By: Jennifer Broome
January 6, 2020
Kick up your cowboy boots for a weekend getaway or a weeklong vacation in San Antonio, Texas. The Alamo City is also dubbed Military City USA. The seventh-largest city in the nation has a colorful culture and is uber family-friendly. Step back in time at one of the missions, take a ride down the river, eat some really good grub and take a drive into the Hill Country. San Antonio was my home for a decade, and I go back any chance I get because there’s so much to do in this city that is more than 300 years old. Here are the top reasons why you’re in for Texas-sized fun on a trip to San Antonio.
Breakfast tacos and brisket are must-eats in the world of Tex-Mex food, but this melting pot of cultures is also a cauldron of culinary experiences. San Antonio is a city you want to eat your way through. It is one of two cities in the United States designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, making it an international culinary destination.
If you’re wondering where to eat first, explore one of Culinaria’s three San Antonio Food Trails. Culinaria is a non-profit organization promoting San Antonio’s vibrant food and wine experiences and events. Savor the journey as you sample tacos, barbecue or margaritas. A few of my Tex-Mex must-eats in San Antonio are a puffy taco at Los Barrios, pan dulce at Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, tacos al pastor at La Gloria, menudo at Pete’s Tako House and breakfast tacos at Taco Taco Café. Margaritas are refreshingly fabulous across the city, but some of my favorite spots are: La Fogata Restaurant on Vance Jackson, Aldaco’s in Stone Oak and Soluna in Alamo Heights. For brisket go to Jason Dady’s Two Brothers BBQ Market. It’s a classic Texas barbecue pit joint. Craving a burger? Chris Madrid’s is a San Antonio institution.
The emerging food scene is coming on strong in the eclectic arts district Southtown. At Burgeteca, Chef Johnny Hernandez is putting a Mexican twist on a burger. I stopped in after visiting the missions for a Pacífica. The seared tuna burger packs a little heat with a jalapeño lime mayo. Indulge with a treat from their la nevería (ice cream parlor). The mangonada fruit drink with a chile lime powder kick is my favorite, or cool off with a paleta (popsicle) or raspa (shaved ice) just like you would find at a plaza in Mexico.
The food scene runs the gamut from Tex-Mex comfort food to four-time James Beard Award finalist Andrew Weissman, who blends French techniques with Hill Country flair at his newest fine dining restaurant Signature, Inspired by Chef Andrew. Culinary roots run deep in San Antonio including German, Polish, Spanish, Native American and Mexican influences. As the gateway to Latin American cuisine, the world’s premier culinary college opened a campus in the Pearl District. San Antonio is a place where traditional cuisine meets culinary innovation.
What’s old is new again at the hottest spot in the city. The chic complex was originally a brewery and now is a culinary-focused urban village. The crowning jewel of the Pearl is the luxurious AAA Five Diamond Hotel Emma. As you walk into the lobby, you’ll marvel at the 1894 Pearl Brewery’s original architecture seamlessly intertwined with modern luxurious comforts. The lobby was the engine room of the 19th-century brewery. In the Sternewirth tavern, old beer tanks have been turned into tankette booths. The hotel is named after Emma Koehler, who kept the brewery running after her husband’s death in 1914 and during Prohibition, when she kept her entire workforce employed by making near beer, ice cream, soda, and doing dry cleaning and auto repairs. The 146-room luxury hotel is a destination in its own, even if you just pop in for a cocktail or meal.
The Pearl is also home to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Texas Campus, where students are honing their skills for careers ranging from food stylists to executive chefs. The one-of-a-kind Latin Cuisines Kitchen is complete with Mexican Talavera tile walls and indoor and outdoor cooking stations. If you have a day or five days, take fully immersed classes featuring plant-based or no-baked desserts. Sit in on a food or wine demonstration for a glimpse of the innovative cooking happening at CIA. For a unique dining experience, try SAVOR, the CIA’s new student-run concept focusing on modern-American cuisine. It’s a living laboratory as students prepare three- and four-course meals.
For foodies like me, the Pearl is paradise. You can get grab-and-go ramen, pressed juice or a burger at the Pearl’s gourmet food hall in the brewery’s old bottling department building, then have a picnic while listening to music or watching the kids play in the splash pad. Don’t miss the Pearl Farmers Market on weekends, including the CIA’s inventive twist on street food from its open kitchen. I spent an afternoon wandering around the Pearl starting with lunch at Green Vegetarian Cuisine, the only 100 percent kosher vegetarian restaurant in the city. Even hearty meat eaters will scarf down the cauliflower hot wings, Korean beef burrito or fish and chips. Try the kaleupas for a veggie twist on traditional chalupas or dive into one of their colorful protein-packed bowls.
I walked off my lunch dipping in and out of the locally owned on-trend boutiques like Adelante and Niche. For a special San Antonio keepsake, get a handmade guayabera robe at Dos Carolinas. They make special guayarobes for the rooms at Hotel Emma. I grabbed a summer read at The Twig Book Shop, then sat outside with a latte from Local Coffee.
