Buzzy cities like my hometown of Austin get all the attention. But, when friends from around the world ask me where in the United States they should visit for an authentic, unique adventure, the first place I mention is San Antonio. One of Texas’ less touristed metropolis, edging the highly regarded, wildflower peppered, vineyard abundant Texas Hill Country (recently rated the number 3 wine region in North America), the historic city lies in the portion of Texas which once flew the flags of Spain, France, and Mexico in turns. Its rowdy, robust, rapscallion spirit drew explorers, pirates, frontiersmen, Catholic missionaries, Mexican ranchers, German beer makers, oil barons, artists, and cowboys Their sum traits produced the legendary bravado emblematic of Texas today, and that character fuels San Antonio, even as the city redefines itself in contemporary riffs. With denizens that speak Spanish as easily as English, a collection of UNESCO-listed, 18th-century missions (including the renowned Alamo), lavish architecture, and James Beard-nominated chefs and top bartenders, a serpentine river at its heart lined by snazzy businesses, romantic walkways, and ornate bridges, endless bike paths and hiking trails must-see museums, and distinctive entertainment districts, San Antonio begs to be explored.
Where to Stay
One of the most gobsmacking hotels in the world for its artistic ingenuity, well-played sense of place, aesthetic opulence, Hotel Emma offers a thoroughly free spirit-driven re-interpretation of its architectural bones: A 19th-century brewhouse. Like a cabinet of curiosity, the boutique property excels at repurposing and celebrating industrial artifacts, bygone treasures, and rediscovered design elements throughout — think a chandelier created from bottle labelers and vintage beer vats in the ballroom, sumptuous textures (tooled antique leather, animal skins, velvet) and an overall air of savoir-faire in its guest rooms which are kitted out with clawfoot tubs and custom guayabera seersucker robes. There are also swoon-worthy common spaces (such as its bi-level library replete with 37,000 books) and rooftop pool.
The Thompson San Antonio
Pointedly dominating the Arts District, The Thompson San Antonio, is a flashy skyscraper, that continues the forward-thinking embracement of modern and contemporary art that long has been a San Antonio tradition. Ever chic, a la every Thompson hotel on the planet, this twenty-story tower brandishes an eye-catching original art collection throughout its suites and common spaces. Pieces by artists as diverse as Jeff Koons and Koray Akay enliven walls, ensuring a creative, happening, upscale mood. Sleek, luxurious guest rooms sport jaw-dropping city views, but the best vista beckons from the top floor, where bar Moon Daughter’s terraces have 280-degree Alamo City perspectives. Note to canine parents: your pets will be welcomed and pampered at no additional fee.
The Alamo City boasts no shortage of historic hotels, each a little slice of yesteryear, including the Menger, where Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders would meet for drinks. But Hotel Havana makes legends of its own in its eccentric rendition of a mythic stay. Occupying a restored Mediterranean Revival mansion on the Museum Reach part of the Paseo Del Rio (River Walk) downtown, the intimate hotel, a haven of personable service, has just 27 rooms. Conceived by Austin’s imaginative Bunkhouse group, the hotel delights guests with its whimsical, cosseting interiors (Smeg fridges, moody antiques, luxurious beds), speakeasy bar, and black and white film noir dreaminess
What to Explore
The Paseo del Rio aka the San Antonio River Walk
Easily the city’s top tourist attraction, the park-like urban waterway snakes for 15 miles through the downtown. Providing access to a trove of cultural experiences, restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels, it features a series of gathering places, pathways, meditative nooks, and activity areas—including an amphitheater. Take a ride on one of the flower-draped barges that float through its waters as part of the city’s transport system.
Begin visiting San Antonio Missions National Historic Park’s 18th-century missions at The Alamo, which for all its fame will seem smaller than you expect. You’ll find BCycle rack rental bikes nearby, ideal for pedaling the few miles south to peruse the other four Franciscan-established missions that line up along the Mission Trail, an area where the friars worked side-by-side the era’s Native American inhabitants. Today, the still unspoiled terrain sports wildlife, wildflowers, and remnants of the past.
The King William District and Southtown Arts District
Architectural buffs will want to steer their bikes slowly along the quiet streets of the King William Historic District, an enclave of nationally registered 1888-era homes, which manifest the city’s cattle and oil boomtown reign in the late 19th-century. Still bedazzling, the restored homes represent top-notch examples of various genres. Adjacent streets hold the restaurants, bakeries, abundant galleries, and shops patronized by the neighborhood’s residents, local artists, and boho types.
McNay Art Museum
Easily one of the world’s hidden gems, this small museum is one of my personal favorites in the world. Here in this astonishing space are pieces by Picasso, Cassatt, Gauguin, Dufy, de Kooning Calder, Giacometti, Van Gogh, Neel, Monet, and the old masters go on. Occupying a Jazz-era Italianate mansion built by an art savvy oil heirless to house her edgy (at the time) collection of modern art, the McNay has 23 gallery rooms, which display a revolving collection of more than 20,000 masterworks. Known as the Gertrude Stein of San Antonio, far ahead of her time, Marion Koogler McNay bought what she liked, often before the world knew the artists’ names.
