Flourishing and Artsy San Antonio

San Antonio makes for a delightful long-weekend getaway

The most-visited city in the state, San Antonio in many ways embodies the quintessential Texas spirit that outsiders seek but never seem to find in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. There’s also a flourishing arts scene, a sizable if somewhat inconspicuous gay community, and plenty of sophisticated restaurants and elegant hotels. Granted, this generally conservative city has no shortage of schmaltzy family attractions, raucous theme parks, touristy dance halls, and rowdy bars and chain restaurants. But with its rich history and engaging cultural attractions, San Antonio makes for a delightful long-weekend getaway.

The city’s downtown has been carefully protected by a zealous spirit of historic preservation. At the turn of the century, concerned local citizens fought developers bent on converting the Alamo into a hotel. Similar efforts led to the restoration of the city’s other iconic landmark, the San Antonio River, with its enchanting River Walk.

Only a fraction of the original Spanish Colonial mission known popularly as the Alamo stands today: the small chapel whose facade has come to symbolize the pride and independence of Texas, and one of the living quarters. The buildings are set within a tranquil walled plaza of lawns and gardens. It’s one of five missions built along the San Antonio River during the 18th century. The other four, which are south of downtown within 6 miles of one another, have been preserved and are open to the public. Stop by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park for details.

Steps from the Alamo you’ll find the fabled River Walk, a network of cobbled and flagstone paths hugging the San Antonio River some 15 feet below street level. The branches of cypress and willow trees droop over the walk. During the day it makes for a peaceful stroll, and river taxis offer tours that provide an excellent sense of the architecture and greenery.

At the far northeastern edge of downtown, about a 15-minute walk from the Alamo, you’ll find the San Antonio Museum of Art, which inhabits the former Lone Star brewery and is famous for its Asian works and arguably the nation’s premier collection of Latin American art. A few blocks south of downtown, HemisFair Park contains the remnants of the 1968 World’s Fair attractions, including the 750-foot Tower of the Americas and several museums. Be sure to check out La Villita, a nearby complex of more than two dozen arts and crafts shops. Continue south to reach the King William Historic District, where many of San Antonio’s early German immigrants settled and built elaborate Victorian mansions. It’s adjacent to the more modest but increasingly hip Southtown area, which buzzes with funky shops, galleries, and restaurants.

If you have time to explore farther afield, consider checking out some of the notable attractions outside of downtown, such as the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Tea Gardens, the San Antonio Zoological Gardens and Aquarium, and the McNay Art Museum. And on the city’s true outskirts, there’s fun to be had at Schlitterbahn Waterpark, Seaworld of Texas, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

San Antonio has become decidedly more swank and sophisticated from a culinary perspective. Biga on the Banks earns praise for serving some of the finest contemporary American fare in Texas, including a mouthwatering venison with juniper sauce, goat-cheese strudel, frisee-gooseberry salad, and chili jam. A number of hip lounges and restaurants have popped up along Houston Street, including the much-talked-about Acenar, a sensuous, modern space overlooking the River Walk and presenting creative renditions of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Also on the river, Paesanos is a terrific Northern Italian trattoria, and it’s one of the relatively few spots in this area that draws as many locals as tourists. In Southtown, Azuca is an airy space decorated with colorful glass art (blown next door at Garcia Glass studio) and serving terrific Nuevo Latino fare, from ceviche to caramelized pork loin with mashed sweet yams and a caipirinha glaze. There’s live Latin music and dancing many evenings.

One of the most famous Mexican restaurants in Texas, La Fogata is worth the 15-minute drive north of downtown for its authentic cooking. In Southtown, Rosario’s, a loud and spacious joint with live music on weekends, offers such tasty Mexican recipes as chicken with pumpkin mole sauce. A funky dive that’s perfect when you have a fast-food craving, Pig Stand opened in 1921 and claims to be America’s first drive-in restaurant. It turns out amazingly good chicken-fried steak, thick malted milkshakes, and breakfast any time of day.

The historic Liberty Bar was a German-style beer garden for much of this century. These days, gay and straight locals drop by to mingle at the bar or nosh on pear and Stilton salad, peppered tenderloin, and traditional Mexican favorites. A longtime staple of the gay community, W. D. Deli is a cheerful spot with the best chicken tortilla soup around, and healthy sandwiches (try the turkey-avocado wrap) and salads.

Candlelight Coffeehouse is the perfect blend of a wine bar, cafe, and rainy-day hangout. In good weather enjoy the lushly landscaped patio. In the King William District, Madhatters draws a “who’s who” of local characters for coffee, beer, wine, conversation, and great food. And north of downtown near several of the city’s gay bars, Timo’s is a relatively new gay-owned coffeehouse serving tasty sandwiches, fresh smoothies, and leafy salads in addition to the usual coffees and teas.

There is one gay nightclub of note downtown, the long-running (and enormous) Bonham Exchange, lovingly nicknamed the “Bottom Exchange.” It’s a high-energy club drawing a mostly gay bunch along with quite a few straights for hot dancing. Most of city’s other well-frequented bars are clustered along North Main Avenue, less than a 10-minute drive from downtown. Here you’ll find the pulsing dance club Heat, which is jammed nightly with buff-bodied revelers, and The Saint, known for arguably the best drag shows in Texas.

Other North Main options include Pegasus, a convivial video bar with a volleyball court and patio out back, and the Silver Dollar Saloon, which plays a mix of Tejano and country-western music. San Antonio’s gay nightlife is decidedly male-oriented, even more so than in most other U.S. cities, but Petticoat Junction is a friendly neighborhood spot with a lesbian following. A few blocks away, the Annex is a rugged, cruisy bar with a leather-and-Levi’s following. A more hard-core leather hangout is the San Antonio Eagle. And just off I-35, ACI is the city’s quite popular bathhouse.

San Antonio has a wonderful mix of inviting accommodations, from quaint gay-friendly B&Bs to chic “designer” hotels to historic grande dames. Among gay-owned options, the Beauregard House B&B in the King William District occupies a handsome 1905 Victorian house done with sumptuous period furnishings and fabrics. The rooms are named for literary figures, such as Walt Whitman and William Faulkner. Breakfast here is outstanding – you might start the day with a apple-and-brie omelet, for instance. Straight-owned and in the same neighborhood, the Italianate-inspired Adams House B&B has four rooms done with lovely antiques and local artwork – the decor is elegant but not overdone.

A marvelous boutique hotel set inside a 1914 Mediterranean Revival former boarding school, the 28-room Havana Hotel captures the sophisticated sensibility of 1920s Paris along with the romance of vintage Cuba. It’s on one of the less noisy stretches of the River Walk. Opened in November 2005, the sleek and contemporary Hotel Contessa has quickly drawn raves for its palatial rooms with floor-to-ceiling river views, 12-story atrium lobby, and friendly staff. Mokara Hotel & Spa, which occupies a former saddlery and has 99 of the snazziest rooms in the state, also offers highly polished service as well as a state-of-the-art spa and superb dining in its Pesca on the River restaurant. Finally, looking more West Hollywood than Central Texas, the uber-hip Hotel Valencia provides a strikingly contemporary contrast to the historic downtown blocks that surround it. The hotel’s restaurant, Citrus, serves wonderfully inventive contemporary American food. And there may not be a sexier room in the city than the Valencia’s V Bar – definitely plan to toast your visit with a cocktail in this vibrant lounge.