San Antonio definitely shares some hipster vibes with nearby Austin, but the south-central Texas city known for the Alamo and its River Walk has its own unique personality that’s steeped in history, a craft cocktail culture and a whole lotta delicious Mexican food. With a highly walkable (or bikeable!) downtown area, it’s easy to hit all the high points of San Antonio in a 36 hour weekend getaway.
It’s easy to get there: Delta, American, Southwest and United all fly to San Antonio, along with some international airlines.
It’s not as far away as you think: San Antonio is a short one-hour flight from Dallas and Houston, so a connecting flight through those hubs should be a breeze. Located in south-central Texas, it’s also about an hour and a half’s drive from Austin.
Things to Do in San Antonio
Visit the Alamo
San Antonio’s most well-known landmark is the Alamo, the site of the famous battle where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were killed in 1836. Before such violent times, the Alamo began as one of the first Spanish Missions in Texas in the early 1700’s, and played a crucial role in the settlement of San Antonio the entire Southwest. This was the first tourist stop I made in San Antonio, but personally I didn’t find the building that impressive. It’s quite small! Apparently that’s a common reaction. But regardless, it’s conveniently located downtown and has a lot of historical significance to San Antonio, so there’s really no excuse to skip it. I came, I saw, I moved on!
Explore the San Antonio River Walk
San Antonio’s other big draw is its River Walk, an entire world of its own located a block below street level.
The best way to begin exploring the River Walk is to take a barge tour, which costs just $8 (and you can buy an alcoholic beverage at the ticket window to take with you, if you feel so inclined). The tour is about 30 minutes and gives you a good overview of the River Walk’s history while you scope out all the restaurants and bars you might want to hit up later along the way. I loved hearing all the little anecdotes the tour guide shared about the River Walk’s construction and the hilarious tales of drunken tourists who fell in.
In the evening, make sure you stop by the San Fernando Cathedral near the River Walk if you’re there on a Tuesday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. At 9:00, 9:30 and 10:00 p.m. the exterior of the cathedral is lit up with a video projection by artist Xavier de Richemont. The video is a tribute to San Antonio’s culture and history, from Native American settlement to Mexican independence, the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas oil boom. It’s seriously way cool even if you don’t have a clue what’s going on!
While the River Walk is fun, it’s certainly very touristy and many of the restaurants located alongside it are chains. Another place to visit in San Antonio that was a bit more my style is the Pearl Brewery. While not actually a brewery anymore (that part closed in 2001), Pearl is a modern collection of restaurants, shops and apartments located a short drive from downtown. Outside of the River Walk, Pearl seems to be the “happening” area of the city.
If you’re in San Antonio on a weekend, make sure you stop by on Saturday morning for the Pearl Farmers Market. There are loads of yummy treats like kolaches (bread stuffed with cheese and sausage), empanadas, breakfast tacos, and of course… fruit and veggies for those attempting to be healthy in the land of tempting Tex-Mex.
The Granary at Pearl is another yummy food option, as they serve BBQ and brew their own craft beer on-site. Don’t forget to leave room for banana bread pudding, homemade rootbeer and evilest of all, white bread.
Craft Cocktails in San Antonio
San Antonio surprised me with quite an impressive cocktail scene. One stop to make is The Esquire Tavern, which is actually the oldest bar on the River Walk. If you’re starting on the water side, there’s quite a steep staircase to climb to get up into the dark, swanky bar that opened to celebrate the end of Prohibition. But once you’ve had a few, don’t worry about tripping and falling into the waist-deep muddy waters below like the aforementioned drunken tourists – there’s a door on the other side that’s street level!
We went for one quick drink and ended up staying for many, plus eating dinner at the bar. The bartenders were mixing up some amazing concoctions, and before we knew it we were ordering food and another round. When we were wondering where to go next, they were even nice enough to write down a few suggestions for us.
Another fun bar in San Antonio is called The Brooklynite and bills itself as a “craft cocktail parlor.” Sounds like something you would find in Brooklyn, New York, and the crowd inside looked like that’s where they were too. The cocktails here were also good… maybe too good because after spending a couple hours here we found ourselves Google mapping our way to a 24-hour Mexican diner to stuff our faces with quesadillas. Cheese + bread after a long day is always a winning combination.
San Antonio has a very large Mexican population – in fact, more than 40 percent of city residents identified as Mexican! That means there is delicious Mexican food to be had throughout the city. I’m sure I missed a lot of hidden gems (feel free to share if I did!) but here are three spots I dined at.
Photo: Mathieu Plourde via Flickr
That diner I just mentioned would be Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia, and it also happens to be a San Antonio landmark. Originally opened in 1941 to serve early-rising farmers and workers, it now caters to late-night partygoers and tourists all day & night, 365 days a year. While it’s a bit of a gimmick with musicians approaching your table and offering to sing a cancion, the food is actually decent and the atmosphere is festive. If this places was located near my apartment, I might not be fitting into my skinny jeans any more.
photo: Courtney Malin via Flickr
Another popular Mexican spot in San Antonio is Rosario’s Mexican Cafe, located near the River Walk. Make sure you get the chips and salsa, which is seriously yummy!
For a more modern Mexican food experience, head to The Fruteria, a colorful restaurant located in the up-and-coming “SoFlo” neighborhood of San Antonio. This restaurant is literally dedicated to fruit: fruit salads, fruit bowls, smoothies, juices – you name it. The artfully arranged jicama salad was the perfect way to refuel before the long flight back to New York.
How to Get Around San Antonio
In my opinion, the easiest way to get around in San Antonio was via bike. The city’s manageable on foot, but biking is more fun and taking taxis everywhere gets expensive. There are B-cycle stations located almost anywhere you’d want to go downtown, making it an affordable and easy option for exploring without having to be concerned with storing and locking up a bike. It’s only $10 for a 24 hour rental (use the bikes for max 30 minutes at a time before docking it at the next stop). Having a station across the street from my hotel was pure gold.
Photo at the top of this post: Nan Palmero via Flickr