Go Culture-Hopping in San Antonio

1. Where to Stay

The rooms at JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort look out over Texas Hill Country.Photo: Courtesy of JW Marriot San Antonio Hill Country Resort

Cool off in waterfalls and rivers in the six-acre water park at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa (from $229). Located 30 minutes from downtown, the expansive resort pays tribute to the aesthetic of the surrounding Texas Hill Country with tooled leather, carved wood, and metals adorning its 1,002 rooms. Renew yourself at the Lantana Spa with one of the treatments inspired by local curanderos (traditional village healers), like the Earth’s Journey Remedy ($250 for 105 minutes), which includes a mud wrap and a massage with mineral cream.

Walk to the Alamo and the bustling San Antonio River Walk from downtown’s family-friendly Home2Suites (from $139). Opened last October, the hotel offers 128 environmentally friendly studio and one-bedroom suites, featuring bright color palettes and contemporary prints, with living rooms and fully equipped kitchens.

See a stylish side of the city at the Hotel Havana (from $105), where locals gather for pan-Latin cuisine on the terraces overlooking the bar Ocho and perch on velvet couches in the downstairs lounge. First opened in 1914, the historic building’s 27 rooms were revamped in 2010 with wrought-iron beds, Turkish rugs, and vintage Cuban artwork.

2. Where to Eat

La Gloria sits on the grounds of popular food-and-culture destination Pearl Brewery.Photo: Courtesy of La Gloria

Sample the highlights of Mexico’s regional cuisine at La Gloria, where chef Johnny Hernandez re-creates the dishes of street vendors and taquerias. Sit among copper sculptures on the outdoor patio and sample tacos al pastor ($5.25) from Mexico City, tlayudas topped with shredded beef ($8.50) from Oaxaca, and a variety of ceviches ($8-$12) reflecting different regional recipes.

Experience history and high-minded bar food at the Esquire Tavern, which first opened in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition, but was renovated and reopened in 2011 following a five-year hiatus. Choose from selections like fried beets with tarragon aioli ($6), organic burgers topped with refried beans ($10), and fried apple pie ($9). A rotating selection of local beers is served, but stick to the complex cocktail menu, which earned a James Beard Award nomination earlier this year.

Load up on breakfast served all day long at the Guenther House, one of the most elegant homes in the King William Historic District, originally settled by German immigrants. The house was built by the founder of a flour mill, and the restaurant pays tribute to him with plates of buttermilk pancakes ($6.25) and sweet cream waffles ($6.75) made from his company’s recipes. Choose between sitting in the Art Nouveau dining room, accented with stained glass, or al fresco underneath a trellis next to the house.

3. What to Do

San Antonio is home to centuries-old missions built by the Spanish; the Museo Alameda is the first Smithsonian-affiliated museum outside of Washington D.C.Photo: Courtesy of SACVB (L); courtesy of the Museo Alameda (R)

Bike the Mission Reach project’s newly created riverfront trails with some wheels from San Antonio Bike Share ($10 for a 24-hour rental). Set to be completed by next summer, the nation’s largest urban ecosystem restoration project will expand the River Walk to fifteen miles, but already completed trails will guide you toward Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Espada, and Mission Concepción—centuries-old stone churches that make up the greatest collection of Spanish colonial architecture in the country.

Explore the city’s Latino heritage on a tour of the Museo Alameda ($5), the only Smithsonian-affiliated museum dedicated to Latino culture. Opened in 2007, the museum was inspired by (and takes its name from) the largest U.S. movie palace dedicated to Spanish-language entertainment, which opened in San Antonio in 1949 but later closed. The current exhibition features artists whose work rose out of the Mexican Revolution and Renaissance, like Diego Rivera, and the museum also frequently curates free film screenings and cultural walking tours.

Learn about Texan archetypes like cowboys and oil tycoons at the South Texas Heritage Center ($10), a new addition to the Witte Museum’s campus near Brackenridge Park. The 20,000-square-foot space chronicles the events that shaped the region from the 1800’s through the fifties, with interactive exhibits that re-create a town plaza and rural ranches alongside art and artifacts that capture how the region was settled in its wilder days.

4. Insider’s Tip

The VFW house, which hosts weekly events, was built in 1904.Photo: Mike Tex, via Flickr

Let loose on the lawn of the VFW Post 76, overlooking the River Walk. Originally organized by veterans of the Spanish-American War, the oldest post in Texas invites all of San Antonio to celebrate with outdoor parties (usually Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.) that draw more than 100 locals with free live concerts and cold, cheap beers ($2.50 for non-members).

5. Oddball Day

Charreadas were originally held to prepare horses and riders for war.Photo: Courtesy of Al Rendon/SACVB

Explore the many facets of San Antonio’s Mexican heritage, which dates back to 1821, but continues today thanks to the city’s proximity to the border. Rent a car for the day to facilitate exploring outside the city center, then make a pit stop for a Tex-Mex breakfast of chorizo and egg tacos ($1.49 each) at Tito’s Restaurant. Next, head to Mission San José to experience a traditional Catholic mass that incorporates the music of a Mexican mariachi choir (Sundays at 12:30 p.m.). Afterward, make your way to Charro Ranch for a Charreada ($10; usually once monthly at 3 p.m.), a Mexican rodeo featuring rope tricks, music, dance, and impressive synchronized horseback choreography by sidesaddle-riding women in traditional dress. Next, head back downtown to peruse the shops of Market Square, the largest Mexican marketplace outside of Mexico, for authentic souvenirs ranging from artisanal pottery and dolls to bedazzled sombreros. Steps away, feast on heaping plates of chicken enchiladas in móle sauce ($11) at the 24-hour Mi Tierra Café and Panaderia, a family-owned local institution since 1941. As you listen to the serenading trovadores, finish your meal with a cinnamon-laced Mexican hot chocolate ($2.50) and the signature pan dulce (sweetbread) (from 40¢ to $1.25). Stick around at the bar to tackle a jumbo margarita or two ($8), then cab it over to Alamo Street Eat Bar, a gourmet food truck park that serves beer and duck-confit tacos, among other eats, until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

6. Links

Brush up on your Texas history with The Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association.

Learn about the city’s culturally diverse performances at ARTS San Antonio.

Read up on all downtown activity through the San Antonio Express News’s Downtown Blog.

Find progressive picks from local writers and critics in Current, San Antonio’s free, alternative newsweekly.

Follow one food blogger’s exploration of the San Antonio culinary scene on Mesa a Mesa.

Go Culture-Hopping in San Antonio