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SAN ANTONIO - A GEM IN THE LONE STAR STATE.
 
(2020 - Spring Issue)

Writer: ROBIN ROBINSON



At first glance, downtown San Antonio is not radically different than other cities, but another world awaits just steps below street level. The River Walk—a 24-kilometre  network of walkways along the San Antonio River—meanders through the heart of the city and beyond. Shaded by cypresses, oaks and willows, it’s a lovely, leafy urban oasis lined with restaurant patios, bars, small shops, hotels and stone bridges.

Quiet electric barges glide along the waterway. It’s worth climbing aboard for a narrated tour to learn a little about the landmarks and buildings along the river. Knowledgeable guides also dispense interesting tidbits. See goriocruises.com.

The River Walk is especially pretty at night, but it can be busy during holidays and festivals, and on warm afternoons and weekends. North and south of downtown, the Mission Reach and Museum Reach are seldom crowded and ideal for hiking, biking or kayaking.

The River Walk is only one of the city’s many unique features. There is a wealth of museums, restaurants and historical attractions. While it exudes a small city vibe, San Antonio, which is home to 1.5-million residents, is bigger than Dallas, bigger than San Francisco or Seattle, and bigger than Boston and New Orleans combined, yet it flies under the radar of most Canadian tourists. If you’re looking for a new, fabulous and fun destination, here are some suggestions:

A REAL GEM

For a city with history around every corner, San Antonio has a vibrant contemporary arts scene. This is largely thanks to the late Linda Pace, the philanthropic artist and daughter of the Pace Foods salsa founders.

Pace passed away in 2007, but her goal to create Ruby City—the $16-million-US contemporary arts centre that opened in October 2019—was brought to life through her foundation.

The Ruby City concept is said to have come to Pace in a dream. Upon awakening, she sketched her vision of a glowing red art space topped by turrets. Renowned British architect Sir David Adjaye was commissioned to make her dream a reality.

For Ruby City, Adjaye—whose major projects include Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—designed a 1,300-square-metre building clad in deep red concrete panels. Embedded with shards of red glass, the exterior panels shimmer in the Texas sun.

Inside, 900 works from Pace’s collection are showcased in three light-filled galleries. The opening exhibit—Waking Dream—includes paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and other works, including some by the late philanthropist.

With forest fires raging around the world, Heart of Darkness by artist Cornelia Parker is a particularly poignant installation that depicts a forest devastated by wildfire. Videos by filmmaker Isaac Julien—PLAYTIME and Stones Against Diamonds—are both visually stunning and thought-provoking.

Waking Dream continues until 2022. Admission is free. See rubycity.org.

RETRO COOL

Situated along the River Walk north of downtown, the former Pearl Brewery complex has been transformed from derelict industrial wasteland into what many call San Antonio’s hippest new neighbourhood.

The 9-hectare reimagined Pearl district is home to live/work spaces, unique boutiques, chef-owned restaurants, and cool cocktail lounges. New buildings have been erected and many original buildings have been renovated for new uses. The bottling plant is now a food hall with five restaurants and a bar. The administration building, where workers once collected their pay, is now an excellent charcuterie restaurant called Cured. The stable, which once housed the horses that pulled the brewery’s beer wagons, is now an events venue. The brewhouse has been revamped into the grand Hotel Emma.

Old brewery equipment has also been repurposed. Ammonia tanks have found new life as planters, enormous fermenting vats have been turned into funky bar booths, and instead of crystal prisms some chandeliers sport vintage beer bottles.

Food is a major draw. In addition to restaurants, there are coffee houses, a French patisserie called Bakery Lorraine, and the Texas campus of the Culinary Institute of America, where many Pearl chefs trained.

A weekend farmers’ market runs year-round. It’s chock-a-block with stalls selling local foodstuffs—honey, fresh produce, just-baked bread, cheeses, sausages, pickles, jams and more. During my visit there was a yoga class on the lawn, and a high-energy performance by the San Antonio Spurs’ co-ed dance team.

First-time visitors should make time for one of the free tours. Our knowledgeable guide Sissy Henges dished on everything from the tall tales of former brewery workers to the scandal of the three Emmas. But you’ll have to visit to hear about all that! See atpearl.com.

KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL

Delicious as they are, there is a lot more to the local food scene than Tex-Mex and barbecue, and we’re not the only ones who have noticed. In 2017, UNESCO designated San Antonio as a Creative City of Gastronomy (one of only two places in the United States to earn the designation). UNESCO deemed San Antonio’s culinary heritage to be significant for its confluence of European and Mexican cultures, as well as its geology and geography.

Now a new generation of creative chefs is pushing culinary boundaries even further. Here are a few examples:

•          With more than two dozen eating establishments within steps of each other, Pearl is a dining hub. Cured has a tasty meat-centric menu of organic, handcrafted cured foods from charcuterie to pickles while Botika’s eclectic menu features both “Chifa” (Chinese-Peruvian) and “Nikkei” (Japanese-Peruvian) cuisines. A delicious experience is guaranteed at CIA’s Savor, which has a prix fixe menu of fine dining options prepared and served by culinary students. See curedatpearl.com, botikapearl.com and savorcia.com.

•          Central San Antonio has many options. For breakfast, head to La Panaderia and fuel up on pan dulce (Mexican pastries) and handmade breads, or try the scrambled eggs with onions, jalapenos and chorizo on a slab of toasted birote bread. Pick up a few almond-tequila croissants or strawberry empanadas to go. Esquire Tavern is a local favourite with a new patio on the River Walk. The gastropub claims to have the longest wooden bar top in Texas. Mi Tierra, a landmark Mexican café-bakery situated at the Historic Market Square, serves traditional Tex-Mex and handmade margaritas 24/7. Waiters in traditional dress, mariachi performers, a huge mural depicting Latino celebrities and a shrine to the late Tejano singer Selena create a unique ambiance. See lapanaderia.com, esquiretavern-sa.com and mitierracafe.com.

•          For a deeper dive into the culinary scene, join “Food Chick” Julia Celeste for a small group or personalized tour. Options range from Tex-Mex to Anything But Tex-Mex to a Southtown Brunch Stroll and more. See foodchicktours.com.

•          Even the San Antonio Botanical Garden is food focused. It has a children’s vegetable garden, a culinary garden and an outdoor teaching kitchen. Fun foodie events include Vinyasa and Vino (yoga and wine tasting) and Date Night cooking classes such as the Honeybunch Brunch. See sabot.org.

MISSION POSSIBLE

Thanks to films and television, no visitor to San Antonio is likely to forget the Alamo. With some 3 million visitors per year, the site of the famous 1836 Battle of the Alamo is a top attraction. While the Alamo is certainly worth visiting, it’s only part of the larger San Antonio story.

In all, five Spanish colonial missions—Mission San Antonio de Valero (a.k.a. the Alamo), Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission San Francisco de la Espada—dot the banks of the San Antonio River. Together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Established by Franciscan missionaries in the early 1700s, these frontier fortresses are lasting remnants of Spain’s efforts to settle and defend New Spain. They also represent the first examples of cultural mingling between Spanish and Indigenous cultures.

Today, except for the Alamo, Catholic masses are still held regularly at the missions. The Mission Reach connects them, allowing visitors to hike, bike or even kayak from mission to mission. Entry is free and tours are available. See thealamo.org and sara-tx.org.

Travel Planner

For more information on visiting San Antonio, go to visitsanantonio.com.

Located on the River Walk steps from many attractions, the all-suite Hotel Contessa has a restaurant, an outdoor patio, a rooftop swimming pool and a spa. See thehotelcontessa.com.

 
 
 
 
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