Just what is so unusual about the River Walk that meanders through the heart of San Antonio? Well, actually everything.
Tucked one story beneath street level, every few steps along this pedestrian waterfront city park bring a visitor to another attraction. Included are museums, historic theaters, outdoor restaurants, public art installations under the bridges overhead, hotel lobbies, shopping centers and the beauty of the lush landscaping. Along one stretch, the open-air Arneson River Theater stage offers live performances for audiences on the opposite river bank.
One way to explore the 15-mile linear park that follows the San Antonio River is aboard a narrated cruise along the downtown portion of the waterway. Parallel sidewalks along each side offer a pleasant walk, as long as visitors are mindful that there is no barrier between the sidewalk edge and the water. Sections farther away can be explored by kayak, canoe or even inner tube.
At night, the ribbon of water becomes a fantasyland of color. Tour boats are illuminated with multicolored lights that reflect off the water alongside the twinkling lights of the waterside restaurants. Strolling mariachi bands entertain as visitors “menu shop” and dine, while others stop for ice cream.
Every few hundred yards along the River Walk are stairs leading up to street level, including a walkway to the Alamo. Established in 1724 in its present location by members of the Franciscan Order as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, today more than 2.5 million people a year visit the 4.2-acre site where the humble stone chapel known as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” is located.
The Alamo attained iconic status after a 13-day siege fought early in 1836 between approximately 4,000 Mexican men and about 180 American rebels fighting for Texas’ independence from Mexico. Defeated and annihilated after a valiant defense, other Texans took up the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” in subsequent victories that led to independence as an American state in 1845.
The River Walk also has “portals” to four additional missions that collectively form an 819-acre World Heritage Site designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an area of outstanding importance to the heritage of humanity. The missions San Juan Capistrano, Espada, San José and Conception all date to the late 1700s and were set up by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church to establish Spanish communities. Other than the Alamo, each remains an active church with weekly services. Mission San José, completed in 1782, draws crowds to its musical mariachi mass every Sunday.
Of course, San Antonio has a plethora of other attractions, too. The compact but excellent San Antonio Zoo allows visitors to come extraordinarily close to the animals. The San Antonio Museum of Art (alongside the River Walk) showcases 5,000 years of art in a connected complex of buildings that was once the Lone Star Brewery. Western art is on display at the Briscoe Museum, where collections of art and artifacts present the story of the American West.
The McNay Art Museum is partly a work of art on its own. Partly housed in a 24-room, 1927 Spanish Colonial-Revival mansion centered around a courtyard, the home remains in use as gallery space while the institution has been expanded with the addition of several galleries and outdoor space for monumental art installations. The impressive modern art collection includes work by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe and other notable artists.
Dinosaur bones, cave drawings, state-of-the-art dioramas and collections in natural history, science and South Texas heritage are the purview of the Witte Museum.
Just outside San Antonio, and almost 200 feet under the Texas Hill Country, Natural Bridge Caverns offers tours of stalactite and stalagmite-choked chambers, with some formations towering a spectacular 80 feet. Next door, Wildlife Ranch offers a “drive-through safari” where visitors can feed herds of animals from all over the world by dropping food (supplied at admission) outside the car window. However, the zebras, llamas and emus apparently have not read the rules, and do not hesitate to stick their snouts inside the car.
An hour drive leads to the reincarnated ghost town of Gruene (pronounced Green), offering boutique shopping and musical entertainment at Gruene Hall. The hall has survived 141 years since opening in 1878, even enduring the Depression and local economic disasters when the boll weevil attacked the local cotton crop. The 6,000-square-foot, white frame building still has the original layout featuring a long bar in the front and a stage centered on a huge dance floor in back. Musical acts perform daily, and it has become a venue for up-and-coming, as well as established artists such as Willie Nelson and George Strait.
It is always intriguing to stay in an historic hotel that serves as a connection to an area’s past, and long before the River Walk was conceived, the St. Anthony Hotel was attracting visitors. Constructed in 1909 by three prosperous cattle ranchers on ground once used as a garden plot for the nearby Alamo, the hotel’s rooftop perimeter features an outline of the historic mission.
The St. Anthony underwent an extensive renovation in 2015 when all rooms and public areas were updated with modern touches that do not interfere with the classic elegance of a bygone era. Architectural and historic tours are given upon request, and each room contains a 150-page book documenting the hotel’s history. Today it is one of only 17 hotels in the United States marketed under The Luxury Collection by Marriott.
The St. Anthony lobby bar enjoys its own history. In the late 1960s, Herb Kelleher was there enjoying a drink with his friend Rollin King. King proposed they start an airline that would allow Texans to fly between San Antonio, Houston and Dallas less expensively than driving. The triangular route was sketched on the bar napkin.
“Rollin, you’re crazy,” Kelleher is said to have responded, adding, “Let’s do it.” The result was Southwest Airlines. The bar is now a “pilgrimage” for airline employees.
For more information, see visitsanantonio.com/