With neither the modern skyline of an oil town, nor the tumbleweed-strewn landscape of the Wild West, attractive and festive San Antonio looks nothing like the stereotypical image of Texas – despite being pivotal in the state's history. Standing at a geographical crossroads, it encapsulates the complex social and ethnic mixes of all Texas. Although the Germans, among others, have made a cultural strong contribution, today's San Antonio is predominantly Hispanic. Though now the seventh largest city in the US, it retains an unhurried, organic feel and is one of the nicest places in Texas to spend a few days.
Founded in 1691 by Spanish missionaries, San Antonio became a military garrison in 1718, and was settled by the Anglos in the 1720s and 1730s under Austin's colonization program. It is most famous for the legendary Battle of the Alamo in 1836, when General Santa Anna wiped out a band of Texas volunteers seeking independence from Mexico. After the Civil War, it became a hard-drinking, hard-fighting "sin city," at the heart of the Texas cattle and oil empires. Drastic floods in the 1920s wiped out much of the downtown area, but the sensitive WPA program that revitalized two of the city's prettiest sites, La Villita and the River Walk, laid the foundations for its future as a major tourist destination. Recently several massive hotels (think Vegas) have been constructed to accommodate the booming tourism and convention industries. The military has a major presence in San Antonio, too, with four bases in the metropolitan area.
San Antonio is Texas' second largest city, and is rich in its diverse cultural offerings. Famous as the location of the Alamo and the River Walk area, San Antonio is a vibrant city that is growing rapidly.
The heart of the city's tourism business beats along the River Walk and in the downtown area. Densely packed with hotels, attractions, restaurants and bars, a visitor could conceivably spend their entire trip right here. The area bustles with activity nearly every night of the week and almost all year long, with locals and tourists alike enjoying mouth-watering cuisine at Boudro's or Paesano's River Walk , singing their hearts out at Howl at the Moon , or dancing the night away at Polly Esther's . Not your average tourist trap, the River Walk entices many locals to brave the crowds and enjoy their city.
If San Antonio gets funky, this is where it happens. Once primarily residential and neglected, the area has seen a resurgence of interest and an infusion of capital. Urban professionals are snatching up historical homes and refurbishing them, entrepreneurs are launching hip new businesses, and the locals are taking notice. Wander just a few blocks from downtown and discover Espuma Tea & Coffee Emporium and Rosario's . If you can, check out the area during a First Friday celebration. This community-wide celebration held the first Friday of each month draws crowds from all over the city for art openings, theater productions, dining and shopping.
One of the original suburbs of San Antonio, Alamo Heights harbors some of the city's finest dining establishments and upscale shopping opportunities. And with good reason, as a huge portion of the city's wealth resides in this neighborhood. For dinner, locals flock to Paloma Blanca or Cappy's . Beer and pool preside at the Broadway 50/50 . For a gift for that special someone, you can't go wrong at Sloan-Hall . At Twin Sisters , pull up a chair and get your daily dose of neighborhood gossip over breakfast or lunch.
Monte Vista/Olmos Park
Neighboring Alamo Heights, this area is home to some of the most exquisite mansions in the city. At the very least it is worth driving through just to gawk. You will find some wonderful neighborhood secrets, such as the thick chocolate shakes at Olmos Pharmacy or superb take-out at WD Deli .
North East/North Central
Shopping centers, housing developments and highways are popping up all over North East and North Central San Antonio as many new residents move in, both from out of town and from within the city's more central neighborhoods. This kind of rapid growth seems to require predictability, as is evidenced in the plethora of restaurant and shopping chains. If you want to shop at Old Navy, use the phone book. Otherwise, be a rebel and shop at a place like James Avery Craftsman . Likewise with dining, enjoy the down home cooking at Casey's Bar-B-Q .
The medical industry is big business in San Antonio, so this area continues to grow at a steady pace. Sort of a hodgepodge of strip shopping centers, restaurants, residences and office complexes, the atmosphere of the neighborhood seems a bit disjointed. Still, you can find great dining at Jacala Mexican Restaurant , Texas Land & Cattle Steak House and Bob's Smokehouse . Shopping is somewhat limited to chain stores. For a fun night out in this part of town, you can't beat the Fox & Hound English Pub & Grille .
When big money folks are tired of paying city taxes, they flee outside the city limits. Locals that feel the need to escape the city head out this way to dine at Rudy's BBQ and then dance the night away at Leon Springs Dance Hall . The next day, shop at all the antique stores in Boerne or spend the day at Six Flags Fiesta Texas or Sea World .