Do a “progressive dinner” to try out several restaurants. I started at Botika for appetizers to try “Chifa” (Chinese-Peruvian) and “Nikkei” (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisine. Chef Geronimo Lopez beautifully blends Latin and Asian foods. Sip on a por do sol fizz, which means sunset in Portuguese, and nibble on hongos, a vegetable ceviche with mushrooms, tomato and cucumber. Then try a criollo roll with the daily Peruvian cebiche fish and sweet potato. Next, I strolled over to Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery to meet some friends for scrumptious deviled eggs and cracker-crusted red fish. Before turning in, I nibbled on my dream treat of two macarons from Bakery Lorraine, then relaxed in the oversized claw-foot tub in my room at Hotel Emma. The next morning, I took a long walk along the river and then had a healthy and hearty breakfast of avocado toast at Supper American Eatery, where Chef John Brand is elevating home cooking.
The River Walk is a must-do in San Antonio. Cruise the river with GO RIO Cruises on one of the eco-friendly, electric-powered river barges on a history tour or dinner cruise. Whether on a barge or strolling along the river, you’ll likely hear the melodies of mariachi bands floating through the air in the early evening as I did during a night stay at AAA Four Diamond Hotel Valencia Riverwalk. The 213-room hotel is done in a Spanish Colonial meets modern Mediterranean design. It’s a perfect location to be in the heart of the action, yet quiet enough for a great night’s sleep. Snag a room with a balcony for a wonderful view of the river. There’s a beautiful courtyard tucked away on the third floor that’s perfect for sipping coffee or a glass of wine when you need a peaceful moment.
Wind down for the evening listening to flamenco guitar music in the Naranja Bar, then enjoy small plates at Dorrego’s, the only Argentinean-inspired restaurant in the city. The River Walk is more than just about a river. There’s a plethora of eateries, entertainment venues and hotels lining both sides of it. Sip a margarita at Casa Rio Mexican Restaurant, the oldest restaurant on the River Walk. Nosh on the chips and guacamole made tableside at Boudro’s on the Riverwalk. For more elegant fare, make a reservation at Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood or Biga on the Banks.
If you’re in the mood for seafood, it’s hard to beat ReBelle. Try one of their temptations, which are cocktails named after the seven deadly sins. I went for Envy made with Tito’s Texas vodka, St. Germaine, pear puree and rosewater. The menu is making waves, and I was so glad a friend went with me to sample several items. Savor the garlicky charbroiled gulf oysters or charbroiled lobster with herb butter and lobster claw stuffing. The chargrilled Spanish octopus is not to be missed.
After dinner take in the visually stunning “San Antonio | The Saga” projected on the façade of San Fernando Cathedral. The video art projection on San Antonio’s history is so captivating I watched the 24-minute show twice. It’s free and plays at 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Afterward, grab a taco, michelada or pan dulce at Mi Tierra in Market Square. The 24/7 bakery and family-owned Mexican restaurant filled with hundreds of lights, piñatas and murals is a favorite of locals and tourists, including visiting musicians, celebrities and presidents. It’s often packed late at night.
There are three sections of the River Walk. The stretch of the River Walk through the heart of downtown including near the Alamo is the original section. The Museum Reach extends four miles northward to the Pearl District. San Antonio Museum of Art is right on the river. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the Witte Museum and The DoSeum are a few blocks from the river. The McNay Art Museum is about 10 minutes northeast. Boat tours don’t extend to the Museum Reach, but a river taxi can take you all the way to the Pearl District. The Mission Reach is an eight-mile stretch through a riparian woodland with phenomenal birding and connects to four of the five UNESCO designated San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The fifth is The Alamo, just one block east of the River Walk. You can bike, walk, run or even kayak the river along the Mission Reach.
Back in 1718, San Antonio was nothing more than a dusty outpost of the Spanish Empire as five Franciscan missions spread the Catholic faith across the region. Before it became a military outpost or fortress, The Alamo was originally Mission San Antonio de Valero and marked the birth of the city. A few miles south are four other missions. Start first with the Alamo. I suggest doing two visits. Go during the day to walk through and learn about Davy Crockett, James Bowie and other Alamo defenders in the epic battle against Santa Anna in 1836. Stop by in the evening for a somber view of the historic site without the crowds.
Three miles south of the Alamo is Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña (Mission Concepción). It is considered the best-preserved Spanish Colonial structure in the country. The façade has stood the test of time and has never been restored. Because of its size, Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo known as the “Queen of the Missions.” Free park ranger-guided tours are offered, and I highly recommend jumping in on one. Continue a few more miles to a prime example of a self-sustaining community at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The southernmost one is Mission San Francisco de la Espada (Mission Espada), the only mission made of bricks. You’ll need several hours to take the historical journey of faith in San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. It is free to visit all five of the missions. The audio tour of The Alamo is $7 per person and guided tours are $15. There are military discounts for both.
