Remember the Alamo? You’re not alone. Nearly every visitor to San Antonio includes a stop at this historic battleground, the most-visited place in Texas. But while the proudly historic 300-year-old city is throwing fiesta after fiesta to celebrate its 2018 tri-centennial, San Antonio is rapidly changing, experiencing population growth and urban renewal at an unprecedented pace.
For every historic plaque and UNESCO World Heritage Site (San Antonio’s five missions are the largest concentration of Spanish colonial missions in North America), there’s a new art gallery, museum, or hotel. For every 1980s Tex-Mex café holdout, there’s a bold new culinary concept by local James Beard-honored chefs. And for every defunct brewery and rusty industrial area, there’s a thriving new arts and entertainment district.
Most of these new sites have direct access to the heart of the city – the San Antonio River and the newly expanded River Walk, now 15 miles long. Here’s some of our favorites:
San Antonio: The Saga, a sound-and-light show, shares the city's history on the outside facade of the San Fernando Cathedral © Vicki Arkoff / Lonely Planet
Seeing the light at San Fernando Cathedral
Steps from the River Walk in Main Plaza is the Gothic-revival San Fernando Cathedral (founded in 1731), where 5,000 people pray at weekend mass, making it Texas’ oldest continuously functioning religious community. But since June 2017, an entirely different crowd gathers to be entertained by a distinctly modern sound-and-light show projected onto the face of the church.
Using stirring music, ‘San Antonio: The Saga’ (115 N Main Ave; mainplaza.org/san-antoniothe-saga) relates an artistic view of San Antonio’s history through the colorful, animated drawings of French artist Xavier De Richemont. The free, 24-minute show starts at 9pm, 9:30pm and 10pm most Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Get a glimpse of San Art-tonio
If you know where to look, you’ll find that San Antonio has a surprisingly vibrant contemporary art scene. This is largely thanks to the late Linda Pace, the philanthropic daughter of the Pace Foods salsa founders. A passionate artist and collector, she bought an empty auto dealership building to found Artpace, an artist residency, exhibition and education program for young artists needing fellowships.
In 2005, Pace expanded the Linda Pace Foundation’s contemporary art center by building STUDIO and CHRISpark, a one-acre public art garden to honor her late son. Though Pace died in 2007, her dream of building a world-class center for her collection of 800 artworks is coming true with the construction of Ruby City (111 Camp St, lindapacefoundation.org), designed by preeminent architect Sir David Adjaye. The striking red landmark is slated for completion in late 2018 to coincide with San Antonio’s 300th birthday. Admission will be free.
The Witte (pronounced ‘witty’) Museum is educational but engaging, with hands-on explorations of natural history, science and Texas history © Vicki Arkoff / Lonely Planet
A state-of-the-art look at the past
After a $100 million investment, the 90-year-old Witte Museum has become one of the country’s best regional natural history museums. Visitors now enter beneath the new Witte’s popular mascot: Quetzy, a life-sized Quetzalcoatlus (a pterodactyl cousin), as animated pterosaurs fly overhead.
Texas’ natural and cultural history is the focus here, with new permanent exhibitions and gallery spaces taking deep dives into how Texas looked millions of years ago when dinosaurs roamed, thousands of years ago when prehistoric people arrived, and hundreds of years ago when cowboys and vaqueros ruled the range. From a T-Rex skeleton to touchscreens, the Witte’s state-of-the-art dioramas, wide-screen films, interactive labs, and rotating exhibits will keep visitors coming back for more.
Family-friendly at the old Fair grounds
Hemisfair Plaza (434 S. Alamo St, hemisfair.org), the downtown home of the 1968 World’s Fair, is being reinvented as a family-centric green space, bordered by an expanded convention center, with a multi-use living community still to come. The once-neglected acreage is in the shadow of the original 750ft-tall Tower of the Americas needle (toweroftheamericas.com), topped by a Chart House restaurant, observation deck, and a 4D Theater ride.
Several historic homes have recently been relocated here for restoration by the Hemisfair Conservancy, which has just opened the arty Yanaguana Garden, featuring new landscaping, splash pads and giant, organic-seeming climbing structures. Play and picnics are encouraged, sweetened by the new Paleteria San Antonio serving a rainbow of gourmet Mexican-style ice pops. Baristas perfect their cappuccino art at CommonWealth Coffeehouse, while next-door-neighbor Con Safos is the home of the Concha Burger (a novelty using Mexican sweet bread buns), brews, agave-wine frozen margaritas, and live music fueling impromptu parties on the patio. The free park is open daily, from 7am to midnight.
