Exploring beautiful, historic San Antonio
Taking a flight of steps down from the city streets makes you feel you’ve entered the world of some old Spanish fable in San Antonio’s Paseo del Rio, or River Walk. Ancient trees spread over the water of canals that don’t seem to be flowing anywhere. Flowers bloom in carefully planted patches around palm and cypress trunks. The sidewalks, some paved in stone, don’t suggest there is any need to hurry.
Tables by the water’s edge invite you to sit in the sun or shade and enjoy a meal and watch other tourists walk by. A pigeon might join your table. A mallard might hop out of the river and waddle near your chair. Tour boats motor past with passengers listening as the driver describes landmarks along the way.
Originally designed to divert overflow from the San Antonio River and prevent flooding, the Paseo has become a top travel destination due to the efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and many others. The canal is wide enough to allow plenty of sunshine, but the water cools the area from the heat of the Texas sun. The American Society for Horticultural Science named this a Horticultural Landmark in 2004, and in 1993 the Association of Engineering Geologists gave it the Outstanding Environmental and Engineering Geological Project Award.
River Walk restaurants Restaurants along the canal have indoor and outdoor seating and range from Tex-Mex to Italian to French to barbeque. One of these is The County Line, which serves ribs, burgers, barbeque platters, grill items, sandwiches and salads. The house Smoked Pecan Vinaigrette is tasty. The barbeque sauce is sweet and smoky.
Diners at Mexican Manhattan enjoy a balcony view of the River Walk. The restaurant serves Mexican dishes at a reasonable price. The waiter explained that the cabrito dinner of “tender young goat topped with tomato and onion sauce,” according to the menu, would be delicious. He warned us, “You don’t want to get horns waggled at one of those places that serve old mutton.” We avoided being horns waggled and had a fine-tasting assortment of enchiladas, tamales, tacos, guacamole and rice. Mexican Manhattan also offers riverboat dinner cruises.
River Walk accommodations Twenty-four downtown hotels are adjacent to the River Walk. Some have balconies overlooking the water. Several are historic landmarks, on the National Registry of Historic Places, or Texas historic landmarks.
The Alamo memorial The stairs up to street level at the northeast corner of River Walk takes you to the most famous historical site in Texas: the Alamo. This is an easy place to visit because of its open grounds and free admission. The site is run without government assistance by The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, so donations are welcome.
Park staff know their history and will patiently explain the politics surrounding the Alamo attack, as well as the difference between the Spanish, Mexican, Texian, Tejano and American groups involved. They can describe the battle as if they’ve seen it. Artifacts from the era and area are displayed, which include weapons and other possessions of the combatants.
The historical significance of the mission is enhanced by its landscaping. Alamo horticulturalist Mark Nauschutz says, “We want to provide a park-like atmosphere once people leave the museum.” Nauschutz and his crew have won numerous awards, including Landscape Maintenance Project of the Year. The Alamo grounds have been listed as one of the Top Ten Public Lawns, and Nauschutz has been named one of the Top Ten Grounds Managers in the U.S. and Canada. He adds, “We provide lawns and bedding plants that show off the beauty of our [Texas] plant materials.”
Since the battle of the Alamo took place for 13 days at the end of February into early March, costumed re-enactments take place annually during that time of year.
Hotels near the Alamo The Alamo site and plaza are surrounded by elegant old hotels, such as the Crockett Hotel that overlooks the Palisade section of the mission, where Davey Crockett fought and died.
“You should come and see the Hotel Indigo at the Alamo,” a maintenance worker suggests. When a painter proudly tells you about the hotel where he works, it piques your curiosity. “You’ll learn a lot of history. You can see the original walls of the Alamo there,” he adds. The desk receptionist is happy to talk about the accommodations at this inn that rests atop the site of some of the heaviest cannon fighting in the 1836 battle.
Cruz Rodriguez, the director of food and beverages at this boutique hotel, has plenty of personal history in San Antonio. He remembers when the hotel was an office building where his parents took him to the dentist. Now he owns the on-site restaurant, 1909 Bar and Bistro. “This will always be the Gibbs Building. It was the first high rise in San Antonio. These Indigo Hotels are not cookie-cutter. We’ve done historic renovation with a southwest flair,” he says. The rooms have warm hardwood furniture and flooring, with bright fabrics on the beds and curtains.
Rodriguez adds, “Our staff learn some of the history of the area,” since the hotel overlooks the Alamo and is the former homestead of Samuel Maverick, one of the few survivors of the siege.
Two blocks east of Hotel Indigo, and across from the Alamo’s north wall, is The History Shop, dwarfed by the Emily Morgan Hotel. Antique weapons, books, documents and maps are for sale. But it’s the $5, 12 minute, Alamo re-enactment diorama that makes a visit to the shop worthwhile. It adds depth to an Alamo tour, and is short enough that even an antsy grandchild could stand still for it and get a better understanding of what happened across the street almost 200 years ago. The events of the battle are narrated by D. Almaraz, Jr. and pop musician Phil Collins.
San Antonio’s population is well over a million. It is a tourist destination for about two million people a year, so there are numerous malls, historic sites, sports venues, and dozens of golf courses. Some attractions include Mission Trail, Six Flags over Texas, Sea World, the Alamodome and the Governor’s Palace.
If You Visit: Comfort: Pack comfortable shoes for walking along stone pavers in parts of River Walk. Hotel costs go up and the area gets crowded on weekends. Be prepared to climb a flight of stairs or find an elevator or ramp.
Accessibility: There are 16 elevators and five access ramps from the street down to the central core of River Walk. Go to sanantonio.gov/DTOPS/ and check the banners for “River Walk Maintenance.” From the drop down choose “Disability Access Map.” It shows the ramps and elevators, some of which are in hotels, the mall and convention center. The Downtown Operations phone number is (210) 207-3677.
According to Judy Babbitt, manager of the Disabilities Access Office, the city “really works hard to accommodate people. We have a taxi service on the river. The barges have a ramp that goes down into the boat. People with scooters can leave them at a ticket booth, take a round trip and come back to get them.”
Safety: There are vagrants on River Walk and in the downtown area surrounding it. There are also many park police patrolling by boat, bicycle and on foot to allow visitors to walk around unmolested by day or night. Walking alone at night is not advisable.
Getting Around: The streets are tangled with multidirectional curves, one ways and name changes. Get good directions to your hotel or restaurant. Some downtown restaurants offer valet parking for $20, which also seems to be the going rate for hotel parking, per night. City ramps are also available for a fee. Hotels near the airport and at other locations away from the River Walk may have lower rates and offer free parking.
The San Antonio Visitor Information phone number is (210) 207-6700 or (800) 447-3372. The Alamo’s website is www.thealamo.org, and the phone number is (866) 769-8419.