How To Experience the Spirit of San Antonio

The colorful charm and lively style of Texas’ most storied city.

It's half past ten o'clock on a breezy Saturday morning, and the San Antonio River is seeing her first visitors of the day. Runners zoom along the curved waterside path of the River Walk, their burly dogs tugging at leashes as they attempt to sniff one of the many flower beds that frame the walk. Couples languidly amble along, some hand in hand and others pushing strollers or clasping celery-topped Bloody Marias. There aren't too many rules on the river. She's the mama, and these are all of her crazy kids. Everyone's welcome.

Dancers in traditional dress in the La Villita Historic Arts Village of San Antonio, TX
Dancers performing in La Villita Historic Arts Village. Wynn Myers

For over 300 years, the river has nurtured this city, with headwaters just north of town flowing through it, all the way down to join the Guadalupe River just shy of the Gulf of Mexico. Long before Texans took hold of the land, Spaniards erected San Antonio's five historic missions near the river. Before that, Native Americans relied on this waterway for sustenance and safety, hailing it as a holy place. When the Rough Riders barreled through town on their horses over a hundred years ago, they ducked into a dark bar that still stands steps away from the banks. The river was here before all of it and holds everything you need to know about San Antonio.

San Antonio River Walk Boat Cruise
Wynn Myers

There are big cities out there with little character and even less history, but San Antonio is not one of them. Don't let the colorful umbrellas and shiny tourist tchotchkes distract you. Just keep following the walkway, and pay attention. Mama's talking.

Ocho at Hotel Havana's along the River Walk in San Antonio, TX
Hotel Havana’s restaurant and bar, Ocho, located on the water. Wynn Myers

Meet the Neighborhood

Blessed with a prime spot in the Texas Hill Country, San Antonio has more adjacent natural beauty than most urban landscapes. Outdoor wonders like popular swim spot Hamilton Pool Preserve are at your fingertips, while one neighboring small town, Fredericksburg, features the country's largest wildflower farm (Wildseed Farms) and gorgeous wineries. The city itself, however, has much to offer beyond its famous puffy tacos and annual celebration, Fiesta San Antonio—though, to be fair, neither of those should be missed.

F.I.S.H., a hanging installment by artist Donald Lipski, displayed along the River Walk
F.I.S.H., a hanging installment by artist Donald Lipski, displayed along the River Walk. Wynn Myers

The key is the River Walk, which seems as if it has been organized specifically for a clueless visitor's enjoyment. On the northernmost end, see spring at family-friendly sites such as the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden. Slightly south, you'll find a livelier jam at the Pearl District, with plenty of art installations and lush riverside amenities to keep you entertained on the trek there. Folks are drawn to this part of town by the diverse roster of restaurants and shops surrounding an open green space that sees plenty of guests. The Pearl's Bottling Department, San Antonio's first food hall, has dining options that run the gamut, whether you're in the mood for macaroni and cheese with pulled pork at Bud's Southern Rotisserie, spicy miso noodles at Tenko Ramen, or a sauced-up chicken bowl from Mi Roti.

Hotel Emma in San Antonio, TX
An original spiral staircase in Hotel Emma’s tavern. Wynn Myers

This multiuse district is located on the site of the old Pearl Brewery, founded back in 1883. Hotel Emma, built inside the old brewhouse, is a five-star-service ode to the Pearl's history and also to Emma Koehler, who took over in 1914 after her husband died. She weathered Prohibition without having to lay off any workers—an impressive feat for anybody anytime but especially for a woman in the 1920s.

Sternewirth Tavern & Club Room at Hotel Emma in San Antonio, TX
Wynn Myers

At Hotel Emma, it's easy to imagine yourself saddling up to the Sternewirth bar many decades ago. With its dramatic vintage styling, it feels reminiscent of a dimly lit speakeasy and is likely to have a ranch magnate or two sitting in the sleek private booths (which are fashioned from refurbished beer tanks), sipping tequila on the rocks. The in-house restaurant, Supper, and the hotel rooms exude that same cowboy-chic attitude.

Chef Nicola Blaque of Mi Roti and The Jerk Shack
Chef Nicola Blaque of Mi Roti and The Jerk Shack. Wynn Myers

Emma Koehler paved the way for future innovative women in San Antonio, and her legacy now lives on in locals like Nicola Blaque, a U.S. Army veteran turned chef bringing her authentic Caribbean-style cuisine to a largely Tex-Mex foodscape. Inspired by her Jamaican heritage as well as her new Texas roots—her jerk chicken is sold by the pound, just like barbecue. Blaque has now opened two successful local restaurant concepts: Her fast-casual Caribbean eatery at the Pearl, Mi Roti (where you will find some drool-worthy bowls), and The Jerk Shack, a nationally recognized spot that drew a couple thousand customers on its opening day in 2018. Many of them were fellow army veterans and active-duty military from nearby Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.

