Our week in San Antonio was very much a mixed bag. There were things we liked; there were things we disliked. In the end, the farther we got from the popular tourist sites, the happier we became. And perhaps that’s the lesson: when in San Antonio, go in the opposite direction of everyone else.
Remember the Alamo? We can’t even get near it….
Number one on the list for most visitors to San Antonio is a trip to the Alamo. However, the week of our visit coincided with spring break for the Texas Public School System. So we weren’t the only ones with that idea.
Since the guided tours were all booked we decided to just wander around on our own, but it was so crowded it quickly became an exercise in frustration. Figuring we would come back later in the afternoon when it was less crowded, we headed off in search of sustenance.
When we returned, the crowds had thinned somewhat, but it was still pretty busy. Happily, we were able to get into the building and look around, but we would have loved to learn more than we did.
Beyond the hordes of people, we were a bit disappointed with what we’d call the “Disney-fication” of the area. We learned that much of the original Alamo site had been lost in the years following the battle. It was only because a few forward-thinking people made a concerted effort to save the main building that it exists at all. However, the city of San Antonio has grown up around it and little effort seems to have been made to protect the shrine from the encroachment of commercial enterprises that seem completely inappropriate given the history of the site.
It reminded us of our visit to the historic burial grounds in Salem, Massachusetts: 300 year old graves, several of which belonged to innocent people murdered by their neighbors, all set to a soundtrack of creepy laughter broadcast from some costume shop down the street. Terrible.
The River Walk
The River Walk is the pride of San Antonio, miles of beautiful, pedestrian friendly walkways that follow the San Antonio river through the city. The main downtown area closest to the Alamo is, as one would expect, full of restaurants and bars, and during the week of our visit, it was extremely crowded. But if you get a bit farther north or south of that main area, the crowds thin out, the riverbanks become occupied by residential areas, museums, and parks, and it becomes quite an enjoyable place to wander.
One of the most well known places on the River Walk is the Esquire Bar. Billed as the oldest bar in San Antonio, it opened the day after Prohibition ended and features the longest bar in Texas. There are only a handful of tables on the balcony facing the river but we were lucky enough to grab one while we waited to return to the Alamo. The weather was gorgeous, the drinks were excellent, and the southwest fare tasty.
The Mission Trail
The Alamo was actually one of five Spanish missions built in the 1700’s as an outreach of the Catholic Church. The Alamo became famous for its role in the battle for Texan independence, but the other missions, which are still active churches, can be visited as well. In fact, the other four make up a National Historic Park (run by the National Park Service), while the Alamo was maintained by a private organization (the Daughters of the Republic of Texas) before being turned over to the State of Texas in 2015 because of a mismanagement scandal. All five missions were declared World Heritage Sites in 2015.
We rented bikes through the San Antonio B-Cycle bike share program and rode from Mission San Jose (the third mission in the line of five) north to Mission Concepcion, and then continued on to the Alamo (about five miles total).
At Mission San Jose, we listened to an NPS park ranger discuss the missions and enjoyed exploring the much quieter grounds.
As a side note, we love the B-Cycle program and highly recommend it to those traveling to cities where it operates. B-Cycle costs $12 for a 24 hour pass. You have to check the bikes in to one of their kiosks, which are located all over the city, every hour to avoid additional charges, but for things like checking out the Missions, or for biking around the parks in Austin, they’re great.
As we made our way north along the Mission trail, we stopped at Free Tail Brewing to (a) check in our bikes at the kiosk located out front and (b) beer. And after leaving Mission Concepcion, we stopped for dinner at Stella’s which is located in the the Blue Star Arts Complex, a really cool commercial district full of art galleries, restaurants, and a brewery.
The River Walk paths in these neighborhoods south of the city were noticeably quieter and easier to navigate than those in the city center. We really enjoyed biking along them as the sun set.
We finished our day in the main plaza, admiring the beautifully illuminated San Fernando Cathedral.
Speaking of places outside the city center, the Pearl is located just north of it and can also be accessed from the River Walk. The large property was built as a brewery in the late 1800’s and was home to a couple different companies during its lifespan. The latest brewery closed down completely in 2001 before being bought out, redeveloped, and reopened in the mid-2000’s. The original property has now been re-purposed into a mixed use district full of trendy apartments, restaurants, bars, a brewery, and a hotel. It is also home to a campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
We had some fantastic charcuterie at Cured and enjoyed chatting with some of the very friendly bar staff who gave us great advice on where to go while we were in town.
The bartenders’ commentary about the downtown area mirrored our beliefs that most residents steer clear of the central part of the River Walk, preferring the more “authentic” neighborhoods to the north and south.
We really enjoyed wandering around the Pearl and even came back on Sunday for their weekly farmer’s market. There was live music, local artisans, fresh vegetables, and food vendors. It was a nice way to spend a weekend morning.
When In Texas….
Our trip to San Antonio also gave us an opportunity to sample some native Texas goodness. For starters, when meeting up with an old friend of mine from high school, we got to try the ubiquitous Whataburger. I had not seen my friend Jen in over twenty years as she had moved to Texas right after college, but when we announced our travel plans on Facebook last year, she suggested meeting up whenever we got to San Antonio. As we were discussing our plans to get together, she asked if we’d been to Whataburger yet. She said it was “a Texas thing” so we figured we kinda had to go at least once. So, in addition to going to Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling, we made our inaugural trip to Whataburger. Our conclusion? A damn fine establishment with excellent customer service. In fact, one of the staff members came over to our table while we were eating and gave us orange Whataburger souvenir pens since it was our first visit. We will treasure them forever. Thanks Whataburger!!
Also on our list of Texas firsts was our maiden voyage to Buc-ee’s. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of taking a road trip through Texas, Buc-ee’s are basically rest stops, but in true Texas form they are enormous… featuring over a hundred gas pumps and massive stores complete with everything a human could possibly need. Every. Thing.
Full meals? Yes!
Fresh snacks? Hell Yes!
Packaged snacks? No doubt!
Beer and wine? For sure!
Dressings, spices, and packaged goods? Yup!
Wine tastings? Damn right!
Camo aprons? Ummmm yeah!!
Inner tubes? Why not?
Grills? Of course.
Cast iron cookware? You betchya!
Cow print, fur covered flasks? Obviously!
Plus Buc-ee himself! Adorable!
They are also supposedly known for having freakishly clean restrooms. We didn’t check them out so we cannot independently confirm this information, but given how clean the rest of the store was, we assume it’s true.
No doubt about it, Buc-ee’s Rocks!
Overall, we left San Antonio with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we loved the historic aspects, the beautiful walk-friendly/bike-friendly paths, the numerous friendly people we encountered, and the great food and service. On the other hand, the campground we stayed in was kinda run down as was the entire area surrounding it, the major tourist attractions were way too touristy for our liking, and we found driving in the area to be extremely stressful (on account of the spaghetti like roads coupled with drivers who seemingly drive no less than 75 miles per hour all day every day).
In the end, we’d probably stop back if our route took us through the area, but we wouldn’t make is a priority given all the other places we want to visit.
Next up, Austin!
Where we stayed: Riverwalk RV Park