Beyond the Alamo in San Antonio August 26, 2009Posted by tracybarnett in San Antonio, Texas.
Tags: Pearl Brewery, Peter Greenberg, River Walk, San Antonio, Texas, West Side murals
There’s a touch of irony in the Alamo’s stature as the No. 1 stop on the San Antonio tourist trail. The Alamo was all about the battle to wrest Texas from Mexico. Though Santa Anna lost the war, he won the battle in San Antonio, and the Mexican spirit has prevailed – which is the other part of what people come to see. Hispanic influence touches everything: the art, the literature, the music, the cuisine, the activism. And that’s a huge part of what makes San Antonio so special.
In honor of Travel Detective Peter Greenberg, who has invited me to appear on his excellent travel show, Peter Greenberg Worldwide, I’ve put together a list of my favorite off-the-tour-bus San Anto sights and experiences. Listen to the podcast here, and browse Peter’s site for a wealth of travel news. Peter’s logged more miles than anyone I know, and amazingly, he finds time to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Long Island on the weekends. And please add your favorite San Antonio haunts in the comment section below.
To begin, you need to find out what’s going on in town when you arrive and drop in on an art opening, a poetry reading or a concert before diving into the sumptuous restaurant scene. Check the Downtown Blog and the Events Calendar by downtown denizen Ben Olivo of the SA Express-News and the events calendar of the San Antonio Current to be in the know.
* Main Plaza, scene of many free concerts, San Fernando Cathedral and the historic town square
* La Villita, another concert, festival and gallery venue amid San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood.
* Hemisfair Park, a lushly fountained and landscaped park created for the 1968 World’s Fair, is a quiet getaway where you can explore spectacular public art, drop by the Institute of Mexican Culture and take a ride up in the Tower of the Americas to have a drink and watch the sunset at The Chart House restaurant.
* King William District – The city’s German heritage and history is concentrated here, with mansions, galleries, and eateries (Azuca, La Foccacia, Cascabel, Gunther House, Mad Hatter Tea Room).
The West Side has a reputation that comes from its long history as a low-income area. But it’s also the birthplace of a vibrant arts scene, and the casual visitor will find a colorful, welcoming community full of Mexican and Chicano culture, authentic pride and some of the world’s best tacos. For me, the West Side is the true heart of San Antonio.
* Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a beautiful arts venue and culture center. Everything from the Tejano and conjunto music of San Antonio native Flaco Jimenez to the Latin American film festival to live teatro campesino can be seen here, and the gift shop is full of great finds. Here is where you’ll find the supersized Virgin of Guadalupe candle, a spectacular mosaic created by San Antonio artist Jesse Trevino. The artist, a veteran, lost his painting hand in the Vietnam War, and his struggle to express his vision has made him the beloved artist laureate of San Antonio.
* San Anto Cultural Arts Center: This nonprofit works with West Side youth to engage their energy in the arts. One outgrowth has been the fantastic collection of murals that you can see scattered throughout the neighborhood. Contact Ruth Buentello at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a mural tour.
* Zarzamora Street: Once you’ve seen the Guadalupe Center, continue down Guadalupe Street until you hit Zarzamora and go right. This will take you past dozens of brightly painted, hand-lettered family businesses from panaderias – old-fashioned bakeries, where you should stop and sample some pan dulce and breathe in the aroma of fresh-baked bread – and botanicas, Mexican-style herb shops where you can find anything from dried una de gato to santeria candles. Continue on to Culebra, where you’ll find the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower, on to Cincinnati, where you can stop at the little fruteria and have a fruit cup or a fruit-flavored raspa, the San Antonio version of a Sno-cone.
Turn left at Cincinnati and proceed until you see Woodlawn Lake, where you may want to park and stretch your legs, watch the families and the joggers and the fishermen. Rio Grande Tacos at the corner of Zarzamora and Cincinnati is my favorite mobile taqueria, where the tacos de lengua on handmade corn tortillas taste just like the ones in Mexico.
* Art galleries like Centro Cultural Aztlan also highlight the best of the area’s Mexican and Chicano culture. This gallery, together with other local arts groups, make the West Side the place to be for Dia de los Muertos, when the dead come to life in various funny and poignant performances. Another excellent West Side gallery is Bihl House Arts, a multicultural, multi-thematic gallery and performance/event venue located, interestingly, in a historic home inside a senior living complex.
