San Antonio Travel Guide

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San Antonio Travel Guide

San Antonio Local History

On June 13, 1691, feast day of St. Anthony of Padua, Spanish explorers came upon a wooded plain fed by a fast-flowing river. They named the river San Antonio de Padua, after the saint's day on which they arrived. When, some decades later, the Spanish Franciscans proposed building a new mission halfway between the ones on the Rio Grande and those more recently established in east Texas, the abundant water and friendliness of the local population made the plain near the San Antonio River seem like a good choice.

So it was that in 1718, Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo, was founded. To protect the religious complex from Apache attack, the fortress of San Antonio de Bexar went up a few days later. In 1719, a second mission was built nearby, and in 1731, the east Texas missions were moved hundreds of miles to the safer banks of the San Antonio River. In March 1731, 15 weary families arrived from the Spanish Canary Islands, and established the village of San Fernando de Bexar. Within little more than a decade, what is now downtown San Antonio became home to three distinct, though related, settlements: a mission complex, the military garrison designed to protect it, and the civilian town known as Bexar, which was officially renamed San Antonio in 1837.

As the 18th century wore on, the missions came continuously under siege by hostile Indians, and the mission Indians fell victim to a host of European diseases. By the end of the 1700s, the Spanish mission system itself was nearly dead. In 1794, Mission San Antonio de Valero was secularized, its rich farmlands redistributed. In 1810, recognizing the military potential of the thick walls of the complex, the Spanish authorities turned the former mission into a garrison. The men recruited to serve here all hailed from the Mexican town, named their station Alamo (Spanish for "cottonwood tree"). 1824, all five missions had been secularized and Spain was, once again, worried about Texas. With Apache and Comanche roaming the territory freely, it was impossible to persuade any Spaniards to live there. When land agent, Moses Austin arrived, in San Antonio in 1820, the government reluctantly gave him permission to settle some 300 Anglo-American families in the region. By 1830, however, the Mexicans were growing nervous about the large numbers of Anglos descending on their country from the north.

When, in 1835, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna abolished Mexico's democratic 1824 constitution, Tejanos (Hispanic Texans) and Anglos alike balked at his dictatorship, and a cry rose up for a separate republic. The first battle for Texas independence fought on San Antonio soil fell to the rebels. From February 23 through March 6, 1836, some 180 volunteers (among them Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, serving under the command of William Travis), died trying to defend the Alamo fortress against a vastly greater number of Santa Anna's men. One month later, Sam Houston spurred his troops on to victory at the Battle of San Jacinto with the cry "Remember the Alamo," thus securing Texas's freedom.

San Antonio Attractions

Top Attractions

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park - The missions were originally established by the Franciscans along the San Antonio River to Christianize the native population. The four missions that now fall under the aegis of the National Parks Department are still active parishes, run in cooperation with the Archdiocese of San Antonio. The missions were more than churches; they were complex communities, and the Parks Department has assigned each of them an interpretive theme to educate visitors about the roles they played in early San Antonio society. The first mission, Concepcion (807 Mission Rd. at Felisa), was built in 1731 and is the oldest unrestored mission in Texas. San Jose (6539 San Jose Dr. at Mission Road), was established in 1720, was the largest, best known, and most beautiful of the Texas missions. The beautiful Rose Window is a big attraction, and popular mariachi masses are held here every Sunday at noon. This is also the site of the missions' excellent visitor center. You can visit the missions separately, but if you have the time, see them all. San Juan Capistrano (9102 Graf at Ashley), has a peaceful, spiritual aura, and San Francisco de la Espada (10040 Espada Rd), has an ancient, isolated feel. Admission to the Mission Park is free, but donations are accepted. Headquarters: 2202 Roosevelt Ave; Visitors Center: 6701 San Jose Dr. at Mission Rd. Tel: 210/534-8833 or 210/932-1001 (visitors center).

