Remembering the Alamo: A Texas-sized weekend awaits visitors.

PAPEL PICADO create a colorful canopy over El Mercado-Historic Market Square.

By Karen Schaffner

San Antonio, Texas is nothing if not surprising.

From the friendliness of its citizens who go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, to its preserved colorful history to the many opportunities to sample outrageously delicious vittles, this is a city waiting to be discovered.

One weekend in fun, intriguing San Antonio is enough to whet the appetite for a later, deeper dive.

RIVERWALK STONE ARCH BRIDGE over the San Antonio River.
Photo by Karen Schaffner

Scooters and scandal

San Antonio is bustling with activities day or night.

Stepping outside of the Thompson-San Antonio Riverwalk hotel, two Vespa scooters with sidecars showed up right on time at 5:30 p.m.

The Vespa sidecars take two visitors on a tour of Downtown San Antonio, the city known for the iconic Alamo. Led by drivers Kevin and Liz Mancha, the rides were a respite from the humidity, as the wind blew through our hair.

The ride was eye-opening. It turns out San Antonio is so much more than the Alamo.
The first stop on the tour was the Historic Pearl, an open area with quirky shops, green spaces and a children’s splash pad. Towering over the entire square is Hotel Emma, a “lavish, luxury hotel” with a complicated history.

It’s easy to relax in the patio of Hugman’s Oasis, a tiki bar that sits next to the Riverwalk. Photo by Karen Schaffner

At the turn of the last century, Otto Koehler left Lone Star Brewing Company to helm the San Antonio Brewing Association. Under his leadership, it grew significantly. Eventually, his wife Emma took over but was injured in an accident.

Otto hired two nurses, both with the appellation of Emma, and had affairs with them. One night an argument broke out and one of the Emmas fatally shot Otto. The third Emma went on the lam but was brought back to stand trial. She was found not guilty and eventually married one of the jurors.

The hotel is named after the wife.

Here’s a small detail: Hotel Emma used to house a brewery, where Pearl Beer was brewed and bottled. Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewing eventually acquired the business but closed it in 2001.

Wet your whistle and experience some of that Texas-sized hospitality in Hotel Emma’s first-floor Sternewirth Tavern, a vast, leather and dark wood bar. The knowledgeable bartenders suggest the tavern’s specialty, the Three Emmas. However, do not be fooled by this seemingly harmless rose cordial. Bartenders warn their customers to drink only one because three could kill you.

Markets and margaritas

The next stop is less swank, but just as memorable: Tony’s Siesta, a dive bar with a back patio and side yard. A pop-up market celebrating Selena was happening, as she’s a beloved figure in San Antonio. But the best item at the market wasn’t related to Selena at all: It was a T-shirt with a picture of Jesus and the words, “I saw that.”

The last stop on the 90-minute tour was El Mercado-Historic Market Square. (In San Antonio they like to call everything historic.) This was a real market square where vendors brought items like produce, meat and livestock.

These days, it’s the home to shops with lovely Mexican folk art and typical souvenirs. Visitors can even purchase a jug of Michelada as they browse the area. The best time to visit is during the day because at night, the guide said, the characters change from family-friendly to those who overindulge.

The historic Aztec Theatre San Antonio as seen from a sidecar of a Vespa Scooter at 30 mph. Photo by Visit San Antonio

Within the central market is Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia, which is crowded, noisy and dazzling to the eye. The rooms are filled with sparkling decorations, pinatas and other fancy Mexican artifacts. Servers, donning full skirts and peasant blouses, practically run around the dining area with huge trays.

Of note is a rather large, nearly life-size painting of President Bill Clinton in his gym clothes jogging along a San Antonio street. The Tex-Mex establishment is a gem worthy of a peek — and, possibly, a margarita.

A short walk from the Thompson is the most organized Goodwill, which sells mostly clothing, but has a decent home goods section, too.

The store featured plenty of embroidered sombreros, a china poblana (traditional Mexican skirt) and a mariachi band jacket — all an ode to the city’s annual fiesta.

Along the busier side of the Riverwalk is a San Antonio institution, Boudro’s Texas Bistro. Photos by Karen Schaffner

Missions, mariachis and Mass

Cutting through the center of town, the Riverwalk is a must-do on a tour. Part of it boasts mostly shaded, paved pathways, perfect for a leisurely stroll, with benches dotting the way. The path is below street level, so be prepared for a plethora of staircases.

The Alamo is a requirement of any San Antonio trip. Tickets start at $20 for a self-guided tour, but admission to the church is free. Keep in mind: The mission church at the Alamo is just a shell, and the lines are long. A good deal of it is under construction, too.

Only students of history will want to brave the crowds. The church’s edifice and the statue of Davy Crockett are enough. Keep in mind: the gift shop is unforgettable.

History buffs will also want to swing by the nearby Mission San Jose, an active Catholic church where there’s a mariachi Mass at noon Sundays. (Arrive by 11 a.m. to get a seat.) The Mass is in Spanish but Catholics will find it easy to follow.

Afterward, hit the street called Alamo Plaza, which boasts fun shops and activities. Refreshments like ice cream on a house-made waffle cone, available at Kilwins, is welcome and refreshing. Get one but grab a fudge sample, too.

PAN DULCE in nearly every variety at Mi Tierra Cafe and Panaderia. Photo by Karen Schaffner

Respite at the Riverwalk

Along the Riverwalk there are plenty of hotels.

