TThis is the latest in our twice-monthly series on underrated destinations, It’s still a big world.
Every city is known for something. When you think of Chicago, you might imagine Chicago-style pizza or The Bean. If you think of New York, perhaps Broadway comes to mind. And CC? I’m going to say, stagnation.
But which city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy? What city has its own two-week Mardi Gras-style party? Which city also has a huge cave system? What city might not be on your vacation bucket list, but should be?
San Antonio, Texas. That city.
While spending a few days in San Antonio at the invitation of its tourist offices, I found a place that surprises and enchants, and I’m not saying this just because I consumed my weight in food and drink while crossing its urban landscape.
While I was there, I learned that while Austin’s catchphrase is “Keep Austin Weird,” many San Antonio residents prefer the unofficial and less direct tagline for their city: “Keep San Antonio Lame.”
It’s not that San Antonio is really lame, at least not the way I experienced it. You just know what kind of city it is, spread out and spread out, laid back and not identified as one thing as “Live Music Capital of the World”.
That’s not to say that San Antonio isn’t known for certain things.
Say the name San Antonio, for example, and the first thing that comes to mind might be the Spurs. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t follow (…Google Spurs…) basketball. You also think of the River Walk, and for good reason. Like any big city, the streets of San Antonio come with the necessary sounds and scents, but when you walk down the steps from street level, you find yourself in a whole different world. It’s dinner by the river. It’s shopping. It’s romantic. It’s a party. And there is a lovely river and greenery running through it all.
But for those curious about the city, San Antonio is much more than a River Walk. If you don’t go exploring then you will miss out on a lot. Not being one thing, San Antonio has plenty for everyone.
First, San Antonio is history, a history that turns into a massive party.
I arrived at the start of Fiesta, a colorful, nearly two-week event-packed celebration of San Antonio’s heritage and culture that began in 1891. Often compared to Mardi Gras, Fiesta recalls the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. . , the latter that brought Texas independence from Mexico in 1836.
Everywhere I went, baristas, hotel staff, chefs, and Uber drivers would ask me, “Are you here for the Fiesta?” That was usually followed up with “there’s no party like it”.
But beyond this party, San Antonio is home to another side of historic Texas: five missions approximately 2.5 miles apart that summarize its strong historical roots in the Catholic missions of the Spanish border. The five missions of San Antonio, El Álamo (the best known), Misión Concepción, Misión San José, Misión San Juan and Misión Espada are connected by the Hike & Bike Trail that follows the river. Only four, not including the Alamo, are part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and are the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Texas.
The missions, which served as communities, even with defensive walls, reflect Spanish colonial architecture with a mix of other European and local influences. That architecture is a defining image of San Antonio’s history. Even my home away from home during my visit, Omni La Mansión del Rio, borrows that architecture and history in its facade and with its walled garden.
And this leads to another side of San Antonio: it’s the great outdoors.
The Hike & Bike trail offers a beautiful walk or hike to each of the missions. I picked up a rental bike at Blue Star Bike Shop in Southtown and was lucky enough to have a sunny day. The trail is lush and wildlife-friendly, and its soundtrack is the river. It’s just as easy to walk too, though it will take a lot longer if you’re going through the missions.
While on the Hike & Bike Trail, also consider stopping at Confluence Park. The park is a unique space to educate students in the community about rainwater, the river, and plant life. The park’s architecture is an active example of integrated rainwater harvesting not only in its porous parking lot, but also in the design of its structures.
This wasn’t my only bike trip while in San Antonio, which has plenty of bike trails to choose from. I also joined Mural Ride for a colorful street art tour of San Antonio. A comfortable, guided walk through the streets and alleys of San Antonio, your guides know each piece of street art, its details, and sometimes the artists themselves. It’s a fantastic trip that made me appreciate the hidden gems found around every corner of San Antonio.
But if a nature walk is more your speed, a must-see is the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy. The park has several trails that are great for bird watching, but it is also home to the Land Bridge, a highway-crossing bridge designed to look natural, allowing wildlife to cross on both sides of the park without having to do it. cross through heavy traffic.
And while you stroll through nature, check out the sustainably built San Antonio Botanical Garden. The architecture of the garden is designed to conserve resources, especially water. There is also a birding trail for those birders who want to add new bird species to their list on the eBird app. Keep an eye out for the pale orange eyes and pink feet of the Egyptian Geese, an invasive species in the area first established by wealthy individuals last century to decorate their ponds. They were once considered sacred in Ancient Egypt.
