An August 2004 trip
to San Antonio by billmoy
Quote: San Antonio is one of the ten largest cities in the country, but it feels cozy. Visitors will enjoy the blend of brassy Texas hospitality and colorful Mexican influences that should provide for a memorable Tex-Mex experience.
The River Walk is Tourism Central in the city. While some stretches are quite touristy and congested, other areas are quieter and remarkably beautiful considering you are in the middle of a big city. Take an open-air boat ride for a pleasant circuit around downtown.
If you want some great views of the city and your hotel room is not high enough, check out the Tower of the Americas, the pinnacle of the San Antonio HemisFair.
Some of the known remains of the Alamo martyrs are located within a marble sarcophagus near the entrance to the San Fernando Cathedral. The corpses were burned after the siege and the unfortunate remains have been moved and shuffled a few times over the years.
The tourism maps and brochures all seem to have a sprinkling of coupons, so you can save a buck or two on certain sightseeing and dining attractions.
VIA bus route 2 actually runs between the airport and downtown and is cheap at under a dollar, but the dirt-slow ride is nearly an hour long. Taxis whisk you downtown on the expressway in about 15 minutes but will cost about twenty dollars each way. Airport shuttles cost about nine dollars a head, so taxis are the best bet if there are two or more in your group.
San Antonio is very pedestrian friendly, with the River Walk as the star attraction. Other interesting walking zones include the HemisFair Park, the Mercado, La Villita, and the King William Historic District.
Hotel | "Sheraton Gunter"
The hotel has twelve stories and 322 guest rooms. If you are on the club level on the 12th floor, you will need to swipe your key card in the elevator to access it. My room was on 11, but I was told that I could access the lounge on 12 (more later). The guest room is below average in size by modern hotel standards, but rooms tended to be smaller in the old days. The queen bed was quite comfortable, and there were amenities like iron and ironing board, hair dryer, coffee maker, wood window shutters, and very cold air conditioning. The bathroom is small with only the tub and toilet, so the vanity is located discreetly "in the room". My view faced west at a dull office block, but you can open the windows a few inches for natural ventilation. The pipes are quite loud, so do not be surprised by rumbling sounds when your neighbor flushes the toilet.
The lounge on the 12th floor features continental breakfast in the morning and snacks with an honor bar in the evening. This facility is only accessible with a key card. I was not expecting to get this amenity, so the free breakfast was a nice bonus. There is a daily assortment of fresh fruits, baked goods, sliced meats, yogurt, cereal, and hot and cold beverages. The cozy lounge feels like a large living room with TV, tourism brochures, newspapers, and casually arranged seating. Ask at the front desk if your room rate includes this lounge access.
The Gunter is an elegant setting for business meetings and weddings. There is a small workout room on the third floor, and you can step outside to the small pool and jacuzzi on the second level. The hotel also has a couple of restaurants and a gift shop. The Gunter Bakery has indoor and outdoor seating. Some of their goodies served in the lounge were better than others.
I found the staff to be extraordinarily friendly and helpful. The concierge has a good selection of tourism maps and brochures, many containing sightseeing and dining coupons. The bellman was glad to store and retrieve my bags and to call a taxi to the airport. Overall, the Gunter is still a charming hotel. Being slightly removed from the River Walk may actually make for a quieter stay, except for the loud water pipes of the building.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 2, 2004
Sheraton Gunter Hotel
205 EAST HOUSTON STREET
San Antonio, Texas 78205
Restaurant | "Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery"
You can sit indoors or outdoors, and despite its many tables the place fills up during peak times. The large interiors are sectioned into smaller rooms and are colorfully adorned with murals, pinatas and typical Mexican paper decorations. There are roving musicians who are eager to play a song at your table, but there are placards that clearly indicate that they charge five dollars a tune so keep that in mind. A smile and a simple nod of the head will shoo them away, and fortunately they are not too pesky. Enough customers will want a song so you will definitely hear a few serenades during your meal. Ladies selling loads of colorful trinkets (flowers, head wreaths) also circulate the room, so it really feels like you are dining in Mexico. With all the music and mayhem around you, there is a festive atmosphere that is not too annoying or loud.
