By: Robin Catalano Special to the Star | From: Toronto Star

Located in South Texas, a region bound by the Rio Grande River to the southwest and the Gulf of Mexico to the east, San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the United States. It’s also one of the most eclectic, home to more than 1 million people from a variety of cultures. I’ve been visiting family here for more than two decades, and each trip yields something new, under the radar, even out-there.

Yes, you should stroll a portion of the picturesque 24-kilometre River Walk. And of course you should remember the Alamo, one of the city’s five 18th-century UNESCO-designated missions, and site of a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution. (The Alamo Collections Center just debuted an exhibit of memorabilia donated by rock legend Phil Collins, too.) Should you stake out a stone bench downtown to watch the Saga, a history of the city told through a mind-bending light installation projected on the front of the San Fernando Cathedral? Affirmative.

But getting to know the arms-wide-open Mission City also means stepping off its well-trodden paths. Here are five ways to enjoy the bounty of San Antonio, from the outdoorsy to the out-and-proud.

For a taste of native foods: Landrace

From award-winning chef Steve McHugh comes this new restaurant inside the Thompson San Antonio hotel and right on the River Walk. McHugh’s back-to-the-land menu incorporates historically important regional ingredients like mesquite, plums, pecans, mulberries and loquats. Thanks to an ecoconscious, low-waste approach, nearly every part of each ingredient is used, whether in the centre of a plate or in pickled accompaniments. Come for the Hopi blue corn hushpuppies; stay for the habanero garganelli served with black garlic, pecorino and hazelnut gremolata.


For trippy immersive art: Hopscotch

At Hopscotch, a new, 20,000-square-foot experimental creative space, artists collaborate on unexpected exhibits of light, sound, sculpture and special effects. Among them, you can digitally tag walls with graffiti, walk through a cave constructed from 40,000 salvaged plastic bags and fishing nets, or duplicate yourself by the dozens in a funhouse-style room filled with mirrors. Beyond their Instagram-friendliness, each installation has a message, from understanding our impact on the environment to prioritizing self-love and clearing the mental clutter caused by our perma-plugged-in lifestyle.


For a lively shopping hub: Pearl

A landmark adaptive-use project, Pearl transformed a circa-1880 brewery into a hospitality centre teeming with locally owned boutiques, chef-driven restaurants, hotels and living spaces. Pick up a bespoke guayabera — a button-down shirt decorated with traditional Yucatán and Cuban folk stitching — at Dos Carolinas. Shop for eclectic, global-inspired kitchenware and home decor at Rancho Diaz, or indie books at the Twig, which stocks a superb collection of poetry by local writers. This spring, Pearl will debut a concert hall and biergarten, repurposed from a stable that once sheltered the brewery’s draft horses.


For vibrant LGBTQ culture: St. Mary’s Strip

San Antonio’s loud-and-proud LGBTQ scene has roots in Cornyation, a half-century-plus-year-old tweak of Coronation, the marquee debutante pageant of Fiesta, the city’s massive 11-day spring festival. Most of the queer nightlife venues are in the entertainment district along St. Mary’s Strip. Have premium cocktails, bust out your best karaoke number and go dancing at Pegasus, San Antonio’s most established nightclub, where drag queens show off their fancy footwork on weekends. Or check out the rollicking new club Vibras, a Latin coffee bar by day and cocktail haven by night, located in the space formerly occupied by cult-favourite Candlelight Coffeehouse.


For a unique nature experience: Robert L.B. Tobin Land Bridge

Opened in 2020 in north-central San Antonio’s Phil Hardberger Park, this is the world’s first bridge designed to safely convey both people and wildlife over a busy highway. The walkway — 150 feet long and wide — connects the two portions of a 330-acre park. Begin by climbing the gently sloping Skywalk or the bridge itself, planted with native trees, shrubs and grasses. Stop at the wildlife viewing blinds, designed by local artists, where you might catch a glimpse of the northern mockingbird, nine-banded armadillo or axis deer.