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San Antonio: There’s More to Remember Than the Alamo

Explore this Southwestern city beyond the famous Alamo. Don’t miss the San Antonio River Walk, its Tex-Mex culture, the Fiesta festival and more.

 

A sprawling metropolis of over a million people, San Antonio extends well past its downtown core, but for thousands of tourists and conventioneers annually drawn to the city’s promise of sunshine, Mexican food and hospitality, their stay is concentrated to downtown. It’s arguably the most charming downtown in Texas. In addition to the San Antonio River Walk, which circles through the heart of the city, there’s a pleasing mix of architectural styles and easily navigable streets.

River Walk

The San Antonio River Walk, initially built as a public works project in the 1930s to encourage tourism while utilizing the San Antonio River, is the most famous of the city’s tourist attractions. It’s accessible at a number of points throughout downtown, typically by finding a bridge and taking a flight of stairs down to river level.

A system of sidewalks and bridges front both sides of the river, flanked by numerous trees and other flora, and lead pedestrians to what has evolved into a collection of restaurants, nightspots and shops in its most trafficked central section, and more tranquil, urban park settings at its outer edges. The Museum Reach section of the River Walk, completed in May 2009 as part of an overall $279 million expansion, connects north-of-downtown attractions like the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery Complex to downtown via water, with some artistic embellishments worth viewing.

The river itself is transformed several times throughout the year. During the Christmas season, trees lining the River Walk get the full Christmas light treatment and 6,000 luminarias (glowing candles in sand-filled bags) lining the pathways provide a historically festive touch. On St. Patrick’s Day, the river is dyed green, though in truth, there’s not much difference between the seasonal tint and the river’s typically greenish shade. And for one weekend a year in January, the annual River Walk Mud Festival makes a celebration of the dredging of the River Walk’s water and subsequent cleaning of its muddy bottom. While the festival provides irreverent fun for locals, the River Walk restaurants’ outside tables lose a bit of their luster while the river is dredged.

San Antonio Shopping

The eastern arm of the River Walk leads to Rivercenter Mall, a full mall with restaurants, clothing stores and even a bookstore. Located at the east end of downtown, you can catch one of the brightly-colored tour boats operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises at the Clearwater station in the mall to get a different perspective on the River Walk. The tour boats run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and give audiences a 40-minute, 2.5-mile cruise narrated by tour guides well-versed on all the Riverwalk’s sights. Rio San Antonio, which operates the tours, also operates water taxis that serve the Museum Reach section of the river.

By contrast, on the Western end of downtown, Market Square (also known as El Mercado) mixes tourist-oriented shops with specialty shops featuring legitimate south-of-the-border wares, available without taking the two-hour trip from San Antonio to Mexico.

Downtown was recently transformed in fairly dramatic fashion with the decision to close off two key north-south streets to make Main Plaza a pedestrian-only park, in the hopes it would serve as a key gathering place for San Antonians. The park is flanked by the strangely beautiful Bexar County Courthouse, and dominated by the historic and extremely important San Fernando Cathedral.

Historical Sites

The San Fernando Cathedral, founded in 1731, is one of the oldest cathedrals in the nation, and a recent renovation to its interior brought it into the 21st century while maintaining its 18th century character.

Of course, the most famous downtown attraction—and the building the city might be best known for—is the Alamo, site of the notorious battle between the Mexican Army and a band of independence-seeking rebels (including the famous Davey Crockett) in 1836. The Alamo, of course, has become an enduring symbol of Texas independence and liberty since then.

Remarkably, there’s no admission fee charged to the 2.5 million people who visit the site each year. For history buffs, of course, the Alamo has special attraction, with displays of weaponry and other artifacts from the 1836 siege. Docents give detailed tours of the site that include descriptions of the battle, and there’s a library onsite for serious Texas history scholars. Even those with no attachment to its historical significance may find the Alamo worth visiting for the gardens lovingly maintained within its walled complex. 300 Alamo Plaza, tel. 210-225-1391. www.thealamo.org

Some visitors, however, aren’t aware that the Alamo started as a mission—one of five still standing in San Antonio, extending from downtown to the southeast end of the city, known as San Antonio’s Mission Trail. [Read more about the Mission Trail.]

Sports

The San Antonio Spurs basketball team is not only the city’s only major sports franchise, and one of the best-performing teams in any sport over the past decade, but is arguably the most beloved entity in the city. The team’s “Go Spurs Go” slogan is displayed in myriad ways in neighborhoods all over San Antonio, and yet tickets for games at the AT&T Center, on the city’s East Side, are relatively affordable and attainable during the regular season.

The AT&T Center is also home to the annual San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo in February, which features top-notch rodeo athletes, country music performers and proud FFA students with their livestock for a two-week run in which San Antonians dig through their closets for their cowboy hats, boots and Wrangler jeans.

The other major sports and events facility is the Alamodome, at the southeast corner of downtown. In addition to hosting the annual Alamo Bowl in late December, the Alamodome is one of the NCAA’s favorite sites for men’s and women’s college basketball tournament games in March. During the fall, the facility also hosts high school football games—a serious tradition in Texas—and starting in 2011, will host college football games for the fledgling program at University of Texas at San Antonio.

San Antonio Festivals

The downtown area comes alive during the San Antonio Fiesta, the annual festival that takes over the entire city for 11 days during the latter half of April. While those parts of downtown ready-made for festivals bustle with additional music, food booths, and reverie, other parts of the San Antonio core area that are normally more sedate turn into parade routes, carnival grounds and Tejano music festival sites.

Though San Antonians are by and large the type of people to go with the flow, Fiesta can be a bit overwhelming at times for both drivers and pedestrians. It’s best navigated with patience and mindfulness about the people-watching possibilities. One more helpful Fiesta tip: If someone comes at you with a brightly-colored egg in hand, they’re indulging in a long-standing Fiesta tradition. Cascarones are eggshells filled with confetti, and it’s customary to crack them (gently!) over the heads of either those near and dear to you, or to strangers who seem open to festivity. [Read more tips for visiting Fiesta.]

Fiesta’s certainly not the only festival that transforms the city. On the first Friday of every month, the King William neighborhood—part of several neighborhoods south of downtown known as Southtown—hosts the Southtown First Friday ArtWalk. Designed as a gallery walk featuring the works of the city’s active visual artists, the event also includes a number of late-night live music shows and happenings. [Read more about San Antonio Arts.]

The other event that makes an annual impact on the city is the Texas Folklife Festival each June. Held at the Institute of Texan Cultures in HemisFair Park, at the southeast corner of downtown, the festival celebrates 40 different cultures through performance, arts and crafts, and, not surprisingly, food.

San Antonio Food

One of the major pastimes in San Antonio is eating—in fact, locals will often talk about eating experiences at various restaurants while dining out. Certainly, San Antonio is best known for its abundance of Mexican restaurants, and while that’s arguably what the city’s best at preparing, San Antonio’s different cultures and gastronomic inclinations go beyond mere Mexican fare. [Read more about San Antonio Restaurants and San Antonio Family Dining.]


Destinations: San Antonio

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Shopping, Sightseeing


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