By: Carole Terwilliger Meyers
In Texas, a state filled with big cities, San Antonio bests many of them by overflowing with intriguing things to do and see. Of course, the Alamo jumps to mind first, but there’s also no shortage of delicious dining options, exciting, colorful festivals and much more. Here are 10 reasons we love this riverside metropolis.
Because, really, who could forget? Each year, more than 2 ½ million visitors come to see this iconic battle site where the outnumbered men chose to fight to the death. It is an attraction that always seems to be bustling, and rare is the day that there isn’t a long line to get inside the mission itself. A less-visited garden and some outlying exhibits usually offer more immediate satisfaction.
A cross between a crispy fried tostada shell and a soft tortilla, a puffy taco is made with a thick tortilla that is quickly deep-fried but left soft and chewy on the inside. It is a San Antonio original. Puffy tacos are served with all the usual Tex-Mex taco fillings—beans, meat, cheese, lettuce, avocado and more. The two most popular spots in town—Henry’s Puffy Tacos and Ray’s Drive Inn—are rivals… and the owners are also brothers. But Ray’s lays claim to serving the first one back in 1956.
The San Antonio Mission National Historical Park site boasts two impressive firsts. The missions are the first Texas UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only U.S. missions to have the UNESCO designation. The Alamo is one of the five missions comprising the site. The other four can be visited along The San Antonio Mission Trail running south from the Alamo along a nine-mile stretch of the San Antonio River. Visitors can drive, walk, bike or bus between them.
In San Antonio, everyone knows that “dressing your beer” means adding a flavored salt around the glass rim, not unlike a margarita. Twang—a local, family-run company—specializes in producing high quality salt, sugar and spice blends just for this purpose. Locals favor that brand and buy it to use at home, and some bars use it, too. (Ask for a Twang chili-lime rimmer at popular Mi Tierra Cafe, or try the iridescent-gold pearlized rimmer Twang makes exclusively for Still Golden.) Most bars also make their own house specialty beer dressing. Of course, you can dress your beer anywhere, but only in San Antonio is it a thing.
The city’s other famous attraction, the San Antonio River Walk is a pathway that follows the spring-fed San Antonio River and is famous for the colorful river taxis that ply the section in the center of town, where the path is below street level and leads to festive sidewalk cafes and several museums. Other sections of the 15-mile-long River Walk offer picnic areas, pedestrian bridges, and access to the missions. Some unusual art installations can be seen on a section leading from the hip Pearl District to the San Antonio Museum of Art.
The arch above the town’s Japanese Tea Garden entrance says “Chinese Tea Garden,” which can be confusing to out-of-towners. However, most locals know that due to anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, the name was changed and then no one ever changed the entrance sign back. A visit to the garden is free, and sites include the garden’s elaborate stonework (the stones come from the town’s old rock quarry), a large pond filled with big koi (and often-blooming mature aquatic plants) and a dramatic 60-foot waterfall.
The only luxury lodging in Texas built in a former brewery, Hotel Emma has expanded beautifully into the brick-walled space occupied by Pearl Brewery from 1883 to 2001. The luxury hotel features the San Antonio River on one side and the trendy food-focused Pearl complex on the other. Atmospheric guest rooms are equipped with quality linens and comfy seersucker “guayabera” robes, and services include a spa, restaurant and bar. All this, plus guests are greeted with a complimentary margarita at check-in.
Designed with special-needs individuals in mind yet built for everyone’s enjoyment, Morgan’s Wonderland is a happy place for all ages and abilities and the world’s first accessible theme park. Everything is wheelchair accessible—from the seesaw to the swings to the Ferris wheel, and children with a disability get free admission. The carousel features spectacular hybrid animals (think part horse, part dragon) as well as unusual custom chariots designed to allow people in wheelchairs to experience an up-and-down ride like everyone else. The adjacent Morgan’s Inspiration Island splash park has separate admission and offers additional adapted attractions.
No city in the U.S. observes the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead (November 2) quite like San Antonio does with its annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. Festivities each October celebrate the memory of those who have passed with elaborate altars created each year by local artists, plus live music, face-painting and Mexican cuisine. The biggest event, La Villita, is free and set right off the River Walk. It features the largest open-air community altar exhibition in the city—people can contribute photos to be displayed—plus traditional mariachi musicians, Folklorico dancers and a parade featuring puppets and stilt-walkers.
The sparkling new contemporary art museum known as Ruby City (opening October 2019) features a shimmering crimson-colored façade. It houses the personal collection of the late Linda Pace—a local heiress to a San Antonio hot sauce fortune—which is heavy with local artists and includes more than 900 paintings, sculptures, installations and video works. Admission will be free.