Imagine, if you will, that you are a contestant on the game show Jeopardy.  You choose the category “Surprising Cities” for, say, $400.  Mr. Trebek prompts you with, “This city’s famed Riverwalk is a pleasing fusion of Europe, Mexico, and the mystical Elvish realm of Rivendell.”  Faster than a quick draw in an old western, you whack the buzzer and say…

“What is San Antonio?”

Congratulations!  You nailed it!  (And with that single correct answer you’ve just won enough money for a single night at Mokara Hotel and Spa on the Riverwalk – not including taxes.)

But why “surprising”, you may be wondering.  Two reasons, actually.  First, nearly a year ago I canvassed my readers for travel suggestions when the husband and I couldn’t agree on a destination for our 20th anniversary celebration.  To simplify things, I presented a list of choices, but a pseudonymed commenter – later revealed to be my sister – went rogue, ignoring my list and suggesting San Antonio instead.  She noted some of its more well-known features, though they weren’t known to me, and I became intrigued.  That’s where the first surprise occurred… my subsequent research on Texas’ second largest city left me surprisingly taken with the idea of visiting.  Never before had a Texas city been granted “must-see” status on any of our travel lists.

IMG_5956
Percent chance I’d let him wear one of these in Minnesota?  Zero.

Second, I’ll admit I’ve not always been impressed by some of the Texans I’ve encountered on my travels.  Loud and brash are the adjectives that most often spring to mind.  Of course, not all Texans are like that, just like all Minnesotans aren’t “Minnesota Nice,” but, deserved or not, Texans do have a certain reputation, at least up here in the north, and most of my experiences hadn’t contradicted that bias.  Thus, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we flew from the North Star State to the Lone Star State.  This is where the second surprise occurred… it almost didn’t feel like we were in Texas, or at least the Texas of my imagination.  Ten-gallon hats, six shooters on every hip, loud personalities, and other stereotypes were practically nonexistent.  There were charming y’alls*, of course, it was hot, and there was a definite Tex-Mex feel to the city, but that’s about it.

*Daily y’all tally:

  • Day 1: 1 y’all
  • Day 2: 3 y’alls
  • Day 3: 4 y’alls
  • Day 4: 4 y’alls

Anyway, enough preamble.  Let’s get to my impressions of San Antonio.

Riverwalk: This is the first thing people mention when I ask if they’ve visited San Antonio.  The comments have been, without exception, glowing, and I can’t disagree.  The blended feel of Europe (sidewalk cafes and canals), Mexico (food, language, and art), and Rivendell (Lord of the Rings fans, you know what I’m talkin’ about) had me gushing, “This place just oozes charm!” several times on our first day alone.

In fact, the husband loved it so much that within a day of being there he declared a sudden desire to relocate and began looking up home prices on Zillow.

Riverwalk (31)
The husband peppered this Riverwalk guide with pointless questions about living in San Antonio.  Pointless because I’m not moving there.

Everywhere you look, there are artistic little touches.

In short, if he were alive today, I’d hug Robert Hugman, the architect and visionary behind the Riverwalk.

Shopping: The two main areas closest to the Riverwalk are La Villita and Market Square.  The former – bordering the southeast corner of the Riverwalk and a little more upscale – has small boutique shops, but the area was practically deserted on a Thursday afternoon.  The latter – several blocks to the west of the Riverwalk – was also dead on a Thursday, but much livelier during a return visit on a Sunday.  Full of Mexican items, the shops sell everything from kitschy T-shirts to ceramic ristras to leather goods.

Brackenridge Park: We walked through more than half of this large park to get to its Japanese Tea Garden and our assessment is that it could be so much more.  Perhaps it was the time of year, but it just looked dry, flat, and dull.  Perhaps San Antonio sinks all its funds into the Riverwalk.  Perhaps we shouldn’t judge because we didn’t see all of it, but judging it we are.  On a more positive note, the Japanese Tea Garden was delightful.  Replete with an interesting, if sad, history, this free and colorful garden is much closer to what the whole of Brackenridge Park could be if it wanted to.  Unwilling to spend $20 to buy a five-picture photo permit, I’m going to rely on the San Antonio Parks Foundation website (https://saparksfoundation.org/japanese-tea-garden/) to provide the visuals:

Pearl area: Accessed via a beautiful section of the Riverwalk heading north, this district boasts shops and restaurants with a welcoming, somewhat hipster vibe.

