The New San Antonio
If you live in Texas, odds are you’ve ventured to San Antonio at least once or twice. Because life is so short, I typically don’t like to visit the same place twice unless it holds some sort of sentimental value or is an extremely accessible place to get to.
But San Antonio has changed. In a good way. And in big ways. (And it’s not just me who thinks so. Back in October, Huffington Post dubbed San Antonio one of the Top 5 “Secretly Cool Cities.”)
I recently spent a weekend in the Alamo City and I found so much to do.
Location, location, location
When you only spend a short time in a city, having an enviable location is of extreme importance. One of my favorite aspects of the Hotel Contessa is that it’s located right on the River Walk. Though I’m not a huge fan of the watery tourist attraction itself (been there, done that), my favorite part of the weekend was grabbing a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby (it’s free) and taking a leisurely stroll along the River Walk, which stretches 14 glorious miles.
There are benches and various other sitting areas located pretty much everywhere, and plenty of places to snap a few romantic (or touristy) photos. It was the perfect way to start our day. It’s also perfect if you’re traveling with someone who sleeps in a little later, as one of you can easily head downstairs and take your own private walk or run, while the other’s still catching up on beauty rest.
The 12-story hotel features 265 luxurious suites and every aspect of its design reflects the rich
heritage of 20th century Spain, embracing its unique architecture, hospitality and cuisine. A few other things to love about Hotel Contessa: heated rooftop pool, it’s pet-friendly and has a 24-hour gym.
Since we arrived late Friday, we opted for dinner at the hotel restaurant Las Ramblas, which was relaxing and delicious. If the weather is nice, you can also eat outside right on the River Walk and the wine menu is pretty extensive — all bonuses for your first night. The atmosphere of the hotel’s Cork Bar was also inviting and allowed us to chat with others visiting San Antonio.
The San Antonio food scene has changed quite a bit from what I remember. Even on a quick weekend visit, it’s clear that the city is looking to make a mark on the Texas culinary scene — and it’s definitely succeeding.
For dinner, Starfish is a must. It’s located in South Town, known as the art district. It’s a small unassuming spot — usually the best kind — with the perfect ambiance for a romantic dinner or just catch-up time with the girls. The demo kitchen just feet away no matter where you sit gives an intimate feel to the place.Then comes the food — perfect in every way.
For an appetizer, we had Crab In A Hole (rye blini, Texas cantaloupe, warm crab, head cheese; $13), and for an entrée, Monkfish (serrano ham, asparagus Milanese, cured egg yolk; $24) — all served fresh with local ingredients and a unique flair to each dish.
No good meal is complete without dessert, and we chose S’mores (marshmallow, chocolate mille feuille, graham cracker ice cream; $10). As an avid S’mores connoisseur, this dessert was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted, although it didn’t taste much like S’mores. It’s definitely worth the calories!
Sunday Yum Day at its finest
Unfortunately Sunday left us with just enough time for brunch before heading back to Houston. We went to O’livia, about an eight-block walk from Hotel Contessa along the River Walk. We passed the courthouse and the beautiful campus of UTSA on the walk down on a perfect fall day.
With fresh, local, farm-to-table food, O’livia offers so much. It has an ever-changing brunch menu based on available ingredients as well as a delicious brunch buffet with a fresh omelet station and all the sides laid out on a beautiful wooden table (my fave: the jalapeno grits).
Time for play
We absolutely loved spending Saturday at Pearl, about a two-mile drive from our hotel. We spent all day aimlessly meandering around the Farmer’s Market, which is open rain or shine (Saturdays 9 am – 1 pm and Sundays 10 am – 2 pm). We spotted vendors and dogs on a leash lining one side of the avenue and engagement photo shoots lining the other – pure weekend perfection.
While there were plenty of options for food at the market itself, we stopped in at The Granary for a “snack.” Featured as one of the best restaurants by Texas Monthly (2014), it offers a variety of globally-inspired barbecue traditions and flavors. It also features craft beer brewed on-site and a selection of highlights from craft breweries around the world (ask for a few samples before committing).
Southerleigh was also a delightful place for brunch or to take a break from the market and grab a carafe of mimosas.
You should also find time to check out The Saga, a new cultural event at the iconic San Fernando Cathedral (walking distance from Hotel Contessa), that is free and open to the public. On the weekends, the showtimes are 9 pm, 9:30 pm and 10 pm, weather permitting.
From my experience, San Antonio is known as a cultural and historic Texas city, which it very much is. But this visit proved that the popular Alamo City is keeping its historic roots while strategically adding some modern touches. Almost every corner and street has unique wall murals and colored walls, adding to the overall vibrancy of the city.
I can say with confidence: 36 hours in this newer and hipper San Antonio wasn’t nearly enough.
Holidays in San Antonio via Visit San Antonio
During the holidays, the River Walk goes all out with candles and lights to celebrate. Be sure to check out Ford Fiesta de las Luminarias, through December 20. Enjoy the holiday serenity of the River Walk with a stroll along the lush banks of the San Antonio River guided by more than 6,000 luminarias. These warmly glowing candles in sand-filled bags line the walkways to symbolically mark the “lighting of the way” for the Holy Family. This centuries-old tradition begins at dusk Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Zoo Lights, through Jan. 3: See the San Antonio Zoo in a whole new light, with wild colors, exotic decorations and intricate animal patterns twinkling in the night. Thousands of lights create an immersive experience using traditional and unexpected color combinations. And your journey of light, iconic visuals, experiential displays, festive entertainment and delicious dining will be complemented by a seasonal soundscape perfect for creating a holiday celebration both unique and memorable.
This article originally ran in the travel section of Culture Map.