Twenty-three Hours in San Antonio
Over the Christmas holiday in Houston, Michael, his Mom, and I took a day trip to San Antonio. We arrived at 1PM on December 26th, and left the next day at noon. It’s a pretty cool city - here’s what’s to do.
We weren’t really sure what to expect from San Antonio. The buzz was that it was pretty, but we sort of figured it would be like every other Texas city: highways, tract houses, billboards, cheap food. The drive up took us from the swampy Gulf Coast through the farm and ranchlands just before you get to the Hill Country. The city sits on the edge of the Hill Country, and to our surprise we were downtown before we really saw any suburbs. Maybe it wouldn’t be so much like Houston after all?
We swung by the Alamodome on our way to the crucial Texas attraction, the Shrine of Texas Liberty, the Alamo. It’s actually really great, a former mission turned fort turned tourist attraction. It’s right downtown, we parked in a shopping mall on the Riverwalk and walked over. We walked - you could really do that in San Antonio. The shock was still on us as we entered the grounds of the mission. There was a good park ranger lecturing on the history of the site, what had happened there, and why it is important in Texas and American history. Even Dan’s Yankee soul was impressed.
It was sort of rainy, so we walked back via the historic Menger Hotel (cool lobby) to the RiverCenter Mall. The Mall nicely integrates a branch of the Riverwalk with Foley’s and Dillard’s, two department stores that have anchored downtown for a century. We shopped a little, to get our parking ticket validated, but it was fun shopping, also.
Retrieving the car, we headed south to Hemisphere Park, which sits on the edge of downtown on the site of the 1968 World’s Fair. Several of the Fair buildings are being used by local government for offices, etc., and the signature “Tower of the Americas” is still a restaurant with the best views of the city. But remember, it was raining, so we skipped the tower and went to the Institute of Texas Cultures. This had been the Texas Pavilion at the Fair, and still shows the multi-projection slide show from ‘68 on a cool dome with raised panels for the different projectors. Not bad, in a retro sort of way. The Institute is now run by the University of Texas, and has displays on the history of Texas and all the countries of the world who sent immigrants to Texas. Mom was able to correct the Chinese on the blackboard in that section, and Dan got to pose in front of the Italian display. Who knew there were Italians in Texas? I mean, before there was Olive Garden?
We had hoped to treat Mom to a stay at a nice bed-and-breakfast, but she put her foot down at the cost, so we had reserved rooms at a Motel 6 instead. It turned out to be just the other side of the highway from the Mercado, the Mexican Market. We checked in, cleaned up a bit, and walked over to the Mercado.
Originally this was the main farmers/produce market in the city, but has been turned into more of a tourist attraction. It is the largest market of Mexican manufactures outside of Mexico City: the usual tourist stuff, sombreros, clay figurines, onyx donkeys, etc., but fun. Most of the stalls were closing for the night, so we went for dinner at La Margarita, which serves Mexican seafood with mariachi singers, guys who take your photo, and big pitchers of cerveza. Dinner was great, and Michael didn’t break his chair leg until just as we were leaving, so all was well, and he didn’t take a tumble.
One of the main draws of San Antonio is the Riverwalk, which was supposed to be spectacular to walk at night, especially during the Christmas season. It lived up to its billing. We weren’t really sure what to expect. The San Antonio River does a hairpin turn through downtown. Back in the 1930’s prescient city fathers recognized the importance of preserving the river as a public venue, but not as a green park. Instead, it is almost like a canal, with wide walks on either bank lined with live oaks, benches, restaurants, and shops. Dan would cynically say it was Rouse-ified, a la Quincy Market in Boston, but it preceded the “festival marketplace” concept by 40 years. Amazing. Several hotels and business buildings have entrances on both the river and street level, and new construction has respected the public space of the river in its plans. The oaks reach across the river, and are covered in lights that make it a canopy of light. Because this is downtown, there are many bridges carrying the streets across. You’d expect these overpasses to make a creepy space underneath, but each one holds a different fountain, garden, or other display that makes it a treat instead of a threat. Unfortunately, due to the inclement weather (50 degrees and rainy, oh my!), the boats that take you on river tours were not running. We walked, we bought chocolate, we enjoyed. We hit the Motel 6, pooped.
Next morning Mom surprised us with breakfast from the McDonald’s next door. This was her joke on Dan, providing him with breakfast since he’d missed it by not staying at the B&B. Since it was still early, we hopped in the car for a drive to the King William District. This is a neighborhood of Victorian homes that have been restored, many of which are now inns. Interspersed among them are modern buildings with great design. We had to park and walk, to get a closer look. To our surprise, all of the tourist-oriented sights of San Antonio were within walking distance of each other. One could easily cover the distance between the Zoo, north of downtown, pass the Alamo, and get to the Blue Star Arts Complex at the southern tip of King William in two hours. In addition, the city runs an excellent bus transit system for both locals and tourists, and has well marked public parking garages. Who knew one could do this in a city in Texas?
We drove back to the Motel, checked out, and took a late morning walk through Milam Park. Milam was a patriot who died at the Alamo, and to our surprise, we discovered his grave under the statue of him wielding a rifle to the sky. Cool. Picked up some Mexican tschotchkes at the Mercado, and went back downtown to see the Riverwalk by daylight.
La Villita is the site of the original settlement of San Antonio, just south of the Riverwalk. The historic buildings have been restored or rebuilt, and many of them house artist’s studios or people interpreting the past for visitors. The transition to the Riverwalk is through an open-air amphitheater called Arneson Theater. This was built by the WPA, and has the stage on one side of the river facing the grassy banks of seats on the other. Beautiful views, we did the Chinese mother thing and went crazy with the camera.
We walked up the Riverwalk and settled on a Tex-Mex place called “The Republic of Texas” for lunch. Touristy, but fun, with a table overlooking the river from behind glass. The weather was a bit cool even for Michael and Dan, so they appreciated the heat with the view.
From there, we decided we’d done the town, and headed back southeast to Houston. Outside of the Oil City we stopped at Katy Mills. Katy is not unlike Woodbridge, and Katy Mills is a discount mall run by the folks who created Potomac Mills. It was after Christmas, we had to do our part for the economy! We called Michael’s brother Ellas and Mary from the mall, and eased back into Houston life with dinner at their place.
Next year, Austin!