San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the United States, yet it doesn’t often get the tourist love heaped on New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, or Miami. But if you’re looking for a big-city experience with small-town friendliness—not to mention weather that rarely dips below the 60s—and you’ve got a hankering to be fine as cream gravy (that’s “happy” in Texas speak), make your next trip to San Antonio. Bring your appetite—San Antonio loves food, and grande portions of it—and be sure to check out the city’s excellent official site for a pretty much nonstop, year-round listing of cultural events, festivals (Wurstfest, anyone?), and holiday spectacles.
Best Places to Stay
For a full-on vacation experience, check in to the Mokara Hotel and Spa. It’s a fixture on many best-of lists, and worth the high price for it’s location in the middle of the downtown action. The 17,000-square-foot spa features treatments like the River Walk Foot Fix and the Texas Tingle Body Wrap. Lighter wallets will meet their perfect match at the Ruckman House Bed and Breakfast, a charming, turn-of-the-century Southern home where you’ll be treated like long-lost cousins—and fed like royalty. It’s also in walking distance to the scenic San Pedro Springs Park and some excellent restaurants.
Mokara Hotel and Spa, 212 W Crockett Street
Ruckman House B&B, 629 West French Street
Best Breakfast Tacos
Tacos are mainstays of Texas breakfast tradition, and who are we to argue? We especially love Taco Taco, where $5 or less will get you one of eight generously sized tacos with egg and meat, cheese, or vegetables.
Taco Taco, 145 East Hildebrand
The tastiest lunch options tend to be Mexican or Tex-Mex, and even the hole-in-the-wall joints are reliably good. Our favorite might just be Beto’s Comida Latina, home of fantastic fish tacos, authentic empanadas (savory and sweet), and crispy yucca fries. For an upscale take on Tex-Mex and coastal Mexican cuisine, look no further than Paloma Blanca. The hacienda-style dining rooms are lovely, but we enjoy a time-out on the patio.
Paloma Blanca, 5800 Broadway
We can’t say enough about Biga on the Banks, a beautifully designed restaurant with views of the River Walk and some bless-your-heart-good “New American” cuisine. Settle in with a glass or two from the extensive wine list, and try unusual twists on familiar recipes like nachos with chipotle cream cheese and escabeche vegetables or griddled rib-eye topped with Shiner Bock onion rings.
Biga on the Banks, 203 South St. Mary’s at Market
Best Place for Family Time
Skip the big-name amusement parks and give little people a turn on the circa-1920s rides at the Kiddie Park, the oldest children’s amusement park in the United States. Toddlers to elementary schoolers will love the professional—and often hilarious—productions at the Magik Theatre, while kids of all ages will appreciate the San Antonio Zoo. With more than 3,500 animals representing 600 species, it’s ranked as one of the best in the country.
Kiddie Park 305 Broadway Street
Magik Theatre, 420 South Alamo
San Antonio Zoo, 3903 North St. Mary’s Street
Best Places to Explore
One of San Antonio’s calling cards is its five missions, Spanish Colonial architectural beauties built in the eighteenth century. The most famous, the Alamo, is actually the least visually interesting, but still worth the history lesson. Our favorite? The sprawling, stunning Mission San José, with its graceful arches, flying buttresses, and elaborate carvings. And while the bigger museums get the lion’s share of accolades, we love the McNay Art Museum. Housed in a former residence, the expertly edited collection—medieval and Renaissance, nineteenth and twentieth century, modern sculpture and glass art, and even unexpected selections like figures from the film The Nightmare before Christmas—is intimate and informative. Bonus: the grounds are ridiculously gorgeous.
San Antonio missions, various locations
McNay Art Museum, 6000 North New Braunfels
Best Coffee Break
San Antonio, we’re pleased to report, knows how to brew a pot of joe. Head straight for Olmos Perk, where the gregarious baristas and comfy seating are second only to the phenomenal coffee. We’re still reminiscing about the seasonal pumpkin latte. We’re not kidding.
Olmos Perk, 5223 McCullough Avenue
Best Place to Get Lively
Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but the River Walk is also darn purdy. Go low-key with a leisurely ramble or river-taxi ride along the San Antonio River, or take part in one of the 20-plus big-as-Texas events that are held here every year, including the fall-themed Lucky Duck Race, where 20,000 bubbly rubber avians are unleashed for charity; the pre-Halloween Coffins on Parade, which features eerie, illuminated coffins on floating barges; and the post-Thanksgiving River Parade and Lighting Ceremony, an evening of eye candy in the form of decorated floats, thousands of twinkle lights, live music performances, and lavish costumes.
River Walk, downtown
Best Places to Shop
San Antonio boasts a variety of upscale malls, but we stick to the unique stores, like the ginornmous Ranch at the Rim, where you’ll find cowboy-chic clothing for the entire family, home décor, and accessories. For Mexican handicrafts—from painted Talavera pottery to Day of the Dead sculpted dolls and hand-woven bags—make a beeline for El Mercado. And we can easily spend hours at La Villita, a Mecca of artisanal crafts and fine art located on the grounds of the city’s first neighborhood.
Ranch at the Rim, 18007 IH-10 West
El Mercado, 514 West Commerce Street
La Villita, River Walk at the Arneson Theatre