Breakfast is served all day, so you can get chorizo and eggs anytime here. I ate a late lunch here, and complimentary chips and salsa start things off. I ordered the pollo enchiladas platter, with two enchiladas wrapped around shredded chicken and lathered with mole sauce that is not too sweet and not too spicy. The tasty and filling dish is accompanied with Spanish rice, refried beans (sorry, not whole beans) and tortillas. Enchiladas topped with verde (green) sauce are a bit more familiar with dabs of sour cream and guacamole. Cabrito, a popular dish with goat, is one of the more interesting selections on the menu. Typical offerings include tacos, tamales, flautas, menudo, and chile relleno. If you do not want a beer or margarita, the lemonade is quite refreshing. The prices at Mi Tierra are reasonable, but if you are on a tight budget you can still get something at the impressive bakery counter, stacked with many decadent Mexican treats.
The most interesting dessert was the Mexican ice cream. A ball of vanilla ice cream is covered with a crunchy coating. It is then fried, topped with cream and cajeta sauce, and served in a sopapilla shell, an edible bowl of sugar-coated fried dough. After a filling entree, you may want to split this sweet dessert with your honey and see your dentist afterwards. Other selections include flan and cheesecake.
There is a counter selling t-shirts featuring a portrait of Zapata, along with caps, CD’s and candies. Mi Tierra is a good dining spot and a colorful cultural experience, and what more can you ask for? The food may not better than what I have enjoyed in Mexico, but it is reasonably close.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 2, 2004
Mi Tierra Cafe
218 Produce Row
San Antonio, Texas 78207
Restaurant | "County Line Smokehouse and Grill"
Start off things with a margarita, which is normal sized here and not a gigantic goldfish bowl. There is a good selection of beers brewed in Texas and Mexico, so this is where you can show your allegiance (I chose Negra Modelo of Mexico).
The servings are substantial, so my companion and I split one appetizer and one entree. The appetizer was a plate of sausage, sliced up and accompanied with a tangy barbeque sauce. The sausage was good but not great. We also ordered a full slab of pork ribs. The rib meat was tender and not too fatty, though the uninitiated may be alarmed by the pink color of the meat. The slow cooking process creates this color and the smoky flavor, which was good but again not great. The barbeque sauce was similar to that served with the sausage, and an extra cup of the sauce would have come in handy. Each platter comes with two sides. The vegetable of this day was corn "off the cob", which added a good balance to the robust ribs. The generous pile of fries was decent but tasted better with barbeque sauce on them. Other sides include baked beans, cole slaw, and garlic mashed potatoes. Other dining selections include beef ribs, chicken, steaks, salads and various combination platters. Sandwiches and burgers are served only during lunch. Huge appetites will want to go for the "Cadillac", an all-you-can-eat mixed feast that is only a few dollars more than a regular platter. If you can stomach it, go for it.
The young wait staff is reasonably friendly, and our waitress seemed receptive when we wanted to split an entree and did not want dessert. The dessert menu did look good, but all of the choices looked heavy. Again if you have the room, order a bread pudding, milk shake, or cheesecake.
The restaurant plays a quirky musical mix ranging from country to pop to Peggy Lee. If you wander into the restrooms, piped in "cowboy language" lessons should put a smile on your face.
Supposedly one needs to venture away from the center of San Antonio to find some really good barbeque. That may be true, but the County Line dishes out comfortable barbeque food and is conveniently located along the River Walk. There is also another location a few miles northwest of downtown. If you live in a rib-free zone, you can order some ribs to be shipped home.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 2, 2004
County Line Smokehouse & Grill
111 West Crockett
San Antonio, Texas 78205
My companion and I wanted a quick and light lunch before heading to the airport. I ordered the lunch special, which includes a panini sandwich, side salad or bag of chips, and iced tea for about seven dollars. You pay at the counter and wait for your order to be called out. If these were normal circumstances the wait would have probably seemed reasonable enough and we would have probably picked up one of the free publications to kill time. With an impending trip to the airport, it seemed every ticking second was precious here. We sat down at an inside table and waited…and waited…and waited….
After about ten minutes, our sandwiches were finally prepared. The panini bread was particularly crunchy after being toasted so I suppose it was worth the wait. It certainly held up well with the turkey (you can also choose ham or chicken), cheese and tomato thinly layered inside. The compilation was serviceable, but memorable only due to its crunch factor. The side salad with ranch dressing is simply plopped on the sheet of wax paper lining the plastic sandwich basket. This inelegance is countered by the delicate thread-like strands of carrot topping the salad. The peach iced tea was a bland slip of a sip, so perhaps the tropical fruit version may have been a better choice.