* The new, expanded River Walk: The Museum Reach of the famous River Walk is now halfway finished, and is already a showcase for the San Antonio Museum of Art and the newly hip and happening Pearl Brewery Complex, where you can eat at the Texas Farm to Table restaurant, check out the goodies and listen to live music at theFarmer’s Market (on Saturday mornings) and shop at specialty boutiques like theMelissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina. Soon the river will also reach the Witte Museum and Brackenridge Park, two worthy destinations in themselves.
For now, you can hop onto Broadway to explore the park’s winding trails through lush old-growth forest, enjoy the public art, visit the spectacular Japanese Tea Garden with its waterfall, stone stairways and bridges, fantastic pagoda and poignant history. The beautiful San Antonio Zoo is also located here.
Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum in Alamo Heights – this retired plumber has done wonders with an entirely original medium. Call ahead for an appointment.
Also in Alamo Heights is the Alamo Quarry Market, an open-air shopping center in the site of the original quarry, source of much of the limestone that built San Antonio. In a nice historic touch, vintage machinery is worked into the landscaping to connect the modern hustle-and-bustle with times long gone.
St. Paul Square & Sunset Station – Just east of downtown, this events venue captures a slice of the picturesque Old West architecture, with a Spanish twist.
San Pedro Park, the second oldest municipal park in the country, offers the beautiful, bubbling San Pedro Springs, a large reflecting pool and a quiet refuge under the live oaks.
Across the street is the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which recently celebrated 20 years of its colorful fusion of the arts, Latino culture and activism.
The Monte Vista Historical District boasts as many beautiful turn-of-the-century mansions as the better-known King William District, plus it has a complex of fun and fancy restaurants by the chef-artist-entrepreneur-showman Damien Watel, a descendent of a chef to King Louis the XIV. Check them out here: Bistro Vatel, Ciao Lavanderia (a former laundromat), Ciao Vino (a former nail salon), and now the Bistro Bakery (the former Yarn Barn).
San Antonio’s south side, like the west side, is a showcase for Hispanic culture, but it has a slowed-down, much more rural, even agricultural feel to it. Some of the city’s best tacos are on South Presa at the Taco Haven. Mix and mingle with a colorful cast of locals and admire some beautiful murals, including one across the street depicting local hero Emma Tenayuca and the 1930s pecan shellers strike.
South Flores, affectionately referred to as SoFlo, is home to great galleries like Gallista and Salon Mijangos. It especially comes alive on Second Saturdays, when the area around those two galleries becomes a big street party.
The best part of the South Side, though, is the Missions – and the best way to see them is by bike on the San Antonio Missions Trail, a National Historical Park. Download your map here, rent your bicycle and a rack from Hank Estrada at Charles James Bicycle Co. on Main Street, and head on down to Mission Concepcion, where you can talk with the rangers, head to San Juan Capistrano, hike the trail to the river, head along the river to Mission Espada & Acequias. If you’re tight on time, you can make arrangements to rent a rack or have a shuttle service so you can start at Mission Concepcion, but call ahead and give two days’ notice for this service.
Mission San Jose is a little out of the way, so you may want to save it for last, or just drive there – give yourself at least an hour at this showcase, and stay for the beautiful 20-minute film narrated by bilingual Tejana songwriter Tish Hinojosa.
Outside the Loop:
Loop 410 marks a whole other layer of San Antonio, one that’s more modern and affluent in the north, and more rural and agricultural in the south.
North Star Mall is worth a gander, if nothing else for the world’s largest cowboy boots in front and visible from the 410 loop. The newer and more extravagant La Cantera is further afield but is drawing rave reviews from shoppers as well as visitors to its resort, and Artisan Alley near the airport is a fun and quaint reminder of the old-fashioned pedestrian village style.
For the more nature-inclined, a taste of Hill Country wilderness is available at the city’s beautiful natural areas, such as Freidrich Wilderness Area, Government Canyon, Eisenhower Park, Wilder Ranch, and Comanche Hill. On the south side, Mitchell Lake is a prime birding area, with more than 300 resident species.