Founded as a Spanish missionary settlement in 1718, San Antonio offers an intriguing blend of traditional Mexican and cowboy culture. Although a pilgrimage to The Alamo — the famous 18th-century mission — usually tops visitors’ must-do lists, a deeper dive reveals a surprisingly modern city with a booming food and cocktail scene.

The San Antonio River Walk can’t be missed. The 15-mile network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River is lined with bars, shops and restaurants. As well as defining the city, it also offers a great jumping-off point for further exploration. From here, it’s just a short jaunt to the Pearl District, a former industrial quarter that’s now a great place to come to eat, drink and browse shops, stalls and a farmers’ market. Lounge in neo-industrial splendour in the lobby of the Hotel Emma while you weigh up your options for lunch: Brasserie Mon Chou Chou offers elegant French comfort food classics, while Southerleigh Fine Food And Brewery offers a modern take on cross-cultural Texan fare and brews 15 beers on the premises.

Much of San Antonio’s appeal comes from its deep Latin heritage. Walk off your lunch in the tranquil grounds of the Mission San Juan Capistrano, the largest of five former Spanish missions in the city, founded in 1776. After soaking up the site’s history, head back downtown for some serious shopping and sipping at Historic Market Square, an outdoor market selling local produce and crafts, including jewellery, candles and leatherware.

For a richer understanding of South Texas’ past, check out Briscoe Western Art Museum, where a range of art and artifacts from both European settlers and Indigenous communities tells the story of the American West. Another must-visit is Blue Star Arts Complex, situated among the old mansions of the King William historic district just south of downtown. This former industrial space houses multiple galleries, shops and cafes, as well as the Blue Star Brewing Company, one of the oldest brewpubs in town.

Food is the star of the show in the Alamo city, and there’s no better place to start than Garcia’s Mexican Food, a family-owned restaurant that’s been dishing up classic Tex-Mex since 1962. Its calling card is the brisket taco. 842 Fredericksburg Rd

Being Texas, there’s no shortage of barbecue, and the local consensus is that 2M Smokehouse is the current king. There’s some seating, but it’s mainly a takeaway joint, so be sure to get there early for pork ribs, smoked turkey and brisket sandwiches, as it often sells out of everything by 11am.

It’s not all smoke and flames, though. In recent years San Antonio has been garnering kudos for innovative gastronomy. The brainchild of chef Ceasar Zepeda, Sangria on the Burg is a lively spot offering creative takes on Texas classics, including fun dishes such as brisket spring rolls, sweet Chinese-style pork belly tacos, and cheesesteak sliders. Best washed down with the flight of four sangria cocktails.

After taking in the San Antonio Museum of Art, with its collections spanning 5,000 years, try some Italian food at the on-site Tre Trattoria. And for a deep exploration of Mexican cuisine, look no further than Mixtli. Here, chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres offer a menu themed around the country’s regional history. Note: it operates a pay-before-you-eat reservation system.

When it comes to places to stay, check into the historic Menger Hotel and stop for a drink at the Menger Bar, where former US president Theodore Roosevelt recruited his ‘Rough Riders’ in the early days of the Spanish-American War.

Ceasar Zepeda’s top three places to eat

Texas-born Ceasar Zepeda is the owner of Sangria on the Burg and a leading light of San Antonio’s culinary scene

1. Sichuan House This has become one of my favourite places to eat and it’s easily one of the best Chinese restaurants in town. The culinary team is from Sichuan and the food is great — including dishes such as underbelly pork and dry pot chicken.

2. Clementine The husband-and-wife chef team take ‘simple’ seasonal food to another level. They have a ‘Feed Me’ menu where you just let the chefs serve what they want. When you let someone else take you on a culinary journey, it’s a really special experience.

3. Cappy’s Restaurant This San Antonio staple opened in 1977 and serves ‘upscale but casual’ American fare. Cappy’s is always getting better and reinventing itself and everything — the service, the wine, the food — is done extremely well.

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)