art & architectural history student and design lover amy estes recently returned to san antonio after spending her early childhood here. she’s been busy rediscovering old faves, finding places to drink margaritas, and scouting vintage stores. in addition to documenting her finds on her blog, road to wonder (a visual and written exploration of texas), she’s made time to walk us through her local’s guide to san antonio shopping, eating and site-seeing. thank you again to amy for sharing her guide with us! a always, if you have a favorite spot you feel is missing feel free to leave it in the comment section below.
CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!
Bienvenidos design*sponge readers,
I hope you are ready to start exploring the heart of Texas and all that it has to offer with this guide. San Antonio is the nation’s seventh largest city, and is a well-known tourist destination. Historical sites such as the Alamo and the famed River Walk put it on the map years ago. It has long been a city of multiple cultural influences. In fact, city street signs were once in three languages: Spanish, English and German.
Despite a recent Travel and Leisure reader’s poll that declared San Antonio to be an affordable, but unstylish getaway, I am here to report that San Antonio is both easy on the wallet and designer friendly. It is a great city to make discoveries at antique and junk stores, estate sales, import shops, art galleries and museums.
San Antonio covers some 400 square miles and is composed of neighborhoods and smaller municipalities within the city. For the sake of minimizing driving and maximizing charm, this guide will focus on places inside of loop 410, including Alamo Heights, Downtown, Monte Vista, Olmos Park and the area of Southtown (King William, Lavaca and Blue Star). It is advisable to rent a car, or alternatively to stay downtown and take the city trolleys and/or walk. The included areas are walkable, except in the summer, unless you love the heat.
Adelante Boutique– Designed to look like a Mexican Market, Adelante is full of accessories and an ever-changing selection of women’s clothing, especially colorful dresses.
Alamo Antique Mall– Three floors of antiques. Shipping available. If you need a break, walk across the street for coffee and a snack at Twin Sister’s Bakery.
Antiquarian Book Mart– A customer described this used and rare book store best, “The book lover’s version of an out-of-the-way antique store.”
Dos Carolinas– Custom Guayaberas (embroidered Mexican shirts) made from natural fabrics. The shirts are beautiful, with detailed embroidery work.
Fiesta on Main– Spending time here is ridiculously fun. Be prepared to experience color overload and walk out with enough supplies to host your own fiesta. Housewares, gifts and party goods. Clothing for women, men and kids.
Hildebrand Emporium Antiques – Trash, treasure, pot of gold. It is all here. This section of Hildebrand has other antique stores too; it is enjoyable to spend a few hours browsing in this area.
Inter Artisan– This shop and gallery space carries a selection of folk art from both Mexican and San Antonio artisans.
Jive Refried– Owned by local fashion designer Agosto Cuellar, he stocks a selection of vintage clothing, accessories and his own designs.
Julian Gold– Upscale Texas only boutique department store, worth going to splurge on jewelry by San Antonio by way of Brazil designer Claudia Lobao.
La Villita– San Antonio’s original neighborhood is now a collection of galleries and boutiques and is a pretty spot for strolling and shopping.
Melissa Guerra– Especially for cooks. Kitchen supplies, home goods and accessories. The items range from comales and corn-grinders to Cuisinarts. She also stocks Latin American chocolate, handicrafts, textiles, and leather goods.
Pagoda – An eclectically curated home store full of amazing vintage finds. Changed frequently, the displays are stunning. Just when I think I am ready to channel David Hicks in the Bahamas, they have conjured up Marrakech.
Paris Hatters– In business since 1917 and owned by the same family, it is worth a look for the history alone. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Prince Charles has gotten a hat made here. They sell both custom-made and less expensive hats.
The Regalo Gift Shop and Botánica– The gift shop of the Museo Alameda, this botanica has a wonderful and strange selection of gifts and crafts.
San Angel Folk Art– Extensive collections of folk, outsider, visionary and vernacular art, featuring artists from Mexico, Latin America, the United States, Europe and Africa.
The Twig Book Shop and Red Balloon– This pair of independent bookstores both have a great selections. The Red Balloon is especially for children.
The Violet Hour– Women’s boutique that has a pretty selection of special occasion dresses and every day looks.
Beto’s Comida Latina– The food here is best described as Latin American soul food. Empanadas and tacos are both quite good; do not miss the sweet empanadas.