Timothy the Hippo is a social media star. You can see him and his grandma Uma at the San Antonio Zoo. The zoo is filled with animals that flourish in a savannah or tropical environment like spectacled bears, flamingos and African wild dogs. Check out the rhinos, zebras, crown cranes and other birds from the viewing deck of the new savanna-like rhinoceros habitat. Feed a lettuce snack to a giraffe. For something extra special, have breakfast with the hippos or rhinos. It’s a summer Down Under at the zoo as koalas return for the first time in over two decades on a Texas vacation through Labor Day.
After a visit to the zoo, take a break and enjoy serenity with a dose of Asian fusion. Originally an abandoned rock quarry turned into a lily pond and Japanese garden in 1919, the Japanese Tea Garden is now a luscious landscape overflowing with plants and flowers, two large koi ponds and a 60-foot waterfall. The plants rotate constantly so you’ll see something new every season. Check their calendar for events like jazz, yoga and sound bath meditation. Grab a bubble tea or bento box in the Jingu House Café.
For mora flora, take a walk along the Texas Native Trail at San Antonio Botanical Garden. Explore the bubbling creeks and beckoning hills of the Family Adventure Garden. Grab a latte from Rosella at the Garden. Keep an eye out for birds. They have a birding checklist and eBird report of the latest sightings. More than 249 bird species have been sighted in the garden.
Things get really wild as you head north to Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch and Natural Bridge Caverns. Meander along six miles of roadway through the 450 acres of Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in a Texas-style African safari. It’s home to 500 animals from over 45 species of native, exotic and endangered wildlife. In the Tatonka Range, you’ll see American bison, longhorns, aoudads, wildebeests and critically endangered dama gazelles. The Tower Creek area takes you along Cibolo Creek. A herd of giraffes is called a tower. You’ll see a few giraffes near the entrance to the ranch, but a lot more in Tower Creek along with impalas, blesboks, bongos and ostriches. Holding a treat bag by the bottom, I let an ostrich stick its head through the open car window and chow down on food pellets. You get a free bag of animal food on your visit and can buy additional bags for a nominal fee. In the Kenyan Preserve I saw a herd of nilgai run across an open field, then saw scimitar horned oryx, which are extinct in the wild. The Massai Savanna is home to more ostriches, blackbucks and critically endangered addax.
Give yourself at least an hour to take a drive that is simply wild. Explore an underground world of stalagmites and stalactites on a guided tour in one of the premiere show caves in the world. The Discovery Tour takes you 180 feet below ground. I marveled at the towering columns, fragile crystalline soda straws, flowstones and chandeliers in the massive chambers. The ancient formations are still growing today in the underground network of rooms as water drips, or flows on a rainy day.
If it’s your first visit to the caverns, I suggest doing that tour. It takes about 75 minutes to do this family-friendly tour which runs every 10-40 minutes. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes with good traction since there are steep, wet areas. Enjoy a break from the South Texas summer heat with the constant temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the caverns. The Hidden Passages Tour takes you into two huge underground chambers with some rare formations. For the more daring, go on an adventure tour where you crawl, climb and rappel through challenging passages. Above ground there’s tons of adventure, too, with a zip line, gemstone and fossil panning, a 5,000-square-foot outdoor maze and a 60-foot, four-tier ropes course.
For a Hill Country stay that’s less than 30 minutes from downtown, retreat to the AAA Four Diamond Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa. Float to your heart’s content in the lazy river or let your worries melt away as you get pampered in the Windflower Spa. Get in a round of golf, take a hike on the nature trail, take a ride down the waterslide or test your balance on the FlowRider. With adventure and relaxation going hand-in-hand in a stunning Hill Country setting, you never really have to leave the property. It feels miles away from everywhere, but it’s a perfect location to be just minutes away from SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.
New this summer at SeaWorld is Turtle Reef™, where you can get an up-close look at threatened and endangered sea turtles. Take a wild ride on the new, one-of-a-kind, eight-story tower slide in Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark. Over at Six Flags Fiesta Texas take a ride on what is said to be the world’s first single-rail coaster that is also the first-ever Wonder Woman-themed rollercoaster. The unobstructed views are worth it as you twist and turn above the 100-foot quarry walls. For even more thrills, ride one of the world’s tallest pendulum rides. The brand new Joker Wild Card ride is 17 stories and reaches speeds up to 75 miles per hour. That’s definitely not for the faint of heart!
Take a day trip to Fredericksburg to climb Enchanted Rock, stroll through the old German settlement and do a little wine tasting at one of the more than 50 wineries in the Hill Country. Enjoy small town charm in Comfort and Boerne. Sing along to live music at Luckenbach where Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Waylon Jennings have played. Grab your partner for some boot scootin’ and do the Texas two-step at honky-tonk Gruene Hall, considered the oldest continually operating dancehall in Texas, in New Braunfels, a historic small German town on the banks of the Guadalupe River. Speaking of a river, beat the heat on a classic Texas summer adventure and float beneath the cypress trees of the Comal or Guadalupe Rivers. There’s so much to do in and around San Antonio. Enjoy Texas-sized fun on your trip to the Alamo City.