Quick: Name the second-biggest city by population in Texas. You’re probably torn between Dallas and Houston. But you’d be wrong. With 1.3 million residents, San Antonio is only dwarfed by Houston’s 2.1 million. Sadly, beyond cowboy hats, Davy Crockett and the River Walk, there isn’t a lot non-Texans know about the place. Spend a few days in the lovely city, though, and you’ll quickly realize there’s a lot more going on here than Spurs playoff basketball and Alamo tours. You’ll see world-class museums, eat top-notch Mexican cuisine and get an overall feel of a global city just waiting for the world to stop by for a visit.
When you do decide to make your trip to San Antonio, you’ll want to stay downtown. If you seek a more historical experience, go with The Menger Hotel, a 150-year-old property with a past filled with stories of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Gutzon Borglum, the Danish-American sculptor credited with the Mt. Rushmore design. However, if you prefer contemporary, luxurious accommodations that still exude Texas charm, Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Mokara Hotel & Spa is the address to try. The former saddle factory adds a subtle Texan spin on everything from the décor (the front desk is made of stretched leather) to the amenities (the Four-Star spa offers the Texas Two Step, a couples massage).
From either hotel, a walk to the famed River Walk is a breeze. You’ll see locals sitting, jogging and cycling along the three-mile downtown stretch. On this first day, call Rio San Antonio Cruises for a riverboat breakfast ride. If you can score Chris as your driver and Rio Rio Cantina’s Nia as your server, you’ll be assured a relaxing trip where you’ll learn about artist Carlos Cortes’ faux bois concrete design style and Rio Rio’s tasty take on chilaquiles (eggs and ranchero sauce over tortilla chips) and other California Tex-Mex breakfast staples.
After the morning feast, take the short stroll to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures for a visual journey through the state’s history. Learn about the African-American Buffalo Soldiers, European immigrants and David Pace, the man behind Texas’ own Pace Picante sauce. When you’re done there, head back toward downtown, but first make a detour at Hemisfair, home of the 1968 World’s Fair. Ride an elevator up 750 feet to the Tower of the Americas’ observation deck for a jaw-dropping view of the city.
Once you hit the ground, avoid the nearby fast-food spots, like Fuddruckers and Häagen-Dazs, and make the quick drive toward Market Square’s La Margarita or its crazier cousin Mi Tierra Café for lunch. The former does a parrillada estilo La Margarita (overflowing platter of beef fajitas, country sausage, chicken, ribs, stuffed peppers and grilled vegetables) big enough for the entire family. The latter has a similarly vibrant menu but adds some kitschy ambience with year-round Christmas lights and is open 24-7. Weekends get really crowded around the Square, the largest Mexican market in the U.S., so expect a line for a table. But trust us, it’s worth the 45-minute wait.
All of the tacos and refried beans will leave you plenty sluggish, so a stop back to the room for some rejuvenation will be in order. After a few hours of relaxation, it’s back to the pavement. Meander along the River Walk to get a better look at the shops and brilliant Spanish-colonial-inspired architecture you breezed by earlier. If you time things perfectly, you’ll end up at San Antonio’s other landmark, the Alamo, right at sundown. After reflecting on the 13-day siege that took place there (and of course, loading images to your Facebook page), seal the evening with a quiet dinner at Mokara’s Ostra, a sleek, riverfront restaurant that prides itself as much on its blackened Texas redfish as it does its collection of nearly 100 tequilas.
Start Day 2 with a simple bagel and coffee at the hotel. Don’t worry though; delectable offerings won’t be far behind. After a five-minute drive, you’ll find yourself at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Every major city can boast about having paintings and sculptures, but few can offer a selection quite as vast as this one. From glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work to Asian screens to the largest collection of Roman and Greek artifacts in the South, SAMA houses 5,000 years’ worth of art you never knew Texas had.
By the time you’ve caught your breath there, you’ll be more than ready to eat. The hip Pearl neighborhood, a former-brewery-turned-live/work/shop area, has a number of dining options, like the Latin-flavored Nao and the Americana-leaning Arcade Midtown Kitchen. But if you’re really hungry, we suggest The Granary, an evolved barbecue joint from brothers Tim and Alex Rattray. Sure, you’ll see staples like pulled pork and brisket on the chalkboard menu, but you’ll also discover delicious burnt-end beans and buttermilk slaw.
Though you explored the most famous mission, the Alamo, yesterday, there are four others — Concepcion, Espada, San Juan Capistrano and San Jose — still to visit. Plaques tell some of the story behind the unique buildings’ history. Each site has its own distinctive look and feel, so give every location — the missions are separated by just a few miles — about 45 minutes. By late summer, the aptly titled Mission Reach, the largest ecosystem restoration project ever, will connect the four sites to the original River Walk, expanding the path to 15 miles.
For your last supper in San Antonio, reserve a spot at Bin 555 Restaurant and Wine Bar. While just 20 minutes from Mission Concepcion, the ambience will have you feeling as if you’re 1,000 miles away. More rustic and woodsy than traditional Southwestern, Bin 555 also takes a more gastronomic approach to its dishes. Diver sea scallops come out with a bubbly, smoked sea salt foam. The Tasting of Citrus dessert is an adventure in shapes and colors at first glance, but ultimately proves a delectably inventive take on lemon pound cake — much in the way San Antonio appears to be a plain town of cowboy hats and sombreros until you come in for a better look.
Photos Courtesy San Antonio Convention Visitors Bureau and Mokara Hotel & Spa