Welcome to my quick and dirty guide to exploring San Antonio, Texas – home to the historic Alamo, the iconic River Walk, and mouth-watering Tex-Mex! I recently had my first experience in this vibrant city and found there was SO much to discover, even amid a pandemic. I specifically chose less touristy activities in open-air spaces, which led me to some real gems.
So are you ready to explore?
The Pearl District
First up, the Pearl, an open-air retail, dining, and community space tucked against the picturesque River Walk. This district is a stunning example of a neighborhood reimagined. From 1883 until 2001, the Pearl was a prominent brewery, but once the brewery moved and operations ceased, this area was abandoned. A group of investors then came along and revitalized the Pearl into the lively micro-district it is today.
Thanks to the repurposing of many original structures, the Pearl is full of character. The bottling plant is currently a food hall, ammonia tanks are now herb-gardens, and the Brewhouse has been transformed into a luxury hotel. You could easily spend all day meandering, snacking, and perusing. If possible, visit on a Saturday morning to experience the Farmers Market from 9 am-1 pm. The Pearl Farmers Market features over 45 vendors selling local products, as well as food stalls offering delicious lunch options. Dog-friendly, kid-friendly, and filled with locals, this is the perfect spot to get a taste of the authentic San Antonio.
Pre-COVID, the Farmers Market was also open on Sunday from 9 am-2 pm. Currently, they require masks and social-distancing. Hand-sanitizing stations were available.
The River Walk
A trip to San Antonio isn’t complete without a visit to the iconic River Walk, also known as the Paseo del Rio. The entire River Walk is 15-miles long, with the 5-mile stretch through downtown being the most frequented. Instead of venturing where most tourists go, begin your explorations of the River Walk at the Pearl District. Rent bikes from the B-cycle station and hop onto the walking path behind the Emma Hotel. You will pass creative art installations, waterfalls, lush greenery, and cute little enclaves hidden along the way.
Make sure to stop at the Elsewhere Garden Bar & Kitchen. This relaxing tiki bar has wooden swings facing the Paseo del Rio and gives off quite the tropical vibe. It is the perfect spot to grab a drink and chill!
The River Walk is the largest urban ecosystem in the nation! It can also be explored by boat, kayak, or simply strolling!
San Antonio is home to five missions, with the Alamo being most famous and only one located downtown. The other four missions are a 15-minute ride south in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
What are the missions you ask?
Well, they embody about 300 years of history and culture, so I’ll share the quick and dirty:
The missions were fortified compounds built with the intent to assert Spain’s claim to the land and assimilate local native groups to the Spanish way of life. Inside the walls, there were living quarters, a church, workshops, and the mission functioned as a self-sustaining community.
The natives in the missions were taught trades such as blacksmithing, ranching, and weaving, and received protection from rival tribes. Eventually, European-borne diseases spread to the native populations, leading to many deaths and the eventual collapse of the missions as they were.
The best way to visit the four missions in the Mission National Historic Park is by bike. Start at the Mission Espada, located the furthest away, and rent a bike from the B-cycle kiosk to explore the 8-mile Mission Reach Trail. You will be able to visit Mission San Jose, Mission Concepcion, and Mission San Juan.
If your time is limited, I recommend visiting Mission San Jose, known as the “Queen of the Missions”, this is the largest and has been almost completely restored to its original design. The Spanish colonial architecture, serene church bells, and soothing music will transport you to another place and time. And there are some stunning photo-ops to be had!
The King William historic district is a great place to explore before or after you’ve spent some time in the Missions National Historical Park. If you choose to bike, you can jump back on the trail and it will lead you straight into the district!
King William Historic District
If you love grandiose historic homes, the King William Historic District is the place to be.
Back in the day (around the mid-nineteenth century, to be exact), German families immigrating to America seemed to have loved Texas! A large population decided to make San Antonio home and chose to settle in this particular area, south of downtown. Not only did they settle, but they invested in this neighborhood and built beautiful homes designed in Greek Revival, Victorian, and Italianate styles.
There were actually SO many Germans in this particular area that it was nicknamed “Sauerkraut Bend,” and the neighborhood itself was called the King William District after King Wilhelm I of Prussia.
It is designated as a Cultural Arts District, and the best way to explore is again, by biking! Bike rentals are available at B-cycle stations around the neighborhood. To admire the stunning 19th-century homes, ride along South Alamo, Madison, and King William St. Be sure to bike up Washington St. to appreciate the river-side mansions, and you can jump on the River Walk path here.
When you’re ready for a bite or beverage, my top stops for this historic neighborhood include:
A family-owned restaurant that serves authentic Mexican food and Margs on a gorgeous patio; it is perfect for people-watching! If you choose to dine inside, the brightly colored rooms will set the atmosphere, and the Frida art is not to be missed.
Situated next door to Casa Frida, Eleven O Two is an inviting gallery/cafe new to the block. Located in a charming historic home, you will find art-filled walls leading to an espresso bar with the cutest patio. Housing a wine bar, coffee shop, and gallery, Eleven O Two plans to become a dynamic part of the community and will offer a host of events! It’s definitely a local gem that I already plan on re-visiting!
Known for their Cilantro Cream Enchiladas, this is a San Antonio establishment! Unassuming and affordable, expect fresh tortillas and a full cantina with handcrafted margaritas at this family-owned restaurant. I mean, if you don’t overload on the Tex Mex, did you even go to San Antonio?
The neighborhood ice house.
An eclectic patio will welcome you and with over 300 bottles and 76 taps, their menu will entice you. Offering weekly events, movie screenings, and happy hour every day, you must add this to your San Antonio bucket-list!
Whether you’re in the mood to admire art, peruse local boutiques, or indulge in a delicious meal, the Blue Star Arts Complex has it all. A multipurpose property that houses dining, retail, and art spaces ideally situated right on the river, is considered the creative heartbeat of San Antonio.
Download the B-Cycle app; it provides a map of stations, as well as the option to rent.
San Antonio is a cultural hub that offers attractions ideal for any visitor. While it may not be the first place that crosses your mind to visit, it is a city that every traveler should add to their destination bucket list!
Until next time,