Happy Friday! The first few days of work after an extended vacation are always a little rough, but I am glad it was a short week and thankful to be back in a semblance of a routine. My weekend plans are pretty low-key—have a fun wine night tonight and then some things to do around the apartment this weekend. I’m excited to ease into the new year slowly.
Today I wanted to pop in and give you my San Antonio, Texas travel guide. This was a “bonus” trip that I planned a week or so before departure. It worked out that I was able to take a week off between jobs, which was a huge blessing. I knew that if I hung around my apartment that week working on the blog/personal to-dos, I’d be anxious about starting the new job and wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself. Plus, I knew that if I ever had free time between jobs, I wanted to take a trip. All I had to do was decide where to go!
My mom said she would go with me (this was our first one-on-one trip together!) and picking San Antonio was an easy decision for us. For one, since it’s in the southwest, we knew December would be pretty mild. For another, it’s been on our bucket list for as long as I can remember. And lastly, they are known for their margaritas, so it sounded like my kind of place.
Luckily for us, we were still able to get a decent deal booking only about 10 days out from our trip and during the holidays—airfare + hotel was about $750/person for four days, three nights. We absolutely loved our time in San Antonio, and I’d recommend the city to anyone—it’d be great for families, a bachelorette party (there are no open container laws on the Riverwalk!), a girls’ weekend, a business trip. And, if possible, I’d highly recommend going during the holidays—it was magical to see the city decorated. (Also, heads up, they drain the San Antonio River once a year in January along the Riverwalk to clean out debris—the schedule is here.)
Here in the Mid Atlantic area, I feel like San Antonio doesn’t have the same draw for (or marketing targeted to) tourists as some other cities, but it truly is a gem—so if San Antonio hasn’t been on your radar, I hope this post piques your interest a bit!
HOW TO GET THERE /
In my research for December flights, there was only one daily roundtrip flight from Washington, DC to San Antonio—and so, it was priced accordingly at nearly $800. That was too much for our quiet girls weekend, so I looked into non-stop flights. We ended up going with a Delta flight out of Dulles that had a one-hour layover in Atlanta before we boarded another plane to San Antonio. We also flew through Atlanta with a one-hour layover on the way home. It was seamless—none of our flights were delayed, and since we were flying the same airline, we didn’t have to run from one terminal to the next to catch our second flights.
Delta doesn’t have a huge presence in DC, though it is growing—which is something I am really excited about after this trip because flying with Delta was awesome! We booked Basic Economy, and though there was no guarantee that we would be sitting next to each other since you aren’t assigned a seat until check-in at that level, we lucked out and always had a little two-seat row to ourselves. We also had no delays, and the boarding process was really organized—especially at their Atlanta hub. They also have the best mobile app of any airline—it’s so intuitive, well-designed, and you can track your bag right in the app, even if you check it at the gate. Needless to say, I’ll be flying Delta when possible moving forward.
If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know that I normally try to fly out of DCA. We flew out of IAD this trip because my parents live pretty close to Dulles and we had an early morning flight. So, I went over to their house the night before and my dad drove us to the airport in the morning, which made it convenient for everyone (except maybe my dad, hah!) and saved on Uber. In my research, I did find there were comparable options to our flights out of DCA.
GETTING AROUND SAN ANTONIO /
Getting around San Antonio was very easy. There is a large Uber presence in town, and the airport was only about a 15 minute drive from the downtown area where we stayed. The downtown is where many of tourist draws are—The Alamo, the Riverwalk, the Convention Center, lots of restaurants/shopping, Main Plaza and San Fernando Cathedral. After our initial Uber ride from the airport, we only took one quick Uber ride to the trendy Pearl District, that was about a ten minute drive from the Riverwalk.
The downtown core is very walkable—both on the Riverwalk (a network of walkways and parks along the San Antonio River one story below street level right on the San Antonio River) and on the streets above the Riverwalk. (You can access the Riverwalk from street level via the many staircases, designated elevators, or via a building that offers Riverwalk access, like our hotel did—it’s easy to get to!) We walked pretty much everywhere we wanted to go, and it was always such a beautiful stroll since our route was usually right on the water. It also felt very safe, and on the Riverwalk especially, there were always lots of other people around.