Historical sites: Though we merely walked by the Spanish Governor’s Palace and the San Fernando Cathedral, we did take a proper look around the Alamo.  We eschewed an audio guide, which was probably a mistake, since we honestly didn’t know that much about the Alamo.  The husband, British native that he is, can probably be forgiven.  I, however, took American History in high school.  We solved our ignorance problem in the gift shop by reading some of the children’s books about the Alamo.  Though still not erudite on the subject, we can now recite the basics at least as well as any ten-year-old.

Governor's Palace
Spanish Governor’s Palace
San Fernando Cathedral (16)
The cathedral, whose façade acts as the canvas for the Saga Light Show, houses the remains of many who died at the Alamo.
Alamo (3)
The Alamo is free to visit.  We had been warned of long lines, but crowds were not a problem on a Thursday afternoon.

People:  The people of San Antonio – from runners on the Riverwalk, to hotel employees, to Uber drivers, to waiters, and everyone in between – can be described in one word – friendly.  The sentiment can then be re-emphasized in three words: Very, very friendly.

Food/Restaurants:  The traveler maxim that you have to get out of the touristy areas for the best food holds true in San Antonio.  Though we had good food on the Riverwalk, it was expensive.  Granted, we were paying for the ambiance, too, and I wouldn’t skip any of the meals we had among the multicolored umbrellas, twinkling lights, and tropical greenery, but getting off the Riverwalk led to some dynamite repasts in unique venues.

La Villita (1)
I never mentioned it in Not a Stellar Trip, but discovering molcajete was the only good thing to come out of that travel nightmare.  Ergo, I was delighted to find it again in Alamo City.
Augie's BBQ
Augie’s BBQ didn’t disappoint, though I could have done without the grocery store sandwich bread and environmentally unfriendly styrofoam serving dishes.
Pete's Takos
We stumbled upon Pete’s Takos quite by accident.  Best tortillas ever.  Best refried beans ever.  Full of locals.  I’m even willing to overlook the purposeful misspelling of Tacos.  Things like that drive me nuts.

We went into Bombay Bicycle Club purely due to the whimsical name and signage.

Bombay Bicycle Club (1)

This has led to a new travel rule: The quirkier it seems, the faster you run toward it.

Miscellaneous:

  • Crosswalks: The city has the most bizarre crosswalks I’ve ever seen.  Cars in all four directions are stopped simultaneously to let people cross vertically, horizontally, and diagonally.  Connect 4, anyone?
  • Recycling: A recycling bin just for pizza boxes.  Interesting.  Where we live, pizza boxes are welcomed into the bin of diversity with the plastic, glass, and metal.

San Antonio (1)

  • Tree roots: I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but we saw lots of them in San Antonio.  Those aren’t meerkats at the base.  They are the roots poking up.

Riverwalk (81)

  • Reminders of Arsenal: Can you believe it?  While running south of the main Riverwalk area we happened upon Arsenal Street.  The husband’s desire to move to San Antonio suddenly transitioned to a powerful yearning.

In the end, we never made it to the Mission District, the botanical gardens, or the Tower of the Americas.  The Saga Light Show I had so wanted to see was closed temporarily due to technical problems.  (I can feel a “How many Texans does it take to change a light bulb?” joke coming on…)  Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, and the winery-studded Texas Hill Country are all within easy driving distance of San Antonio but not within the scope of our short visit.  Do you see where I’m heading with all this?  We will be back, and if the eagerness of two previous Texas skeptics to return to the Lone Star State doesn’t convince you that San Antonio is worth visiting, I don’t know what will.

