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Fun, fabulous San Antonio

All photos courtesy Visit San Antonbio

The River Walk has been expanded by nearly 13 miles. New bicycle paths leading to historic missions have opened. Where the defunct Pearl Brewery sat for years, a thriving new neighborhood has emerged, with buzzworthy restaurants and shops. For a town with three centuries behind it, San Antonio is looking downright spry, offering visitors and locals plenty of things to see and do.

1. Join the Fiesta

Fiesta Fiesta

San Antonio’s annual “party with a purpose” began in 1891 to honor those who fought at the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. The 11-day festival in April features elaborate parades, including a dazzling boat procession on the San Antonio River. The always-fun festivities kick off with Fiesta Fiesta in Hemisfair Park, featuring cuisines from several Texas regions. Other Fiesta highlights include Charreada, an authentic Mexican rodeo (pictured above), and the San Antonio Symphony’s Fiesta Pops show at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, featuring mariachis and ballet folklórico performers. Night in Old San Antonio, a local favorite that takes place in the city’s oldest neighborhood, La Villita, entices revelers with delicious food, from pan dulce to bratwurst. Don a flower crown, crack a cascarón, dance the polka, and enjoy the multicultural merriment.

2. See The Saga

The award-winning 24-minute light show four nights a week on the front of San Fernando Cathedral is not to be missed. Created by French artist Xavier de Richemont, the 7,000-square-foot projection on the 18th-century cathedral—one of the oldest in the United States—tells the story of San Antonio and is accompanied by hypnotic drumbeats, flutes, and polkas that pay homage to indigenous tribes, missionaries, and other settlers. See it for free at 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

3. Take in epic views

Tower of the Americas

San Antonio’s 250th birthday party came with a 750-foot-tall candle: the Tower of the Americas (210-223-3101). It was the theme building for HemisFair, the 1968 World’s Fair that drew 6 million people to the city and ushered in an explosion of new businesses and tourism. At that time, Tower of the Americas was the tallest observation tower in the U.S. and remained so until Las Vegas’ Stratosphere snatched the title in 1996. The tower remains a great place to take in spectacular views of the city. Buy a ticket that includes all-day elevator rides to the Observation Deck or enjoy a meal or a cocktail at Chart House, the revolving restaurant on top (pictured above).

4. Spend the day at the Mercado

From the colorful papel picado dancing in the breeze to the countless vendors hawking street corn, T-shirts, and luchador masks, El Mercado, or Market Square, is the largest Mexican-style market in the U.S. Among the culinary highlights is Mi Tierra Cafe (210-225-1262), a family-run business that dates to 1941. It’s worth a look inside just for the explosion of holiday lights and outrageously kitschy Mexican decor. Better yet, linger for a breakfast taco or a slice of tres leches cheesecake. 

5. Stroll the river’s treasures

River Walk

The San Antonio River Walk began as architect Robert H.H. Hugman’s dream and came to life as a 1938 Works Project Administration endeavor. Now extending 15 miles along the San Antonio River, the River Walk breathes romance into San Antonio and gives the city its identity as the “American Venice.” These days, the walk is also home to compelling art installations. Among them:

Philadelphia artist Donald Lipski’s F.I.S.H., a school of luminescent sunfish suspended under the Interstate 35 overpass near Camden Street; Belgian artist Arne Quinze’s Whispers, which features large, colorful metal shapes that grow out of the landscape near Mission San Juan; and the poetic inscriptions etched in the walls near Main Plaza—a collaboration between landscape architect Rosa Finsley and artist Celia Muñoz.

6. Pay homage to Selena

Legendary singer Selena lived in Corpus Christi, but locals are quick to tell you that San Antonio was her second home. Her life was tragically cut short in 1995 at age 23, but Selena’s star burns bright here, as evidenced at spots throughout the city. Probably the most photographed bridge in San Antonio, the Selena Bridge was featured in the 1997 Selena biopic starring Jennifer Lopez; it arches over the River Walk by the Omni La Mansión del Rio at St. Mary’s Street. Other Selena stops include Hard Rock Café (111 W. Crockett Street), with memorabilia inside and her star outside; an altar dedicated to her at Mi Tierra Café; and Sunset Station (1174 E. Commerce Street), where Selena recorded the video for "No Me Queda Más."

7. Explore the missions by bike or kayak

Concepcion San Jose

Not many 20-mile bike routes give you the opportunity to stop and explore 18th-century Franciscan missions along the way, but you can do just that in San Antonio thanks to the 2013 River Walk expansion. Rent a bike from the San Antonio Bike Share (210-281-0101)—the first of its kind in Texas—and pedal your way down the paved paths on either side of the San Antonio River. The four missions designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site—Concepción, San José (pictured above), San Juan, and Espada—are all within 7 miles of one another on relatively flat terrain. Since the 2013 expansion, which included kayak-friendly paddling chutes along the river, you can kayak the 8-mile stretch of the Mission Reach. Kayak and bike rentals and organized trips are available through Mission Adventure Tours (210-383-0872). This park area of San Antonio is peaceful and lush, with herons that fish from the river and flowers growing wild along the path.

8. See what’s growing

The San Antonio Botanical Garden (210-536-1400) expanded by 8 acres in 2018. New spaces included a welcome building, expanded garden areas, and high-tech learning spaces. Visitors can check out the Goldsbury Foundation Pavilion and CHEF (Culinary Health Education for Families) Teaching Kitchen. The kitchen features cooking demonstrations and chef-led culinary classes such as “Sprouts and Spritzers,” which uses ingredients harvested from the 1-acre Culinary Garden. In March 2018, the Family Adventure Garden sprang to life with 2-1/2 acres of creeks, fairy huts, and a Prickly Pear Peak for children to explore.

9. Explore the Pearl

Set among the more than 100-year-old industrial brick buildings that once housed Pearl Brewery, this buzzy 22-acre neighborhood is home to innovative restaurants, hip boutiques, a Culinary Institute of America campus, and the spectacular Hotel Emma. Stroll the car-free paths and you’ll find budding chefs hurrying to class in smart white coats, kids playing on the lawn, twice-weekly farmers markets, and plenty of locals shopping and dining—all just 2 miles from downtown.

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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