The dessert selections looked tasty, but of course we had no time to try any of them. Brownies, cookies, croissants and other pastries glimmer behind the glass counter. I assume the espresso and fruit smoothies are good here with a concise name like Sip.
Sip is open on Sundays, a big plus for a downtown location not perched on the River Walk. It has the look and feel of a neighborhood coffeehouse and is not a bad place to hang out, as long as you are not in a time crunch.
160 E Houston St
San Antonio, Texas 78205
Attraction | "Alamo"
Note that this ensemble was originally one of the five missions of San Antonio. Founded in 1718, its original name was Mission San Antonio de Valero. The current complex was begun in 1724; the church did not receive its entire roof until 1850. After being decommissioned as a mission, it became a military outpost for the Spanish. It eventually fell into Mexican control during its epic fight for independence from Spain finally achieved in 1821.
The most famous part of the saga is the Battle of the Alamo, as Commander William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and crew fought valiantly but eventually succumbed to the superior numbers of Mexican troops recapturing its position here in 1836. With the famous rally cry "Remember the Alamo" imbedded into its collective mindset, Texas soon won its own independence, separating from Mexico to become a republic. The facts and colorful legends of the Alamo sometimes get intermingled, especially over this tumultuous period.
Today the Alamo is a shrine to honor the memory of those who lost their lives here fighting for a free Texas. Before entering admire the attractive Spanish Baroque details of the facade. Men are supposed to remove their hats upon entering and no photographs are allowed in the interior, reverently lit and decorated with the individual state flags. The central hall displays a scale model of the original complex, and the back wall lists the names of the deceased. The side rooms, where a handful of survivors had bunkered down, now display weapons, garments, documents and a lock of Davy Crockett’s hair.
Not much remains from the original complex, but you can look into the Long Barracks Museum, which was built from the remains of the original Long Barrack. The stone walls and arcade of the perimeter were added since the 1920’s. Visitors gather in the courtyard to listen to oratorical recounts of the Alamo story and to read the informative Wall of History timeline. The beautiful and peaceful grounds sport a colorful variety of foliage, an old well, and a small acequia, a vestige of the irrigation ditch of the San Antonio River.
The Sales Museum displays detailed scale models and is well stocked with Alamo-themed souvenirs. Before leaving, admire the 60-foot tall Cenotaph in the Alamo Plaza designed by sculptor Pompeo Coppini in 1939 with relief images of the martyrs in the marble. An 800-foot high Alamo Heroes Monument was planned in 1912, but a lack of funds doomed that proposal.
Admission to the Alamo is free. Unlike the other four missions, the Alamo is not part of the National Park Service but has been under the jurisdiction of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas since 1905.
The Alamo (Mission San Antonio de Valero)
300 Alamo Plaza
San Antonio, Texas 78205
Attraction | "River Walk (Paseo del Rio)"
Plans to fill in the riverbed were scrapped. The three-mile long River Walk, about twenty feet below street level, was created along the downtown portion of the San Antonio River mainly from schemes by architect Robert H. H. Hugman, and the project broke ground in 1939. A thin tributary of the river conveniently makes a loop here, so the river banks eventually became lined with suave hotels, crowded restaurants, and popular shops. This may sound like a giant strip mall, but the river is also landscaped with lovely trees and other native greenery. The river is quite narrow, so it is spanned by stone bridges that are vaguely reminiscent of those in Venice. Though the bridges have steps, there are places along the River Walk that are accessible to the handicapped.
One of the sheer pleasures in town is a casual stroll along the River Walk. Take a guided forty minute loop on the waterway for a unique perspective of the city. It may not be quite as romantic as a gondola ride (you will probably share a flat-bottom boat with about thirty other passengers) but it is a pleasant ride day or night. The boat also glides along the waterways which lead to the Gonzalez Convention Center and the popular Rivercenter Mall. One of the unique elements along the way is the Arneson Theater, with the stage performers on one side of the river and the audience seated on amphitheater steps across the river. Our boat captain doubled as the tour narrator. Perhaps her most amusing tidbit was that if you fall overboard, just stand up in the shallow four-foot-deep water and trudge towards one of the river banks. I wonder how many people fall into the river every day, as it would seem to be an easy thing to do for overactive kids or extremely inebriated pedestrians since there are few guard rails along the paths.
The River Walk and the attractions along it have a symbiotic relationship. The hotels feed off their relationship to the river and can almost claim superiority to those properties that are slightly off the trail. People along the River Walk can then point to the hotels as veritable landmarks. The Alamo is fortunate to be already a landmark, for it is about three blocks from the river.
