When we moved here, I was shocked to learn that San Antonio is actually the U.S.’s seventh largest city. Following only New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix, San Antonio boasts a hearty population that has deep-seated hospitality, warmth and character. This Southern Texas metropolis feels more like a small, historical city in a constant state of celebration. After six months as a Bexar County resident, I’m pretty confident in listing my top six downtown San Antonio tips for you.
1. Tower of the Americas
Standing a proud 622 feet tall, the Tower of the Americas looks like Seattle’s space needle’s twin, but reaches a whopping 18 feet higher than it’s Pacific Northwestern look-a-like. It was built for the 1968 World’s Fair. Here’s my most important travel tip. Are you ready? Go to Bar 601 at the top of the Tower. Every weekday from 4-7:30pm they have a happy hour that includes several cocktails and many not-so-bad menu items like ahi nachos and sirloin sliders. But the grub and booze isn’t what’s best. It’s the view! And, when you’re a patron of the bar you don’t have to pay the $14 fee to see it as you would if you just zipped up to the observation deck. If that doesn’t make you feel like you’re on top of the world, I don’t know what will. You’re welcome.
2. The Riverwalk
We’re pretty darn spoiled only living three blocks from the Riverwalk. We’re at the quiet end, where local couples walk their dogs after work, sweaty men run in the heat and tourists don’t tend to venture. Just up from “our” part of the river walk is the touristy area, wrought with grumbling children, tired moms and dads who wear socks with their sandals. Doesn’t a family vacation sound nice? But seriously, there are lots of people having fun too. Young, good-looking guys and gals just out to have a good time flocking from one bar to the next. (My husband and I consider ourselves in the latter group, if you were wondering.) With a vast selection of restaurants, hotels and music-filled haunts to choose from, it’s unlikely that you’d ever walk away from a night on the river unconvinced to come back (young and attractive or not).
3. The Alamo
Tell me you remember learning about this epic landmark in history class. If you don’t, let me briefly refresh your memory. The Battle of the Alamo happened in 1836. It was part of the Texas Revolution. Because of the devastating loss Texian troops suffered in that battle, they sought revenge and went on to defeat the Mexican Army and capture the land for the Republic of Texas. So, that is how the Alamo sits on what is now American soil. It’s the most popular tourist site in Texas. It’s free to visit, and open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yee-to-the-haw.
4. Esquire Tavern
The Esquire Tavern is the oldest bar on the Riverwalk. It used to be that you’d only go there if you carried a pistol and were prepared to fear for your life. These days it’s significantly calmer and much more safe, though when the live music shows up, all bets are off. (Seriously good folk music to be had here, friends.) If taxidermy and dark lighting doesn’t get you down, you’re sure to find something tasty at the tavern. My favorite fare include the pickled beet salad with bibb lettuce and candied pecans, the house-made waffle chips with their Texas onion dip and the deviled eggs with arugula and pink peppercorns. For libations, I’ll take the local, seasonal oatmeal stout or their French 75. There are times I sit at the Esquire and I think for a moment that I may be back in Portland, with its hipsters and local, grass-fed beef. Then I realize that it’s still 80 degrees and there are palm trees outside. I’m okay with it.
5. Market Square
Yeah, this might be a tourist trap, but it’s fun, colorful and really gives you a flavor of what SA’s Tex-Mex culture is all about. You can buy a sombrero, maracas and pottery. Or if you’re like me, just take photos of said gaudy items. Because who really needs (or even wants) a squashed hat, fancy rattles or crockery of many colors once they’ve gone back home? No one. If you’re not one for trinkets, Market Square also has free events, music, restaurants, galleries and working artists. Get your culture on!
6. The Friendly Spot
It took a while for us to mosey over to our local ice house, but since we have I’m convinced that no trip to the South can possibly be complete without such a stop. Ice houses originated during a time when people didn’t have refrigerators. They were buildings that stored ice throughout the year; I’m sure this was a dream back then, especially in SA’s summer climate. I’ve learned that ice houses are a cultural tradition in Texas. They became – and have remained – neighborhood gathering places. Our ice house is called The Friendly Spot. Their website is awful, but delicious because it screams “we’re local”, “we just like to drink” and other such revelations. With 180 brews, 25 beers on draft and a packed out yard (yes, yard) every night, even I’ll admit that a website redesign isn’t necessary for these folk. There is possibly nothing better than a cold cocktail on a warm night at an open-air bar.
I hope you make your way to the heart of Texas soon, friends. It’s too good to be missed.
P.S. If you are planning a trip, hit me up for hotel recommendations. I’ve already scoped them out for you.