I’ll go into more depth about Go Rio Cruises (their boat is shown in the left photo above!) later in today’s post, but another option for getting around is the Go Rio Shuttle. Go Rio is the only boat company that operates on the San Antonio River, and unlike their narrated cruises, the shuttle offers a wider range of access, taking passengers further away from the downtown core, including up to the Pearl District. Since shuttles run every about 60 minutes, it was a much more practical use of our time to Uber or walk where we wanted to go, but definitely something to check out if you want to try something new.
WHERE TO STAY /
When I was researching hotels, I knew I wanted to stay on the Riverwalk if possible. When I found the Omni La Mansion del Rio on Trip Advisor, I knew it was a great fit for us as it was only about $20/more a night than some of the more “budget” options, was located right on the Riverwalk, and had great customer reviews. When I learned that family friends had stayed their and loved it, it was a no brainer. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat!
Some history—the building was built in 1852 and opened its doors as a school to more than 100 students in the spring of 1852, which eventually became St. Mary’s college. It was once the largest building complex in San Antonio and educated many prominent Texans—including eight mayors of San Antonio. From 1934 to 1966, the building housed the St. Mary’s University School of Law. In 1966, the building was acquired by the River Hotel Company and was converted into a hotel.
You can access the hotel via the street or the Riverwalk, though you must be a hotel guest to enter after 10pm. The building has two courtyards—one a the pool, with interior rooms facing those courtyards and exterior rooms facing the Riverwalk (a premium room rate applies) or city. Our room faced the pool, and in lieu of windows, we had French doors that opened up to a shared balcony.
The lobby and the El Colegio bar (more on that below!) were both wonderful—and the staff was all so kind to us. They even had a gingerbread version of the Alamo on display since we visited at Christmastime. Our room itself was great—we especially loved the bathroom because they had awesome water pressure and a room warming light, which keeps you warm whenever you get out of the shower. (My grandparents used to have one, so I think our love of this feature was also nostalgia-based!)
Breakfast beverages (coffee, tea, juice, soda) are all complimentary and delivered right to your room each morning—you order on a tag you put on your door the night before, where you can also select your requested delivery time. They also have a range of breakfast foods available on those tags for very reasonable prices. We opted for English muffins ($3!) the first morning, served with butter and a range of jams/jellies, and loved them so much. They were a real treat while we were watching The Today Show!
Also, those English muffins go to show you that it really is the simple things in life—we flew all the way to San Antonio and had so many amazing experiences, and one thing that stands out to me the most is a warm, fresh English muffin.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK /
We ate at so many fun places while in San Antonio! Unsurprisingly, the dominant food there is Mexican, and even if you love Mexican food as much as me, that can get old pretty fast. So, our strategy was to eat Mexican food for one meal a day and then diversify our diets for the others. Like many tourist hubs, the Riverwalk has some really great food options, and then more of your chain restaurant/sub-par fare. Before we left for our trip, I read the Trip Advisor reviews of most restaurants on the Riverwalk so we’d know to avoid any “meh” places and also found this article on Thrillist super helpful.
Here’s where we ate and drank!
- El Colegio—this was the bar at the Omni La Mansion where we stayed, and we were initially lured in because we were offered complimentary drink tickets at check-in. We ordered chips and guac to snack on with our wine, and it ended up being the best guacamole we had the entire trip. We grabbed a nightcap here several other times throughout our trip because we loved it so much!
- The Esquire Tavern—I found this restaurant in the above Thrillist article, and we really enjoyed it. It’s home of the longest wood bar in Texas and running along the bar is a row of wood booths, where we sat. They had a delicious burger, but what won me over was that they had matchbooks! You can access it via the Riverwalk or the street above. A head’s up that this place is really dark and pretty much only lit by candles, so if that is going to annoy someone in your party, I’d recommend skipping it.
