Over the last 20 years, a new San Antonio has evolved from being the ‘Alamo City’ to embracing its natural environment and rich cultural history. You still can’t forget the Alamo here. With more than 1.5 million visitors per year, the Alamo — historic mission turned major battlefield — remains a major draw. And Texas schoolchildren still cry, “Remember The Alamo!” when exhorting teammates to play harder.
However, San Antonio’s civic improvements along the riverfront are what’s changed the travel experience for the better. Explore River Walk, play outdoors, discover diverse cultures, eat well and be surprised by what this city offers families. We think the new San Antonio is more memorable than the Alamo.
Celebrate Culture On Museum Reach
Keep the San Antonio River in your sights as you tour the city outdoors. The Museum Reach district packed with cultural institutions extends for five miles north of the original downtown River Walk loop.
With school-age kids, start at The Witte Museum, San Antonio’s traditional science and eclectic natural history collection. It’s nestled within Brackenridge Park with very inviting outdoor walkways between the galleries. Check out the new, multimedia exhibits (we saw “Extreme Creatures” from the American Museum of Natural History) first. The Body exhibit challenges visitors of all ages to exercise. People of the Pecos and Dinosaur galleries focus on the region’s prehistory and earliest residents.
After the effect of videos and 3D imagery wears off, kids will enjoy the old-fashioned “Texas Wild Gallery,” where dioramas feature taxidermized animals on the Texas plains.
Culture And Active Kids Fun in Museum Reach
The DoSeum is nearby. Talk about a great place to wear out pre-teens; this is a really fun two-story children’s museum abuzz with laughter. From all the activities, our favorite was “Spy Zone.” Choose what type of spy you want to be, accept a mission, then let the museum’s interactive watch propel you from one assignment to the next to score points.
There is also a mini supermarket and push and react exhibits that recall other children’s museums. The difference is, in the new San Antonio, they do it bigger and better. The perfect spot for grandparents is the DoSeum’s peaceful outdoor garden. The soothing water play area integrated with the landscape overlooks the nearby San Antonio River.
if you’re into water play, head about 2 miles north to The Pearl, the mulit-use district that has sprung up around the converted Pearl Brewery. From public fountains to outdoor cafes, food courts, a grand hotel, clubs and cool shops, it epitomizes the fun of a new San Antonio playing with its heritage.
While you’re in the vicinity of Brackenridge Park, take a walk through the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Art shows utilize the outdoor plantings. At our visit, outdoor sculpture was part of the interpretation of Frida Kahlo’s garden at Casa Azul in Mexico City. November brings Lightscape, the seasonal holiday mile of lights twisted into bluebonnet shapes and Instagram-worthy light sculptures.
Heart of the New San Antonio
The city’s birthplace along San Pedro Creek is commemorated by waterfalls, strolling paths, sculpture and murals in the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. The Park surrounds the creek along two blocks of Camaron Street between Houston and Piazza Italia on the western edge of downtown. Go before it grows to its planned 2.2-mile length because it’s a compact place to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history, current art scene, and indigenous flora and fauna.
There are dozens of good downtown hotels in San Antonio, many in close proximity to the River Walk. We enjoyed our stay at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, about a mile from the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. This Marriott and adjacent Marriott Riverwalk are conveniently above the Rivercenter shopping complex. It’s an easy stroll to The Alamo and River Walk and far enough away to avoid the crowds.
And The Alamo. Forget it.
Our Alamo guide proudly announced, “The Alamo’s history is a story bigger than Texas.” That comment set the stage for a comparison with the other missions that the super touristy, over-crowded, disappointingly small Alamo just can’t win.
Originally the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo did play an important role in the city’s history for more than 300 years. When the Spanish established a foothold on the San Antonio River by 1731, their Texas claim included a presidio (or fort), a civil town and five Catholic missions.
The Alamo later evolved into a frontier military outpost used by Spain, Mexico, Texas, and the U.S. It was even occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War.
Today, the Alamo is mostly remembered for the epic battle for Texas independence that took place there in 1836. Non-Texans seeking the real San Antonio should forget the Alamo and, instead, visit the missions that are still missions.
Celebrate History in the New San Antonio Mission Reach
The four other missions that earned the city its well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage designation are Missions Espada, San Juan Capistrano, San Jose and Concepcion. The San Antonio River Authority has extended River Walk into a terrific strolling and biking path for 18 miles along the San Antonio River, from Brackenridge Park to I-410S south of the city. These missions are located within the southernmost 7 miles comprising the Mission Reach district.
Walk, canoe, rent a SA Bike Share or drive between these fascinating vestiges of authentic San Antonio history. Alternatively, take a guided bike tour, as we did, with Mission Adventure Tours. At each, discover a bit more about the life of Native Americans who were converted to Catholicism by missionaries and followed the monks’ daily routine of work, prayer, fasting and feasting.