San Antonio Zoological Gardens and Aquarium - Considered one of the top facilities in the country because of its conservation efforts and its successful breeding programs. It is home to more than 700 species, and has one of the largest animal collections in the United States. The zoo has expanded and upgraded its exhibits many times since opening in 1914. The cages are small and the landscaping looks rather droopy, but parents will appreciate the fact that they will not run into an expensive gift shop around every corner. Admission: $7 adults, $5 children ages 3-11, children under 3 free. Boat rides $1. 3903 N. St. Mary's St. Tel: 210/734-7183.

Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum - This museum is one of the favourite places in the city to visit. This sprawling Spanish Mediterranean-style mansion was built in 1929, and has a good art collection. There is at least one work by most American and European masters of the last two centuries. The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, including costumes, set designs, and rare books, is outstanding, and the Museum also hosts major traveling shows. You can stroll the beautiful 23-acre grounds dotted with sculpture and stunning landscaping, view the 15-minute orientation film about oil heiress and artist Marion Koogler McNay, or visit the gift shop. Admission is free ($5 suggested donation). 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave. Tel: 210/824-5368.

The Alamo - Texas's most visited site and the symbol of its turmoil-filled history. This is a "must see" when visiting San Antonio. Do not expect something dramatic, however, you will likely be surprised to discover that the site is not only rather small, but that it also sits in the heart of downtown San Antonio. You will immediately recognize the graceful mission church, from having seen endless images of it from the moment you land in any Texas airport. A Wall of History, erected in the late 1990s, provides a good chronology of events that had great historical value in the development of San Antonio. Little remains of the original mission today; only the Long Barrack and the mission church are still here. The Long Barrack houses a museum detailing the history of Texas in general, an information desk and small gift shop. A larger museum and gift shop are at the back of the complex and there is a peaceful garden and an excellent research library on the grounds. Interesting historical presentations are given every half hour by Alamo staffers. Free admission (donations welcome). 300 Alamo Plaza. Tel: 210/225-1391.

Ritas Fiesta Cafe Rita's is a great place to visit if you want traditional Mexican Food. The portions are huge and the prices are low and it is conveniently located near downtown and St. Mary's University. The food is always good and the family atmosphere and service are great. On weekends there is sometimes even live music!
submitted by Janisa Camacho, 26/06/07

San Antonio Shopping

Most out-of-town shoppers will find all they need in downtown San Antonio. For bargains on brand labels, you should head out to New Braunfels and San Marcos, home to three large factory outlet malls. There is a number of terrific flea markets over weekend and you will be able to pick up some terrific gifts, fresh food produce and other interesting articles. The large Rivercenter Mall houses boutiques and crafts shops, while you can choose from the colorful Mexican wares at Southwest School of Art and Craft. On and around Alamo Plaza there are assorted retailers and galleries, with more avant-garde boutiques and galleries, including Blue Star, found in the adjacent area known as Southtown.

Alamo Fiesta - Here you will find a huge selection of Mexican folk art and handicrafts, everything from tinwork to colorful masks and pinatas, at extremely reasonable prices. 2025 N. Main. Tel: 210/738-1188.

Saks Fifth Avenue - This department store has the high-quality, upscale wares and attentive service one would expect from a Saks Fifth Avenue. 650 North Star Mall. Tel: 210/341-4111.

Market Square - Competing for your attention are more than 100 shops and pushcarts, eight restaurants, and an abundance of food stalls. The majority of the shopping booths are of the border town sort, filled with onyx chess sets, cheap sombreros, and the like. 514 W. Commerce St. Tel: 210/207-8600.

San Antonio Activities

San Antonio Children's Museum - The children's museum offers a terrific, creative introduction to the city for the pint-sized and grown-up alike. Activities range from crawl spaces and corn-grinding rocks, to a weather station and radar room. Exhibits feature a miniature River Walk, a multicultural grocery store, a bank where kids can use their own ATM, and even a teddy bear hospital. Do not miss this place if you are traveling with children up to age 10. Admission $4; children under 2 free. 305 E. Houston St. Tel: 210/21-CHILD.

