City Cheat Sheet: San Antonio, Texas
The Scout Guide San Antonio Editor Francie Mannix stands in front of the San Fernando Cathedral in downtown San Antonio at Main Plaza. Photography by Lilianna Story.
On May 1, 1718, the Mission San Antonio de Valero—later known as the Alamo—was established, which means that San Antonio, Texas, is celebrating its 300th birthday this year. With the city’s birthday celebration week at the beginning of May coinciding with Cinco de Mayo (and coming on the heels of a two-week-long citywide Fiesta celebration), now is the perfect time to visit Alamo City. Within easy driving distance from all the major Texan cities, and with direct flights available from across the country, San Antonio is the perfect pick for an historic and festive weekend getaway. Here, native San Antonian, and Editor of The Scout Guide San Antonio and The Scout Guide Hill Country, Francie Mannix, shares the inside scoop on how to celebrate her hometown’s birthday like a local.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Emma (136 East Grayson Street) is a super-chic hotel housed in a renovated 19th-century brew house. (Emma was the widow of the brewery’s original owner, who ran the establishment during prohibition.) Located in the city’s hip, new pedestrian-friendly Pearl District, Hotel Emma is known for its rooftop pool and historic tavern and club room, the Sternewirth, which serves killer margaritas (their La Babia Margarita is Francie’s favorite).
For a more traditional yet luxurious lodging choice, try the opulent Saint Anthony Hotel (300 East Travis Street) in downtown San Antonio. Known as “The Waldorf of the South,” the Italian marble lobby and southern hospitality are both impeccable.
How to Experience 300 Years of History
“If you’re coming to San Antonio, you can’t miss the Alamo or forget to take a river walk,” says Francie. All throughout the downtown area of the city, visitors can walk along the canal and pop in and out of restaurants, bars, and shops. When you need a rest, Francie recommends hopping onto a river barge for a different view of downtown.
All of the city’s historic missions are also reachable along the River Walk’s Mission Reach, an eight-mile stretch of trails and parks along the river. Francie’s favorite mission to visit is Mission Concepción (807 Mission Road). It’s close to downtown so you can wear any pair of shoes you want while touring it, and the festive Mariachi Mass on Sundays shouldn’t be missed. When you need some air conditioning and a rest, pop over to the nearby neighborhood called La Villita, which is packed with fantastic shopping options and situated right next to the river and missions.
Lovers of history and architecture should include a visit to the centrally located San Fernando Cathedral (115 West Main Plaza), which was founded in 1731 and has the distinction of being the oldest standing church building in Texas. If you can time a trip to the cathedral after dark, step onto the city’s Main Plaza for an unforgettable 24-minute art projection on the structure’s magnificent facade called The Saga.
Francie is an art history buff, and San Antonio’s art museums have much to offer. In honor of the tricentennial, most of the city’s museums will be featuring special exhibitions. She recommends the San Antonio Museum of Art’s (200 West Jones Avenue) “San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico” on exhibit until May 13. Also worth visiting: The McNay (6000 North New Braunfels Avenue), which will be featuring two exhibitions to commemorate the tricentennial through June: an exhibition on City Parades and festivals and another that explores the culture of San Antonio’s Spanish colonial founders.
Where to Eat
It goes without saying that everyone has to have at least one Mexican meal when they come to San Antonio, but Francie cautions that the peppers down here are a little spicier than elsewhere in the state of Texas, so consider yourself warned. For an iconic San Antonio riverfront dining experience, nothing beats Casa Rio (430 East Commerce Street), which has ample al fresco seating and Francie’s favorite queso dip. Breakfast tacos are a signature item here, and Francie heads to Southtown, home to the city’s arts district, early for El Mirador’s (722 S. St. Mary’s Street) delicious take on the dish. Also in Southtown, Feast (1024 South Alamo Street) is known for its plentiful brunch. “Sit outside and order something sweet,” Francie advises.
If you want to stick with the centuries-old theme for a meal, then grab a table at San Antonio’s oldest restaurant, Schilo’s (424 East Commerce Street). It’s 100 years old and still has that old-world, Wild West Saloon vibe. Try the famous split-pea soup that Francie assures is worth ordering even on a hot day. For something more contemporary, The Maverick (710 South St. Mary’s Street) is a brand-new French brasserie with a Texas twist. Francie recommends ordering their mixed grill so you can sample all of the delicious meats and poultry prepared on their wood burning oven and rotisserie (the Texas Quail is a favorite). Looking for something a little lighter? Go to Cured (306 Pearl Parkway) in the Pearl District for a killer charcuterie plate.
Where to Unwind
After taking in the history and local celebrations, you’ll want to relax and perhaps enjoy a cocktail. Continue your historical tour at The Menger Bar (204 Alamo Plaza), located right next to the Alamo. This is the spot where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders would hang out at the turn of the twentieth century.
James Beard Award-nominated The Esquire Tavern (155 East Commerce Street) isn’t just a great place to grab a drink and a bite on the Riverwalk—it’s home to the longest bar in Texas. “Of course we’ve got to have everything big here,” Francie says. The good news is you’re sure to find a spot to belly up at the wooden bar top, which is more than 100-feet long.
After an afternoon of exploring the gorgeous new Pearl District, which is filled with a variety of independently owned stores—including The Tiny Finch, Leelee, Sporting District, Adelante, Vintage Heart—and fantastic restaurants, pop into Down on Grayson (303 East Grayson Street) for a delicious cold drink. Francie suggests sitting outside on their adorable patio and ordering the frozen Moscow mule. “You’ll never drink a regular mule again!”
For more insider’s tips on what to do and see in San Antonio, follow Francie on Instagram. Discover excellent independently owned businesses in San Antonio in the TSG San Antonio Directory, or order a copy of The Scout Guide San Antonio.