Plans are afoot to extend the River Walk as far north as Brackenridge Park and south along the Mission Trail. Hopefully the planners do not go overboard by overdeveloping its marvelous cash cow.
San Antonio Riverwalk
200 South Alamo Street
San Antonio, Texas 78205
Attraction | "Mercado (Market Square)"
There are over thirty vendors within the main building, collectively attempting to create the aura of a market in Mexico. This Mercado is generally recognized as the largest one outside of Mexico. I would imagine some of these items would be dirt cheap in Mexico, but they appear reasonably priced here. You can always comparison shop amongst the various storefronts to see if you can get a better deal, but they seem to be evenly priced throughout the complex. The items have marked prices, so you cannot bargain down as you would at an actual market in Mexico. The shopkeepers all seem very low-key, so you are not hassled into purchasing anything. Almost every store posts a sign begging tourists not to wear sombreros or other articles of clothing while posing for photos, at least not until you have purchased them. It is fun to browse through the boxes and racks of knickknacks, but it is easy to knock something fragile over because the places are just brimming with merchandise. Be careful!
There are all sorts of colorful and amusing items on display along with your typical selection of t-shirts and trinkets. If you are buying t-shirts, be sure you are not taking the "old" ones on top of the piles. Plenty of little toys are available for under a dollar if you have a boatload of kids to shop for. Leather goods run the gamut from purses, belts, whips, gun holsters and even saddles. Traditional gifts like pinatas, tortilla warmers, blankets, pottery and jewelry are available in all shapes and sizes. Try to look at the tags to see where the stuff is produced, as what is the point of buying a "Mexican" armadillo made in China?
Just west of the Mercado is the Farmers Market Plaza, which has about eighty specialty shops of food and wares for sale. It seems like a big annex of the Mercado. Enjoy a snack here or just read the signs to see what you may have eaten in street stalls in Mexico but did not know what it was that you ate. Mariachi bands play lively music outside the Mercado to add another layer of atmosphere to the area. Some of the shops set up some extra tables outside, so have a look around. The Mercado seemed much more interesting and festive than the historic La Villita district near the River Walk, or did we catch La Villita during a collective Sunday siesta?
El Mercado is open from 10am to 8pm during the summer. In the winter the stores close a bit earlier at 6pm.
El Mercado-Market Square
514 West Commerce Street
San Antonio, Texas 78207
Attraction | "San Antonio Botanical Garden and Conservatory"
The Sullivan Carriage House, the handsome main building originally constructed in 1896, is the gateway to the garden. It was designed by Alfred Giles and relocated from its original downtown location in 1988. The ticket booth, cafe and gift shop are located here. If you plan to have lunch here keep in mind that the cafe is open only from 11am to 2pm and is not open at all on Mondays. The handy brochure has a map of the bucolic grounds, which cover 33 acres.
The highlight for me is the award-winning Lucile Halsell Conservatory, a pricy complex of glass houses that have different ecosystems (desert, tropical, palms, ferns). Ambasz has an affinity for "green" architecture, so he designed his buildings as containers that are extensions of the earth. These architectural vessels would protect the plants with an emphasis on the ideal light and heat levels. The different conical and triangular shapes are the exposed skylight rooftops of the buildings, as the lower levels are located below grade. The 65-foot high Palm House has a prominent exit but its entrance ramp may not be obvious to passersby. Step up along the processional ramp to the top so you can marvel at the treetops around you. The benches along the shaded arcade of the courtyard are curious, looking like jagged slabs in a morgue.
For a step back in time, walk around the path of the lagoon to look at examples of old frontier houses set in flora native to various regions of Texas. There is an adobe house, a log cabin, and several rustic wooden houses. Ducks congregate around the edges of the lagoon, as there are dispensers for duck food here.
Other highlights include the lovely Kumamoto En Japanese Garden, the Formal Garden, and the Fountain Plaza. There are all sorts of specialized gardens (roses, herbs, cactus) and even a "Garden for the Blind". Be sure to saunter up to the romantic Overlook for panoramic views of the entire grounds and of San Antonio itself. There are benches all around the garden, but the population of small and quick ants seems to flourish in these surroundings so watch where you sit.
The San Antonio Botanical Garden is open from 9am to 5pm daily; it is located a few miles north of downtown. You can arrive by car or you can take the VIA number 7 bus, which is nicknamed the "Sightseer Special". The bus ride from downtown to the garden is under 30 minutes and costs under a dollar each way. If you purchase a $3 VIA one-day pass, you can receive additional discounts at the gift shop.
