Hey folks! I grew up in San Antonio, and moved back once my kids were grown. I’m a big fan of the place, and love to play tour guide with friends and family. While everyone knows about the Riverwalk, there are a huge variety of other wonderful places to visit and experiences to have. Here are some of my favorites:
San Antonio Botanical Gardens
If you like plants, or just being in beautiful places, it’s hard to beat the botanical gardens. Recently expanded, the site features a food garden, a simulated hill country stream for kids to play in, spectacular modernist greenhouse structures, an overlook from one of the highest points in town, a bird blind, a stone-enclosed amphitheater (which used to be the city’s first reservoir), and rotating art installations. Jardin, the onsite mediterannian restaurant, is also well worth a visit. This is one of our favorite places to bring out-of-town guests.
Founded on a donation of land by George Brackenridge, this park has played home to swimming holes, boating franchises, polo clubs, bicycle and horse racing tracks, and a gondola ride. While those are all things of the past, its current incarnation is no less worth a visit. The San Antonio Zoo is beautiful, with lots of native limestone construction courtesy of the Works Progress Administration, and a fine collection of animals. (Plus, my youngest daughter works there!) Kiddie Park has long been a birthday party destination for the 10-and-under set and recently relocated from its old home on Broadway to a tract right next to the zoo. The Zoo Train is a three mile miniature railroad that travels around the park; it is a great way to see the area, and is notable because in 1970, it was held up at gunpoint — the last train robbery in Texas history. The Japanese Tea Garden is a beautiful Asian-style garden with a tea house nestled into a former limestone quarry; it’s a rare day you won’t see young ladies decked out in their quinceañera finery taking photos here.
Other City Parks
Woodlawn Lake Park is an urban oasis with a lighthouse and a great view of downtown. It is home to the city’s Independence Day celebrations, hosts radio-controlled sailboat racing most Sunday afternoons, and has a ramp where you can toss in a kayak and paddle around. Elmendorf Lake Park teems with riparian wildlife, has some lovely public artwork, and is linked to Our Lady of the Lake University, the oldest accredited University in San Antonio. Phil Hardberger Park is named after a former mayor, and hosts 7.5 miles of largely-wooded walking trails, plus the Robert L.B. Tobin Land Bridge, which straddles Blanco Road, connecting the two sides of the park for both humans and wildlife. Denman Estate Park is notable for a beautiful Korean pavillion that graces its walking trails. San Pedro Springs Park is the second-oldest city park in the US, and features a theater, tennis center, library, and a body of water surrounded by enormous cypress trees that’s a city pool in the summer and a lake the rest of the year. Friedrich Wilderness Park and McAllister Park also have excellent hiking opportunities.
The San Antonio Museum of Art has a varied collection and enjoys a site right on the river built into an old brewery. The McNay, situated on a beautifully landscaped site not far from the Botanical Gardens, used to be a private home but was donated by its previous owners. It’s got a superb collection (including a work or two from one of our sculptor neighbors). The Witte used to have a reputation for being “San Antonio’s Attic” due to the odd collection of items that locals had donated to it over the year, but it’s well worth a visit these days. It’s also notable because you can reach it by parking in Brackenridge Park and taking the Zoo Train over to the Witte.
Formerly home to the Pearl Brewery (one of the first to start delivering beer again once prohibition ended), The Pearl is now a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use area with excellent shops, restaurants, performance venues, cafes, and The Hotel Emma, San Antonio’s only 5 star hotel. It hosts farm and maker markets on the weekends, and is located right on the banks of the river, with Brackenridge Park only a short distance upstream. Look for Lick Ice Cream, Bakery Lorraine, The Twig Book Shop, Ladino, Supper, and Jazz, TX.
Everyone knows about The Alamo. (If you’re going around the Riverwalk and find the Hyatt, just walk through the lobby, through the water garden behind the hotel, and pop up to street level to and you’ll be there.) While it’s best known for its role as a fort, The Alamo was originally Mission San Antonio de Valero — one of the five missions established by Spanish Fransiscans in the late 17th century. All five have recently been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and each has its own charms — Mission San Jose shows what community life was like, Mission San Espada has a striking and distinctive bell tower, several are served by the acequia canals that the settlers engineered, and all are still home to active Catholic congregations. One can comfortably visit all of the missions in a day.
There are several surprising places around town to toss in a kayak. Though folks seldom do so, the city permits it at both Woodlawn Lake and Elmendorf Lake Park. The Mission Reach Paddling Trail is an 8 mile stretch of the San Antonio River equipped with canoe chutes, so one needs to plan for take-out separately from put-in. (The first 3-4 miles is terrific, the later bits are tougher going.) And there is a section of the river in the historic King William District where boating is permitted as well — a fine choice if you like historic old homes.
Well, of course I have to include it. But beyond the central loop that everyone thinks of, there are wonderful stretches upstream and downstream.
For a lovely five mile walk, park at The Pearl and head downstream, past the San Antonio Museum of Art, the locks that raise and lower the riverboats, and several public art installations to the old section of the riverwalk. Go around the loop, and then head back upstream to where you started. (This is known as Museum Reach.)
For a less-developed stretch, park at the Blue Star complex, get a drink at Halcyon or a paleta at Burgerteca, and head downstream on foot or on a bike. You’ll pass Confluence Park, with its spectacular soaring concrete arches, and can continue downstream to the missions. (This is Mission Reach.)