With only a few days off over the Christmas break, San Antonio turned out to be a pleasant holiday weekend getaway. With so many hotels in the downtown area, and everything to see mostly downtown, it was easy to plan a stay. San Antonio lights up during the Christmas season, especially all over the River Walk which glitters spectacularly in the night. As we live in New York, it was great that even though we were in the middle of a cold winter, after a short plane ride we were basking in sunny 80°F weather in San Antonio and sauntering around in our T-shirts and Santa hats!
The River Walk
The main attraction in downtown San Antonio is the River Walk, a picturesque setting for a stroll, a boat cruise, or just shopping, eating, and having fun. In December it is strewn with thousands Christmas lights, making a boat ride at night just lovely.
The river walk is 15 miles of free pathway along the San Antonio river which winds through the downtown area. You can walk as little or as much as you like, cross the several bridges that dot the path, and stop by a café for a bite or to have a drink. A boat cruise on one of the many river boats coasting up and down the river day and night is a must. It’s easy to find where you can buy tickets, just look for the long lines….but it is worth standing in line for a bit, and tickets are only $10. We chose to ride on the Rio San Antonio Cruise which was narrated, so you get tidbits of information, but the fun was taking in the sights along the riverbanks as your boat hums along. The boats have a distinctive hum which fills the air, and if I close my eyes I can still hear the sound…it takes me right back…I can feel the slightly humid warmth of the night on my skin, the sounds of so many people milling around, chatting and having a great time.
We got a tip that there were two well-known places along the River Walk to eat: Boudro’s [421 E. Commerce, (210) 224-8484] where we had their famous table-side guacamole, and Casa Rio [430 E. Commerce, (210) 225-6718], the first restaurant built along the River Walk, and still considered by some to be the best. It was packed of course when we went there for lunch, and they don’t take reservations, but they have multi-level seating and we got seated quickly, luckily at one of the outside tables. The food was a great representation of what is considered Tex-Mex. I had the chicken enchilada platter. The chicken was tender, the sauce delicious, and the portion generous. Well-fed, I sipped my drink while watching the river boats glide by.
La Villita – Historic Arts Village
One of the most charming spots along the River Walk is La Villita, or “little village”. It’s a one block area in the southern area of downtown which has become a treasured artisan district, with over 25 shops and art galleries that showcase local arts and crafts. It is a great place to get a unique Christmas present or souvenir, or just to browse. In the 18th century, squatters who came to this area to live near the mission were the first settlers of this village which eventually became the city of San Antonio. As the population grew, the area became home to craftsmen but unfortunately also turned into an overcrowded slum. In the 1940s a restoration project turned it into the historic arts village it is today, a symbol of the blending of the Mexican, German and American people who built San Antonio. For a list of all the shops and artisans that can be found here, go to lavillitasanantonio.com.
Market Square – and Mi Tierra Bakery and Café
Another place to Christmas shop is the Market Square with over 100 locally owned businesses offering unique gifts and souvenirs. The Market Square covers three city blocks which were converted into a pedestrian mall, with stone fountains, ornamental street lights, trees and benches. We rode on a narrated city sightseeing bus tour one day, which drove us all around San Antonio, with hop on and hop off stops. One of the stops was the Market Square, so we got off and spent a pleasant hour or two in the afternoon wandering through the shops, until it was time to hop on to the next city tour bus. For more information on shops and events here, visit marketsquaresa.com.
Market Square is also the location of Mi Tierra Bakery and Cafe, [218 Produce Row, (210) 225-1262], a café that opened in 1941 with three tables that has become a world-famous landmark restaurant for Tex Mex food. It can now serve over 500 people at a time and is festively decorated with Christmas lights year-round. It was the place to be for a Christmas Eve dinner of steak fajitas for two, which is how we started our trip.
Speaking of food, another great stop along the city sightseeing bus tour was Augie’s BBQ, [909 Broadway, (201) 314-3596]. You’re in Texas, so you might as well have some great Texas barbeque! It’s unassuming inside, with wood paneled walls, metal bull steers decorating the wall, and a window where you walk up to give your order. I had a pork rib plate with your typical baked beans and coleslaw on the side. It came with a simple slice of white sandwich bread that they plopped on your plate, pointing you in the direction of a folding side table with utensils, napkins and anything else you might need. We sat down and ate, the fall-of-the-bone tender pork ribs disappearing fast. The meal really hit the spot after an afternoon of sightseeing all over town. Tickets for the bus tour can be purchased from any of the locations near the Alamo where the bus tours begin.
You can’t talk about San Antonio without talking about the Alamo. A battleground might not be the first thing you think about when it comes to Christmas traditions, but the story of the Alamo says a lot about heroism, the fight for freedom, and the spirit of Texans. Texas became part of the Union on December 29, 1845, right after Christmas, so……San Antonio was founded by Spanish missionaries in 1718 and was governed by Mexico until the Texas revolution broke out in 1836. That is the year of the battle of the Alamo, when over 200 defenders filled the garrison, were eventually pushed back into the church, lost the battle to an overwhelming number of Mexican troops and were slain. The defenders included such American historical figures as James Bowie and David Crockett. While the newly formed Texas Republic couldn’t defend itself against the Mexican army, in 1845 Mexico negotiated an agreement with the U.S. and Texas became a State.
A visit to the Alamo is a visit to sacred ground. Several live and audio tours are available, for more information see www.thealamo.org. We walked through the long barracks, where displays of battle artifacts are set up. I definitely got an eerie feeling walking through the barracks. We then stood in the Arbor courtyard and caught one of the free history talks given there throughout the day by passionate and animated historians. After that we toured the church, with its bare-boned stone walls. It was an awesome experience, and you definitely get a sense of the Texas spirit.
After your visit to the Alamo, stop by the statue prominently displayed downtown called the “Torch of Friendship”. It was a gift to San Antonio from Mexico in 2002 and is a symbol of the friendship between the two.
Tower of the Americas
We ended our trip with a great dinner at a fine-dining restaurant, Chart House [739 E. Cesar E. Chavez Blvd, (210) 223-3101], located at the top of the Tower of the Americas. Many local San Antonians were having a special celebratory Christmas dinner there the night before, so we were lucky to be able to walk in and get a table the night after. Normally reservations are recommended. At dinner we looked out upon sweeping views of San Antonio at night. The crab cakes with avocado corn relish as an appetizer were fantastic, and after a steak dinner we had their renowned hot chocolate lava cake, which was delicious.
After dinner we headed out to the observation deck, which is indoor/outdoor. If you’re afraid of heights you can take in the views from inside the glassed observatory, but I took a deep breath and braved walking around the outside observatory deck, my knuckles white as I clutched the railing and the wind blew against me. The Tower of the Americas was built in 1968 for the World Fair. There is a café and gift shop at the base, and also a bar at the top. An elevator whisks you up the 750-foot tower in only 43 seconds. Tickets can be bought at the tower and also online, and run $14.50 for an adult. The ticket includes unlimited access to the observation deck and the 4D theatre.
A pleasant three day stay where everyone is relaxed and having a good time…plus fajitas and Texas barbeque….what more could you want from a quick weekend getaway? The Christmas spirit was here, not just in the festive lights and atmosphere, but also in San Antonio’s history, where hope for peace prevails.
Top 10 Things To Do:
- The River Walk
- Casa Rio and Boudro’s
- La Villita – Historic Arts Village
- Market Square
- Mi Tierra Bakery and Café
- Augie’s BBQ
- City Sightseeing Bus Tour
- The Alamo
- Torch of Friendship
- Tower of the Americas
Date trip taken: December 2016