The Jerk Shack’s Braised Oxtails and Curry Shrimp
The Jerk Shack’s Braised Oxtails and Curry Shrimp. Wynn Myers

"We weren't prepared!" Blaque says with a laugh. "The line was filled with people wanting to try my family's jerk chicken. Being able to introduce a different cultural experience to San Antonio beyond just big margaritas has been special. I want Caribbean cuisine to be part of the conversation, and owning my little piece of America has always been the ultimate dream."

La Antorcha de la Amistad (The Torch of Friendship) sculpture in San Antonio, TX
La Antorcha de la Amistad (The Torch of Friendship) sculpture. Wynn Myers

Parades and Pan Dulce

Historic Market Square and The Alamo are the heart of River Walk tourism, and for good reason. Fiesta, the city's annual springtime festival, is typically centered here every April. The extravaganza lasts over a week and is—at its core—a celebration of culture in the loudest, brightest, and most exuberant sense. The historic Battle of Flowers Parade, the main event, was established back in 1891 by a group of determined women (now a formal association) to honor the heroes who fought for Texas independence at The Alamo. The parade will commemorate its upcoming 130th anniversary in 2021. (San Antonio plans to have an abridged Fiesta celebration this year after canceling due to pandemic concerns in 2020.)

Each year, floats covered in a rainbow of lush paper blooms make their reverent procession right in front of The Alamo amid colorful flying confetti from cracked cascarones—all thanks to Rose Garcia, the woman behind the flowers.

For 50 years, she has made thousands of foil and crepe paper blossoms every spring to decorate the 20-plus floats. With her small but dedicated team of family members, Garcia works for over two months to ready the flowers for the parade, and this year will be her last to lead the charge before retiring. "I think 50 years is enough!" she jokes. "It has been beautiful to see all the expressions on people's faces when they watch our floats go by, and I'll always be proud of that." (If the Battle of Flowers Parade goes on as planned in 2021, Garcia has been asked to ride one of her showstopping creations for the first time ever, in honor of her retirement.)

Delectable pastries at Mi Tierra Café y Panadería
An assortment of delectable pastries at Mi Tierra Café y Panadería. Wynn Myers

No visitor can leave San Antonio without tasting the town dessert—and what a glorious task! For that, the river ushers you to Mi Tierra Café y Panadería, an 80-year-old family bakery and restaurant that's known for offering over a dozen different kinds of pan dulce, a traditional Mexican sweet bread. Waitresses dressed in brightly colored garb serve up treats of all flavors and sizes, while the restaurant's famous floor-to-ceiling American Dream mural depicts inspirational people from the local community and beyond.

Stroll just a few blocks away from the bustling square to the quiet La Villita neighborhood, where you'll find charming bridges that cozy up to a historic arts village (the former barracks for Mission San Antonio de Valero, or The Alamo). It's one of the best spots to perch on a shady bench and watch the city's signature riverboat cruises drift by—even better if you have a fresh raspa (a frozen Mexican snow cone). You can't go wrong with the mango flavor.

Mockingbird Handprints shop in the Blue Star Arts Complex in San Antonio, TX
Mockingbird Handprints shop in the Blue Star Arts Complex. Wynn Myers

Texas Tequila Sunset

Once all the mandatory tourist stops have been made, balance out your trip with a pocket of ultracool—in Alamo City, that's the Blue Star Arts Complex. Here, you'll find the hippest of local businesses, from the city's first contemporary art gallery to the Blue Star Bike Shop, where you can rent a cruiser to pedal around the adjacent King William neighborhood and embark on the about-7-mile Mission Reach trail that connects four of San Antonio's five Spanish colonial missions. The area serves as your starting point for this popular path.

Ramble around the laid-back Southtown enclave, and follow the sound of chatter until you've hit the city's favorite icehouse (old Texas' version of a bar), called The Friendly Spot. A tip from a pal: Don't ask for vodka here, lest the bartender, though much too easygoing to outright refuse, might sniff out your true roots. The only appropriate answer when he asks, "You aren't from around these parts, are ya?" is "Tequila, please."

The outdoor hangout welcomes with refreshing frozen drinks swirling slowly in tanks behind the bar and 200-plus beer options. You'll find plenty of opportunities to make a new friend. Sure, he might be furry, four pawed, and have to excuse himself to scratch fleas. Or he could be the gentleman with the handlebar mustache who's sitting a table over—the one who looks like an old Willie Nelson stand-in. Send a dog biscuit to one and a beer to the other, and just see how it all shakes out.

The perfect way to end a day spent wandering down Mama's winding path is with an iced-down tequila soda—add splashes of orange and grapefruit to make it a proper sunset—and good times with your new Texas buds. You know the river will always show you the way home.

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