As a native Texan, now Californian, I made the trek to San Antonio often in the past. Based on this background, smart money might be that I know the region well, right? Well, you would lose that bet as my last visit acquainted me with a Texas town I had not yet met.
Let me introduce you to San Antonio, Texas. The nation’s seventh largest city and the state’s second in size, San Antonio is no small place. Yet, its downtown is modest, it’s quaint, it’s easy to stroll. Bottom line: San Antonio is unlike most major U.S. metropolitan areas. Its made--in-Texas hallmarks are distinctive: the Alamo, the River Walk and an international history that’s a colorful combo of Western cowboys and Spanish vaqueros, blended with a German population.
Dating back to its 1718 beginnings, five Spanish missions were located along the river. One of these missions, San Antonio de Valero, became a military barracks known as the Alamo, a fortress whose impressive 13-day battle during the Texas Revolution forever put this surprisingly tiny structure on the map. Nearby is another piece of the past. The Spanish Governor’s Palace, now a National Historic Landmark, is one of Texas’ oldest standing residential buildings.
Add to the mix brew houses that were long ago erected and now repurposed as exciting, different venues, and you have today’s San Antonio. The former Lone Star Brewery houses the San Antonio Museum of Art. Pearl Brewery Company’s 22-acre complex (locally known as Pearl) may have brewed beer from the 1800s to 1999, but it’s become a 21st century “culinary gathering place.” It is the address of 12 restaurants, 12 retailers, a Saturday farmer’s market and the third campus of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA)
The River Walk takes you deep into the heart of Texas – the moment you step onto its cobbled footpath, you’re immersed into this distinctive destination. Running alongside the city’s eponymous river, one story beneath it for approximately two miles of downtown streets and miles beyond, it is a lush network of walkways and stairways. An annual magnet for millions, the tropical setting is green with cypress and palms and scattered with al fresco eateries, toe-tapping music venues and an assortment of hotels and boutiques – all commingling with back-in-the-day structures.
With the River Walk’s recent expansion to 15.5 miles, it represents America’s longest linear park. It not only connects prime-time tourist attractions – the Alamo, Pearl and the San Antonio Museum of Art – but hiking and biking trails now reach its Missions Concepción, San José, San Juan Capistrano and Espada (nominated for UNESCO World Heritage site status, along with the Alamo). For those not exploring on foot or by bike, there is Rio San Antonio Cruise’s 45-minute narrated boat ride and the Rio Taxi’s 39 River Walk stops.
Exploration of the river reveals a hospitable setting on a historic stage. La Villita, the “little village” and former garrison that housed the Alamo’s soldiers in the late 1700s, is a thriving arts center. Though a contemporary setting for art galleries, one-of-a-kind shops and specialty restaurants, the past is omnipresent.
Fast forward to the 1968 World’s Fair and HemisFair. Now a multi-acre downtown green space, it is home to the Institute of Texas Cultures, the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and the iconic 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas (now an observation deck and restaurant).
Newest on the River Walk is the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Having opened in October 2013, and named for Dolph Briscoe, a former governor of Texas and the state’s largest private landowner, the museum showcases everything “Western” – from a replica of a Wells Fargo stagecoach and collection of more than 100 spurs to Pancho Villa’s last known saddle and an interactive diorama of the Alamo’s noted battle.
With 18 properties given AAA Four Diamond status, there is no shortage of hotels for luxury loving cowboys. Nor is there is a lack of choices.
Though Eilan Hotel & Spa is 20 minutes north in Texas Hill Country, a stay at this Tuscan-inspired hotel is rewarded with three pools, a 10,000-square-foot spa and its signature restaurant, Sustenio, created by award-winning Stephan Pyles in collaboration with Executive Chef Mike Collins. Opening in February 2012, it is one of two Texas hotels named to Leading Hotels of the World.
An overnight at Omni La Mansion del Rio replicates a stay in a grand hacienda. Its Spanish colonial architecture and classic European appointments, coupled with the romance of its River Walk location, ensure a luxurious peek into a privileged background.
Upon entering the marble lobby of Hotel Contessa, the striking portrait of the hotel’s Spanish matriarch Lady Contessa sets the stage for a world-class visit. Punctuated with such appointments as wooden-framed mirrors, colorful tile bar tops, exposed brick walls and expansive archways, it’s been named as one of the country’s Top 100 Hotels. Its restaurant, Las Ramblas, features an exhibition-style kitchen.
San Antonio is indeed a happening, but there’s more. “Of all of the things going on in this town, its culinary scene is the most amazing,” said a long time resident.
Let’s begin with Pearl and its food-and-drink scene. Here, two-time James Beard Award nominee Chef Andrew Weissman features dual eateries: a five-star Italian café, Il Sogno Osteria, and an upscale oyster bar, the Sandbar Fish House & Market. Called a “gastropub with Hill Country feel,” Cured is the delicious child of Chef Steve McHugh (former Chef de Cuisine for New Orleans’ Chef John Besh). Located in Pearl Brewing Company’s administration building (circa 1904), its menu showcases cured meats and brewer’s crackers made with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Rounding out Pearl’s offerings is Blue Box, a self-described “swanky, hip cocktail bar.”
Jason Dady is a local celeb chef with such eateries as Umai Mi, known for Chef's spin on Asian fare; Tre Trattoria, an Italian restaurant whose focus is "fresh"; Two Bros. BBQ Market described as "true Texas pit-to-table" barbecue and DUK (acronym for Dady's Underground Kitchen) Truck, an on-wheels cookhouse that roves San Antonio and features an ever-evolving gourmet menu.
When detailing San Antonio’s lively food scene, homage must be paid to Chef Johnny Hernandez, a native San Antonian and grad of New York’s CIA. Inspired by his restaurateur father and his own travels through Mexico, Chef’s take on Mexican food is entrenched in tradition. His restaurants: La Gloria is inspired by street foods from the interior of Mexico; Fruteria - Botanero reflects the country’s fruit stands; El Machito features “all things meat” and his monthly barbacoa brunch at Casa Hernán, his urban hacienda home, is always a sold-out affair.
Though traditionally known for such crave-worthy cooking as Tex-Mex and barbeque, San Antonio’s culinary dance card has expanded to include Asian, cured meats, Italian and more. Add to this lineup the expanded River Walk, an inventive museum scene and the revitalization of its storied past, and you have a city that shouts, “Visit!”
After sipping, tasting and exploring the state at its Lone Star best, my verdict is in: You can take the girl out of Texas but . . . well, you know the rest.
By Cynthia Dial
Appeared in JustLuxe.com
#travel #traveltips #travelingcynthia #texas #sanantonio #traveltuesday