions Historic Park. Nominated as a World Heritage site, it’s the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America. visitsanantonio.com
The tourist takeaway from San Antonio? A city that works hard, plays hard and treats visitors to a Texas-size assortment of activities.
When To Go: Like Orlando, south central Texas is at its best in spring, fall or winter. Visiting in April? Be prepared to party. April 16-26, 2015, is Fiesta, a citywide celebration of San Antonio’s rich and diverse cultures, with music, river barge parades and street parties.
Getting Around: Go Airport Shuttle transports out-of-towners to San Antonio’s walkable city center. The compact downtown area has good signage and multiple modes of transportation, including Alamo Trolley Tours, Yellow Cab, Rio Taxi (via river) or B-cycle rental bikes (bring your own helmet).
Friendly Natives: No question is too silly for San Antonio’s Ambassador Amigos. Paid staff who live in the metropolitan area, Ambassadors provide directions, local information and act as safety escorts to stranded pedestrians and motorists. They can be found wearing straw hats, yellow shirts and a ready smile.