A Trip to San Antonio Will Leave You Remembering More than the Alamo
By: Hannah J. Phillips
To make the most of an unexpectedly cool July morning — which in Texas means 76 degrees — I decided to jog down a stretch of the San Antonio River Walk. Normally crowded with the clinking of cheap margaritas and people shouting over music on waterfront patios, the river lay still, as yet undisturbed by tour boats winding their way downtown. Almost instinctively, my feet found a route to Alamo Plaza, where the sun was just rising over the limestone silhouette of our state’s most treasured icon.
I’ve visited the Alamo a thousand times, imagining some 200 brave men garrisoned for 13 days against Santa Anna’s 1,800-strong force. As a sixth-generation Texan, I’ve inherited my mother’s sense of duty when it comes to bringing out-of-towners here to explain our unique history, always pointing out the interior flags representing the many states and nationalities that fought for the freedom of this fledgling republic. Standing alone for the first time in the sacred spot, I quietly admired the Spanish Colonial architecture of the famous façade.
The shadow of the Alamo looms so large over Texas history that it’s easy to miss the icon’s significance before Bowie, Crockett and Travis. Founded as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the fort was the first of five Spanish settlements established over a hundred years before Texas independence. Together, the missions make up the only UNESCO World Heritage sites in Texas, one of only 24 in the United States. When they earned the UNESCO designation in 2015, I realized how much of San Antonio I might be missing on my Alamo pilgrimages. I aimed to remedy that this summer, diving into the city’s past and glimpsing its future. In the midst of a culinary renaissance mirroring Austin’s gastronomic growth 10 years ago, San Antonio offers much to taste and see beyond the River Walk and the Alamo.
Nowhere is this juxtaposition of history and food more evident than at the former Pearl Brewery, where the Hotel Emma reigns as queen. When the historic brewery ceased operations in 2001, Kit Goldsbury and his Silver Ventures team purchased the 22-acre campus with a vision to revive the area as a destination in itself. Mixing approachable elegance and stately comfort, the hotel’s industrial past is on full display in the lobby. Steel beams and solid bronze light fixtures draw the eye upward above a red brewery engine, while colorful Redondo tile rests underfoot, replicated from the original brewmaster’s office. A wall-mounted ammonia manifold frames the entrance to Sternewirth tavern and clubroom, where a bottle labeler turned chandelier hangs from the 25-foot vaulted ceiling.
Guests receive a welcome cocktail in the library, either the La Babia margarita or Three Emmas, a nod to the legendary love triangle of the brewery’s original owner. The story goes that when Otto Koehler cheated on his wife, Emma, with her two nurses (both also named Emma), the third Emma shot and killed him. His wife saw great success running the brewery after his death, even helping it survive Prohibition.
After your library cocktail, wander the Pearl campus while enjoying macarons from Bakery Lorraine’s flagship location. Adelante Boutique started here in San Antonio and now finds its home among other Pearl retailers, like Niche and Dos Carolinas. Savor more brewery history with bubbles and charcuterie at Cured: the space previously served as the Pearl’s administrative offices and still houses the original vault.
Head to the Witte Museum in the afternoon to explore Texas history from prehistory to the present: Dinosaur skeletons smile their toothy grins in the atrium, and Davy Crockett’s fiddle rests upstairs with other relics from early Texan heritage. Back at the hotel, dive into a good book and a frozen whiskey sour by the pool before dinner at Supper. The riverfront restaurant is perfect for people-watching as a cotton-candy sunset paints the whole bistro pink. Farm-fresh offerings rotate seasonally, but the quail is a year-round favorite. And don’t skip dessert. The sticky toffee pudding with sangria sorbet and a crunchy cinnamon wafer is a memorable one-two punch of flavor and texture, and it’s best paired with an espresso martini featuring local Merit Coffee.
In the morning, refuel with beignets and praline bacon at NOLA before heading to the Mission Reach of the river, an eight-mile stretch that connects the Spanish missions. Start at the southernmost Mission Espada, where an ancient aqueduct still diverts river water today. Missions San Juan Capistrano and San José are a pleasant bike ride away. Known as the Queen of the Missions, San José is the grandest and best-preserved, offering guided ranger tours to bring the stories of Coahuiltecan and Spanish cultures to life. A closer look at the stonework on the embellished façade and intricate Rose Window reveals the craftsmanship of the early settlers, also found in the original frescoes at Mission Concepción.
For lunch, embrace the city’s German heritage with homemade root beer and a Reuben at nearby Schilo’s before touring the Alamo. Then raise a glass to its heroes next door at the Menger Hotel bar, where Theodore Roosevelt reportedly recruited some of his Rough Riders in the wood-paneled bar. Enjoy happy hour at Liz Lambert’s opulently colored Ocho, or venture to Hemisfair for dinner at Dough Pizzeria Napoletana. Originally the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, Hemisfair is currently in phase one of a three-part restoration, aspiring to compete with Chicago’s Millennium Park as one of the country’s premier public spaces. Dough’s second location is one of the park’s new culinary tenants, drawing locals with its bubbly burrata, prosciutto pizza and giant slices of tiramisu.
Let Texas show off another of its unmatched sunsets from the sky deck at the Tower of the Americas before heading back toward the Pearl for a nightcap at Still Golden Social House. Since bringing a James Beard nomination to the bar program at Esquire Tavern, owner Jeret Peña has remained a key figure in the city’s resurgence of craft cocktails, and his new speakeasy-style lounge, the Brooklynite, is set to open any day.
On your last morning, Sunday brunch at Barbaro covers a multitude of sins with a hair-of-the-dog Garibaldi and eggs Benedict on homemade focaccia. Fully recovered, spend Sunday getting personal shopping tips from “Project Runway” alum Anthony Ryan at Couleur + Blindé. Ryan’s goal is to push his clients outside their comfort zones, seeking to teach rather than sell. He’s not going to tell you something looks good if it doesn’t, and you’ll leave with a few new staples for your wardrobe.
Spend your last afternoon wandering the grounds and galleries at the McNay Art Museum. Built for Marion Koogler McNay in the 1920s, the Spanish Colonial Revival residence opened as Texas’ first modern art museum in 1954. Today, the extensive collection is arranged by theme rather than era, connecting contemporary works with the artists who inspired them. Upstairs, a medieval diptych of “Moses and the Burning Bush” is juxtaposed with James Daugherty’s 1920s abstract depiction; downstairs, a rare portrait by John Singer Sargent stares at a bronze bust of Kanye West. Outside, bask in the sunlit courtyard, where a sculpture pours water into a coy pond and blue-tile peacocks adorn the walls.
Before hitting the road, grab one last Local Coffee and a treat from Bird Bakery nearby on Broadway. To stave off that impending weekday gloom, skip the semis on the interstate for a scenic route home; as another glorious Texan sunset guides you home, use the extra time to digest all the history, culture and food you just inhaled. You can’t make up for lost time in one weekend, but you’ll have plenty of reasons to come back to San Antonio.