The 15-mile River Walk is a charming canal and pedestrian street that is the main artery at the heart of San Antonio's tourism efforts © Vicki Arkoff / Lonely Planet
Bank on new parts of the River Walk
Families, couples, tours, and conventioneers (the city is a hotbed for business and group meetings) converge at the downtown River Walk (thesanantonioriverwalk.com) to stroll, eat, drink, and shop along the narrow cement banks of the San Antonio River. The congested central stretch resembles a Disneyland-ish outdoor mall, complete with gimmicky tourist traps, pricey margaritas, and disappointing Tex-Mex grub. But some gems provide memorable overnights (Omni La Mansion del Rio, Hyatt Regency), great meals (Boudro’s, Gwendolyn, and Biga on the Banks), and great cocktails (the James Beard-nominated Esquire Tavern, open since 1933, with a new downstairs bar right on the water).
Still, it’s hard to resist a ride on the river in the colorful new fleet of electric barges run by Go Rio Cruises, which hosts 35-minute narrated rides and dinner cruises catered by some of the city’s best chefs.
Few tourists realize that the River Walk has grown to be 15 miles long, so for a more natural river experience, take a southbound cruise, ride a bike, or even paddle a kayak on the River Walk’s new Mission Reach extension, which leads to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and refueling stops like Burgerteca, the latest joint by local celebrity chef Johnny Hernandez. Culture vultures can head north on the Museum Reach route to the Witte Museum or San Antonio Museum of Art – which now has one of the largest ancient Mediterranean collections in the Southern US.
The garden that keeps on growing
Something’s always blooming at the 38-acre San Antonio Botanical Gardens, which has just completed an expansion. New areas include the new Family Adventure Garden, featuring 15 themed areas encouraging hands-on nature play and discovery. In its quest to become the best regional botanical garden in the US, it has opened an additional eight acres since the fall of 2017, highlighted by the new Culinary Garden and Chef Teaching Kitchen, where resident chef Dave Terrazas teaches open-air classes, pairs recipes with movies (Chocolat, anyone?), and sends visitors on garden scavenger hunts for recipe ingredients – including his popular ‘Three Rubies’ cocktails.
The old Pearl Brewery has received a massive face-lift as part of the new Pearl development north of downtown, including shops, cafes and restaurants © Vicki Arkoff / Lonely Planet
Quaint new district has luster
Only Nostradamus could have predicted that the most exciting new neighborhood in San Antonio would rise from the ashes of the derelict Pearl Brewery – the reclaimed artifacts of which now give uber-cool luxury Hotel Emma its industrial-design street cred.
While Southtown’s artsy rebirth has been gradual and charmingly off-beat, The Pearl (atpearl.com) is an all-new planned community of pricey loft apartments and condos, green village spaces (think concerts, yoga meetups, and dance parties), boutique shops, amphitheater, a weekend farmer’s market, and all sorts of food and drink, most notably chef Steve McHugh’s exceptional Cured, chef Jeff Balfour and brewer Les Locke’s Southerleigh, and the third campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
Updates make the Alamo experience unforgettable
Even The Alamo, the legendary 18th-century Spanish mission and 19th-century Texas Revolution fort, has learned some new tricks. What’s popularly known as The Alamo – the site of the pivotal 1836 Battle of Alamo – was originally the Misión San Antonio de Valero. Today it’s an Official Texas State Shrine, museum, and living-history reenactment park, with a $450 million plan to expand Alamo Plaza.
The Alamo unveiled its newest addition this year: seven bronze sculptures, gifts from musician Phil Collins, a Texas history buff who previously donated the largest-known private collection of Alamo and Texas Revolution artifacts, including an original Jim Bowie knife and a rifle owned by Davy Crockett. Also new is the free Alamo Reality app (AlamoReality.com), an action-packed augmented-reality download that takes iPhone users through the entire Alamo as it was in 1836, including cannon-fire, life in Bowie’s barracks, and Crockett’s defensive positions.
The Alamo’s 45-minute audio tours ($7, $5 for military) are offered in English, Spanish, German, Japanese, and French. Spanish Battlefield tours and Spanish-language private tours can be booked in advance. Admission to the Alamo Church, grounds, and daily programming is free.