After my time in Houston and Austin, there was one more city on my Texas itinerary. Just an hour on the train from Austin, I headed to San Antonio, where the Mexican-influence on the Lone Star State was more apparent than any other city yet. Unlike most stops on my cross-country USA trip, I didn’t actually have a full day off work here. So, my exploring was limited to which highlights of San Antonio I could squeeze into my mornings! I was staying at a cheap motel within walking distance of the city centre and able to cover a lot of ground with the time I had.
My motel was just a short walk from Hemisfair Park, so an easy place to pass by on my first morning in the city. The Tower of the Americas dominates the park, a huge tower with an observation deck on top. I didn’t go up it, but it was certainly striking from below. Hemisfair also houses a large convention centre and cultural institute. I wandered through Yanaguana Garden, surrounded by cafes and unique public artworks, as well as a playground. It was too early for many people to be around, but was a peaceful stroll as I headed into town. I joined the River Walk from Hemisfair, where it flows under part of the convention centre. Known as the Grotto, multi-coloured lights illuminate the water with cairn-like rock towers holding up the building overhead.
More on the River Walk in a second, but after walking a section of it from Hemisfair, I veered off onto the regular streets again. Partly to get a morning coffee, partly to check out the Alamo! Even if you don’t know much about Texan history, “The Alamo” probably sounds familiar from TV or movies. The Battle of the Alamo, fought between Texians and Mexicans in 1836, was a key event in the Texas Revolution.
The Alamo itself though is not a battle site, but in fact a small mission that still stands in San Antonio today. Founded in 1716 by Spanish colonial settlers, the mission led to the establishment of the city. Today, information boards in Alamo Plaza tell the story of both the mission and the battle. You can see the mission from outside and read the boards for free. Church entry requires a free ticket reservation and a tour or exhibition hall entry is paid. I didn’t have time for any of these, but it was cool to see the mission and plaza and experience a slice of history.
San Antonio River Walk
Now, back to that River Walk! I’d heard of this from a few people who named it as one of the highlights of San Antonio, but didn’t quite understand what it was. Essentially, it’s a looped section of the San Antonio River that is sunk down below the city street level. The river banks are lined with restaurants on some sections or just greenery on others and pedestrians can walk alongside the entire thing. From the Grotto back at Hemisfair, I first ventured through a section full of sculptures and public art. Even though it was morning, the tour boats had already started cruising by as well, with guides narrating the journey.
Further along in the centre of town, the busiest part of the River Walk is lined with dozens of restaurants. Many have outdoor seating by the river as well, so although the morning was quiet, it was bustling when I returned for dinner one evening. People flocked the streets, colourful lights danced over the water and margarita bars were overflowing. Even on a weeknight! In a country known for its car culture, it was nice to experience a green, pedestrianised area away from all the traffic.
San Fernando Cathedral
I hopped off the River Walk again at its western side, where the loop meets the main body of the San Antonio River. Here, I found Main Plaza, as it is so creatively named. San Fernando Cathedral dominates the square, an 18th-century Catholic church built by the Spanish. As well as the Mexican-influence, the colonial legacy of San Antonio is very prominent as well. Particularly in the architecture of older buildings like this and the Alamo. It wasn’t open yet to see inside, but I’ve been to my fair share of cathedrals before. After taking a peek round the square, I resumed the River Walk through its quieter southern stretch, once again lined with greenery and public art, to return to my motel for the day.
My motel was just south of a neighbourhood known as La Villita. As the name suggests, this area is like a small, historic village plonked in the middle of the city. A couple of blocks of cobbled pedestrian streets and cute shops and cafes, it feels like it should be out in the countryside! Both mornings I had in San Antonio, it was too early for most of the shops to be open, but I was able to go window shopping at least. This neighbourhood is known for its art scene, with plenty of galleries and independent boutiques to browse.
I also stopped for breakfast at La Villita Cafe one day, located in the middle of the enclave, as if it were the local neighbourhood cafe for a village. Which is exactly the atmosphere they’re going for I guess! La Villita is also right next to the River Walk, so as you exit the block, you reach an amphitheatre-like terrace heading down to the shore. The whole place was a really pretty, cosy corner of the city and definitely one of the highlights of San Antonio to check out!
Historic Market Square
On a similar vibe, looking for quaint, historic blocks, I also headed over to Historic Market Square. Another pedestrianised, cobblestone street, this time with colourful bunting flying in the breeze overhead. One side of the street is mainly restaurants with outdoor seating while the other is the main market hall. This indoor market is crammed with dozens of vendors, all boasting Mexican handicrafts and apparel. It was a riot of colour in every direction!
Although I was there early, it was already open, though many vendors were still just setting up. But I could at least go inside to wander the stalls – just to browse, I didn’t buy anything! The far end of the block also houses a Hispanic-American art gallery. Continuing the vibrant, artsy atmosphere I’d noticed throughout San Antonio in general!
Highlights of San Antonio
I really did have a whistlestop tour of the highlights of San Antonio in my short time there! Aside from going back to the River Walk one evening, my only other stop was Brown Coffee Co. This lovely cafe near my motel ended up functioning as my work station for a few hours after checkout on my last day in the city. Followed by a few hours of working at the airport – a new workplace for me! – before catching my flight west.
Anyways, since San Antonio is a small city, it was pretty easy to get a feel for it in just a couple of days. I enjoyed all the street art and bright colours everywhere, with a strong Mexican cultural presence marking it out against other cities I’ve been to. I’m not sure I’d be rushing back, since there was nothing I missed that I was too disappointed about. But if I ever were back in this part of the world, I know there’s plenty more San Antonio has to offer!