At the Thompson-San Antonio Riverwalk, the rooms are spacious and shining examples of that Texas hospitality.

Lucky guests will be greeted upon check-in by Felipe Villalba and his enviable mustache. He knows his city and while guests sip chilled prosecco, he will gladly share its many highlights.

This Hyatt property is a high-end, casual, full-service hotel, complete with a spa. The Thompson Spa features massage, facials or body renewal treatments. Afterward, take a dip in the hotel pool.

Shredded Short Rib Tacos from Acenar.

Helmed by Chef Steve McHugh, a James Beard Award finalist, Landrace is dark and elegant — and the perfect place to impress a date. McHugh uses heritage ingredients and sources them locally.

Begin the meal with an old fashioned prepared tableside, poured by white-jacketed mixologists, who smoke the top-shelf Whistle Pig rye.

In April, the chef offered wild-caught scallops with roasted carrots and a blackberry coulis, and ranch-raised venison and broccolini. Sides included roasted asparagus and cheddar-bacon biscuits.

Dessert was a decadent chocolate Texas sheet cake made in its own small skillet.

For a more easygoing experience, head up to the 20th floor to the Moon’s Daughters, where patrons must be at least 21 years old. The drinks are great and the view is that and then some.

Pleasant evenings call for conversation on the patio. There are bites to be had here; the menu is not extensive but if guests are in the mood for a wagyu triple burger, grilled lamb chops or olives and nuts, this is the place. On the weekends there are DJs and live music. Brunch is available on Sundays.

At the hard-to-forget Alamo, Davy Crockett stands sentinel.
Photos by Karen Schaffner

Earning the honor

There are two UNESCO City of Gastronomy cities in the United States — Tucson and San Antonio. To qualify, cities must have more individually owned restaurants than chain eateries. It’s easy to figure out why San Antonio earned the honor.

Start the day with Bakery Lorraine’s coffee and lattes, French toast and bacon. Of interest is the baked oatmeal, which is really like a rustic oatmeal cake topped with sweet whipped cream.

The real stars at Bakery Lorraine, however, are the baked goods. Be wary of the line, which snakes around glass cases with tempting tarts topped with fresh fruit, cinnamon rolls, macarons, oversized cookies and chocolate croissants.

Breakfast is also tops at Con Huevos Tacos, a stand with patio seating plunked in a regular neighborhood. Grab a breakfast quesadilla with chorizo and potatoes nestled in a fat, handmade corn tortilla and you’re ready for a long day of sightseeing — or work.

Feeling peckish? It is lunchtime. Stop at Acenar, a Mexican restaurant with a patio that spills out into the Riverwalk. Service is good and the food is better than expected — with housemade refried beans and rice that tastes like a Mexican grandmother made it.
The menu is extensive but try the shredded short ribs tacos or the cochinita pibil (pork roasted in banana leaves). Black beans and cilantro rice accompany them.

GULF FRITILLARY Photo by Karen Schaffner

Finally, end this San Antonio adventure with dinner at Boudro’s Texas Bistro, where the specialty is surf and turf, in the Riverwalk’s commercial area. A San Antonio institution, delicious Boudro’s is worth the wait and the money.

For this meal, there were a few things that made their way to the table. Shrimp and grits, seared scallops served with hominy and blackened prime rib. It was all eaten, a testament to the chef. For dessert, the key lime pie featured a nice balance between sweet and tart.
Neighboring diners ordered tableside guacamole.

The place is crowded and noisy, but the food is worth it — just like San Antonio as a whole.

Best of the City

The Thompson San Antonio – Riverwalk
115 Lexington Avenue, San Antonio

The Historic Pearl in San Antonio
The Tiny Finch
302 Pearl Parkway, Suite 116, San Antonio

Adelante Boutique
303 Pearl Parkway, Suite 107, San Antonio

Feliz Modern Pop
303 Pearl Parkway, Suite 104, San Antonio

Rancho Diaz
303 Pearl Parkway Suite 101, San Antonio

Ten Thousand Villages
302 Pearl Parkway, Suite 114, San Antonio

Pearl Farmers Market
200 E. Grayson Street, San Antonio

The Alamo
The Alamo
300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio
Reservations are required
Last entry is 30 minutes prior to closing
Closed Christmas Day
Private tours available
Entry fees varies

109 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio

The Amazing Mirror Maze featuring Escape Street
217 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio
Cost: $25.99
Children 3 and younger admitted free

Vespa Sidecar Rides
Cost begins at $160

Mi Tierra Cafe and Panaderia
218 Produce Row, San Antonio

El Mercado-Historic Market Square
514 W. Commerce Street, San Antonio

The Emma
136 E. Grayson Street, San Antonio

Tony’s Siesta
206 Brooklyn Avenue, San Antonio

Landrace Restaurant
111 Lexington Avenue, San Antonio

Bakery Lorraine The Historic Pearl
7338 Louis Pasteur Drive, Suite 201, San Antonio

Acenar Restaurant
146 E. Houston Street, San Antonio

Hugman’s Oasis
135 E. Commerce Street, San Antonio

Detroit-style pizza
8435 Wurzbach Road, Suite 313, San Antonio

Con Huevos Tacos
1629 E. Houston Street, San Antonio

Boudro’s Texas Bistro on the Riverwalk
421 E. Commerce Street, San Antonio

Visit San Antonio