Plaza Wax Museum & Ripley's Believe It or Not - There is plenty for kids to enjoy at this attraction. The walk-through wax Theater of Horrors, although tame compared to Friday the Thirteenth-type adventures, usually elicits some shudders. At Believe It Or Not, youngsters generally get a kick out of learning about people around the world whose habits (such as sticking nails through their noses) are even weirder than their own. This two-for-one attraction offers entertainment to children and adults alike and makes a good family activity. Admission: Either attraction $12 adults, $4.95 children 4-12; both attractions $16 adults, $7.95 children 4-12. 301 Alamo Plaza. Tel: 210/224-9299.

The Texas Adventure - The world's first Encountarium F!X Theatre retells the battle for the Alamo with special effects that include life-size holographic images of the Alamo heroes and cannon fire roaring through a sophisticated sound system. Admission:$8.95 adults, $5.50 children 3-11 (includes IMAX theater admission), free for children under 3. 307 Alamo Plaza. Tel: 210/227-8224.

San Antonio Parks & Gardens

Brackenridge Park - The city's main park serves as a popular center for recreational activities such as golf, polo, biking, and picnicking. It houses the Japanese Tea Garden, created in 1917 by prison labour. Here a brick smokestack and a number of the old lime kilns can still be seen among the beautiful flower arrangements. Just to the southwest, a bowl of limestone cliffs (found to have natural acoustic properties) was turned into the Sunken Garden Theater. Among its lures are a 60-foot-high waterfall and water lily-laced ponds. The Park is also home to the Brackenridge Eagle, a miniature train that replicates an 1863 model. You can buy tickets for a pleasant 2-mile ride through the park, that takes about 20 minutes. Tickets: $2.25 for adults, $1.75 for children 3-11. Main entrance 2800 block of N. Broadway. Tel: 210/207-3000.

HemisFair Park - The Park is a urban oasis, boasting water gardens and a wood-and-sand playground constructed by children. Among its indoor diversions, are the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Tower of the Americas. Be sure to take a look at the striking mosaic mural by Mexican artist Juan O'Gorman, at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. Also worth checking out is the Schultze House Cottage Garden for its heirloom plants, varietals, tropicals, and xeriscape area. HemisFair, Located at 514 HemisFair Park, behind the Federal Building. HemisFair Park is bounded by Alamo, Bowie, Market, and Durango Streets.

San Antonio Botanical Gardens - This gracious 38-acre garden is home to everything from south Texas scrub to Hill Country wildflowers. Examples of Texas architecture, fountains, pools, and paved paths provide visual contrast to the flora. Formal gardens include: a garden for the blind, a Japanese garden, a herb garden, a biblical garden, and a children's garden. The most outstanding is the Lucile Halsell Conservatory complex, a series of greenhouses replicating a variety of tropical and desert environments. The 1896 Sullivan Carriage House serves as the entryway to the gardens. It houses a gift shop and a restaurant offering salads, quiches, sandwiches, and outrageously rich deserts. Admission: $4 adults, $1 children 3-13, children under 3 enter free. 555 Funston Street. Tel: 210/207-3255.

San Antonio Restaurants and Bars

During its early days, San Antonio was populated by diverse groups with distinct goals: Spanish missionaries and militia men, German merchants, Southern plantation owners, Western cattle ranchers, and Eastern architects. All have left their mark, both tangibly on San Antonio's downtown and subtly on the city's cuisine. No self-respecting San Antonio festival would be complete without Mexican tamales and tacos, Texan chili and barbecue, Southern hush puppies and glazed ham, and German beer and bratwurst. San Antonio has more than 90 barbecue joints, a long-time local favourite.

No one really knows exactly where chili originated, but San Antonio is the prime candidate for the distinction. Chile gained universal popularity in the mid-1800s when the "chili queens" of San Antonio stirred up vats of succulent stew to sell at the military plaza. William Gebhardt helped strengthen San Antonio's claim to chili fame when he began producing chili powder in the city in 1896. Oddly enough, chili is not generally found on San Antonio restaurant menus, but there is not a weekend that goes by without a chili cook-off somewhere in the city. This is also a city where you can sip on the best cactus margaritas and local tequilas.