Texas Hill Country Wineries
Less than an hour outside of town, the Texas Wine Country awaits. With dozens of acclaimed wineries and their vineyards, pecan and peach orchards, farms, and characteristic hamlets like German-intoned Fredericksburg, the region provides an oenophile’s dream outing.
The Pearl Brewery
This astonishing entertainment district hewed into the grounds of the original Pearl Brewery, a legendary 18th-century beer factory and manufacturing outlet has become the veritable living room of the Alamo City. Anchored by The Emma, brimming with top restaurants and bars, loaded with shops, lined with hip residences, and centered by a classic plaza, always thronged by locals, it feels like a party. Don’t miss the Saturday Farmer’s Market.
If you’re heading to San Antonio in April, you’ll get to experience Fiesta, a ten-day festival founded in 1881 to pay homage to the fallen heroes of the Alamo (March 31 – April 10). At its Battle of the Flowers Parade (April 8), participants reveal their elaborate, handmade boots from the parade floats, as spectators call out “show me your shoes!”
Where to Eat and Drink
Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery
Housed in the historic Pearl Brewhouse, this lively, award-winning restaurant pays homage to the bounty of the Texas Gulf Coast, but with an inventive modern spin. Sip one of the nearly two dozen, on-tap craft beers while nibbling dishes such as Chef Jeff Balfour’s famous Fried Snapper Throats served with Crystal Aioli and Celery Root Remoulade.
La Fonda On Main
Elegantly old school San Antonian, in a refined residential neighborhood awash in century-old mansions, this casual, local, mainstay has brought Mexican food bliss to its neighbors since 1932. With a leafy patio, friendly staff, and potently delicious margaritas, its grilled fajitas and mole enchiladas are nighttime winners. For brunch, don’t miss the huevos divorciados, eggs and chorizo with two salsas.
Deep in the heart of barbecue country, it would be sinful to not indulge in some of Texas’ famed grilled meat. Do it at James Beard-noted 2M, a joint so popular that salivating customers line up before dawn for the eatery’s famous all-night cooked brisket. Go for a classic side accompaniment — or choose something craftily local—like pickled nopales.
Swill a Manhattan at this new eatery and bar in the King William Historic District. Spun from two century-old structures, it serves glamorous comfort food (think: chicken liver gratin) and has a piano-studded live music stage for outdoor performances.
Once the taproom for the workers of the bygone Pearl Brewery, Sternewirth lies in the Hotel Emma’s moody, candle-lit cellar, where it’s easy to imagine the former brewers taking a nip during their workday—what we call day drinking today. Order an artisanal cocktail, then tuck into one of the converted antique finishing tanks, now a cozy seating alcove.
Where to Shop
Twig Book Shop
In an era when time moves too fast and everyone thrives on vacuous technology, Twig recalls simpler moments, urging visitors to reconnect their inner quietude as they turn a few pages. Located at Pearl, scented with that nostalgic musky smell of books and ink mixed with intellectual pursuits, this clever book store offers bibliophiles delights from tomes to curios.
Appropriately located in San Antonio’s Southtown Arts District, this eclectic gift shop features decor, clothing, art, furniture et al—each uniquely channeling San Antonio’s Texican soul.
You might call guayabera the aloha shirt of San Antonio. Born from the folk traditions of the Yucatan and Cuba, mandatory for hot weather, the handcrafted shirts at Dos Carolinas, nestled into the Pearl, bring a new spin to the beloved garment.
Need a piñata for a birthday party? A puppet from Mexico? Looking for fine art or jewelry? Want to nibble nachos during your shopping break? The Historic Market Square, a three-block pedestrian stretch downtown has more than 100 locally-owned specialty stores and businesses. It’s divided into two sections: The Farmer’s Market Plaza and festive El Mercado.
Where to Spa
Loma de Vida Spa at La Cantera Resort & Spa
With a golf course, this luxury retreat feels a world away, though just minutes from downtown. Its signature spa takes the far-flung vibe further. Built to showcase the Hill Country’s verdant vistas, the spacious spa provides various opportunities to commune with nature’s natural cures, not to mention a long list of healing treatments. Make a direct connection to the outdoors in its standalone Sky Lofts, contemporary cabins which crown a hill. Like miniature treehouses, the indoor-outdoor treatment rooms have a massage table, soaking tub, and porch for meditation.
Hiatus Spa San Antonio
Texas-owned, by far one of the nation’s best day spas, Hiatus’ outpost at The Pearl Brewery welcomes guests to an oasis of calm and professionalism. Urbane, state-of-the-art with highly trained staff, the feel-good spa provides everything from Ayurvedic treatments to botox. After your treatment, step out the door into the joy of The Pearl and its offerings.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Award-winning travel and wellness writer and poet Becca Hensley has published work in thousands of magazines and newspapers in a career spanning three decades. She’s visited more than 120 countries and seen tigers, panda bears, gorillas, and a zebra or two. She wishes she could go back in time to interview Edith Head (and beg for a cocktail dress design). Follow Becca, whose recent work appears in Elite Traveler, New York Post, and Organic Spa on Instagram and Twitter @beccahensley