San Antonians love to eat, and it shows in both its fine restaurants and its casual cafes. Whether you enjoy perfectly grilled steaks, tender barbecue, tasteful vegetarian fare or perfectly prepared sushi, you will find whatever your taste buds crave. Of course, San Antonio is most famous for its Tex-Mex cuisine; no visit to the city could be considered complete without at least one dinner involving enchiladas or tamales, and one breakfast of chorizo and egg tacos.
More culinary surprises await you just a few steps up from the River Walk . Wander just a few blocks from the river and you will discover Schilo's , serving German fare and Twin Sisters , offering delicious salads, soups and vegetarian dishes. Le Reve Cuisine specializes in contemporary French cuisine, while the classic American dishes at Bolivar Cafe are sure to please.
The River Walk
The huge numbers of visitors to the River Walk have to eat somewhere. Some of the restaurants are excellent, some are merely good, but all of them are sure to be crowded. One of the most popular is Boudro's – A Texas Bistro . With a prime location in the heart of the River Walk, an unparalleled menu featuring Blackened Prime Rib, Ancho Shrimp, fresh fish and Prickly Pear Margaritas, it is a dining must for locals, tourists and many visiting celebrities.
Another favorite among locals and visitors alike is Paesano's River Walk , serving up delicious Italian cuisine. Don't expect to find generic spaghetti or lasagna on the menu, though, as their specialties include Shrimp Paesano's (a garlic and Parmesan shrimp dish) and a huge salad with artichoke hearts and hearts of palm. Other fine choices include County Line and Hard Rock Cafe for barbecue and classic American fare. For Tex-Mex, try Rio Rio Cantina , Casa Rio , The Original Mexican Restaurant , La Paloma or Zuni Grill . Michelino's will please the stomachs of those in the mood for Italian food.
The many hotels located on the River Walk also boast some fine restaurants. Save for a few exceptions, the restaurants on the river are independently-owned. Should you not be a very adventurous diner, there are a few chain restaurants, such as the Olive Garden, located in the Rivercenter Mall .
Originally a suburb of San Antonio, Alamo Heights now finds itself located in the heart of the city. A decidedly upper-middle class area, it boasts some of the best dining and drinking options. Start your evening at Cappycino's on Broadway with drinks and appetizers, or end it there with coffee and dessert. One of the city's only smoke-free bars, Cappycino's menu is so extensive it comes in a multi-page booklet form. From here you can move on to dinner at the bar's sister restaurant, Cappy's , right next door and enjoy fresh seafood, perfectly prepared steaks and inventive chicken dishes. Be sure you don't miss their chocolate cake—it's a closely guarded recipe from Cappy's mother and is the best in town.
There are many other prime choices for both lunch and dinner in Alamo Heights. Paloma Blanca on Broadway offers some of the city's best Tex-Mex and margaritas, as does La Fonda on New Braunfels. For hamburgers, pizza and salad, nothing beats E Z's Brick Oven And Grill at either their original location on New Braunfels or their newest addition in the Quarry Market . For creative sandwiches, the best tea and Sunday brunch, be sure to visit Madhatter's Tea on Avenue B near the Witte Museum .
Several spots in this neighborhood combine great dining with a great bar. To see and be seen, try Cafe Soleil on Broadway. Their contemporary menu is a big draw for sophisticated diners, while their bar draws a mixed crowd of young and old, all attracted equally to the live music, the Internet-linked computers and the pool tables.
The Loop/North Central
Circling the city, Interstate Loop 410 is lined with many fine restaurants. For excellent Chinese cuisine, try Formosa Garden , located on the access road between the Nacogdoches and Broadway exits. Its diverse menu includes everything from Szechwan Chicken and Lemon Chicken to Beef with Broccoli and Sweet & Sour Pork, all reasonably priced and perfectly prepared. For fun Cajun food, visit Acadiana Cafe on the Far West side of town between the Culebra and Marbach exits. Just about everything comes with hush puppies here, and there is always the option to "blacken" everything, be it fish, chicken or shrimp.
Should your tastes range more toward traditional fare, you might try Aldino or Tex's Grill and Sports Bar in the Airport Hilton , where you should definitely try the red beans with venison sausage. Several restaurant chains are located around The Loop as well.
One of the city's Italian cuisine treasures is hidden on Brookhollow just off of the highway. Fratelli's offers the usual Italian dishes such as lasagna and fettuccine alfredo in huge portions at reasonable prices. While the quality is not necessarily remarkable, it is always consistently satisfying.