San Antonio Botanical Garden
San Antonio, Texas 78209
+1 210 207 3250; +1
Attraction | "Mission San Jose"
For information on the entire San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, stop in the modern Visitor Center. Four of the five missions (all except the Alamo) are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which always supplies excellent brochures. The other missions are the Mission Conception, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada.
The mission community was founded here in 1720 under Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus. It became a model of mission organization in part because of its rich fields and pastures. It was secularized in 1824 and was no longer a mission. The buildings were either structurally damaged or vandalized during decades of neglect (its northern tower, which collapsed in 1928, remains missing). In 1931 the Franciscans returned to the complex to continue the tradition of the religion taught to the mission Indians.
The attractively rustic limestone church was constructed from about 1766 to 1782 and is perhaps the premier example of Spanish Baroque architecture in the United States. The nave is capped by a low central sacristy dome. At the base of its southern tower, there are still remnants of the original colorful geometric patterns that had decorated its stucco exteriors. Its ornately crafted rose window, nicknamed "Rosa’s Window", is credited to Pedro Huizar (who also worked on the carved details of the main elevation). Built around 1775, the vertically oriented opening was allegedly his memorial to his tragic sweetheart Rosa.
The site is surrounded by a bastion and sturdy stone walls along which the 84 Indian apartments were positioned. These quarters, along with the granary and the church itself, were restored from 1931 to 1949 under the direction of Harvey P. Smith. The arcade of the former convent, the grist mill, and some workshop foundations are also within the site. One room houses a large scale model of the complex with recorded narration. The grounds are beautiful, but watch out for fire ants, pointy plants, and low doorways. Visitors can check out the religious gift shop and the Spanish Colonial bookstore.
Admission to the missions is free. The Mission San Jose is easy to reach by VIA bus 42 from downtown, as it stops right outside the grounds. It runs twice an hour and takes about twenty minutes each way. Parking is available for those with cars, and you can make a full day of it with hiking or cycling along the trails and a picnic lunch in designated areas.
San Jose Mission
6701 San Jose Drive
San Antonio, Texas 78214
Attraction | "Mariachi Mass at Mission San Jose"
The moderately sized interior of the Mission San Jose fills up every week, so try to arrive about thirty minutes before the mass. The seating is first come first served, and latecomers will probably wind up standing in the back of the church. People line up by the entrance outfitted in their Sunday best. The interior is modestly decorated in comparison to the detailed exterior, but the domed space is still impressive. The structural junctions and edges are colorfully trimmed, and plaques representing the Stations of the Cross hang from the walls, which were formerly adorned with frescoes.
The attendees appear to number 50/50 between local parishioners and out of town visitors. This is discovered at the beginning of the mass, as the Franciscan father asks people to stand up according to their home state or country (he actually compiled an informal tally before the mass). On this day the audience included travelers from Guatemala, France and Germany. This sort of howdy-do welcome could have been corny, but it felt just right and was indicative of how celebratory and inclusive the mass will be.
The father’s sermon was not fiery, not too preachy, not gloom-and-doom. He was an adept speaker whose friendly manner made his words on peace, openness and understanding all the more sensible. Like any talk show worth its salt, this mass has its own musical group for accompaniment. The energetic mariachi band converted its goodtime up-tempo sound to spread the message in this house of religion. The lead female singer was the star of this outfit in my estimation. I was blown away by a duet featuring her simultaneously soaring and robust voice and the gentle strumming of the guitarist. This collaboration was beautiful, emotional, and spine-tingling. I felt like clapping each time she sang, but remember it is still a Catholic mass. The typical movements and rituals all take place with the added kick of the Mexican music, which enhances the overall impact of the ceremony.
To conclude the mass, the father invited those in the audience who were celebrating birthdays and special anniversaries to come up and take a bow. Then the anniversary couples, who have been together for decades, were allowed a special dance as they were royally serenaded by the mariachi band. What a way to celebrate! The mass lasts over an hour, and everybody leaves the church with warm feelings.
After the mass, the musicians may perform an impromptu set under a large shady tree on the grounds. It is an encore well worth listening to if you are not in a hurry to leave. This memorable Mariachi Mass is an experience you will not soon forget.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
2202 Roosevelt Ave
San Antonio, Texas 78210
+1 210 932 1001