A Colorful Winter Escape to San Antonio
While serving jicama shrimp tacos and a cucumber margarita along San Antonio's splashy River Walk, a waitress at Ácenar nearly spills the drink when she realizes an out-of-town visitor hasn't visited the humble crown jewel of her city: "You've at least seen the Alamo, right? I'm from here, and I visit it all the time."
The Spanish mission that became a pivotal site during the Texas Revolution still stands in the heart of the state's second-largest city. Its iconic landmark, the church, is surprisingly modest, just a couple of stories tall. Skyscrapers dwarf the 300-year-old improvised fortress where 200 Texans endured a siege of 1,800 (or more) Mexican troops for nearly two weeks. The Mexicans won the battle, but the Texans won the war, rallying around a new cry: "Remember the Alamo!"
Preservation of Mexican-American history is a hallmark of the city, which is more than 60 percent Hispanic. San Antonio's five Spanish missions were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015, allowing for careful preservation and important history lessons for many generations to come.
Islands of the past surrounded by an ocean of change, these missions (now connected via an 8-mile-long bike trail) anchor the cultural core of San Antonio. A short stroll from the Alamo, the River Walk acts as the city's louder draw, with a rainbow of umbrellas and towering cypress trees lining 5 miles of restaurants, shops and music venues. The River Walk draws more than 11 million tourists each year, but many locals come here to party, too. It's worth asking around which spots, like Ácenar, serve the real Tex-Mex (there are plenty of posers).
Though chips and salsa still reign, the city's "Tex-Mex or bust" approach to dining has evolved. A Culinary Institute of America on the former grounds of Pearl Brewery develops ambitious, innovative chefs. Many stay in town, working at hot restaurants like Supper, which specializes in stem-to-root veggie dishes such as sorghum-roasted carrots with poppy-seed crema. The crema has roots as a Mexican condiment, proving that even the city's newer creations often give subtle but sincere nods to San Antonio's rich story.
Order up a Melon Meteorshower (cantaloupe agua fresca with popping passion fruit boba) before descending into a world of Insta-magical interactive artwork at Hopscotch. Snap trippy pics of your date inside Infinity Boxes or feel empowered as you walk through a neon-lit maze of empowering messages created by The Human Rights Campaign.
Go Rio San Antonio River Cruises
Entertaining guides spout fun facts about the city and River Walk. The 35-minute tours on colorful barges highlight construction that dates to the 1968 HemisFair world's fair, plus sites from films such as Selena and Miss Congeniality.
Market Square (El Mercado)
Shop south of the border without leaving the country at the largest Mexican market in the United States. Vendors sell embroidered dresses, leather belts and boldly painted pottery as mariachi bands play at this three-block outdoor plaza.
It's less "Tex" and more "Mex," but this is one of the real deals along the River Walk. The Queso de la Casa is thick and rich, served with hearty tortilla chips. Don't miss the secret-recipe red sangria (hint: it involves brandy).
The Esquire Tavern
Pre-dating the River Walk (it opened on Prohibition's Repeal Day in 1933), this swanky bar maintains a speakeasy-esque character with dim lighting and a tin ceiling. The menu's kicky twists on comfort food include chorizo mac 'n' cheese.
The flightpath of the native green jay inspired this restaurant's culinary tour of South Texas. Swoop through flavors of the Rio Grande Valley with the From the Pit platter, a flavor- and texture-rich feast of smoked brisket, barbacoa quesadillas, guac and a whole lot more, all served in and around a thoughtfully refurbished 1890s saloon.
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
Stay downtown in sleek Spanish Colonial-style rooms accented with plantation shutters. On-site restaurant Dorrego's dishes Argentinian cuisine, such as beef empanadas and grilled provolone.
The oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi features a grand roster of guests: Babe Ruth, Oscar Wilde and, allegedly, spirits from the Alamo next door. Sip a cocktail in the same room where Theodore Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders before the Spanish-American War.
The former site of Pearl Brewery on the River Walk's northern end has been reimagined as an upscale offshoot of downtown known as The Pearl. The district's diverse lineup of establishments includes charcuterie paradise Cured and Bakery Lorraine, cranking out true-to-Europe croissants and macarons. The star of the revitalization: Hotel Emma, a luxe property in the former brewhouse. Dialing the industrial-chic level to an 11, the hotel features brewing-tanks-turned-bar-booths and exposed pipes from the palatial building's former life.