By Jessica Festa, Epicure & Culture Editor
My trip to San Antonio was sponsored by the Holiday Inn brand. As always, all opinions are my own.
San Antonio is an incredibly romantic city. For one, every block features preserved Romanesque Revival and Neo-Gothic Revival architecture revamped for modern use, giving the entire destination a historic feel. Moreover, you’ll find boat rides, carriage tours, waterfront restaurants covered in hanging ivy with outdoor patios, brick-laced corridors and cobbled paths to hold hands down without even trying.
Even as a solo traveler in San Antonio I appreciated the city’s apparent beauty (though, yea, I mayyy have sent my guy back home a few hundred photos or so saying I wished he was there). I also respected the city’s rich history as a home to early Spanish colonial life and Texas’ first civilian settlement. San Antonio attractions like the Alamo and the many Missions — as well as historic cathedrals and basilicas — speak to this. And while one should certainly take the time to explore these sites, I wanted to go beyond the guidebook and explore lesser-known San Antonio from the solo female’s perspective; and of course share it with all of you!
So, how exactly did I spent my time in San Antonio? With…
After waking up at 4am to catch a connecting flight to San Antonio I couldn’t wait to run off the plane and get right to my hotel. Which is what made Blacklane so handy. I’d worked with this business class ground transportation company before for a trip to Seattle, and really enjoyed the service. When they asked if I’d like to work together again I happily accepted. Even before I landed my driver, Stan, had texted me saying he was there in a black Lincoln Navigator and his license plate number. Because airport pickups include an hour of free wait time there was no crazy rush.
Stan told me about an alternative pickup point that required less walking for me, and swiftly took my bags and handed me some bottled water once I met him. During the ride, he told me about life growing up in San Antonio and recommended favorite restaurants.
In terms of travel safety, Blacklane drivers go through all legal requirements in the respective countries, including necessary background checks and having the appropriate licenses.
I was invited by the Holiday Inn brand to stay at the Holiday Inn San Antonio River Walk, an amenity-filled property right on the city’s famous waterfront. As I’m the type of traveler who likes to explore on foot or by bike, I loved having direct access to the River Walk right out the back door as well as the many offerings of downtown within walking or cycling distance (though there is a reliable bus network, called Via, for $1.30 per ride).
Another perk: my balcony-equipped room overlooking the River Walk meant people watching while nibbling a fresh cheese platter from room service was certainly doable, although even if you opt for a non-balcony room the onsite Windows on the River Restaurant & Lounge pairs similar views with burgers, cocktails and more. I had a healthy breakfast buffet there in the morning and it was uber relaxing.
No worries about calories, as between exploring and the onsite gym and outdoor pool means you’ll burn it all right off (at least, that’s what I like to tell myself). The Holiday Inn team also recommended a few food and beverage spots that ended up being great for solo travelers — including the Soho Wine & Martini Bar and The Luxury — which I mention below.
Starting rate: $156.50 per night.Here's how to #travel beyond the guidebook in #SanAntonio, #Texas Click To Tweet
Photography Heaven On The San Antonio River Walk
From the Holiday Inn property I was able to walk right onto the San Antonio River Walk. While this is a major attraction it was one that, as a photographer, outdoor enthusiast and food lover, I couldn’t resist.
I’d heard of this San Antonio attraction before and was expecting a super commercial waterfront; however, what I got was something totally different. For one, the network of waterways spreading throughout the city is a photographer’s dream, offering endless opportunities for shots of whimsical bridges, gardens, man-made waterfalls, public artwork, skylines peaking above palms and ambient outdoor eateries. Yes, you will find Rainforest Cafe, Rocky Mountain Chocolate, Dick’s Last Resort and other major chains, but the local establishments and beautiful views far outweigh the commercial aspect.
For a fun twist try your luck at finding these little graffiti dudes along the River Walk. You may even want to challenge your friends — or yourself if you’re solo — to a scavenger hunt.
Creative Heritage At The La Villita Historic Arts Village
I stumbled upon this gem while wandering the River Walk; and while upon first glance it may seem like a village created just for tourists, it’s exactly the opposite. After ascending a set of terraced steps reminiscent of a mini Machu Picchu, I entered a neat village lined with art galleries and handmade accessory shops. While each of the 25+ venues of the La Villita Historic Arts Village has its own focus — surreal pop art, Mexican handicrafts, mixed metal design, watercolor paintings, a unique fragrance factory — my favorite was B & C Leather Designs & Unique Finds and its individually crafted accessories.
