Summary: Discover fascinating and quirky things to do in San Antonio beyond the tourist traps around the Alamo
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There are actually things to do in San Antonio beyond eating at a crowded restaurant on the downtown River Walk, dodging the street vendors as you make your way to the Alamo or waiting in line for a table at Mi Tienda restaurant in the Mercado. All those things are great, but you don’t have to do the same things every time you are in the Alamo City. Since my daughter moved to San Antonio at the beginning of the year, I’m getting a chance to “live like a local” on the weekend visits.
Other Things to do in San Antonio
On this trip we would visit the other four Spanish missions, and appreciate an artfully revived industrial area. We would experience an ice cream and booze lover’s dream, rediscover a deep south treat at a farmers market and have a unique experience with reverse discrimination while we took a Comal river soak. I may never return to my old tourist stops after this.
We stayed in an older Hispanic area of small homes and fenced-in front yards. It sat just two houses from the San Antonio River. The gentrification that is slowing creeping in from Southtown and the Mission area has left this area between Probandt and Flores streets relatively unchanged. But you can tell it is on its way. With the proximity to downtown, the Blue Star area, and I-10, this is a perfect location to live in and experience San Antonio. If you don’t have family in San Antonio, find something similar to rent from great privately owned homes We’ve always had great luck renting in neighborhoods.
Update: If you don’t have a lot of time to search for a place to stay, check out AllTheRooms. I understand they’re the largest accommodations search engine and combine sites like Expedia, Airbnb, and hundreds of other sites. Sounds like a sensible way to maximize your choices.
The Alamo’s Overlooked Sister Missions
The downtown river walk is just a small part of the total. The entire river walk is now a 15-mile hike and bike path running along the San Antonio River. This dependable water source is the reason Spain encouraged the Franciscans to build four missions along the river in addition to Mission San Antonio de Valero, known globally now as “The Alamo.” There were Spanish missions throughout Texas and the Southwest to convert the native people. As importantly, the missions gave Spain a toehold in this new world.
In more modern times, the San Antonio River got everyone’s attention with a record flood in 1921 that killed 50 people. Water control measures were put in place, but the germ of an idea to treat the river as a showplace and commercial opportunity was born. By the 1968 Hemisphere and my first visit to San Antonio, the River Walk was a prime destination.
Hemisfair introduced us to the Fiesta City
The 1968 Hemisfair commemorated the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city and left behind the 622-foot Tower of the Americas, the tallest observation tower in the US until surpassed in 1996 by Las Vegas. The top of the Hemisfair tower is visible from my daughter’s front yard. With all the splash and excitement of the 1968 Hemisphere, I had such sensory overload that I can only recall two vivid memories.
One was my first taste of Belgian waffles, which I blame for my whip cream addition. The other is holding our noses as we waited for the elevators to take us to the top of the Tower of the Americas. Millions of dead crickets from one of Texas’ periodic and not always predictable invasions were decomposing in the elevator shaft. The unpleasant odor was providing an unexpectedly authentic Texas experience to Hemisphere.
The Mission Reach Hike and Bike Path
With the success of the Hemisphere and the downtown River Walk, San Antonio has slowly extended the pathway. The eight-mile area from Lone Star Boulevard to the farthermost mission is called the Mission Reach. There is fishing, biking, hiking, paddling and strolling all along the river to Mission Espada. On Saturday morning, we rode our bikes the five blocks from our base near Probant Street to hook up with the trail and start our 10-12 mile jaunt.
The path is paved and wide but lower than the surrounding development. It was a spectacular way to start our day. The river winds slowly beside you until it gains momentum at small dams and waterfalls. Herons, hawks, cardinals, and mockingbirds are visible and singing noisily while you pedal. Families catch and release fish along stone slabs that jut out into the river flow.
A forgiving terrain
For an infrequent cyclist like me, there are just enough gentle rises and falls to make me practice some gear changes and blow out a Fitbit goal. There are parks, exit points, water fountains and makers to give you opportunities to stop and enjoy the moment.
Back on the bikes, we passed an iron sculpture called “Whispers,” that seemed at first to look like tree-sized tongues of flames. This artwork was created for this very spot by Belgium native, Arne Quinze. While the hues of red-orange, blues and purples could be fire, the artist was inspired by the mesquite, small oaks, and pecan trees native to the area.