If time permits, visit the peaceful Japanese Tea Garden, also known as the Sunken Gardens, in Brackenridge Park. The large open space has walking paths that allow visitors to see it from any angle. When you arrive, you may notice that it says “Chinese Tea Garden” at the entrance. During World War II, it was feared that something labeled “Japanese Tea Garden” would be vandalized, so the name was temporarily changed. (And that somehow worked?)
But if you’re looking for an underworld adventure, I highly recommend checking out Natural Bridge Cavern. Discovered by four college students in 1960, the cavern has become the largest cave system in Texas. Tours are available. There is also a 60 foot aerial adventure consisting of ropes and zip lines.
So yes, San Antonio has an outdoor life for just about everyone.
But ultimately, and this can’t be said enough, San Antonio is about food: a diverse and flavorful culinary scene. With a campus of the Culinary Institute of America in the Pearl District along the River Walk, this UNESCO creative city of gastronomy is no joke. It is the second city to earn that designation in the United States. Every chef I met praised the food community and diversity of the city and the camaraderie of the chefs in promoting that food culture.
My week was booked for food, starting with Nola Brunch & Beignets. Co-owner and chef, Pieter Sypesteyn was born and raised in New Orleans. His mother was from Texas and he spent his childhood in his parents’ restaurants.
The menu at Nola embodies that New Orleans undertone and captures the color and life of Bywater: My brunch was the cajun boudin chilaquiles, which have chipotle sauce, lemon curd, fried egg with arugula, and queso fresco. Lemon curd stuffed fritters, which I now dream about every night, are a wonderfully bright way to start the day.
Nola is part of “A Taste of New Orleans,” which celebrates the music and food (gumbos, red beans and rice, Creole shrimp, etouffee, shrimp kabobs, jambalaya, Cajun catfish) of New Orleans in San Antonio.
From then on, my week in the city was a series of tables at some of the city’s best restaurants.
If you’re staying downtown and want breakfast, El Buenos Dias (egg whites, avocado, bacon, turkey, tomato, lettuce, and cilantro mayonnaise) at La Panaderia is good to fuel your day. They also have a wide selection of breads, sandwiches, and pastries. Just give yourself extra time because there is often a line.
For lunch, Botika at the historic Pearl, the work of Venezuelan chef-owner Gerónimo López, offers a window into the intersectionality of Chinese-Peruvian food (Chifa) and Japanese-Peruvian food (Nikkei) and the Burgerteca del chef Johnny Hernandez in Southtown. , takes the American burger to new levels by incorporating the flavors of Mexico, such as the Oaxacan beef patty, black mole, black beans, chopped red onions, avocado and queso fresco. After a bike ride along the Hike & Bike Trail, stop before you drop off your bike and grab their unforgettable Cucumber Margarita, which is perfect for hot days.
If you’re looking for a happy hour break, be sure to stop by the lounge at Hopscotch, where you can grab a cocktail from the bar and venture into their quirky, immersive and experiential art gallery. It’s fascinating even when you’re not drinking.
For dinner, DASHI Sichuan Kitchen + Bar, the son of owners Kristina Zhao and Executive Chef Jian Li, offers delicious new takes on classic Sichuan dishes, and Boudro’s Texas Bistro blends a Riverwalk vibe with a fine-dining menu, anchored in fresh Gulf Coast fish and firmly planted in the Texas steak tradition.
All of my gluttonous feasts led to the kickoff of Fiesta with Taste of the Republic, hosted at The Good Kind in Southtown by owner Tim McDiarmid, aka Tim the Girl, James Beard Fellow and Food Network Chopped Competitor. The Good Kind is a hidden gem whose small building belies its quiet, green garden space where you can enjoy healthy, responsibly sourced food and cocktails. It was the perfect location for The Taste of the Republic.
A VIP event, chefs who participated in Taste of the Republic take on a menu that honors the six culinary regions of Texas identified by Chef Brian West.
The West divides Texas cuisine into regions: South Texas is classic Tex-Mex, Central Texas is Texas-style barbecue, North is Texas steak, Gulf is seafood stripped down, West Texas is red chile and East Texas is where the Muscat grape is found. it is native and you will find wild grape jellies.
So yes, there is more to San Antonio than meets the eye, but if wild city-wide partying, world-renowned historic sites, and a lively food scene is what makes San Antonio boring, then I really don’t want it to be. be it. Just relax.