Torrential rains began pouring down while I was inside, so I hunkered down with the shop owner. He explained La Villita was one of the first neighborhoods settled in San Antonio. In fact, his particular shop’s structure dates back to 1855, while the village itself dates back to 1845 and is a US Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Within the village the small shops have diverse architectural styles telling the story of the German, French and Italian immigrants that settled there.
Al Fresco Works At The McNutt Courtyard and Sculpture Garden
I’m a budget traveler; and while I’m sure the Briscoe Western Art Museum has much to offer, I didn’t want to spring the $10 admission, especially as San Antonio’s weather had been treating me so well. Their adjacent courtyard, however, is free to enter and features a small but interesting collection of outdoor works by Western artists. There are also tables to take a rest from wandering the River Walk and re-hydrate while enjoying the scenery.
Note: The Briscoe Western Art Museum does offer free admission on Tuesdays from 4pm-9pm.
Good-For-You Goodies At URTH Juice Bar
In an attempt to be healthy I decided to seek out some all-natural drinks, also great as a refreshment in San Antonio’s intense heat. I was actually walking to Bubblehead — which ended up being closed — and stumbled upon URTH Juice Bar.
“I’ll just get a juice,” I whispered to myself. “No smoothies!”
Yea, okay. As soon as I stepped into the colorful mural-adorned space with its rainbow chalk board listing juices, smoothies, tonics and detoxes, I knew I’d be getting something laced with cooking spices and cacao over kale. And I happily did; a “Cosmo” made with milk, peanut butter, banana, flax oil, honey and cinnamon. Great as a meal or a dessert!
Northern Thai Food At Baan Esaan
This was another discovery made while searching for Bubblehead, as Baan Esaan had taken its address. San Antonio is known for its delicious Tex Mex, which is exactly why I wanted to also try restaurants that were just the opposite. Hey, we are going beyond the guidebook here. Esaan is the Northeastern region of Thailand, known for its bold flavored food focusing on salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter tastes. The food is also known for being healthier than many other types of Thai food as it’s often grilled or boiled, which fit my never-ending goal to be healthier myself.
The menu is simple but thoughtful, with dishes like green papaya “Somtum” salad, herb laced minced meat “Laab” salad made tangy with lime, and, what I ordered, the “Tiger Cry” featuring uber tender grilled beef and house special sauce.
This place stole my heart by offering a spicy ghost chili sauce. As a hot head, these are the things that really matter. So spicy and delicious, especially with the sticky rice, the main staple of all Esaan meals that soaks up the flavors of the various serrano, habanero and ghost chili-laced sauces.
Immerse Yourself In Mexican Culture At Historic Market Square
I actually didn’t visit Historic Market Square on purpose. I was checking out the small but lovely Milam Park — as well as the adjacent colorful and al fresco art adorned San Antonio Children’s Hospital — when I heard the sounds of Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias blasting nearby. I followed the upbeat music and came upon a square dating back to the 1820s, which locals dub “El Mercado,” full of vendor stalls, indoor shops and patio-equipped Latin eateries sitting underneath colorful strings of flags.
This is where I found the delicious and quirky Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery, a Tex-Mex eatery serving patrons since 1941. What attracted me inside aside for the gorgeous bakery case chock full of pan dulce, Mexican flag cookies and pecan pralines were the servers dressed in Mexican Fiesta Dresses and the blindingly colorful decor — including a fun (and somewhat loco) array of Christmas decorations.
A smiling Mexican man strummed a vihuela while I dug into a juicy roasted chicken stewed with tomatoes, zucchini and corn and served with retried beans, Spanish rice, hot tortilla chips and salsa — only $7.50 on lunch special!
The atmosphere is definitely festive and fun, and their enclosed patio allows solo travelers to occupy themselves with people watching.
