But there’s so much more to San Antonio. We were last in town 10 years ago, and only for two nights—just enough to explore the downtown stretch of the River Walk and to know that we wanted to return. This time we spent a week, which allowed us to venture beyond downtown to discover more of the charms of this historic, beautiful Texas city.
Beginning With The River Walk (Of Course!)
The second week of January was a good window to be there—the weather was pleasantly cool (low 40’s at night, mid-60’s during the day) and the town was remarkably peaceful and uncrowded.
Meandering the wide, winding path beside the river and exploring the interesting cafés, shops, and artwork along the way reminded me of being in Europe. Which was precisely the intention of architect Robert H. H. Hugman, the visionary who saved the river from being paved over after a disastrous flood in 1921.
Hugman came up with a flood control plan for the river that included “a narrow, winding street barred to vehicular traffic…holding the best shops and cafés…with quaint atmosphere.”
With the help of the Works Progress Administration, the core of the River Walk was created in 1939. The result is a beautiful two-and-a-half mile stone path bordering both sides of the river, linked by a series of lovely stone arch bridges.
The River Walk has been called the Venice of America (or at least, of Texas)—but the gondoliers in the river boats don’t sing opera arias; instead you’ll be serenaded by mariachi bands strolling the sidewalks. (Which I find delightful unless they make a beeline for us while we’re having lunch at a riverside café, and then I just want to pay them to go away.)
North On The River Walk: The Pearl Brewery Complex
In the past few years, the River Walk has expanded to 15 miles, and is now the longest linear urban park in the country. Walking just a couple miles north on the section called Museum Reach took us through more landscaped beauty and artwork, ending at the restored historic Pearl Brewery. It’s a favorite spot for locals, and ended up being one of our favorites, too.
Within the Pearl complex are cool boutiques, bookstores, curio shops, and a charming hotel. The food offerings at a dozen different restaurants are some of the best in town; there’s a big green space for hanging out and relaxing; there’s a farmers’ market on weekends; and a microbrewery turns out some fine beer. We visited the Pearl twice and could have happily spent more time there.
We enjoyed walking along the River Walk to get to the Pearl, but you can also catch a river taxi downtown that will take you there and back. Which looked like fun, but we seem to always be trying to walk or bike off whatever indulgences we have planned.
South On The River Walk: Biking To The Missions
Heading south on the River Walk, we spent the better part of a day biking the Mission Reach, an eight-mile section (16 miles round-trip) that links four 18th century Spanish Colonial missions. It’s a beautiful ride along the river through wetlands and natural areas, with side trails that lead to the missions. And it’s mostly pretty flat. My favorite kind of biking.
The Texas missions were established in the early to mid-1700’s, more for political than religious reasons. By converting the indigenous nomadic peoples to Catholicism and teaching them Spanish language and culture, the missions bolstered Spain’s presence on the Texas frontier. In return, the missions provided food and shelter to the wandering tribes (collectively known as the Coahuiltecans) and offered protection from their enemies, the Apache and Comanche.
The Franciscans recognized that perfect adherence to Catholic doctrine wasn’t going to fly with the natives, and wisely modified their goal to one of “Imperfect Conversion.” Meanwhile, the Indians came up with their own creative take on Christianity, which included peyote ceremonies to help connect them to the spirit world.
Even the artwork in the missions incorporated the beliefs of the indigenous peoples. In Mission Concepción, the most well-preserved of all the missions, original frescoes still decorate the interior. In one of the rooms, I looked up to see a mustachioed face, surrounded by yellow rays, looking down at me.
The sun was considered a face of God for the native peoples. So it’s pretty cool that this image is in the mission. Here’s the not so great part: Because the Spanish were considered the masters, God was depicted as a Spaniard.
At least the Spanish worked with the Indians and offered something in return instead of just killing them, as happened so many other places.
As of 2015, the San Antonio Missions were named a World Heritage Site, and all still serve as active Catholic parishes for the community.
One More Mission: The Most Famous Of All
There’s one more mission in San Antonio. And it’s the most important one, at least according to Texas lore and pride. (Remember the Alamo?) We didn’t realize that the Alamo was not just a fort, but was originally the first of the San Antonio missions.
The Alamo is right in the middle of downtown, just a short walk from the River Walk. It’s a huge tourist attraction with all of the tourists and touristy trinkets that come along with being a tourist magnet. It’s completely unlike the other four missions, all of which have retained their mission-like dignity, peace, and beauty.
Nonetheless, this is a sacred place for Texans. It’s here that a pivotal battle took place in 1836, where the Texians fought for their independence from Mexico. For 13 days, less than 200 Texians defended the Alamo against more than 1800 Mexican soldiers. Although the Texas rebels lost the battle and their lives (including the legendary folk hero Davy Crockett), their sacrifice fueled the rebellion and helped to win the war, carried forward by the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo!”
Exploring San Antonio’s Gardens
Getting ourselves entirely off the River Walk, we spent part of a day exploring the delightful San Antonio Botanical Garden. Enormous glass pyramids house ferns and tropical plants, and paths wind through all kinds of different gardens and Texas landscapes. One of the most unique areas is a demonstration garden for wise-water usage, with six themed gardens that include tiny houses designed in keeping with the theme.
We also paid a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden. This had been on my list since I saw it on our friends Lisa and Han’s blog a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely garden created in the 1920s in an abandoned limestone quarry. The name was changed to Chinese Sunken Garden during WW II, for obvious reasons. And then changed back in 1984—although the entrance gate still reads “Chinese Tea Garden.”
We wrapped up our San Antonio adventures with a stroll through the King William Historic District, on the south bank of the San Antonio River. In the late 1800s, this was the most elegant residential area in the city and the homes have been beautifully preserved.
About the RV Park:
We stayed at the San Antonio KOA. It was fine, and our site backed up to a biking/walking path along a creek. It had all of the things you expect from a KOA—nice laundry, bathhouses, and a random assortment of activities, none of which we ever participate in. It was also quiet, dark at night, Verizon coverage is good, and it’s a 10-minute drive into the city (there’s also public bus transportation available).
Next time we visit San Antonio, we might try staying at Travelers World RV Resort. We biked past it on our way to the missions, and although the sites seemed close together, we were intrigued by the idea of staying right on the River Walk so that we can explore without driving at all in San Antonio.
Next Up: Birds, Historic Homes, and Beer: Galveston, TX