Biga on the Banks– If you want to eat along the river walk and desire a fantastic culinary experience, this is the place.
Casa Rio– If you want the classic river walk experience, Casa Rio is a tried and true Tex-Mex restaurant that is especially picturesque around the holidays, with trees full of twinkling lights.
El Mirador– Favorite of locals and tourists, the daily soup is always a standout.
The Friendly Spot– Cold beers, outdoor hangout kind of place, cash only.
Green– Vegetarian cuisine and coffee. San Antonio’s only 100% vegetarian and kosher café. Off the beaten path and a lovely place for a lunch break.
Guenther House– A beautiful café housed in the home of the Pioneer Flour founders. It is a bustling and satisfying restaurant; the Pioneer flour milled onsite is a featured ingredient. Think perfect biscuits, pancakes and more.
Il Sogno Osteria– New Italian restaurant owned by star chef Andrew Weissman. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner is often packed and they do not accept reservations, so arrive early or try lunch instead.
La Fonda on Main– The oldest Mexican restaurant in San Antonio, serving both Tex-Mex and interior Mexican specialties. An oasis in the historic Monte Vista neighborhood, this place has yummy food and is very enchanting.
La Frite Belgian Bistro– As the name suggests, a Belgian restaurant that makes all the classics, including mussels, perfect fries, quiches, soups and salads.
La Tuna Grill– Comfort food. Great place to sit outside and kick back. Family- friendly and fun people watching.
Liberty Bar– A beloved bar and restaurant in a building that seems to be falling down. The menu is fresh and inventive and offers selections for both meat eaters and vegetarians. Do not skip dessert and try the goat cheese with chile morita and piloncillo sauce.
Madhatter’s Tea House- Casual spot that is both kid and dog friendly. Great place to have brunch and then wander around King William.
Rosario’s– Amazingly consistent food. Start with the classics, salsa, chips and margaritas and go from there.
Sandbar Fish House & Market– This oyster bar also serves sashimi, seviches, lobster bisque and fantastic Cesar salads. Soon to be relocated to the Pearl Brewery Full Goods Building, with more room and an expanded menu.
Texas Farm to Table– Primarily a breakfast and lunch spot, this is a good place to put together a picnic for nearby Brackenridge Park.
Torres Taco Haven– A Southtown gathering spot that is the place to eat breakfast tacos.
Twin Sisters– A café and bakery owned by twin sisters, offering healthy fare, with locations in Alamo Heights and Downtown.
SUGGESTED SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
Art Galleries & Museums
Artpace was founded by artist and businesswoman Linda Pace (1945-2007), “…to serve as a laboratory of dreams, providing artists from all over the world with an environment that would encourage experimentation and growth.” It has been hugely successful and should be one of your stops if you love contemporary art.
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center– Blue Star is known as a trailblazer and an incubator for contemporary art in San Antonio; its founding over 20 years ago spurred revitalization in the arts and the Southtown neighborhoods.
The McNay Art Museum was the original modern art museum established in Texas. The collection, buildings, and grounds are exceptional and a visit here is highly recommended.
Museo Alameda is the first formal affiliate of the Smithsonian outside of Washington D.C and is the state’s official Latino Museum. The museum is located in the former Alameda Theater, which had fallen into disrepair. Luckily, it has been stylishly re-imagined and restored. Check the website for current exhibition listings.
The San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) is located in the former Lone Star Brewery Complex along the new Museum Reach Extension of the River Walk. Their collections emphasize Western Antiquities, Asian Art, Latin American Art, and contemporary American paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts.
The Southwest School of Art and Craft– If you are so inclined, plan your trip around a weekend workshop here; offerings include felt making, soy batiks, photography and the art of mosaics. There are also exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and a visitor’s center and museum on the grounds of this scenic property.
The Witte Museum focuses on Texas history, culture, and natural science. The Witte offers permanent exhibits that include dinosaur skeletons, cave drawings, and wildlife dioramas.
Cultural & Historical Sights
Downtown– San Antonio’s downtown is largely intact, thanks to passionate residents and city planners, and you will see many beautiful buildings as you explore. One good way to soak it all in while avoiding the crush of tourists at the Alamo, is to start early in the morning. Begin at the Alamo and work your way west, ending up at Market Square. Among the numerous sights along the way are the spectacular San Fernando Cathedral, the Bexar County Courthouse and Main Plaza. For independent visitors, the knock it out of the ballpark book to have in your carry-on is San Antonio Architecture: Traditions and Visions. For those that prefer a guide, San Antonio Walks provides daily public walking tours.
