I’m a New Englander who visited San Antonio for the first time. Here are 9 things that surprised me about the Texas city.
I traveled from Boston to San Antonio, and it was my first time visiting the Southern city.
Ask a New Englander what comes to mind when they think about Texas, and they’ll probably mention cowboy hats, tacos, and beer. Truth be told, I’m no exception.
However, during a November trip to San Antonio, I learned that this vibrant, diverse city has so much more to offer.
Locals told me that their motto is, “Keep San Antonio lame,” a play on their northern neighbor’s slogan, “Keep Austin weird.”
By keeping the city’s charm a secret, San Antonians hope to protect its essence and ward off throngs of tourists. But once you experience Alamo City’s appeal, you’ll probably have a hard time resisting the urge to spread the word.
These are some of the most surprising things I learned during my first trip to San Antonio.
San Antonio never felt crowded despite having one of the largest populations in the US.
San Antonio, which is home to around 1.45 million people, isn’t only Texas’ second most populous city behind Houston, but it’s the seventh most populous city in the entire country.
It’s also growing. Between 2020 and 2021, more people moved to San Antonio than any other city in the US.
Almost all of my Uber drivers told me they’d moved to San Antonio within the last five to 10 years. Some came from other states — like Missouri, Nevada, Michigan, and California — and a few hailed from faraway countries, like France and Kenya.
Despite the fact that San Antonio has such a massive population, the city streets didn’t feel crowded when I was there. From when I arrived to the time I left, I never hit traffic.
German immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 19th century left a lasting influence on the city.
German immigrants arrived in San Antonio in the 1840s, and by 1990, more than 17% of Texas’ population claimed German ancestry, making Germans one of the largest national-origin groups in the state.
I definitely picked up on the German influence during my trip.
Schilo’s — a deli that serves German fare like bratwurst, Wiener schnitzel, and potato pancakes — opened in 1917, making it the oldest operating restaurant in San Antonio.
Also, Beethoven Männerchor, a German singing society and a community that’s been dedicated to preserving German heritage and culture in San Antonio since 1867, hosts a large Oktoberfest celebration every year.
The people I met in San Antonio went out of their way to be friendly.
Maybe it’s because I’m from Boston, where people are known to be straightforward and standoffish, but San Antonians’ kindness left me speechless.
Uber drivers struck up conversations from the front seat and provided recommendations for my stay, unlike many drivers back home who often don’t engage with passengers.
When I got lost trying to find an art museum downtown, a local spotted my confused expression and offered me directions. Later that day, a random person at the Tower of the Americas, a 750-foot-tall observation tower, noticed me struggling to take a selfie and offered to snap a picture for me.
Multiple times, pedestrians complimented my outfit or greeted me as they passed by.
Restaurant servers also seemed especially warm and welcoming, often going above and beyond to learn more about my preferences.
The state has an abundance of locally produced wine, and the ones I tried rivaled those I’ve had in California.
Texas is mainly known for its beer and spirits, but it’s the state with the fifth-largest number of wineries after California, Oregon, Washington, and New York.
I was pleasantly surprised to find exceptional locally produced wine in San Antonio. Many of the state’s wineries are located just an hour north of the city in the Texas Hill Country, a region with ideal conditions for growing grapes.
Just like the famous winemaking regions of Burgundy and the Loire Valley, Texas has mineral-rich limestone soil that enhances the wines’ structures and aromas.
I can speak to this firsthand. The Texas-produced wines I sampled at Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery in San Antonio had balance and complexity that rivaled the wines I’ve tried in Napa.
The dining options are incredibly diverse, spanning far beyond Tex-Mex and barbecue.
I expected to find mostly Tex-Mex and barbecue in San Antonio, but thanks to the city’s spectacular cultural diversity, I could choose from a wide range of cuisines.
There was Japanese-Peruvian at Botika, French at Brasserie Mon Chou Chou, Caribbean at Mi Roti, and family-style Asian fusion at Best Quality Daughter.
In 2017, UNESCO designated San Antonio as a Creative City of Gastronomy due to its confluence of cuisines and culinary heritage. It’s the second city in the US to receive this designation after Tucson, Arizona.
Part of the reason San Antonio has such an impressive food scene is that the city has its own Culinary Institute of America. Many graduates stick around to open their own restaurants or work at some of the city’s award-winning establishments.
San Antonio is an art lover’s mecca filled with street art, museums, and galleries.
Most tourists flock to San Antonio to see landmarks like the Alamo, the River Walk, and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. So, I’m sure many of them are surprised as I was to find a heap of museums and galleries, too.
History buffs will swoon over the Briscoe Western Art Museum, which preserves Western art, artifacts, and culture; the McNay Art Museum, Texas’ first modern-art museum; and the San Antonio Museum of Art, a collection of ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian art.
As someone who prefers a more hands-on experience, I was blown away by Hopscotch, an immersive gallery. When I was there, installations included optical illusions, laser graffiti, and a kaleidoscope machine.
I also spotted several stunning murals created by local artists and learned that the San Antonio Street Art Initiative, a non-profit charity, has been building the largest outdoor gallery in Texas since 2018.
I heard so many different types of live music throughout the city.
One of the first things I noticed during my trip was that San Antonio’s music scene seems to be thriving. You can find just about every genre here, particularly in Southtown, the arts and entertainment district.
The Aztec Theatre, a concert venue that’s been open since 1926, is conveniently located along the River Walk.
“South Texas there has a huge Latinx population which means tons of salsa, bachata, Tejano, and mariachi music,” Jed Craddock, a local musician and founder of Earbender Studios founder, told me.
“But one of the things I love most about San Antonio is how diverse our music scene is. I can see a swing and rockabilly band at Sam’s Burger Joint, Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine at the Tobin Center, or an amazing local artist on the St. Mary’s Strip,” he added.
The River Walk is 15 miles, which is much longer than I thought.
Without a doubt, the River Walk is one of San Antonio’s most distinctive features. This waterway reminded me of Venice. It’s lined with restaurants, bars, museums, shops, and biking trails, making it a popular draw for tourists.
I always imagined that I’d be able to traverse the whole River Walk in a day, so I was shocked to find that it spans nearly 15 miles, from north of the city center down to the area around Mission Espada.
Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a huge deal in San Antonio.
When I booked my trip, I didn’t realize my travel dates coincided with the city’s legendary Día de los Muertos festivities, nor did I realize what a huge deal this Mexican holiday is in San Antonio.
I spotted ofrendas, altars designed to honor deceased loved ones, almost everywhere I looked throughout the city, from the lobby of the hotel where I was staying to the San Antonio Botanical Garden.
San Antonians go all out in celebrating this Mexican tradition, with lively processions, parades, and festivals.
The park at Pearl Brewery hosted an enormous celebration complete with stilt walkers, live music, face painting, art installations, and many ofrendas.
SpiritLandia featured a River Walk Day of the Dead parade, and people also attended Muertos Fest, a two-day cultural event, in downtown San Antonio.