Remember the Alamo?
You will if you visit San Antonio. The limestone Spanish mission, whose 1836 battle shaped American history, is the most visited attraction in Texas, and its battered buildings leave an indelible impression.
But there’s a lot more to San Antonio than relics. While the city in south-central Texas maintains an aw-shucks friendliness, there’s an urban edge that’s sharpening food, art, and design here.
A singular stock of early-20th-century architecture makes it heaven for design geeks. Add a giant dollop of vivid Mexican culture and you’ve got an intriguing, welcoming destination that feels like no other city in Texas — or anywhere else.
My hotel provided my first San Antonio “wow” moment. The Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk (druryhotels.com) left architectural details intact when it took over a circa-1926 bank building. You check in at an old-time teller’s wicket inside the soaring, columned lobby.
The hotel’s not fancy, but it’s more thoughtful than some five-star properties — free breakfast, gratis happy hour, no sneaky upcharges. And the hotel’s 22nd-floor terrace offers marvelous city views.
The Drury Plaza also situates you on the banks of the San Antonio River and the city’s vaunted River Walk, a 5-mile waterside footpath dotted with restaurants, art, and lush flora. While it’s touristy — mediocre eateries and chintzy souvenir stores abound downtown — River Walk gets quiet as you walk north. Trilling birds and lapping water sound-tracked one of my strolls.
About a mile up, in a district called Museum Reach, you’ll hit the Pearl, a happening district of indie restaurants, shops and bars. Once the home of a gargantuan brewery, the 23-acre site was redeveloped into a very mod, mixed-use neighborhood anchored by a terrific riverside amphitheater where you might catch anything from a tamale festival to sunset meditations.
After a bracing espresso at the Pearl’s bright, buzzing Local Coffee (localcoffeesa.com), I wandered a couple of doors down into the Twig Book Shop (thetwig.com), San Antonio’s lone surviving independent bookstore. Along with best-sellers and a well-curated backlist, I found Texas-centric books like “The Train to Crystal City,” a tome about the notorious World War II internment camp just south of San Antonio.
The neighborhood’s also home to some of San Antonio’s best-reviewed eateries. If luscious macarons at Bakery Lorraine (bakerylorraine.com) don’t suffice, there’s chic charcuterie at Cured (curedatpearl.com); and BBQ-with-a-twist at The Granary (thegranarysa.com), which Texas Monthly touted as one of 2014’s best restaurants.
It’s less than a mile from the Pearl to the San Antonio Museum of Art (samuseum.org), but not really walkable; so hop a cab to this compact, compelling institution with a focus both local (Mexican and Latin culture) and global (superb rotating exhibitions of Japanese ceramics, Indian paintings, Chinese conceptual art). It’s free on Tuesday evenings, too.
For dinner, I made my way back down the River Walk toward the Luxury (103 E. Jones Ave.), possibly San Antonio’s coolest place to eat. At picnic tables amid a riverside jumble of repurposed shipping containers, superb, boundary-busting sandwiches — lamb souvlaki, banh mi, pulled pork — are served, along with beer in plastic cups and surprisingly serious desserts like a raspberry roulade. The always-changing menu may tempt you make this your San Antonio hangout.
On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at The Esquire Tavern (esquiretavern-sa.com), which boasts a 100-foot-long wood-topped bar — the longest in Texas. It’s been around since 1933, when locals celebrated the end of Prohibition. After a short hiatus, it’s now run by local scenemaker Chris Hill, but maintains its very cool vintage feel.
The next morning, I skipped the Drury Plaza’s generous breakfast to check out Mi Tierra (mitierracafe.com), one of the few 24-hour restaurants downtown. A kind of Mexican bar mitzvah on mushrooms, the place is festooned with thousands of lights, piñatas, flags and inflatables hanging from ceilings and walls. At dawn, motorcycle cops made up most of the other customers. It barely mattered that my huevos Mexicano were mediocre; strong coffee and warm servers more than made up for it.
Architectural treasures abound in the blocks around the restaurant. My favorite was the Bexar County Courthouse (bexar.org), a majestic Romanesque Revival fortress designed by the San Antonio-born architect James Riely Gordon. It’s the largest and the oldest continuously operating courthouse in Texas. I stood marveling at the building and its graceful fountain, presided over by a striking statue of a blindfolded Lady Justice.
A few blocks away, another low-profile treasure, the 1894 Staacke Building (309 E. Commerce St., saconservation.org) caught my eye. I learned it was another Gordon design, commissioned by a local carriage-company owner. Intricate carvings embellish its elegant granite façade, with its classical and Renaissance elements.
I’d already worked up an appetite, so I stopped at Sip (160 E. Houston St.), the downtown core’s sole independent coffee bar. Along with kicky espresso, I fueled up on a heaping spinach salad with a scoop of exemplary curried chicken. My window table gave me a perfect people-watching perch on busy Houston St., a main retail artery.
To walk off lunch, I headed toward Southtown, San Antonio’s version of the East Village. En route, I passed through the King William Historic District, a neighborhood of meticulously preserved homes dating back as far as 1866. Some have been converted to galleries, like the San Antonio Art League (130 King William St., saalm.org), which occupies a regal, century-old carriage house.
Southtown’s just a few blocks east. South Alamo St., its main drag, turned out a little less counterculture than I’d heard, but I did stumble on gems like La Vida Gallery (lavidagallerysa.com), where owner Matt Weissler — a fourth-generation San Antonian — was prepping a show by Oaxaca textile artist Jacopo Mendoza Ruiz. “There were five or six galleries along this strip, but they’ve closed in the last couple of years,” Weissler told me. “These new bars and restaurants ruined the art business.”
Luckily, La Vida’s surviving, and displaying mesmerizing work like Ruiz’s silk-woven tableau of a Zapotec Indian rain god. If not for its $3,500 price tag, it would have gone home with me. One of Weissler’s other treasures, like a blanket sewn by Pueblo Indians in Mexico, clocked in at a more accessible $475.
With dinner time approaching, I strolled a few doors down to Hot Joy (hotjoysa.com), which has set San Antonio’s foodie scene afire with its brilliantly lunatic Mexican-Asian mashups and an over-the-top, bright-red dining room that almost makes Mi Tierra seem like a monastery. Its roasted brussels sprouts are one of the strongest small plates I’ve tasted anywhere this year, a sweet-earthy, soft-crunchy, fiercely spicy pleasure.
It’s as smart, spirited, and stylish as any eatery I’ve been around the world. But hearing, “Y’all have a great night” on the way out reminded me exactly where I was. And that moment captured exactly what makes San Antonio so special.
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