Hemisfair Park– Built to host the 1968 World’s Fair, the park houses several historic buildings, a playground, the Institute of Texan Cultures and Instituto Cultural de Mexico. The park is also home to the 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas, which offers sweeping views of San Antonio.
King William– Settled by German immigrants and named after Prussia’s first king, King William was the first neighborhood in Texas to be designated as an historic district. This area is another part of town that makes for great walking. Print out the map from the San Antonio Conservation Society website and you are ready to go.
The Mission Trail– Rent bikes at Blue Star Bike Shop and head south along the paved 8 mile (16 mile round trip) trail that links the missions. There is water available at each stop along the way. The missions are in different states of condition, however they are all beautiful. The Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, or the Mission Concepción for short, contains the oldest unrestored stone church in Texas. Its faded frescoes remain and take you back in time.
Monte Vista– A delightful neighborhood that will have you going over your pro and con list on whether you should relocate to San Antonio. The variety of architectural styles is swoon worthy, as are the majestic oaks. Monte Vista forms the most extensive and intact neighborhood of this era in Texas (1890-1930). Maria Watson Pfeiffer, who completed the National Register nomination form, states that:
The neighborhood’s resilience was at least partially attributable to the wide variety of housing stock – eclectic in its range of sizes, materials and designs (and therefore prices) found in the area’s numerous subdivisions, each built for a different segment of the home buying public. Wealthy ranchers lived in close proximity to modest schoolteachers, each in houses designed and constructed by noted architects and builders.
A lesson that still rings true today: good design for everyone.
The Pearl, already a community hot spot, is destined for greatness. Operated as a brewery for over a hundred years, the 22-acre complex is undergoing a transformation. The vision of the developers in charge: to provide a place to eat, live, learn, work and play on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River. In 2008, the repurposed Full Goods building opened. Designed by hometown architecture stars Lake|Flato, the building happens to have the largest solar array in Texas. If you are in town on a Saturday, spend your morning at the Farmer’s Market (rain or shine, year-round.)
The San Antonio River Museum Reach is finished and it is extraordinary in a rub your eyes, is this really my city kind of way. It is a treat to experience the Museum Reach by boat, by bike, or on foot. The project “… has been named the nation’s largest ecosystem restoration in an urban area. Additionally, the surrounding neighborhood development of River North was identified as one of 12 projects from around the world to win a Charter Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). They commended the San Antonio River North project as a pioneer in developing mixed-use, walkable landscapes. Inspired by the art-filled niches, landscaped grottos and walkability of the River Walk, River North will transform what was a light industrial area into a thriving mixed-use neighborhood with residential, retail and office space centered near the San Antonio River.”
Southtown – This area, which is made up of several neighborhoods, is perfect for shopping, eating, dancing and drinking. The main streets of Southtown are South Alamo, South St. Mary’s and South Presa Streets. If you are here on the first Friday of the month, come enjoy the First Friday Art Walk.
Parks & Recreation
Brackenridge Park– This park has it all: a zoo, a miniature train, a recently restored public golf course designed in 1916 by A.W. Tillinghast, a jogging trail, and the magnificent and unusual Japanese Tea Garden.
Kiddie Park– Roller coaster and Shamu lovers will be glad to know San Antonio is home to both Six Flags and Sea World. For something even more fun if you are visiting with small children, go to the Kiddie Park. The park was founded in 1925 and is in operation today, almost a century later.
The Fairmount Hotel– If you are looking for a place to stay downtown that is not a chain property, this redbrick Victorian, originally built for railway lodgers, is just right.
La Mansion del Rio– A long time special occasion hotel for a reason, romantic and well situated if you want to be close to the Downtown sights.
Noble Inns– A trio of bed and breakfast options in the King William District.
For music, club listings, and general events, consult the San Antonio Current. For comprehensive dining reviews and great journalism to boot, it does not get better than Texas Monthly. For visual arts happenings statewide, Glasstire is the website to check out. A favorite locally based art blog is Emvergeoning.