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!”
The Alamo; photo courtesy of Richard Nowitz/Visit San Antonio
Preservation of Mexican-American history is a hallmark of the city, which is 64 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).
River Walk; photo courtesy of Bob Howen/Visit San Antonio
Though chips and salsa still reign supreme, the city’s “Tex-Mex or bust” approach to dining has recently evolved. A new Culinary Institute of America (the nation’s third) on the former grounds of Pearl Brewery develops ambitious, innovative chefs. Many stay in town, working at hot new 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 newest creations often give subtle but sincere nods to San Antonio’s rich story.
Battle for Texas: The Experience Dramatic lighting and a soundtrack of exploding cannons accompany a walk-through history of the Alamo, steps from where the battle occurred. Carve out a couple of hours to explore this well-curated exhibit inside the Shops at Rivercenter. battlefortexas.com
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. goriocruises.com
Market Square; photo courtesy of Bob Howen/Visit San Antonio
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. getcreativesanantonio.com/Explore-San-Antonio/Market-Square
Ácenar 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). acenar.com
Photo courtesy of Kody Melton
The Esquire Tavern Pre-dating the River Walk (it opened on Prohibition’s Repeal Day in 1933), the 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. esquiretavern-sa.com
Restaurant Gwendolyn Everything here is made using methods that existed in 1850 or earlier, but the dishes are anything but old-fashioned. Allow a good three hours—and a cool $100 or so per person—to savor a tasting menu of dishes like deconstructed shortcake with strawberries prepared five ways. restaurantgwendolyn.com
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
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 duck empanadas and flaming provolone. hotelvalencia-riverwalk.com
Menger Hotel 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. mengerhotel.com
A Whole New Pearl
Hotel Emma; photo courtesy of Nicole Franzin