Mission Adventure to Mission Espada
Guide Becky Lemanski, a professional firefighter, met us at a starting point in Southtown. This more authentic, southern neighborhood is attracting younger residents and visitors away from the city center with cheaper rents and an artsy vibe. From there, we biked to the southernmost Mission Espada.
At Espada, Franciscan monks trained the local Coahuiltecan tribal converts in carpentry, agriculture, tile making and other crafts while teaching them Spanish. In addition to the system of acequias, or traditional irrigation ditches, the still-standing Espada Aqueduct and Dam enabled the monks to irrigate 3,500 acres of land.
Busy Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano, with a restored stucco façade, is the liveliest one. Monks continue their Catholic mission by hosting weekly mass and several weddings per year. Fifty acres of the mission’s land are cultivated to benefit the San Antonio Food Bank. Additionally, local restaurants use five acres as a historic demonstration garden to experiment with heritage grains, herbs and other plants once grown by Coahuiltecans and Mexican residents.
The Yanaguana Trail gives you a chance to hike around the perimeter of the mission. If you’re history buffs, tour the small museum and acequias maintained in partnership with the National Park Service.
Missions San Jose and Concepcion
In the middle of the Mission Reach neighborhood, Mission San Jose is the largest of the four. A prime example of 18th-century Spanish colonial architecture, it is the most impressive visually with an ornately carved Rose Window. As at many of the others, San Jose’s original dome and roof were replaced as part of restoration done by the archdiocese. Note that the National Park Service runs free guided tours from its Visitors Center and does special programs for Hispanic Heritage Month (October.)
Mission Concepcion was relocated from East Texas to the present site in 1731. Cyclists have to navigate streets full of car traffic so it was not included in our tour. The architecture is of interest because the imposing church and parts of the convento where the priest lived are still standing in their original form. Walk the shaded colonnades, admire the masonry of thick stone walls and look for the mural fragments preserved inside the church. Like the Alamo, Concepcion was established by the Spanish on El Camino Real de los Tejas.
City of Gastronomy is All About Food
UNESCO prizes what’s most authentic about San Antonio and a meal at Pharm Table is a good way to appreciate it. Just peruse the jars of herbs and spices inside this stylish eatery. You’ll soon understand how history, culture, wellness and taste combined to earn San Antonio its second UNESCO designation, as a UNESCO World Heritage City of Gastronomy.
Are you thinking the capital of kolaches – that sweet Czech pastry topped with a fruit filling — and tacos – fresh Mexican tortillas filled with anything — doesn’t deserve that recognition?
Historians like Pharm Table’s owner-chef Elizabeth Johnson credit the Spaniards and Canary Islanders for bringing their spices to this culinary capital. The black Africans who were forced laborers at the Missions also contributed their traditional flavors to grains and proteins that the Coahuiltecans and Mexicans were eating.
In fact, the city’s diverse gastronomy heritage is a product of the original inhabitants, settlers from the eastern states, the 19th-century wave of German and Czech immigrants and the Texans who came after them. That’s why the new San Antonio has become a real foodie destination.
Dining Well in the New San Antonio
Most visitors to San Antonio expect to spend one evening dining along the River Walk canal downtown. Cross any of the bridges to watch the nightly scramble for cheap margaritas. Just as we know you won’t forget the Alamo, even foodies will want to see what’s going on. Here’s a bit of culinary guidance.
Boudro’s Texas Bistro is one of hippest places along the River Walk, with guacamole made tableside, prickly pear margaritas and shrimp n’ grits. Since it’s always packed, eat nearby and canalside at Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar. From green chile bacon mash to crab-stuffed jalapenos, they’ve refreshed the cliched Tex Mex menu of yesteryear with some new flavors.
For lighter fare or a breakfast treat, head out to one of the three locations of La Panaderia, the kind of traditional Mexican bakery that San Antonians have turned on its head. In addition to the classic pan dulce, you can have croissants, brioche, focaccia and delicious pastries.
Discover the food at a buzzy lobby bar downtown, Tributary, even if you’re not a guest of the Marriott RiverCenter. Blush red sangria, margaritas with a grapefruit flair, fine brisket tacos and barbecued lamb quesadillas round out the innovative menu.
Good Kind in Southtown appeals because of its large garden dotted by picnic tables, sheds and an Airstream trailer. Chef Tim McDiarmid, a James Beard Fellow, serves fried fish or cauliflower tacos, blended juice drinks and exotic cocktails, black rice and sweet potato bowls or noodle salads.
Motto for the New San Antonio
Chef Tim’s ambitions are as broad as the food and cultural scenes, as deep as the city’s history.
Let the neon sign she’s hung over the parking lot — Make Tacos Not War — serve as a motto to all who come seeking the Alamo and discover what the new San Antonio truly has to offer.
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