Visitors to San Antonio might be surprised to learn that it’s the seventh largest city in the USA, larger than San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami and Boston. This fast-growing city has a population of around 1.5 million. In Texas, only Houston beats it. But the best thing about San Antonio is that with such a compact and walkable downtown, it doesn’t feel big – and that’s why I like it. I’m not alone. An estimated 32 million visitors flock to San Antonio every year.
The Spanish first set foot in San Antonio in 1691, founding a settlement in the early 18th century. Some of the earliest settlers came from the Canary Islands. San Antonio became the capital of the Spanish province of Tejas; today it’s still possible to visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Years ago, during my first visit to Argentina, I met a woman from San Antonio and was a little irritated by her insistence on pronouncing Texas as Tay-hass. Now, I realise that perhaps it was just a pride in her city’s heritage. You can read the story here:
The single storey adobe building that forms the Spanish Governor’s Palace was the original comandancia, the place where the military garrison’s officers lived and worked. Its whitewashed walls and simple furnishings allow the building to speak for itself; the tranquil courtyard garden is a serene oasis from the modern city which surrounds it.
Of course, the most famous historic building in San Antonio is the Alamo and no visit to the city can be complete without a visit to this historic mission. From 1821 to 1836, the city was the capital of Mexican Tejas, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain in 1821. But when Antonio López de Santa Anna, later to become the country’s 8th president, abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824, violence ensued. The Texian Army, a group of volunteers and regulars, managed to force the Mexicans back, capturing San Antonio in 1835 during the Battle of Bexar. But in 1836, Santa Anna hit back, marching on San Antonio to defeat the Texian forces who were trying to defend the Alamo. A memorial stands outside the building, inscribed thus:
Erected in memory of the heroes who sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6, 1836, in the defense of Texas. They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas.
“Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry of the Texian Army. Later that year, Santa Anna was defeated and Texas won its independence. It remained that way until 1845 when it was annexed by the USA with popular approval from the Texians. Texas was formally incorporated as a state of the USA on February 19, 1846.
A stroll along the city’s River Walk is the most scenic way to reach the cathedral. This urban waterway, lined with trees and restaurants, is the social heart of San Antonio. Catastrophic flooding occurred on the San Antonio River in 1921, leading to calls to manage the river as it wound its way through the heart of the city. Casa Rio was the first restaurant to open in 1946, but I’d recommend you pay a visit to Cafe Ole where you should ask if their server Richard is rostered on – he’s excellent.
The cathedral is well worth a visit. Also known as the church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe, it was originally built from 1738 to 1750 and some of those original walls still stand. The current structure largely dates from the 19th century. Each evening, a sound and light show tells the history of the city, the captivating graphics projected onto the cathedral’s façade and twin towers.
Though it can feel like it at times, the city’s not just the sum of its Mexican heritage. There’s actually a historic German district known as King William, located within an easy walk of downtown. In the 1790s, Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of the city’s five missions, sold off land to settlers. It wasn’t until the 1860s, however, that the district was sectioned off into plots and took on its present day layout. At that time, it attracted a sizeable population of German immigrants. The main street was named King Wilhelm 1, after the King of Prussia, though it garnered the derogatory nickname Sauerkraut Bend for a while too. Its wealthy residents competed to construct the most impressive mansions and a stroll along the street today is as much an exercise in real estate envy as it is regular sightseeing. A visit to the Edward Steves Homestead Museum affords the opportunity to see how such families might have lived.
There’s plenty more: a rich cultural heritage manifested in a number of excellent art museums and a plethora of shopping plazas including El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the USA and La Villita, a concentration of arts and crafts stores showcasing some of the area’s finest artisan talent. And if you wish to get kitted out with your own stetson before continuing your Texan journey, then I’d recommend a visit to this place:
Paris Hatters celebrates a century of trading this year. It’s not much to look at, but the tiny store is packed with boxes stacked almost to the ceiling ensuring that whatever your style choice or your size, there’s something to fit. Its clientele boast a number of the rich and famous, among them former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis Jnr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, B.B. King and Bob Dylan. You never know, as you look in the mirror, someone you recognise might be right behind you!