Outside the City
San Antonio offers many more wonderful dining options off the beaten path. Try Bolo's Grill , located in the Omni Hotel on IH-10 at Wurzbach. Offering exquisite game, beef and chicken entrees in an elegant atmosphere, Bolo's is an excellent choice for a celebration or a night on the town. Enjoy elegant Italian cuisine at La Scala or Razmiko's, romantic dining at The Grey Moss Inn or Crumpets , more Tex-Mex at Los Barrios or La Fogata , or great burgers at Tycoon Flats or Chris Madrid's .
You could spend years in this city and still not experience everything it has to offer. In fact, many of the locals have never seen some of the most popular attractions. So take your pick, and have fun!
Institute of Texan Cultures Expect to spend a full day visiting these sites, as there is plenty to see. Begin your excursion at the Institute of Texan Cultures . Operated by the University of Texas, the Institute houses fascinating exhibits from each of the cultures that settled in Texas and helped to make the state the wonderful place it is today. Next, pay a visit to the Alamo . The cradle of Texas liberty, the Alamo stands as a shrine to the rag-tag band of Texans who battled against General Santa Anna's massive army in Texas' battle for independence from Mexico. After the Alamo, wander down to La Villita Historic Arts Village . Originally the home sites of Canary Islanders who immigrated to the area, La Villita is now a series of shops, restaurants and plazas. Stop into La Villita Museum or the Village Gallery .
Spanish Governor's Palace Winding your way westward from La Villita, stop in at the Spanish Governor's Palace . The restored building is the former home of the first governor of the area when Texas was a Spanish colony. Furnished in period pieces, the site is a fascinating glimpse into how the elite lived in that era. Then continue on to Market Square . Plan to explore the shops and pick up all the souvenirs you can carry. The largest Mexican market outside of Mexico, the Square's stores are filled with beautiful terra-cotta pieces, leather goods, embroidered clothing and more. Once you've exhausted your financial reserve and have more packages than you can carry, enjoy dinner at either Mi Tierra Cafe or the Pico de Gallo .
Hertzberg Museum From the Institute of Texan Cultures , venture over to HemisFair Park , which is just a few steps awa. Or wander over to Alamo Plaza where you can enjoy the Texas Adventure . Here holographic images of the heroes of the Alamo tell the tale of the battle complete with lighting and sound effects. Finally, drop in at Ripley's Believe It Or Not! and the Plaza Theater of Wax . Housing a wonderful collection of oddities and wax mannequins, kids of all ages will find something that fascinates them, something that makes them think, and something that is sure to make them queasy. Drop into Twin Sisters Bakery & Cafe-Downtown for a quick bite to eat in this district.
McNay Art Museum You could easily spend a day or two wandering among all the traditional and contemporary art spaces in this city and still not see everything. If you have a limited time frame, begin your artistic adventure at the McNay Art Museum . Formerly the private residence of Marion Koogler McNay, the museum displays permanent exhibits that include sculpture, photography, and paintings as well as many traveling exhibits. From here, stop into the Boardwalk Bistro for lunch, then visit the San Antonio Museum of Art . Once home to the Lone Star Brewery, the building is now filled with the museum's impressive collections of sculpture and paintings. You can often catch traveling exhibits here for a small fee above the admission cost. The Southtown section of San Antonio is home to a myriad of the finest commercial galleries in the city. The pieces at the Blue Star Arts Complex are contained within a huge warehouse. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is located nearby. In addition to the interesting homemade crafts, there is a regular schedule of events that take place here.
River Walk Stroll along the River Walk . You'll see the Southwest Craft Center at the north end and the Arneson River Theatre at the South end. You may want to stop into the Rivercenter Mall , which also has many dining options. From here pay a visit to the St. Anthony Hotel . Boasting one of the most elegant lobbies in the city, the staff at the hotel is used to visitors wandering through. Your last stop is the Gunter Hotel , another of the most beautiful lobbies. Elegantly restored, the mahogany wood and pristine marble are breath-taking.
As with any city that hosts thousands of visitors annually, there are many commercial tour operators who effectively condense the city's attractions into various tour packages.
Boat Tours Rio San Antonio Cruises ( +1 210 244 5700 / http://www.riosanantonio.com/ ) Daisy Tours ( +1 210 225 8600 / http://www.daisytours.com )
Segway Tours Segcity Tours ( +1 210 224 0773 / http://www.segcity.com/ )
Bike Tours San Antonio Bicycle Tours (+1 210 599 1387)
Bus Tours Tornado Tours Incorporated ( +1 210 662 6356 / www.tornadotoursinc.com/ ) Autobuses Adame Tours ( +1 210 271 9559 ) Daisy Tours ( +1 210 225 8600 / http://www.daisytours.com/ ) Ok Tours (+1 210 222 8880 / http://www.oktours.com/ )