By Don and Ann Jackson
WHAT TO SEE & DO:
Our biggest and most pleasant surprises involved numerous characteristics of the River Walk. First and foremost we were amazed at the length, breadth, ongoing expansion and the extensive upgrading of this famous attraction. No wonder other U.S. cities are trying to do similar river walk projects. We also discovered that you could actually drive though the downtown, but if you stayed in your car driving the city streets, you could miss seeing the city’s most famous feature. It actually flows much lower than the town’s building structures and streets, so can remain hidden if you don’t make the effort to seek it out. We were also unaware that the walk actually is on both sides of the San Antonio River, which doubles the fun! And when you do explore the Walk it reels you in with so many things to do and see that you could spend a few days just trying to maximize your Walk experience. Strolling the Walk you’ll find literally hundreds of things to draw your interest such as upscale restaurants, bars, nightclubs, boutiques, sidewalk cafes and attractions. Taking a river boat cruise was really a highlight and gives a totally different perspective of the River Walk than walking the shore, especially if your boat’s guide or pilot is as informative and humorous as ours. RioSanAntonio.com
The Alamo, another no-brainer attraction, and one of the most famous battle sites in Texas and United States history, revealed another surprise. It was established in 1718 as the cities first mission and much later converted into an army garrison and fort now known as The Alamo-Shrine of Texas Liberty. Be sure to sign up for an audio tour to learn all the details of that historic era and the infamous 1836 battles that took place between the Mexican armies under General Santana and the American armies under General Sam Houston. All American military were killed at The Alamo, including famous frontiersmen like Sam Bowie (Bowie knife fame) and Davy Crockett, yet it should be noted that the Mexican Army spared all the women and children. Soon after the Alamo loss, Houston’s army defeated Santana’s troops at the famous Battle of San Jacinto. TheAlamo.org
Another highlight of our visit was experiencing Fiesta San Antonio, our country’s premier Spanish Heritage event, and it was muy magnifico! It all started in 1891 with just one parade to honor heroes lost in The Alamo siege and the Battle of San Jacinto. This is San Antonio’s largest festival with over 100 different events, carnivals, concerts and numerous parades. 2016 will mark their 125th anniversary. Highlights are the Floating River Parade down San Antonio River, where the floats really do float, and the Battle of the Flowers, the largest and most spectacular of the parades. If you don’t mind large crowds and love a ton of activities and maybe even a wild late night revelry you can’t go wrong heading off to San Antonio in April of any year. Fiesta-Sa.org
San Antonio Missions National Park provided another surprise: four Spanish Missions that are active catholic churches: San Jose, Concepcion, San Juan and Espada. In our eyes, they are not quite as well preserved or as beautiful as most of the California Missions, yet they are so important to U.S. and Texas history, they are definitely worth a visit and are close-by drives. Nps.gov/Saan. Special news flash: UNESCO just a few weeks ago named the four missions and the Alamo as a World Heritage Site, a significant honor that bodes well for increased international tourism. Whc.Unesco.org
A World Heritage Site is a place (such as a building, city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument, or mountain) that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being of special cultural or physical significance.The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Program administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 UNESCO member states which are elected by the General Assembly.
Briscoe Western Art Museum, San Antonio Botanical Garden, The Witte Museum, McNay Art Museum, The Doseum (a new children’s innovative Exploratorium) and San Antonio Museum of Art are all worth checking out. Visit their websites to determine your interest level. Our personal favorite: The Briscoe!
BriscoeMuseum.org; Sabot.org; McnayArt.org, WitteMuseum.org; SaKids.org; SaMuseum.org
WHERE TO STAY & DINE:
We unpacked at the Drury Plaza Hotel Riverwalk for our first-ever lodging experience at a Drury property, and boy were we impressed! The staff was exceptionally friendly, rooms were very comfortable, and the location (setting directly on the River Walk) was perfecto. Their slogan “The Extras Aren’t Extra” says everything when you realize all these are complimentary: full buffet breakfast; an evening hot food and cold beverage/cocktail party; local phone calls; sodas and popcorn seven hours a day; and more. Even though most of our meals had been prearranged outside the hotel our one breakfast experience was exceptionally good. DruryHotels.com
Our best dining memory was at the Liberty Bar, where par excellence innovative cuisine lived up to the hype and matched the stunning late 1800s majestic building that once housed a former convent. Liberty-Bar.com
We also had a very nice meal at the Boiler House located in the historic Pearl Brewery Complex that features award winning creative Texas Hill Country fare. This historic brewery campus is currently undergoing a total revitalization plan to include more restaurants, shops and a first class boutique hotel. Once this mixed-use center (already including an amphitheater by-the-river and the third campus of the Culinary Institute of America) has the hotel completed and spaces all leased, it should become one of the city’s premier destinations. BoilerHousesa.com PearlFarmersMarket.com. San Antonio is famous for their authentic Mexican restaurants and we have two first-rate choices to recommend: Mi Tierra Cafe is conveniently located downtown in the famous Market Square (AKA El Mercado-the largest Mexican market in the U.S.). And since El Mercado needs to be on your strolling list, Mi Tierra is the perfect dining spot to enhance your Mercado visit; La Fogata Restaurant is a further drive from town but worthwhile if time permits. MitierraCafe.com; LaFogata.com.
And for all things San Antonio visit: VisitSanAntonio.com
NEARBY DAY TRIPS:
When friends ask us about visiting San Antonio we encourage them to spend at least a week in this fascinating city as there is so much to see and do and still maintain a relaxed pace. We also encourage them to stick around a few extra days and consider making a couple of brief side trips to nearby locations. After a short 30 minute drive from downtown, we had two memorable outings: Natural Bridge Caverns(largest Cavern in Texas) and Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch(a wildlife safari type experience without the expensive airfare to Africa). NaturalBridgeCaverns.com; WildlifeRanchTexas.com
Driving another 20 minutes east will take you to the city of New Braunfels and the National Register’s Historic District of Gruene. This fascinating ‘little town within the town’ is home to the best and funkiest general store in the Southwest and an 1878 dancehall venue that has never closed and still features name entertainment. GrueneTexas.com
Another day trip option would require a very early morning start and a late night return to San Antonio. And here’s the plan: Head about an hour northwest through Texas Hill Country, known for their wineries, and explore the town of Fredericksburg, one of Texas’ most visited small town destinations. This popular community has a strong German heritage and a number of Deutschland restaurants serving traditional Germanic cuisine. FbgTx.org
Next up make the 24 minute drive due east to visit the fascinating Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, also known as Johnson’s Texas White House and the LBJ Ranch where Johnson was born, lived, died and was buried. Nps.gov
For the last segment drive about an hour due east to Austin, the Texas Capital, home to the University of Texas and another surprise to us: it recently increased its’ population to become our country’s 11th largest city. The two main things to see in Austin are the State’s Capitol building, claiming to be the largest in our country and the LBJ Library on the U. of T. Longhorn’s campus. Known as the live music capital of the world you might try to catch a local show and dine at one of the city’s famous bar-b-q spots. AustinTexas.org. Now, leave enough time to make the hour drive back south to your own ‘ranch bunkhouse’ in San Antonio.