The Riverwalk, History, Art and Lots of Walking. You're Guaranteed to Love San Antonio.
San Antonio is the city of hidden surprises. Its most unique feature is of course the four mile long River Walk, which draws an estimated 11.5 million visitors per year. The popularity of the area is readily apparent if you visit on a weekend. If you prefer exploring at a faster than moseying pace, the better time to visit would be during the week.
On both sides of the river you’ll find hotels, restaurants and bars alongside one hundred foot tall, shade delivering, cypress trees. The river itself is populated by a multitude of barges that offer 35 minute tours of the area. You can also book a dinner cruise or simply make use of the river taxi option. On a hot and crowded day, these river barges offer a welcome break.
The River Walk area was at one point destined to be covered up - a problem to be buried so the city could free itself of the constant fear of finding itself under water. After a disastrous flood in 1921, and after the option to cover up the waterway was discarded, it was decided a dam would be built north of the city and a flood gate would be installed at the start of the U-shaped bend that forms the downtown portion of the River Walk. A new channel was built that connected the two upper points of the U, allowing the water to safely bypass the vulnerable city center. This decision had a very fortuitous impact on the future economic welfare of the city!
As much of a draw as the River Walk is, San Antonio has a great deal more to offer visitors. Walking along the streets, you’ll discover beautiful architecture and bridges. You’ll need to make sure to look up every so often. Many of the buildings feature intricate carvings and other decorative features that you’ll miss if you only focus on street level views.
Also in downtown San Antonio, you can explore El Mercado, a Mexican market located in Market Square, and La Villita Historic Arts Village, a restored neighborhood just adjacent to the River Walk. Another area of interest is Main Plaza where you’ll find the San Fernando Cathedral. Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi in this cathedral in 1831, although it looked quite different then.
Make sure to schedule some time for seeing the Alamo. There are often long lines to get in, but even if you choose to forgo entering the main building, which used to be the mission church, walking along the living quarters and seeing the iconic church from outside is well worth it.
The City of San Antonio is planning an extensive redevelopment of the area surrounding the Alamo. The plan is to push the site back out to its original perimeter. Also included in the plan is the development of a new museum. Having just visited the other four San Antonio Missions, the Alamo appears as a bit of an outsider. It seems to have abandoned much of its historical heritage in order to take on its iconographic mantle as hero of the fight for Texan independence - a mantle that is most deserved but which sacrifices so much of what it originally was. Simply to have the church returned to what it was made to be, rather than a museum/gift shop, will be an experience to look forward to. A dedicated museum, potentially opening in 2024, will do justice to everything that this site represents.
Having just acquired its World Heritage Site designation in 2015, the five Missions of San Antonio have been receiving a great deal of attention. For those that arrive in San Antonio by plane and wish to visit the missions, an eight mile long hike and bike trail connecting the four missions south of the Alamo offers a perfect opportunity to reach them all. The trail is well maintained and follows the San Antonio River away from the city and through a landscape typical of this part of Texas.
Also on the River Walk, just south of the downtown area, is the King William Historic District where you’ll find some beautiful older homes built between the middle and late 1800s. It’s definitely worth a short deviation from the river path to see the neighborhood.
Depending on how much time you have available, a visit to the top of Tower of the Americas, for a view out over San Antonio and the surrounding areas, and to the adjacent Institute of Texan Cultures, to learn more about the many immigrant groups who settled in this region, is also highly recommended.
My final recommendation is to follow the San Antonio River north to the Pearl District. When the Pearl Brewing Company, which was established as City Brewery in 1883, was shut down in 2001, a plan was formulated for the development of a revitalized area of northern San Antonio. The area offers restaurants, stores, a park and the beautiful Hotel Emma. All this provides a nice reward at the end of a 70 minute walk from the downtown area, and some valuable sustenance before making the return trip. The walk itself is well worth the time as it offers numerous points of interest, including bridges, museums, art and even a lock where you can watch the river barges being raised and lowered.
San Antonio has a great deal to offer. I seem to discover something new every time I visit. It’s a city made for walking and for that alone, it has absolutely endeared itself to me.