Mention San Antonio, and you’ll hear, “Don’t miss the River Walk!” It’s true. You really don’t want to miss the River Walk. It’s the centerpiece of the city and a lovely place for a stroll.
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.
Beginning our week in San Antonio on the River Walk, with plenty of elbow room
January was a wonderful time to visit. I doubt you could see the mosaic during high-tourist season.
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.
Late winter reflections on the San Antonio River
An intricate mosaic of San Antonio’s Missions and other historic buildings on the River Walk
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.)
A delicious shrimp salad, Nicoise style
There’s a lot of art to discover along the River Walk
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.
Strolling the River Walk in the Museum Reach area
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.
Fish art on the River Walk on the way to the Pearl Brewery complex
Cured restaurant in the Pearl District; originally an administrative office for the brewery, circa 1903. RVing friends Laura and Kevin told us about this little gem.
Lunch at Cured: Kale salad with dried cherries, toasted pumpkin seeds and watermelon radish. The second course was grass-fed beef chili with pumpkin. All accompanied by tasty local IPAs.
Dessert. We first had Lick Honest Ice Cream in Austin and were delighted to find it again at the Pearl Brewery complex.
Some unique flavor choices. Not so sure about the roasted beet ice cream, but I can vouch for the goat cheese ice cream with thyme and honey.
The Pearl Brewery Complex by night
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.
Biking the Mission Trail on the south section of the River Walk (16 miles round-trip)
Mission Concepción, the most historically intact of the missions
Inside Mission Concepción
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.
Fresco in Mission Concepción
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.
Original interior frescoes
Mission San José
Inside Mission San José
The convento at Mission San José
Indian dwellings at Mission San José, with a traditional stone outdoor oven
Mission San Juan, currently being restored and not open for tours
Mission Espada, the fourth and last on our bike tour
The rustic and beautiful entrance to Mission Espada
Inside Mission Espada, a much simpler mission than the other three
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!”
The Alamo, right in the middle of downtown.
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.
January is spring gardening time at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens
In the Fern Grotto
Piney Woods cabin along the Texas Native Trail
A tiny house (Spanish courtyard style) in the Water Saver demonstration gardens
And a big purple chair
A fairy house in the children’s garden
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.”
Japanese Tea Garden San Antonio
Stone pavilion in the tea garden
Overlooking the 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.
Beautiful home in the King William Historic District
Another beautiful home in the King William Historic District (but I don’t want one. Too much to keep up with).
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.
Our site at the KOA San Antonio RV Park
Next Up: Birds, Historic Homes, and Beer: Galveston, TX