The colors are a nod to local wildflowers, such as the bluebonnet. I can see that. “Whispers” grows on you as you spend more time on the path. It’s a nice addition.
A World Heritage Site
The real reason for the ride, though, are the missions. This mission trail makes up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As such, it’s one of the best places to see how the friars exchanged farming and ranching techniques with the native people while spreading Spain’s influence throughout the new world under the guise of Christianity. While built according to the usual layout, each mission visit felt unique.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
At Mission San Juan Capistrano, we took our first big break to linger on a bench under a shade tree. This mission did not grow as the others because of frequent Indian attacks. San Juan relocated in 1731 to the site we visited, 12 miles from the Alamo. It had a quiet and peaceful air, probably because of that stunted growth.
I have always liked ruins much better than reconstructions for a sense of place and time.
According to the Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), “construction of a separate church was begun, but never completed, with services held in a large room in the monastery. The buildings of the mission standing today have no sculpturing, but the walls are thick and the rooms commodious. Most of the original square remains within the walls, offering an authentic picture of the mission plan.”
From our bench, we could look completely around the square. Above the walls, we could see tops of the trees growing along the river.
In 1934, as part of a public-works project, some of the Indian quarters and the unfinished church foundations were unearthed. According to a marker, the area outside the never-completed church ruins is a consecrated cemetery.
This sacred ground contains the remains of native and immigrant mission residents from 1780. The bodies were relocated during excavation and reburied in 1999 with a joint ceremony by the Catholic Church and descendants of the residents.
The little cemetery was a fragile human connection to the durable stone ruins.
Communion at Mission San Francisco
On to Mission San Francisco de La Espada (the “sword”), which in 1745, started the oldest continually operating irrigation system in the United States. This mission also suffered Indian raids along with small pox and measles epidemics. The priests may have worsened that epidemic by their daily visits to their charges’ homes, thereby spreading the disease.
It seems much smaller than San Juan. We reached San Francisco via a short nature trail which makes it also more isolated.
The tiny church was unlocked. As I approached the doors, I heard words like “El Senor” and “Cuerpo” and “Sangre” spoken in a sermon. “Lord,” “Body” and “Blood” let me know that the church was still fulfilling its original purpose – to bring the sacraments to the frontier.
Several tourists stood at the back of the small stone church, taking pictures with cameras and phones. A young girl sat in a chair in the aisle in front of the altar. It was her first communion, and she was dressed in frilly white while a priest in an emerald green chasuble prepared her for the holy meal. The first two pews fronting the altar held family and friends – spiritual connection often repeated over the two hundreds of years of the mission’s existence.
The Rose Window at San Jose
From Espada, we headed back up the Mission road, doing a ride by at San Jose. This mission is known for its romantic Rose Window. I had attended a wedding here years ago and learned the legend of the window. The window, sculpted in 1775, is considered to be one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in North America. Folklore credits Pedro Huizar, a carpenter, and surveyor from Spain, with carving the famous window as a monument to his sweetheart, Rosa. Tragically, on her way from Spain to join him, Rosa was lost at sea. Pedro then completed the window as a declaration of enduring love.
A breather from the bike
By now, both my legs and my butt were praying for salvation from miles pedaled on a borrowed bike. My daughter and her boyfriend took pity on me and led us to a fruteria across from the Mission Drive-In at the intersection of Roosevelt and White Avenues.
The fruteria was painted a blinding shade of orange and had an outside sitting area. A small boom box with dangling cord played tinny Mexican music.
Four of us shared a large fruit cup ($6) with chunks of mango, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and a heavy sprinkling of chili powder. We also had two giant cups of elote (corn) with mayo, cheese, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. It tasted like heaven and felt worlds away from the chain restaurants around the Alamo.
Cars and motorcycles waited in a line to the drive-thru window. A prominent sign painted on the nearest wall to the drivers warned, “no returns.” Sad you have to tell people you won’t take back their half-eaten fruit cup.
