Deep in the heart of Texas lies San Antonio, home of Tex-Mex food and the Alamo. This unlikely combination lures the highest number of tourists of any city in the state. Now rivalling Austin when it comes to art, culture and culinary offerings, it might surprise you that it is the 7th largest city by population in the USA. That makes it larger than Miami, San Francisco, Seattle and even Boston!
The city was named after the Catholic Saint Anthony, and was founded in 1718. Though the history extends far beyond it, San Antonio will always be known for a single battle and the catchphrase “Remember the Alamo” during which a small group of independence-seeking heroes including Jim Bowie, William Travis and Davy Crockett decided to make a last stand at the small, fortified mission. The Alamo is the founding legend of the Republic of Texas and the mission was moved into the city of San Antonio as a monument to Texan identity, independence, courage, spirit and pride.
You’ll probably fly into the San Antonio International Airport (SAT), just 14km (9) miles away from the River Walk in the heart of downtown. Once you arrive it’s easy to reach your chosen accommodation by taxi or bus. If staying along the River Walk look to catch the Line 5 bus running hourly, though times may vary.
There is so much to do and see in the city. Here are some of my favourite places you won’t want to miss:
- A visit to the Alamo is a must. Established in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, the former mission has been a crossroads of history, though best known as the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Admission is free. Tour the battlefields, the church and the Long Barrack Museum on your own or rent a guided tour.
- San Antonio Missions National Park is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas. In the early 1700s, many Native people of South Texas were forced by the Spanish to leave their traditional life and accept a new religion and lifestyle. The San Antonio Missions helps tell their stories. The Park also offers daily ranger-led walks and outdoor activities and is home to four churches.
- Visit the McNay Art Museum, the first modern museum of art in all of Texas. Opened in 1954 the museum holds over 22,000 works in its beautifully designed premises. Though normally a visit requires a paid ticket, the museum offers free admission on the first Sunday of each month.
Here’s a Pro-tip: Natural Bridge Canyons was discovered by four university students in San Antonio in 1960, who had a hunch that underground tunnels existed under a 60-foot limestone bridge. See their discovery for yourself. Mine and pan for gems, fossils and other buried treasures.
Here are some of my favourite places to shop:
- The Pearl District is San Antonio’s coolest neighbourhood and cultural hotspot. It derives its name from the historic Pearl Brewery, once the largest beer producer in Texas dating back to 1883. Today Pearl is known for its restaurants, art galleries, boutique shops and South Texan charm. They also host a farmers’ market twice weekly with local produce and artisan products.
- River Walk or Paseo del Rio is a stretch in downtown San Antonio, where homes, shops, museums, hotels and restaurants flank the river. Duck into a boutique shop, have a coffee or glass of wine and take in the view.
- Market Square or El Mercado is the largest Mexican market north of the border. Historic Market Square thrives today on a plaza originally gifted to settlers by the King of Spain, where vendors sold produce and livestock by the day. By night, the square was home to the famous ‘Chili Queens’; women selling spicy homecooked stew in earthenware.
No red flags here!
Though trade and market life died out during the World Wars, revitalisation efforts have been going strong since the late 70s. Today it features artisans and artifacts paying homage to the vibrant Mexican culture.
Here’s another Pro-tip: La Cantera is where to go for high-end retail therapy and luxury goods. Order a glass of wine or beer ‘to go’ at one of the local cafes and you can sip while you shop; the ultimate luxury shopping experience!
San Antonio is quickly developing as a foodie destination. Here are three of my favourite restaurants you won’t want to miss:
- Best Quality Daughter is a new restaurant by second-generation Chinese immigrant chefs Jennifer Dobbertin and Quealy Watson. Opened in the Pearl District in November 2020 it’s become one of the hottest restaurants in the city, pioneering New Asian-American cuisine. This is an unexpected but not-to-be-missed dining experience. Order the Mochi Cheddar Hush Puppies and delight in this Texas-Chinese fusion.
- You can’t visit Texas without a trip to a smokehouse for a real Texas barbecue. 2M Smokehouse, run by pitmaster Esaul Ramos, is one of the best places in town for smoky, tender meat. This place is first come, first serve so you’ll want to arrive early because it regularly sells out.
- Restaurant Gwendolyn, owned by chef Michael Sohocki, serves local, seasonal and handmade ingredients sourced within a 150-mile radius. Unique in its total avoidance of machinery in the kitchen (no blenders or deep fryers), everything produced on-site is a labour of love, effort and time. This is my top recommendation for a unique fine-dining experience in San Antonio.
Here’s a final Pro-tip: TexMex is a completely underrated cuisine and San Antonio has some of the best there is to offer. Try Domingo Restaurant, overlooking the River Walk for short rib quesadillas or an Oaxaca Colada. Sit on the terrace for true South Texas ambience.
The stars at night are big and bright here. Kick up your spurs all night long at these top recommendations:
- Ranger Creek Brewing Company is San Antonio’s award-winning “brewstillery” (brewery and distillery in one). Start the evening with a popular tour or tasting, learning how to make beer and bourbon. Book in advance as places fill up quickly.
- Hopscotch: this is a fun, uniquely curated gallery featuring local and international artists and immersive exhibits. It’s the perfect, playful way to start the night. Grab a drink at the bar, a snack from one of the tasty food trucks and mingle with the city’s creatives. It’s also a great place to shop for stylish and unique mementos.
- Dance our achy-breaky heart away at Thirsty Horse Dance Hall and Saloon, voted best country dance hall in San Antonio. Featuring live music Wednesday – Saturday you’ll have a chance to show off your best boots. They even offer free dance lessons.
After you dance the night away it’s time to rest. Here are some of my recommendations on where to stay:
- River Walk is a popular place to call home, given its proximity to some of the best shopping and restaurants and its scenic riverside views. Hotel Contessa is a fantastic hotel, providing guests with modern rooms, a rooftop spa and pool and the heart of the city on your doorstep.
- Hotel Emma might just be the most luxurious hotel in San Antonio, located in the chic neighbourhood of Tobin Hill in the Pearl District. Hotel Emma was once a 19th century Brewhouse. Now it’s an award-winning luxury hotel, featuring South Texan hospitality in the heart of the city’s cultural and culinary district.
- Hotel Havana has an eclectic and longstanding history that includes FBI stings and natural disasters. Open since 1914, it is full of character and charm. Built-in the Mediterranean Revival style, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It’s conveniently located away from the crowds on a newer part of the River Walk in downtown San Antonio.
No ex’s only o’s in this fine city! San Antonio is a welcoming and historic city that beckons you to return again and again.