SAN ANTONIO — This city is known for the Alamo and the River Walk, and rightly so, but don't stop there. The small downtown is packed with interesting sites, and visitors can easily get around by trolley and river taxi. Beyond the city limits, Texas Hill Country beckons those with access to a car.
—STEP INTO THE PAST
The Alamo is smack-dab in the center of downtown. Even if you have a car, leave it at your hotel — parking is hard to find. The trolley runs every 10 minutes and costs only $1.10.
Admission to the Alamo is free. For an overview, catch one of the free history talks given in the courtyard daily at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more details, rent a video tour or pay for a battlefield tour.
During their final battle in 1836, the Alamo's defenders holed up in the Long Barrack along the compound's northern wall. That barrack is now a museum. "Here the fighting was brutal and hand-to-hand," said Bob Tschirhart during the history talk. (thealamo.org)
Although the Alamo is the best-known of San Antonio's Spanish missions, it is just one of five built along the San Antonio River from 1718 to 1749. The other four — Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada — make up the San Antonio Missions National Park. You can drive, hike or bike among them, or take a public bus. Mission San Jose houses a visitors' center, and all four offer cellphone tours in English and in Spanish. In addition, all four are active Catholic parishes that hold church services. (nps.gov/saan)
Back downtown, the San Fernando Cathedral, right off the Main Plaza, is an active church and a historic site. A marble coffin near the door holds the remains of the defenders of the Alamo, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. (sfcathedral.org)
The Spanish Governor's Palace is a few blocks away. The structure had its beginnings as a one-room captain's home in 1722. Befitting the times, the doorways are low, although the ceilings are high. Admission is $4. (spanishgovernorspalace.org)
—HITTING THE SHOPS
The view from the back garden of the Governor's Palace through a store window led me to the most interesting shop I found in San Antonio. Marti's, 301 West Commerce Street, imports artisan jewelry, designer fashion and decor from Mexico. A multicolored floor-length halter dress made by Armando Mafud was spectacular — and $2,500. (martis.com)
La Villita, the city's first neighborhood, is nearby on the south bank of the San Antonio River. Most of the neighborhood's historic homes now hold shops and art galleries. The River Art Group, operated by a cooperative, displayed several small, inexpensive paintings of San Antonio that would make good souvenirs. (lavillita.com)
For even more shopping and dining, check out Market Square, also called El Mercado. Shops and vendors offer any knickknack you might be looking for — and a few you never knew existed. (marketsquaresa.com)
—THE RIVER WALK
La Villita and El Mercado are dotted with restaurants, but a better selection is on the River Walk, a five-mile stretch of the San Antonio River bordered by sidewalks and crisscrossed with bridges. The center portion of the River Walk is crowded with restaurants, bars and hotels. Strolling mariachi bands fill the evenings with music. One branch of the River Walk leads to the Rivercenter Mall; another goes to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the old Pearl Brewery complex, now home to the newest campus of the Culinary Institute of America and a handful of restaurants.
You can take a walking tour or a 45-minute tour by water. Or hop in a water taxi for a quick trip and a scenic cruise. (thesanantonioRiverWalk.com)
—COOKING — AND EATING
The CIA, as the culinary institute is known, conducts free public tours on Thursday afternoons. The campus is small and my tour lasted only 15 minutes; those who'd like to spend more time can take one-day cooking classes or multiday cooking boot camps. Those who'd like to sample the fare of CIA grads have their pick of several restaurants. (ciachef.edu/texas)
I had lunch at La Gloria, a Mexican restaurant. The food was delicious, hearty and inexpensive. (lagloriaicehouse.com)
I also stopped for coffee in CIA Bakery Cafe. Professional bakers work at night in the school's pastry kitchen, turning out masterful creations, such as the Monte Alban Oaxaca MX, a tiered hazelnut-chocolate confection that was a bargain at $3.79.
I ventured outside downtown for two more Tex-Mex meals. Breakfast tacos are a San Antonio standard. A friend recommended Panchito's, 4100 McCullough Avenue. The special taco, scrambled eggs with chorizo, potatoes and beans, was $1.59. (panchitos.net)
My friend also introduced me to the bean burger, also called the tostado burger, another San Antonio specialty. She sent me to Chris Madrid's, 1900 Blanco Road, for a griddled quarter-pound beef patty augmented with a scoop of refried beans, a scattering of fresh onions, a handful of tortilla chips and a slice of cheese, all contained (barely) between two halves of a bun. Every meal needs vegetables, so I added a scoop of chile-studded pico de gallo. The fries are hand-cut, but I passed in favor of that other Texas classic, a bottle of Shiner Bock beer. (chrismadrids.com)
There's no shortage of fine dining in San Antonio, either. When chef Mark Bliss opened a restaurant a few weeks ago at 926 South Presa Street, the name he and the restaurant share proved to be prophetic. A meal at Bliss was, indeed … blissful. My scallops and grits upped the ante on the shrimp-and-grits trend and won hands down. (foodisbliss.com)
On another night, I planned to have dinner at Boudro's, but it was jammed (as was the rest of the River Walk), and I didn't want to wait 1 1 / 2 hours for a table. I went instead to Zinc, Boudro's sister restaurant, just off the River Walk. Like Boudro's, Zinc is known for its prickly pear margarita — what looks and tastes like a good, but standard, frozen margarita, topped with a swirl of dark pink prickly pear cactus juice. The guacamole, prepared tableside, is chunky with onions, chiles, cilantro and the best-tasting tomato I've had in months. (zincwine.com/zinc)
On my way out of town I stopped for a quick lunch at Barbecue Station, 1610 N.E. Loop 410, just a few miles from the airport. This is a real barbecue joint, housed in a former gasoline station.
Texas is beef country, and I ordered the brisket, which hit that sweet spot of smokiness and moistness, with a burgundy smoke ring and crusty black exterior. I also had a link of Texas-made sausage, housemade creamed corn and all-I-could-eat pinto beans (and after devouring the meat, I couldn't eat much). Then I headed for the airport, slightly perfumed with smoke from the barbecue pit. (barbecuestation.com)