- Casa Rio—the oldest restaurant on the Riverwalk, our lunch at Casa Rio did not disappoint! This restaurant is extremely popular, well known, and identifiable because of all of its beautiful umbrellas, so on the weekends and during high tourist season, the wait here can be up to two hours as they don’t take reservations. Luckily for us, we popped in on a weekday for lunch and were seated right away. It was about 60 out, so we sat outside under one of their umbrellas. The food was great and the service was fast—plus they make a mean margarita. What stands out most about our time at Casa Rio is how socialized all the ducks and pigeons were—they literally were hounding us for food! It was funny to us, but just a head’s up if “rats who fly” aren’t your thing.
- Sternewirth at the Hotel Emma—The Hotel Emma is a huge, luxurious, industrial-style hotel located in the Pearl District. Their Supper Restaurant also has a really cute bar, but we opted to enjoy our wine at Sternewirth, which was the bar right off the lobby. It was huge and felt like a personal library in the Old West somewhere. Their were tons of different kinds of seating arrangements, which would make this the perfect spot for a group of any size, and in addition to the full bar, they had some light snacks on the menu.
- Down on Grayson—also located at The Pearl, we ate at Down on Grayson after some pre-dinner drinks at Sternewirth since they are within walking distance of each other. Down on Grayson was great American fare served up in a really cutely decorated space. If it was warmer, we definitely would have sat outside! When you go, definitely don’t skip the brussels sprouts—they flash fry them at the end and they were seriously the best I’ve ever had.
- Mi Tierra—this was my favorite restaurant of the whole trip, both from a decor and food perspective! Mi Tierra is decorated EVERYWHERE you look—and it’s like that year-round, not just at Christmas! There are all sorts of colorful banners and ornaments hanging from the ceiling and it was just stunning. Open 24 hours, this is an establishment in town and extremely popular. Despite going at noon, we didn’t have to wait long. We split the fajitas for two and definitely over ate because the tortillas they served us were the best we’ve ever had. I also really enjoyed their margaritas!
- On the Bend—we stopped into On the Bend on our last night for happy hour before our nighttime boat cruise to look at the Christmas lights. They have a beautiful outdoor patio right on the Riverwalk, and since it was about 60 degree when we were there, they had the space heaters going and blankets at every seat. They’re known for their oysters and brunch cocktails, and also have a really cute rooftop space.
- Paesano’s—this Italian place is located right on the Riverwalk, and though we picked it on a whim, it definitely wasn’t a tourist trap as the food was great! Their bread was amazingly warm, and I loved the caesar salad and lasagna I ordered. They also had space heaters going so we were able to take in some great views of the Riverwalk despite some chillier temps after sunset.
A few other places I had identified as restaurants worth trying were La Margarita in Historic Market Square (it’s right across from Mi Tierra and could be fun for a drink since I think Mi Tierra is a must-go!), Schilo’s is simple diner fare that’s highly rated and I thought it could be a good inexpensive breakfast option—we just loved our hotel breakfast too much to break from “tradition,” Pearl Brewery is super popular, and The Menger Hotel Bar also came highly recommended to me.
WHAT TO DO /
There’s a lot to do in San Antonio! The must-do thing for me and my mom was to walk the Riverwalk, which truthfully, probably would have been unavoidable since there are so many shops and restaurants right on it! The San Antonio River is very calm—and only about 5 feet deep at most on the Riverwalk stretch!—and it’s a very relaxing walk, especially since there are also so many beautiful trees and flowers along its banks. We were very lucky that our hotel was right on the Riverwalk, but even if yours isn’t, make sure you set aside an hour or so for a nice long walk.
Perhaps the thing that San Antonio is most famous for is The Alamo, which is the historic Mission where a pre-dawn battle was fought as Texas was trying to gain independence from Mexico. Though the Alamo fell (Davy Crockett died there, which my Mom and I hadn’t realized before), it galvanized support so Sam Houston and other Texas leaders could go on and defeat the Mexican army. Though anyone can walk around the Alamo and its grounds, I highly recommend taking the one-hour guided tour that’s $15/person. We learned so much on our tour that we wouldn’t have been able to garner from simply walking around the grounds or the Sanctuary, which anyone can do for free. For instance, the Alamo Mission was originally four acres and pretty much a fully functioning town. Now, it’s on a much smaller footprint, with some of the barracks recreated. The original Sanctuary still stands, and is the building most people think of when they think about the Alamo—or Gracie Lou Freebush’s water talent scene. On the grounds, there are also living history actors dressed in period piece who are available to answer questions and a cute gift shop dedicated to all things Texan.