Just a glance for Mission Conception
From the fruteria, we saddled back up for the ride along Mission Road to Mission Conception. The fruit stop refreshed me, but the minute I straddled the bike, I knew I was done. I called out to my fellow riders than I was “mission-ed” out. We swung through the parking lot. I acknowledged that it was indeed a mission and I kept peddling on back home. (I visited the mission last year and it was a crime to have missed it. Blame my aching butt.)
It was at this point that a suggested afternoon expedition seemed imperative. We would put on swimsuits and head north to New Braunfels and the Comal River for a nice, relaxing soak.
A Tiny Road Trip to a Tiny River
The idea of soaking in a natural body of water was beckoning. While Fiesta Texas or Schlitterbahn are both delightful and I’m glad we often visited when our kids were young, neither fit the bill for this weekend.
Time for a tiny road trip to a tiny little river. We drove the 40 minutes north on I-35 to New Braunfels and the shortest river in Texas – the gentle, cool, Comal.
From Spanish San Antonio to German New Braunfels
Parks throughout this German-settled city offer a place to tube or soak. We choose the Prince Solms Park, named for Prince Carl Solms-Braunfels, who founded the city of New Braunfels on Good Friday, 1845. The inland location of New Braunfels fared better than the Prince’s other settlement, Indianola, which was scrapped off the Gulf Coast in a hurricane.
Like all city parks with Comal access, Prince Solms Park was packed with locals when we got there around 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon. We decided to embrace the exuberant chaos! It cost $15 to park at a doctor’s office but overall, a Comal visit is a good deal. Lounging in the peaceful park and swimming in the river is free and tubing is just $2 per tube on Saturday/Sunday/Holidays. Also, you can bring your own ice chest, chairs, tables, and canopies.
How neighbors used to spend weekends
Dogs, kids, teens, grandparents, were all floating and swimming together in much the same configuration that’s probably been around since the residents were speaking German instead of English, Spanish, and Spanglish.
Large family clusters had set up canopies, tables, and chairs and were barbecuing. Others staked out a square of grass with a blanket. Old school buses were around to take you “up river” so you could float back or you could walk to the end of the park and jump in.
We were looking to chill after that morning’s long bike ride, but you can add some exhilaration to your Comal visit if you are so inclined. The tube chute gives you a rush, and you can have a river-eye view of the old and new Schlitterbahn as you float past. Click here for a map of options for “rivering” in New Braunfels.
Watch for slippery steps
Algae from the Comal can and does make the wide steps into the river very slippery. Most kids and some adults seemed incapable of grasping that they are actually are at risk.
The city has put up many signs warning about the slippery steps. Still, we saw human after human doing the classic pratfall when they let go of the railing too quick. Could those signs actually encouraged the attempt to beat the odds?
As I said, the Comal is cheap entertainment.
“Too many Caucasians?”
After soaking for a while, my bike-battered butt muscles started to ease. We sat along the steps, watching the spontaneous community that seems to arise when you are basically sitting together in a big, cool bathtub.
There was a Mexican couple sharing the steps with us while playing with their granddaughter. I would imagine the little girl was about kindergarten age. At one point, she gave my long-haired son a hard look and then turned to her grandfather.
“There are just too many Caucasians here,” she told her abuelo, in a perfect imitation of a society matron dismayed at the riffraff.
Her grandfather was speechless and chagrined. “I don’t know where she heard that,” he offered.
We were surprised and then charmed. Seems like immigration furor has ebbed and flowed in both directions for centuries.
As a history buff, I realized her statement echoed the sentiment in Texas before we became a republic. That complaint was probably heard frequently back in 1830, when the Law of April 6 decreed a severe restriction on Anglo immigration into what was then Mexico. What will the complaint be 150 years from now?
We soaked a little while longer while having another beer (open containers are only allowed in the river). In the early evening, we said a good- natured goodbye to our disapproving seat mate and her embarrassed family and headed back to San Antonio. It was time to think about eating again.
Tubing on the Guadalupe River and River Road
Harold Eaton says
Great articles, Linda. We love San Antonio too. Here are some other notes on San Antonio.
In San Antonio, a draw often overlooked is the museum of Texian Culture. It is on the old Hemisfair grounds and shows off connections to the diverse cultures that settled Texas. If you haven’t visited, it is worth a couple of hours. Then there is the Menger Hotel across from the Alamo. With the bar where Teddy Roosevelt assembled the Rough Riders.