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San Antonio Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway


Big, Bold and Beautiful
Historic Texas
By Ron Bechtol


The Alamo in San Antonio was the site of the last stand of the legendary Davy Crockett
The Alamo at Dusk

Texas has always had a reputation for being big, belligerent and brash. And while San Antonio doesn't shrink from bragging, it's better known for being the so-called "northernmost city in Mexico." South-of-the-border signs are everywhere, along with reminders of German, Old South and African-American cultural influences. To explore these influences you'd need to start in the historic center of this eminently walkable city, which clings to the banks of a cypress-shaded river and is laid out around open plazas according to the Spanish Colonial Laws of the Indies — planning guidelines formulated to take advantage of a climate that is often warm, even in December. And in the city center, there's a wealth of accommodations (both charmingly historic and boldly contemporary) to entice both the business and leisure traveler.

Among them is the handsome and historic Menger Hotel on Alamo Plaza, which has housed such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Sidney Lanier, Babe Ruth and Mae West. It's also said to be haunted, with reports of at least 32 ghost sightings. Omni, La Mansión del Rio is a romantic, Spanish Colonial-style hotel overlooking the historic Paseo del Rio, or River Walk. It has 337 rooms with European-style furnishings and boasts a highly rated restaurant (Las Canarias) with a menu of largely local produce prepared with contemporary flair. The Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, with its historically influenced architecture and stylishly imbued interior, will appeal to the world traveler. The newer Mokara Hotel & Spa (also on the River Walk) is fast becoming known for pampering its guests with a wide range of spa options, and there's also Ostra, the riverside restaurant sporting a front and center oyster bar. But the newest property to occupy coveted frontage on the River Walk is the towering Grand Hyatt adjacent to the Lila Cockrell Theatre of the Performing Arts. Travelers with a desire to mix golf rounds with sightseeing might want to investigate the luxurious facilities at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa, La Cantera Hill Country Resort, or the new JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa. You'll need a car to get back and forth, but the contrast between urban excitement and rural charm can be rewarding.

SAN ANTONIO ITINERARY: DAY 1

One of the support columns at The Alamo in San Antonio
Alamo detail
Fortify yourself for this first day in the Alamo City by grabbing some breakfast at one of the city's best cafés: El Mirador. This family-run establishment has expanded over the years but still serves up fantastic house-made dried beef (or pork tips) with scrambled eggs. If you've taken a taxi ride from your hotel, consider taking the ten-minute walk to your next destination, the Alamo — yes, located on the appropriately named Alamo Plaza.

Each year, more than 2.5 million people visit the Alamo: the old mission where a small garrison of Texans, Tejanos and settlers held out for thirteen days against the Mexican army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The siege finally ended in a bloody battle and the death of the defenders in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836. However, the spirits of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William B. Travis live on today at this shrine to Texas liberty.

Nowadays, the Alamo consists of four buildings: the Shrine (its famous profile was the result of a fanciful restoration by 19th-century army engineers); the Long Barrack Museum; the DRT library, a research facility and archives run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas; and the Gift Museum. Already at home in the lushly landscaped grounds, which is a lesson in local horticulture, is an amphitheater for costumed presentations.

In 1903, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas acquired the Long Barrack and have managed the entire complex since 1905. Even disdainers of Davy Crockett can spend hours here immersing themselves in Texas history. Inside the Shrine there are artifacts such as Travis' ring, Crockett's buckskin vest, a flintlock rifle used in the battle, a period Bowie knife and more. Outside and over the footbridge that crosses a vestige of the old Acequia Madre, one of the city's early irrigation ditches, is the Wall of History exhibit illustrating the Alamo's 300-year history. A seventeen-minute video on the Alamo can be viewed at the nearby Clara Driscoll Theater.
A musician plays a pan flute at El Mercado in San Antonio
Musician at El Mercado

After brushing up on your Alamo history, move west toward El Mercado or Market Square — the largest Mexican marketplace outside of Mexico — for bargain hunting, souvenir shopping and soaking in the colors, sounds and aromas of Mexican and Tex-Mex culture. If you decide to walk, it's about 15 minutes down Commerce or Houston Street, but there's also a city trolley system you can catch on both streets which is just a few steps away from the Alamo. Despite numerous revisions, the sights and sounds of the first public market held on adjacent Haymarket Square (now Military Plaza ) 200 years earlier are still pronounced. The last revamping of the venerable precinct produced a colorful and contemporary building housing a museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the Museo Alameda (now closed). But before you get to the market, we suggest a stop at the venerable Spanish Governor's Palace; it's just behind City Hall and right on your way. Built in 1722, this Spanish Colonial structure once housed the military commanders sent to govern the Presidio de San Antonio de Bejar, whose mission was to defend the Alamo.

Western flair at La Villita in San Antonio
 Western flair at La Villita

When it comes to food, tourists and locals alike love Market Square's landmark Mi Tierra for Mexican pastries such as spiced sweet potato empanadas and cinnamon-scented polvorones (shortbreads). They also serve a number of Tex-Mex favorites, such as chicken enchiladas with mole and orange and spice accented pork carnitas. Strolling musicians in full, silver-spangled costumes offer mariachi music (for a price) at this institution established in 1941.

Just a block away at La Margarita, which is run by the same family, fajitas and seafood are served in an equally evocative setting. And a mere two blocks to the west, Pico de Gallo draws crowds for its tacos and trumpets. Many festivals are held in Market Square during the year, and on any given weekend you're likely to encounter kiosks offering "brimstone brew" in the manner of the fabled chili queens of yore.

After lunch, take the trolley up Dolorosa and Market Streets and get off at S. Presa for the two-block walk south to the charming La Villita (little village) Historic District, once home to the Mexican military detachment that was garrisoned at the Alamo. The area — still steeped in Spanish, Mexican, German and French influences — also features numerous upscale shops that offer art, rugs, blankets and other accessories. On your walking tour of the village, you'll see different 19th-century homes including the Florian House (1854), Gray-Guilbeau House (1853) and Cos House (1835). Two venerable restaurants, The Fig Tree (think French) and The Little Rhein (steaks are the draw), occupy historic properties in the precinct, and both have unique views of the river. In the summer, Fiesta Noche del Rio, a music festival featuring music and dance numbers from Spain, Latin America and Mexico, takes place at the Arneson River Theater — its seats are on one side of the river and its stage is on the other.

For dinner, head to the Tuscan-themed Tre Trattoria in the historic Fairmount Hotel. Within walking distance on Houston Street are steak-centric restaurants such as Bohanan's and The Palm. And if the evening still seems young, slip through the slinky chain curtain at the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk's V Bar for a fashion-conscious nightcap.

Continue to Day 2

MORE SAN ANTONIO INFORMATION

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* Alamo Detail by Stephanie Colgan, courtesy of San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau; Alamo at dusk image Al Rendon/SACVB; La Villita image by SACVB/Al Rendon; Mercado image from www.marketsquaresa.com. Le Rêve from www.restaurantlereve.com

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