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
Love the pictures! I agree, off the beaten path away from tourists is the way to be, though sadly it is sometimes unavoidable (go to St. Peter’s/Vatican, thousands of tourists!!). Glad you found some quiet spots!
Yeah, we always try to avoid crowds when we can, but sometimes it’s just part of the deal. And yeah, the Vatican stands out as one of the worst we’ve ever been to. I remember we had tickets and it was like “what’s the point?” We basically couldn’t see anything. I think San Antonio would have felt entirely different had we been there one week earlier or one week later. We just picked a really bad time. But I’m glad we were able to find some of these other neighborhoods. They left us with a much better impression.
Yeesh – I was feeling bad about missing the Alamo the one time I was in San Antonio. I don’t now (thank you). But in the 24 hours I was there I did make it down to the river & share your appreciation there. Looking forward to the Pearl & know hubby would love Cured. Thanks for the tips.
I think the Alamo would definitely be worth a visit if you find yourself in the area again, just NOT during spring break. But the history there is really interesting and the main building and grounds are in excellent condition. I would have loved to take the guided tour and learn more. It was just not happening this time. And yes – Cured was GREAT. Great food, great drinks, great service.I would definitely add it to your itinerary if you’re gonna be in the area.
We’re so glad we found a great route AROUND San Antonio. We’ve driven thru the city with the RV one too many times and it’s always stressful. When we visited the Alamo and River walk the first time, it was a very cold February day and we practically had the place to ourselves. Like you, I would not enjoy those crowds, but now you can check San Antonio off the list…. been there, done that, moving on!
San Antonio traffic was just weird. We are always driving in new places and we’ve driven in and around heavy traffic (DC’s traffic is ABSURD) for years. But there was something about San Antonio that was just so much more stressful. It was like they kept adding highways that cross other highways, so you end up with all these left hand exits, and quick transitions from one road to another. Add to that the crazy drivers and ever-present construction zones, and it was just a lot. And I’m talking about with the car. Forget the RV. I can’t even imagine dealing with that! Anyway, by the time we headed out of town, I breathed a big sigh of relief.
Wow I can’t believe how many people where at the Alamo, that would drive me squirrelly! When we were there a few years ago in December it was quiet and very easy to walk around and see everything. The river walk was also quiet and very pretty all decorated for Christmas.
I can’t tell you how many pictures I saw on Instagram, in the weeks before our visit, of people in front of the Alamo and they had the whole place to themselves! We were completely shocked when we walked up and saw these hordes of people. We really did just pick a bad week. I bet if we were there right now, it would be dead. And I would love to see the River Walk all lit up for the holidays. I bet that would be beautiful!
We’ve learned that Spring Break is a bad time to be anywhere, except out in the middle of nowhere. It’s been about 10 years since we were last in San Antonio—I’ve been wanting to return to bike the trail to the Missions. Thanks for the great preview!
Yeah, every time we have an experience like this, I immediately start thinking about researching those solar panels. 🙂 We really did enjoy the bike ride though, and they’ve expanded the River Walk by miles. It’s like 15 or 20 miles long from top to bottom, so you really could make a couple days out of it if you stopped at the attractions along the way.
Your food photos increased my appetite 🙂 , Very Nice photos and interesting to read your experience , Keep it up.
Thank you! We had some really great meals during our visit which makes it a bit easier to take good photos. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!
I saw the 747 with the shuttle land at Lackland Air Force Base to refuel in 1985.
Wow! That’s awesome! It is really an interesting set up and I was happy to be able to see it up close. It’s definitely one way to grab people’s attention when they pull into the parking lot!
If it is spring break do not go to South Padre Island.
Yeah, I think the entire Texas coast (and a whole bunch of Florida) is probably off limits during Spring Break. We definitely learned our lesson this year and will take it into account next year.
I agree with your observations. I hate crowds, and am so grateful that I can do a lot of my sightseeing during the week. It’s been 6 weeks since we left San Antonio, and I still haven’t posted my round-up post. Thanks for spurring me on – I need to get that done!
I think we’re all gonna have to get a LOT more patient once summer rolls around and everyone is out and about. We really are spoiled with being able to sight-see when everyone else is otherwise occupied. (Cry me a river, I know.:)
I actually kinda like waiting a bit before writing up commentary about a place. It can help put things in perspective, and the more we travel, the more I can compare places and figure out what it is that I liked or didn’t like. That, and sometimes I just like to procrastinate!
Really information this mini travel guide for San Antonio , I would like to know which place you most like for food.
I live in San Antonio. What types of food are you looking for? Tell me a type and I can make suggestions!
Thanks for visiting Me! I forgot about the Whataburger pens 🙂 of course let me know if you come back through, we caneed do things not during rush hour! For all you other travelers, a few driving tips- know that yield signs are often treated as stop signs. When you need to change lanes, as soon as you turn on your signal most people will speed up. There are ways to use this to your advantage. It also means sometimes it’seems best to signal and move as soon as you know you have enough space, especially if you have to get to an exit lane. Avoid highways at rush hour if you can. All of the major highway Interchanges suck at rush hour.
Thanks for confirming that I am not making this stuff up about all the crazy San Antonio drivers! Ya’ll have your own set of rules! And it’s weird: As we’ve traveled around Texas, we’ve encountered all kinds of drivers, but nowhere was as consistently bizarre as San Antonio. You guys are nuts. 🙂
Oh my goodness that’s a crowd out there! When we were there it was still winter so I was shock looking at springtime. Never heard of Buc-ee’s but I guess we have to stop there should we cross Texas again. The riverwalk (which we walk from downtown to our campground)and the missions were our highlights there. Your photos brought lots of those good memories that we had.
Yeah, we’re definitely starting to see the consistent pattern – the nicer the weather gets, the more we kindof hate sightseeing at popular places. 🙂 I have a feeling we’re in for a long summer of battling crowds. Ah well. I guess there are worse things. 🙂
We also really liked thePearl district and another of those military perks was the nice RV park at Fort Sam Houston, just 4 miles from downtown. And they do drive very fast in Texas…
I am more than a little jealous of your access to these military RV parks. They all seem incredible.