San Antonio Restaurants

Panchito's - 4100 McCullogh Ave. Will have you lining up (with the San Antonio locals) on weekend mornings for barbacoa plates, heaped with two eggs, potatoes, beans, and homemade tortillas. A breakfast not for the faint hearted. There is also good the Mexican-style barbecue to choose from. The prices are reasonable and the beverage list, quite diverse Tel: 210/821-5338.

Estela's - 2200 W.Martin St. Has mariachi breakfasts on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 to 11:30am. This restaurant specializes in tacquerias, and is clearly a favourite with the locals. It accommodates a great conjunto/Tejano jukebox to set the atmosphere and is a spot not to be missed. Tel: 210/226-2979.

Rudy's - 24152-10 West at the Leon Springs, Boerne Stage Rd exit. Cowboys, bicyclists, and other city folk come from miles around, for what they insist are the best pork ribs, brisket, and turkey legs in town. Not only is the food of good quality, but the prices will also fit your budget. The crowd is a diverse group of cultures and the atmosphere is cozy and warm. Tel: 210/698-2141.

Schilo's - At a convenient location near the River Walk, this spot offers a wide selection of familiar food. With prices far lower than anything you will find here, this German deli a good choice for a lunch.

San Antonio Bars & Clubs

Blue Star Brewing Company Restaurant & Bar - 1414 S.Alamo no. 105.The popularity of this brewpub in the Blue Star Arts Complex with college kids demonstrates the transcendent power of good beer. The food is good and the pale ale is especially fine. Tel: 210/212-5506.

Howl at the Moon Saloon - 111 W. Crockett Street. Having a good time is easy at this rowdy River Walk bar. The dueling piano players, plays off-key oldies from the '60s, '70s, and '80s and the atmosphere is relaxed and vibey. The margaritas are top class and there is a extensive list of wines to choose from. Cover: $4 Sun-Thurs, $6 Fri-Sat. Tel: 210/212-4695.

Tex's - 611 NW Loop 410.Come to Tex's if you want to hang with the Spurs. Regularly voted as the best sports bar in San Antonio. Three satellite dishes, two large-screen TVs, and 17 smaller sets keep the bleachers happy, as do the killer margaritas and giant burgers. Tel: 210/340-6060.

San Antonio children's activities

San Antonio Children's Museum - The children's museum offers a terrific, creative introduction to the city for the pint-sized and grown-up alike. Activities range from crawl spaces and corn-grinding rocks, to a weather station and radar room. Exhibits feature a miniature River Walk, a multicultural grocery store, a bank where kids can use their own ATM, and even a teddy bear hospital. Do not miss this place if you are traveling with children up to age 10. Admission $4; children under 2 free. 305 E. Houston St. Tel: 210/21-CHILD.

Plaza Wax Museum & Ripley's Believe It or Not - There is plenty for kids to enjoy at this attraction. The walk-through wax Theater of Horrors, although tame compared to Friday the Thirteenth-type adventures, usually elicits some shudders. At Believe It Or Not, youngsters generally get a kick out of learning about people around the world whose habits (such as sticking nails through their noses) are even weirder than their own. This two-for-one attraction offers entertainment to children and adults alike and makes a good family activity. Admission: Either attraction $12 adults, $4.95 children 4-12; both attractions $16 adults, $7.95 children 4-12. 301 Alamo Plaza. Tel: 210/224-9299.

The Texas Adventure - The world's first Encountarium F!X Theatre retells the battle for the Alamo with special effects that include life-size holographic images of the Alamo heroes and cannon fire roaring through a sophisticated sound system. Admission:$8.95 adults, $5.50 children 3-11 (includes IMAX theater admission), free for children under 3. 307 Alamo Plaza. Tel: 210/227-8224.

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