Taste Texas Hill Country In The City At Fiesta Winery
Also in Historic Market Square is an outpost for Fiesta Winery, though the name will be changing shortly to the Rustic Grapes Wine Cellars. The premise will remain, though, and you’ll be able to pop in for Texas-sourced glasses and bottles of wine and tastings for just $12 (this includes six one-ounce pours of your choice). I was informed by my tasting guide that there are now over 400 wineries in Texas, with the varietals of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and tempranillo doing particularly well.
The tasting menu featured about 30 wines. I went with the owner’s recommendations, and out of what I tried my favorites were the “Southern Sparkle,” a bubble berry-accented blush, and the “Sojourn,” a light Port-style wine made with black Spanish grapes.
While I won’t say these were my favorite wines I’ve ever tried, they were enjoyable and allowed me to get a true taste of the Texas landscape. Moreover, the tasting room features local artwork from the nearby Royal Canvas Painting Parlor, and is budget-friendly at $9-$12/glass and $39.99 or less for all bottles (most are under $20).
Admire The Architecture Of The King William District
If you like getting lost in leafy green neighborhoods full of historic homes that leave you perpetually saying ooohhh and aaahhh at every corner, ride a BCycle or take the bus to the King William District, the first designated historic district in Texas, dating back to the 1860s. I literally just wandered without a plan, photographing the astounding mix of architecture: Richardsonian Romanesque, Classical Revival, Colonial Revival, Italianate, Classical Revival, Queen Anne style mansions and even one-story bungalows adorned with funky paintings and wind chimes.
A few of the homes really stand out, like Villa Finale and the Edward Steves Homestead, both of which you can tour for ~$10 each with a guide (there are also self-guided and combo tours of both available).
Location: The King William District is located between the San Antonio River, Cesar Chavez Boulevard, South St. Mary’s Street and South Alamo Street. Street signs within the district are brown and say King William Historic District on them.Here's what happens when you visit #SanAntonio #solo without a plan Click To Tweet
Have An Alice In Wonderland Moment At Madhatters Tea House & Café
While wandering the King Williams Historic District I made this discovery. For those used to posh tea salons, Madhatters Tea House & Café turns the traditional upside down by offering tasty pastry platters (made by the local Ultimate Cheesecake Bakery) and sandwiches alongside an array of awesome green, black, organic and herbal teas (try the Cinnamon Plum!) in an eccentric multi-room wooden house. The main room is spacious with chalk board menus, wooden tables with mismatched chairs, uneven shelves of teas and pick-your-own cup stations, and lopsided pictures of flowers and hot drinks, all coming together to be charmingly weathered and weird. There’s also a front patio, a back patio and other less bustling nooks full of books and worn sofas. It’s the type of homey spot you could happily waste the day in.
Note: tea is served for $3.99 per pot (there’s no option for one cup).
Get Fat, Tipsy & Creative At Blue Star Arts Complex
So the way the King William Historic District works is somewhat confusing, as it’s also part of what is known as Southtown Village, which also encompasses the Lavaca and Blue Star neighborhoods. Southtown is extremely arts-centric, so it’s no surprise that the noteworthy Blue Star Arts Complex resides here.
Blue Star showcases historic warehouses converted into an art-focused / mixed use complex and boasts being San Antonio’s longest-running contemporary art space. It’s located right on the River Walk and features Blue Star Brewing Company, San Angel Folk Art, Bar 1919 speakeasy, Brick Live Music & Art, Stella Public House, Sukeban Champagne & Sushi Bar, South Alamode Panini & Gelato Company and other venues paying homepage to local creativity and socializing.
Explore San Antonio’s Sweet Side At South Alamode Panini & Gelato Company
I did this at the Blue Star Art Complex at the above-mentioned South Alamode Panini & Gelato Company. Instead of processed candy-coated creations they focus on refreshing gelatos made daily with natural and regionally renowned ingredients imported from Italy (like pistachio from Bronte!). I ordered the Blackberry Ricotta featuring real juicy fruits and a Lemon Ricotta with Limoncello-inspired lady finger chunks.
Yes, $6 for a small ice cream is expensive, but it’s two ENORMOUS scoops and is so delicious it’s worth it. You’re also welcome to as many free samples as you wish. Plus the naturally lit space is full of art works, wooden tables, game and book-lined shelves and dangling pendant lighting for a nice atmosphere.
