Cultural icons, river walks, a burgeoning culinary scene and public art: It's no surprise San Antonio is one of the nation's most popular travel destinations. Here's why you should visit...
People are often surprised to learn that San Antonio’s origins predate the United States’ founding by more than half a century. The Alamo (established in 1718) is a cultural icon, and its four mission brethren represent a fascinating bygone era of Spanish colonialism. Add the lure of the adjacent River Walk, a burgeoning culinary scene and the city’s welcoming lack of pretension, and it’s no surprise that San Antonio is one of the nation’s most popular travel destinations.
Read on for eight reasons to visit this culturally vibrant region of Texas...
The five extraordinary San Antonio missions recently received the prestigious honour of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stone structures (including the Alamo and Missions Concepcion, Espada, San Jose and San Juan) were built during the era of Peter the Great and Johann Sebastian Bach, and serve as testament to the important role Texas played in international history at the time. One of the best ways to explore the missions is by bike—the sites are loosely connected by a trail, and rental bikes are available throughout downtown.
Representing an underappreciated aspect of regional history are vaqueros – the Hispanic ranch hands who rustled cattle, busted broncos and set the stage for the iconic American cowboy. One of the best places to experience this heritage is at the Asociacion de Charros de San Antonio, featuring daring and graceful charros (bullfighters) on horses, bulls and wild mares performing amazing feats, including the suspenseful ‘pass of death.’ Learn more about this rich cultural tradition at the nearby Tejas Rodeo Company, multi-level Briscoe Western Art Museum and insightful South Texas Heritage Center at the Witte Museum. You can also experience the art of charreada (an event similar to rodeo) during the annual Fiesta festival – an 11-day April celebration highlighting the arts, history and culture of San Antonio.
The Alamo is often referred to as a shrine. This historic Spanish mission and fortress compound was founded in the 18th century by Roman Catholic missionaries. When visitors enter the holy structure, they’re typically asked to remove their hats and avoid taking photos. Also known as the ‘Shrine of Texas Liberty,’ this sacred and mythical fortress draws faithful devotees. Less spiritual is the site’s unexpected urban setting, occasionally confusing visitors who expect a pastoral scene. Be sure to attend the Alamo’s brief introductory tour, which puts the site’s complex history into context and makes its historic walls feel even more sacred. In addition to the famous building, the Alamo grounds include the Long Barrack Museum, featuring an impressive collection of historic artefacts.
The Pearl Brewery complex at the northern reach of the River Walk is quite a sight to behold. The former brewery’s (1883–2001) impressively restored structures—now housing a hotel, restaurants and retail shops—are a cultural destination for locals and visitors alike. Among the highlights are the stunning Hotel Emma, a Culinary Institute of America campus and restaurants offering delectable menu items ranging from street tacos to antipasti plates to gourmet dining.
At first glance, the River Walk—located just a few steps away from the Alamo—may appear to be a crowded tourist attraction. And to a degree, it is. But like many touristy things, there’s a reason visitors are drawn to this location. It’s a genuinely festive environment, punctuated by laughs, cactus and river barges. The whole blissfully detached scene operates as a 24-kilometre waterway a level below San Antonio’s busy streets and sidewalks. River walkers can shop, eat, jog and spend the night along the nation’s largest urban ecosystem.
Sometimes the most interesting aspect of a city is its forward progress. In San Antonio, the future is once again tied to its past at San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Located just west of downtown, the park honours the native Payapa people who lived near the waterway for thousands of years before European settlement. Visitors can view the native landscaping and colourful artwork lining the two-mile park while soaking up other fascinating aspects of local history at the nearby Casa Navarro State Historic Site and Spanish Governor’s Palace.
San Antonio’s skyline is defined by the eye-catching Tower of the Americas, a 228-metre-tall observation tower and restaurant overlooking the historic downtown and River Walk. Originally constructed for the 1968 World’s Fair, the tower is adjacent to the enormous Institute of Texan Cultures in HemisFair Park. The museum celebrates Texas’ remarkable diversity, including more than 250 cultural and ethnic groups. A giant globe in the main exhibit hall reminds visitors that Texas, like the rest of America, is indeed a melting pot. Or perhaps a complex and flavourful bowl of chilli...
If you're looking for local art, great flavour and lots of fun, all signs point south. Southtown, San Antonio's vibrant Arts District, is home to a huge creative community. Here you can spend the day strolling between locally-owned bars, coffee shops, boutiques, museums and art galleries. Within Southtown you'll find the Victorian-inspired neighbourhood of King William – named after King Wilhelm I of Prussia, thanks to the large German population that made the town their home in the mid 1800s. In 2011, King William was designated a Cultural Arts District by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Also don’t miss the Blue Star Arts Complex in Southtown – a 160,000-square-foot collection of studios, art galleries, retailers, bars and eateries, including a microbrewery. On the first Friday of every month, head to the area’s monthly night-time street festival to explore quirky artwork.
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