Spice Up Your Season

With a blend of Texan and Spanish flair, San Antonio ushers in the holidays like no other Southern city.
Cindy Riegle

"Traditional" isn't exactly the word to describe San Antonio's holiday season. From the moment the sun fades in the evening sky, the River Walk becomes an oasis of color and festivity. That's why this month is the perfect time to visit the South Texas town. Christmas isn't just another holiday here--it's a celebration.

Friday--Revel on the River Walk
Lodging in this city isn't cheap. If you're prepared for extravagance, we recommend La Mansión del Rio Hotel. Located on the River Walk, the hotel lies within walking distance of most attractions and has an old-world charm that makes it well worth the extra money. Rates start around $200 a night; (210) 518-1000, 1-800-292-7300, or www.lamansion.com.

If La Mansión is a little too expensive, we suggest the Beckmann Inn and Carriage House. Though a little farther out of the way, this cozy bed-and-breakfast in the King William Historic District still allows you to enjoy the river. Rates range from $110 to $150;(210) 229-1449, 1-800-945-1449, or www.beckmanninn.com.

Once you've settled in, make a beeline for the River Walk--the best place to take in the festive atmosphere. Bright lights sparkle in the cypress trees, and luminarias light your path. Browse the little shops, and savor the scents drifting from the sidewalk cafes. As the sun sets, take a boat ride (Yanaguana Cruises, $5.25 for adults) to gain a new perspective on this famous landmark.

Now that you've worked up an appetite, treat yourself to a posh meal at Las Canarias restaurant in La Mansión del Rio Hotel. Relish Lone Star creations such as Texas Blue Crab Stuffed Swordfish Tempura ($26). As you dine on the patio, you can hear the lovely sound of boat carolers as they drift by. (Note: Reservations are required.)

For the perfect ending to your first day, head to the nearby Alamo to admire its spectacularly lit 40-foot Christmas tree. Discover other downtown decorations by taking a horse-drawn carriage ride, which starts in front of The Alamo ($25-$65 a couple).

Saturday--Tex-Mex and Shopping Galore
Start your day just outside the King William District with breakfast at The Guenther House. This home-turned-restaurant is famous for its biscuits. To add some regional flair to your meal, try the breakfast tacos filled with eggs and refried beans ($5.75).

Walk off your meal by taking a self-guided tour of this historic area. One of the city's most elegant neighborhoods, the 25-block region charms with huge Victorian-style homes decked out for Christmas. You can pick up a walking tour brochure at the San Antonio Conservation Society office on King William Street.

Next, make your way to La Villita, a community full of shops and working artists. This is the ideal place to buy a gift, such as Mexican Folk art, tin ornaments, or stained-glass creations. This is also where you'll find Larry Williams. The 83-year-old glassblower has been in the business for 54 years. Visit the small museum and workshop called Glassblower to watch him produce delicate ornaments. Then purchase a few for your friends ($6.50 each).

Stop for lunch at El Mirador, a Tex-Mex restaurant on the outskirts of the King William District. Though the temperature in San Antonio is usually just right this time of year, give yourself some extra warmth by ordering a steaming bowl of Mexican soup, served only on Saturdays. We especially enjoyed the Sopa Azteca, a combination of chicken, tortilla chips, avocados, and onions ($4.95).

Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city's other shopping areas. One of the most popular is Market Square, an enormous marketplace packed with Mexican-themed goods. If you're looking for the more traditional setting, then head to Rivercenter mall. Although full of the expected chain stores, it does offer a few surprises, including Guitars & Cadillacs. Here you can get anything Texas, from barbecue sauce to stuffed armadillos.

If you're visiting during the second or third weekend of the month, add The Westin La Cantera Resort to your itinerary. Each evening at sundown December 13-24, you can be part of Legendary Holidays. Take delight in carolers, cowboy storytellers, and tons of "snow." The festivities end with dinner at Brannon's Café, where Mrs. Claus makes an appearance. Enjoy a grand buffet of meats, salads, fruits, pastas, and desserts.

Sunday--Missions and More
Treat yourself to a leisurely morning; after all, this is an escape from holiday madness. Sleep in, take your time over breakfast, and then get ready for a noon Mariachi Mass. Drive out to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park for this colorful church service at the Mission San José; then spend the afternoon exploring the three other Catholic missions built in the 1700s.

Don't cut your trip short if you're in San Antonio the second or third weekend of the month. On Sunday, December 15 and 22, the city celebrates its most famous Spanish holiday custom--La Gran Posada. This event (one of several Las Posadas activities this month) is a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter. A procession of visitors and locals follows the actors as they walk from one historic area to another, singing Spanish Christmas carols along the way. Whether you know the language or not, you'll love this celebration.

For a late dinner, eat under the stars at Little Rhein Steak House on the River Walk. A delicious grilled cut of Prime beef ($19.95-$34.95) is the specialty here--and for good reason. Savor every taste of this last meal in the city. You'll leave feeling relaxed, refreshed, and ready to enjoy the rest of the season.

For more information: Contact the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, 203 South St. Mary's Street, San Antonio, TX 78205; (210) 207-6700, 1-800-447-3372, or www.sanantoniovisit.com.

This article is from the December 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.