48 Hours in San Antonio, TX
A few months ago, a business trip took me to the southern Texas city of San Antonio. I was there for over a week, so had the benefit of a free weekend to look around. I suspect it is not a major holiday destination but as I discovered, it’s an interesting place and well worth calling in for a short stay. So, here’s my guide to what to do with 48 hours in San Antonio.
Firstly, stay in the downtown area if you can. I was just outside in the ‘burbs in a business district which was a bit soulless. And whilst an Uber into downtown was easy and cheap enough though, and the traffic wasn’t too bad on the Interstate, it’s not ideal.
The biggest San Antonio tourist attraction is, of course, the Alamo and so this is a pretty good place to start. This UNESCO World Heritage site was originally an old 18th century Spanish Mission that became famous for its iconic role in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico. Here in 1836, a group of 200 volunteer soldiers led by William Travis, James Bowie and David (Davy) Crocket held out for thirteen days against an onslaught from the thousands strong Mexican forces. Although their efforts were futile, the Battle of the Alamo became symbolic of Texan’s heroic resistance to oppression and the struggle for independence (which they won later that year). The names of Travis, Bowie and Crocket are now firmly written into history for their exploits as heroic Frontiersmen, and in Bowie’s case of course, also for the style of knife which he used to fight, now referred to as a Bowie Knife. Curiously, James Bowie’s fame is also responsible for the change of name of a singer in his early career from David Jones, to rock legend David Bowie. Now, why didn’t I know that?
The Alamo is now a small but really interesting museum and is free to get in. The buildings and gardens are very well restored and preserved and there are plenty of historical pieces on display. Interestingly, the museum collection was enhanced greatly in 2014 when the musician Phil Collins donated his extensive personal collection of Alamo artefacts.
From the Alamo, if you fancy a leisurely open tour, hop into one of the horse drawn carriages for a short ride around downtown area. I can’t vouch for the quality of these tours as I didn’t do one, but they look quite quaint, if a bit touristy. Otherwise, turn left out from the Alamo and head for the Tower of The Americas. This 230m observation tower is set in the middle of HemisFair Park and was built as the main attraction of the 1968 HemisFair World’s Fair. Pay a few dollars and go up in the elevator or try climbing the 952 steps to the top and you are rewarded with fantastic views over the entire San Antonio region. As well as plenty of large panoramic windows for views from the inside, if you don’t mind heights there is also an outside caged walkway that circles the top. After taking in the views there is a moving restaurant on the viewing deck where you could stop for lunch while the scenery slowly moves around you.
After lunch, take a leisurely stroll down the colourful and busy River Walk area where you can stop for a beer in one of the multitude of outdoor bars and do some people watching as brightly coloured tourist tugs chug along the river on sightseeing trips.
I didn’t do much shopping in downtown San Antonio, but there are a couple of places I found that were quirky and worth a look. The first was Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop, a retro-styled multi-coloured emporium of sweets, soda and retro memorabilia and gifts. The second, in complete contrast to Rocket Fizz, is the famous Paris Hatters, one of the oldest and best suppliers of Stetsons and other cowboy hats in the US. The staff are friendly and didn’t seem to mind a foreigner browsing and asking lots of questions. Since 1917 they have provided hats to all corners of the world, and to an enormous list of famous people including musicians, politicians, actors and royalty. As they say on their website “If It Ain’t From Paris Hatters, You Ain’t A Real Cowboy!”.
On day two, head west from the River Walk area for half a mile and you reach the city’s main plaza and the 18th century San Fernando Cathedral, a beautiful catholic church. Built in 1738, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in the US. Take in the views across the square and after a quick look around inside the cathedral, head round the back of the building to the Plaza de Armas and the fascinating Spanish Governor’s Palace. This small adobe and stucco house built in 1749 was home to the military Captain of the San Antonio Spanish fort. It is the only remaining example in Texas of an aristocratic 18th century Spanish Colonial town residence and is open as a museum.
Following the same road to the west just a little further you enter an area that feels as if you have dropped straight into a Mexican village. This bustling and chaotic market area is crammed with colourful bars serving authentic Mexican beer and cuisine and dozens of trinket shops and market stalls selling traditional Mexican crafts and goods. Throw in some brightly painted stucco buildings, a few street entertainers and musicians, and the smell of enchiladas in the air, and this feels a very authentic taste of Mexican culture (although I admit, I’ve not actually visited Mexico).
In amongst all the chaos is a traditional Mexican bakery that is worth popping into, if only to see its wonderfully colourful décor. Balloons, flags and bunting adorn every wall, strings of light bulbs hang lazily across the ceiling and coloured stars and tinsel dangle directly above your head. A brightly lit counter contains rows and rows of breads, fancy cakes and handmade Tamales. The scene is all the more crazy as the whole place is packed full of people.
After this overwhelming abundance of sight and sound, head around the corner to Viva Villa, a lovely traditional Mexican restaurant just around the corner, for some authentic Mexican tacos and a beer.
Before leaving San Antonio, it is worth heading back to the River Walk area in the evening. In the dark, the area takes on a slightly different feel. Colourful lights radiate overhead, the tourist tugs shine vibrant colours on the water, funky lights and neon signs shine out from the bars and the colourful awnings and umbrella adorn the streets. It’s a little bit Disney perhaps, but a very pleasant place to have dinner.
I suspect there is much, much more to do in San Antonio and I may not have done the city justice in this short article. However, it does feel that a two or perhaps three day weekend is enough to get the essence of this warm and friendly South Eastern Texas city.
Click on the pictures below to see the full size gallery photos of San Antonio
For more information about the Alamo museum see www.thealamo.org
Authentic Mexican cuisine at www.vivavillatacos.com
The world famous Paris Hatters www.parishatters.com