30 thoughts

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed San Antonio as much as you did, y’all. I agree that getting away from the Riverwalk is how you find the best food. Gotta laugh, we looked up home prices, too, while we were there. It seems like it’d be a good place to live, perhaps retire to?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you draw a line from the top of the US to the bottom of the US that goes straight through Denver, you are demarcating the eastern boundary of everything we want to be near, at least in retirement. If we live in San Antonio, we are literally no closer to the western US that we love than if we stay here in MN. I’m pushing for Albuquerque myself. P.S. I love Legolas. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We’d love Colorado, but are pretty sure it’s out of our price range. Also, the winters are milder in ABQ. We want to be close to: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, Washington state, Oregon, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. There, I think I got the whole of the western US. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We love the southwest. NM is the husband’s favorite state. ABQ is a great city with both desert and mountain landscapes. Santa Fe would be even better but, like CO, out of our price range. It’s a decent driving distance various places in CO. (Currently we’re a 13-hour drive just to Denver alone, and we never go to Denver… always past it.) I’ve read recently that it’s a decent place to retire. Still, retirement is a LONG way off, so much could change in the ensuing years…

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      3. I just read it. Sounds lovely. The husband and I are both teachers, so we get to “practice” retirement for about 3 months every summer. We will have NO PROBLEM making the transition to endless weekends (as you clearly are not) once it finally arrives.

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  2. Wow, there seems to be so much more depth to Texas than I have previously given credit. How many days did you spend there? Did you have a rental car? I am considering a vacation for winter break (more like a break from winter) and feel like I may throw San Antonio into the mix!

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  3. My husband and I enjoyed a trip to San Antonio many years ago, but didn’t get too far afield like you did (since it was a side trip from Austin – which I highly recommend – we didn’t have much time). As I remember, we thought that the Alamo was a bit of a nothing burger, but I’m a bit cynical about the victors writing the history books. I’m astounded at the audacity of charging $20 for the “privilege” of taking five photos of the park… yikes! I’m glad you had a great time. One of theses days, we may make a return visit too.

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  4. Esteemed architect of the world of travel, you may be getting a bit over your ski tips on life in Texas. Austin is civilized and interesting. San Antonio is unique and well-designed. The two towns accounts for .0173 percent of the area of the state and approximately 58 percent of people with advanced educational degrees. Almost everyone in those two cities can read and write. The definition of conceal and carry there is keeping your kale and celery soup under your jacket so it doesn’t get cold.

    Once you step out of such a bubble of civilization, the shock can be disorienting. You need to face such issues as what gun to wear to church. (Will the Ruger clash with your tan jacket?) Do you congratulate first cousins on their coming betrothal? Do you need to knock out some of your front teeth to avoid looking “showy”? Is it acceptable to comment on the number of cars without wheels in your neighbor’s yard? It can all be a bit tough for a Northerner, to say nothing of the adjustment required for a Brit.

    If there is one thing I hate, it is stereotyping. However, be careful with Texas. It ain’t all Y’all’s and Takos. And make sure that your gun collection includes enough fashion choices! Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I’m sure there are people in Texas who would HATE the thought that I’m judging TX by those who live in San Antonio. They’d probably call them “damn liberals” or some such thing. Hilarious comment and yet more proof that you should start your own blog.

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  5. “The quirkier it seems, the faster you run toward it.” That is honestly my travel motto right there!! Hahaha. Also love your y’all tally, and the fact you compared the Riverwalk to Rivendell!! That makes me really want to go back haha. Looks like you had a fantastic time!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve wanted to visit for some time, it looks like a nice city so I’m glad you enjoyed it! I enjoyed Texas on my sole visit, I’ll have to remember to take a y’all count next time though.

    Interesting to see ‘Bombay Bicycle Club’ feature too, was there any connection to the band of the same name? I’m not sure if you’re familiar with them? They’re an English band so possibly not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about you when we were down there. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe right on the Riverwalk!

      The husband said Bombay Bicycle Club rang a bell when we came upon the place, but we’re not familiar with it. No idea if it has anything to do with the band. I wonder…

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