Through my pre-trip research, I learned that the San Fernando Cathedral on Main Plaza does an award-winning light show on the history of San Antonio for free four nights a week. It’s called the Saga and is projected with music accompanying at 9pm, 9:30pm, and 10pm on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights barring any major church holidays. We went to a Sunday 9pm showing and it was incredible—the art was amazing and the amount of history covered was hundreds of years. It’s a can’t-miss if you’re in town, and, of course, you can’t beat free!
One of the highlights of our trip was taking two Go Rio Narrated River Cruises. As I mentioned earlier, this is the only boat company operating on the Riverwalk so you will definitely see their colorful boats—one of our captains described them as the “chip basket boats.” The cruise is 35-minutes and very affordable—it’s only $12/person. You can buy tickets ahead of time or at one of their ticket booths. Tickets are used “drop-in” style and cruises run about every 20-minutes daily from 9am-10pm. Tickets are good for one month from purchase—it’s nice to have the flexibility to hop on the cruise when it’s convenient to you!
We took our first cruise during the afternoon on a weekday—we checked in at the ticket booth and hopped on the next boat. We bought tickets for another cruise since we wanted to see the Christmas lights from the water at night. When we went back for that cruise, there was a line and people were getting on the boats on a first-come, first-served basis which is how they do it at peak times. The boats seat 40 people, so the line does move quickly—we had to wait about 20 minutes. The cruise itself takes a nice long lap around the Riverwalk with the boat captain pointing out landmarks and providing color to San Antonio history along the way. I’d definitely recommend the cruise when you’re in town—they sell wine, beer, and margs right next to the boarding area ;]!
Right off the Riverwalk is a one-block arts, shopping, and dining district called La Villita. We went during the day on a weekday and it was a tad quiet, but we fell in love with a gift shop called Bird and Pear. They had all sorts of amazingly curated paper goods + stationery, gifts, candles, Christmas ornaments, and homewares. Onsite, they hand-embroider many of their goods and we nearly bought them out of these Serape Blanket Zip Pouch Makeup Bags and these Mexican Dress Stand Up Makeup Bags. Definitely stop in if you’re in the neighborhood—and honestly, make it a point to go on your trip if you have time! It’s a great place to get a souvenir for you or loved ones that feels authentic.
The other area I’d recommend for shopping is Historic Market Square, which is where Mi Tierra is located. My mom and I walked over from our hotel during the day and it was about a 15 minute walk. I probably would Uber if you were going at night, not necessarily because it was through a bad neighborhood, but because the walk is through a commercial district with lots of office buildings, but not a ton of ground floor retail, so I don’t think there would be a ton of people around. Market Square is the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico and was a really neat experience. There are over 100 stalls and shops located on site. Some of them are free-standing, located right off the main entrance, but the majority of them are located in a large mint warehouse building. There are all sorts of Mexican and Southwestern wares—pretty much any item you wanted, you could find it there! I think the craftsmanship of the items at Bird and Pear was better, but Market Square had a more diverse offering of goods, many of which were repeats (or very similar) across the different stalls, so shop around a little bit to compare price/quality before committing!
My favorite shop in Market Square was called Be Frida. They don’t have a website, but they were the second or third shop on the left right after you walk into the Market Square area. They had a well-curated selection of high-quality home goods, accessories, and gifts. I bought a beautiful hand-painted spoon saver to use on my stove and remind me of my time in San Antonio.
As you can probably tell, I had the best time with my mom in San Antonio. I hope we will take more solo trips in the future and that we both make it back to San Antonio one day. I feel truly lucky that we were able to take our trip during Christmastime, especially since it was a very serendipitous trip. I am confident the Riverwalk is lovely all year round, but it was truly magical to enjoy it when all the lights were up for the holidays—which the pictures do not do justice!
If you have any questions about our trip or anything we did, don’t hesitate to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.