Another recommendation: The House Boozy Ice Cream & Brews. This spot is walking distance from Madhatters and the King William Historic District, and features local beers and booze-infused ice cream like Bourbon Vanilla, Irish Setter (a chocolate whiskey Baileys creation) and a Pink Lemonade showcasing Deep Eddy Vodka.
Drink Unique (And Spicy!)
SoHo Wine & Martini Bar is red tinted with a grungy feel that doesn’t fit the posh name; however, the craft and bespoke cocktails — I told the bartender to make me something spicy with mezcal — infused with housemade tinctures do.
Mine ended up having ghost chilies in it — aka it was my hot head heaven — though the chipped stone bar also showcased unique creations like Brisket Bourbon, Bubble Gum Vodka and Coconut Tuaca, as well as a decadent dessert cocktail menu with offerings like Chocolate Covered Strawberry, Nutter Butter and S’More. Shelves also showcase tons of quality spirits, bitters and jugs infusing spirits.
It’s right on the River Walk and was a three-minute stroll from the hotel, so convenient for a yummy nightcap. After the bartender got to know my spicy tastes he urged me to come back for their “White Dragon,” a dessert drink made with strawberry, elderflower, whipped cream, lemon, ghost chilies and rum that hits all the palate’s trigger points.
Dine Al Fresco In An Upcycled Fashion At The Luxury
Coolest. Place. In. San Antonio.
Wow! Don’t let the name fool you into thinking this place is snooty. First of all, there are two shipping containers, one serving a dizzying array of craft beer and wine, and the other offering elevated comfort food like a burger gowned in beer-braised onions, cheese and Poblano peppers; a bahn mi laced with crispy fish and do chua pickles; and an interesting fried plantain gowned in refried beans and fresh crema. What makes it so cool is the chill hits played at a volume where you can still talk, the communal outdoor picnic table seating and the big wooden swings held up by fire hoses overlooking the River Walk.
As a solo traveler it’s very easy to come here with a book and enjoy your meal, a brew and the view. Everything is cooked to order so food takes a bit longer, but it’s worth the wait. Only gripe: you’ll definitely need a lot of bug spray!
Explore A Brewery-Turned-Neighborhood At The Pearl
While biking back to the hotel from The Luxury I saw a giant sign that said Pearl Brewery.
Why not? I thought to myself, veering off Broadway and down the quiet Pearl Parkway, which leads right into a historic 1883 brewery-turned-social neighborhood.
Here you’ll find over 300 apartments and 30+ restaurants, bars and shops, not to mention there was a ton of construction going on and “Coming Soon” signs, so the neighborhood complex is growing. There were lots of people dining outdoors, walking their dogs and cheersing drinks when I went, and I noticed on their website they do regular events like concerts and farmer’s markets.
Two eateries that caught my eye were Green, a 100% Kosher vegetarian restaurant, and One Lucky Duck, a raw cafe. Pretty cool that in the land of Tex-Mex there are also these healthy options.
Interestingly, the entire time I was looking at the logo for Pearl Brewery I kept thinking how familiar it looked. Then it hit me — Pabst! A bit of internet digging showed that Pearl did indeed purchase Pabst and assume the name in 1985; however, in 1999 when Pabst became part of Miller most of its breweries — including this one — were closed.
For further things to do in San Antonio, this attraction is located right near the San Antonio Museum of Art, The Do Seum and Brackenridge Park.Here's why #SanAntonio should be on your #travel bucket list. So much to do & see! Click To Tweet
Find Peace At The Japanese Tea Garden
Speaking of Brackenridge Park, this is where you’ll find a true hidden gem of San Antonio: the free-to-enter The Japanese Tea Garden.
Wow! I seriously can’t believe this exists in an urban environment!
It was jaw droppingly beautiful, as you enter through a traditional torii into a vast area with shady flora-trimmed paths, coy ponds, giant pillars, whimsical stone arch bridges surrounded by duck-filled ponds glimmering in the sun, the light bouncing off bulbs, lilies and exotic plants. The entire scene features a waterfall as a backdrop.
If I were to get married in San Antonio, there’s no doubt I’d want it to be here. There is also the onsite Jingu House Cafe where you can eat and enjoy the scenery.
What would you add to this list of things to do in San Antonio beyond the Alamo? Please share in the comments below!
*This post originally appeared on Jessie on a Journey
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