The late historian T.R. Fehrenbach once said that the past felt alive in San Antonio, and indeed it does. Though it’s the seventh-largest city in the United States, San Antonio often feels small and deeply nostalgic. The city celebrated its tricentennial anniversary in 2018, and a sense of pride has taken hold. In this full-day itinerary, we round up our favorite places that encompass both San Antonio’s rich and layered past and its promising future.
Begin the day downtown with breakfast at Mi Tierra Café & Bakery (218 Produce Row). This 24-hour, fourth-generation institution has been making some of the best Tex-Mex in town since 1941. Breakfast dishes include local favorites like huevos rancheros, menudo (beef stomach soup with lime, hominy and chiles) and machacado (dried beef with chiles and egg), along with a full menu of tacos served with fresh salsa. Visitors come back time and again for the delicious food, warm service and twinkle-lit ambiance. (The mariachi music doesn’t hurt, either!)
While the Alamo is located right downtown, there are plenty of other beautiful missions to explore nearby. After breakfast, take a 10-minute car ride south to Mission Reach. Accessible by foot or by bike, this 8-mile path on the San Antonio River will set the pace for your morning. (In the summer months, it’s best to visit first thing to avoid the heat.) The winding trail takes you past four 18th-century Spanish Colonial missions, including Mission Concepción, Mission San José, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. These weathered stone structures were walled communities where Christianity was taught to the local indigenous people. Today, they serve as active Catholic churches and vestiges of a seminal moment in San Antonio’s history.
After a full morning at the missions, hop in the car and head back north for lunch. On the way, take a detour to the King William District, where 19th-century riverfront homes are shaded by impressive pecan, oak and cypress trees. This is the oldest historic district in Texas, and some of the properties are now public museums. For instance, the Edward Steves Homestead (509 King William) is a historic house museum donated by a prominent family with ties to the lumber industry. Homes such as this one are available to tour independently or you can take a quick walking tour through the neighborhood using the informative brochure available outside the King William Association (122 Madison St.).
Less than a mile from here, stop for lunch at the newly opened NONNA Osteria (401 S. Alamo St.), located on the ground floor of the historic Fairmount Hotel across from Hemisfair Park. At the helm of this sleek, light-filled restaurant is Food Network star runner-up chef Luca Della Casa, who prepares rustic, northern Italian dishes like spicy wood-fired pizzas and wild boar pasta. For an indulgent meal, don’t miss the fresh tagliatelle with truffles, prepared tableside in a large, fragrant wheel of parmesan cheese.
Now it’s off to the museums! En route to the San Antonio Museum of Art (200 W. Jones Ave.), stop and take an obligatory picture in front of the Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza), the city’s most visited landmark. This mission-turned-fortress is the famed site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. It’s free to visit and open to the public, but be wary of tourists wielding selfie sticks. The SAMA, as the museum is locally known, will have a Spanish exhibition through September 16, 2018, commemorating over 500 years of Spanish paintings from masters like El Greco, Goya, Picasso and more.
Following your visit, continue driving north on Broadway to your next destination, the McNay Art Museum (6000 N. New Braunfels Ave.), Texas’ first museum for modern art. Situated in a stunning Spanish Colonial Revival home on more than 20 scenic acres, the collection encompasses over 22,000 works, with a focus on post-World War II American art, modern European and American prints and drawings.
Alternatively, if you’re interested in a more outdoorsy experience, venture to the famous San Antonio Zoo (3903 N. St. Mary’s St.), home to 750 animal species and one of the largest bird collections in the world.
After your museum visits, grab a coffee and something sweet at Bird Bakery (5912 Broadway). Owned by journalist and TV personality Elizabeth Chambers, along with her movie-star husband Armie Hammer, this quaint bakery is the perfect spot for a midafternoon pick-me-up. I highly recommend the monster cookies or the decadent cupcakes.
Next, drive to the Pearl District for some late-afternoon shopping. This hip mixed-use space, centered around a former brewery, is home to a thriving Saturday farmers market, unique shops and innovative restaurants. Don’t miss Dos Carolinas (303 Pearl Pkwy., Suite 102) for custom, handmade guayaberas. San Antonians know a thing or two about hot weather, and these shirts, which are inspired by styles from Cuba and the Yucatan, will keep you cool in hot, humid climates. The shop also makes robes and custom dresses for women.
Across from Dos Carolinas awaits another treasure called The Tiny Finch (302 Pearl Pkwy., Suite 116). This organic lifestyle store is globally curated with everything from Turkish rugs and Bolivian blankets to woven dog beds, delicate jewelry and European-inspired glassware.
With a full day of sightseeing and shopping behind you, it’s time to set your sights on dinner. Though often in the shadow of its northern neighbor (Austin), San Antonio’s culinary scene contains many talented tastemakers of its own, like James Beard semifinalist chef Steve McHugh of Cured (306 Pearl Pkwy., Suite 101). McHugh’s resourceful menu and whole-animal philosophy has attracted the attention of foodies and critics nationwide, as has his unique story. In 2010, McHugh was hit with a life-changing lymphoma diagnosis. His fight against blood cancer and eventual remission inspired the opening of Cured.
While the name pays homage to his cancer-free life, it is also a tribute to the hand-crafted, cured foods that grace his menu. From the artisanal meats hanging in a striking gold-and-glass locker to the delectable charcuterie boards and inventive cocktail menu, Cured is nothing short of a memorable dining experience.
For a slightly different, less meat-intensive menu, try Bliss in Southtown (926 S. Presa St.). Located in a revitalized filling station, this nouveau-American restaurant has a relaxed yet polished ambiance. Celebrated chef Mark Bliss (for whom the restaurant is named) experiments with fresh local ingredients, creating elegant dishes that are rich in flavor. Our favorite dishes include the oyster sliders on buttermilk-chive biscuits, the Japanese hamachi tostadas, and the perfectly seared scallops on cheesy grits with sautéed spinach, avocado mousse and cilantro-lime beurre blanc. If you’re traveling with fewer than 10 people, be sure to inquire about reservations for the intimate chef’s table experience.
Don’t miss the spectacular evening art installation “San Antonio | The Saga” at the San Fernando Cathedral (115 W. Main Plaza). Every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m., guests can watch from downtown’s historic main plaza as the light show projects onto the cathedral’s façade. Conceived by French artist Xavier De Richemont, this 24-minute show celebrates San Antonio’s unique history and heritage through state-of-the-art visuals and choreographed surround sound. The event is free and open to the public.
After the show, finish with a nightcap at Sternewirth (136 E. Grayson St.), the dramatic tavern and club room in the Harper-recommended Hotel Emma. Sit in one of the repurposed distillery vats turned cozy alcoves and enjoy a craft beer, a glass of wine or the house cocktail, the La Babia Margarita. Named for the Hacienda La Babia in Coahuila, Mexico, this drink is rich in tradition and flavor, much like the great city of San Antonio.
This article was originally published in July 2018. It has been updated.