By: Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
The theme of this column is where to experience the best historical and cultural things to do in Southern California or within a five-hour drive or flight from LAX. Hence, we have reported on Honolulu, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City. The next logical city to visit was San Antonio, since we have a large Latino audience and it is the largest city in the U.S. with a Hispanic majority (64% compared with half of Los Angeles). All of us should know more about our shared heritage with Mexico and there are other reasons to visit anytime, since weather is nice most of the year.
Considering travel time and the need to do hotel reviews, we had just two full days to see the highlights. We always rely on the best overall guidebooks, the DK Eyewitness Travel series, because of their balance of succinct text for those who don’t need pages of details, their excellent maps of cities and regions, as well as the major sites to visit, and especially photos so you can decide what is really worth seeing in person. DK’s Top 10 San Antonio & Austin gave us those critical essentials, but we also learned a lot from https://www.visitsanantonio.com/ and Tripadvisor rankings.
We stayed at two impressive and very different hotels (read the in-depth reviews below):
The Canopy by Hilton
is a boutique hotel right on the famous River Walk alongside the San Antonio River downtown and within walking distance of the Alamo and other historical and arts areas.
The J.W. Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
is a half-hour north of the airport, set on a stunning 600 acres that include two major golf courses and a water park, near some of the things we wanted to do in the northern region.
Downtown San Antonio
Visitors should start with The Alamo https://www.thealamo.org/visit/ because it is so popular you need a (free) reservation to be able to go through the church, where much of the story of the battle of 1836 is told (pay $8 for a headset with the audio tour when you make it or you may not get one at all, then pick it up at the welcome booth in front). Texas was then part of Mexico, but settlers from the U.S. had become dissatisfied with the distant government and when General Santa Ana seized power and ordered that all foreigners to leave, the Texans rebelled. He led an army of over 2,000 to besiege the lightly-fortified mission defended by 189 for 13 days. The final assault came on March 6, and any surviving defenders were executed, making immortal martyrs out of leaders like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis. But they had killed 300-400 and delayed the Mexicans from attacking the local army being organized by Sam Houston. He led an ambush on April 21 with the cry “Remember the Alamo!” with 930 men against 1,250 Mexicans and captured Santa Ana. The Republic of Texas was declared and it was made a state just before America’s War with Mexico 1846-48 that ended with the U.S. adding what is now our entire southwest.
Across the street is the San Antonio Visitor Center where you can get brochures, help, and buy tickets for other things to do anywhere in the city. For downtown, we prioritized a river cruise, a great way to see the city from literally another angle and learn more about its history.
Go-Rio San Antonio River Cruise
https://www.goriocruises.com/ provides narrated barge tours of the highlights by entertaining and informative guides. We learned how the channel was built as a response to flooding that required rerouting the river, creating “the largest urban ecosystem in the nation.” We were told about the significance of historic buildings, top restaurants and museums were pointed out, and the creation of sculptures, murals, and bridges were discussed, while humorous true stories were told about the history of the city.
The Briscoe Western Art Museum
https://www.briscoemuseum.org/about/ was the biggest surprise of the day. There are a number of similar institutions in the region, but this got the best reviews and no wonder. It has a staggering number of first class pieces with informative signs on their backgrounds, including a gorgeous silk-covered saddle of a Spanish viceroy from 1610, Mexican General Santa Ana’s sword, paintings by women and ex-slaves, a Blackfoot war lance, a saddle belonging to TV star Roy Rogers, and a sculpture of the Lakota leaders at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (see photo).
If we had more time, we would have spent it downtown
https://www.visitsanantonio.com/downtown/, possibly visiting the San Fernando Cathedral (the oldest in the U.S., which has a tomb holding the remains of some of the Alamo defenders), the La Villita Historic District and arts village, and the Institute of Texan Cultures, which features exhibits on all the groups that settled the region.
North San Antonio
We arrived early at Natural Bridge Caverns
https://naturalbridgecaverns.com/ since it is extremely popular with families because it has the largest and most spectacular limestone caves in the region, carved out by underground rivers over millions of years. The excellent guide explained the spectacular formations that resulted and what has been discovered in digging, including prehistoric artifacts. There are very good, lighted walkways with handrails, but they are wet and steep going down 180 feet and back up, so visitors should be in good shape and careful.
It is well worth the 1 hr. 15 min. drive west beyond city limits to the National Museum of the Pacific War
https://www.pacificwarmuseum.org/, which is the only one devoted to the war with Japan. It is also one of the best museums of any kind we have ever experienced. The main collection needs a couple of hours to absorb this part of World War II, which few Americans know much about beyond Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombs. Exhibits explain what led up to it, detail the incredible island battles such as Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and there are recordings of participants on both sides, timelines and maps, and the story of the impact of decoding Japanese communications. A short walk away, the Pacific Combat Zone makes the battles more vivid with aircraft, trenches, fortified caves, and more. This museum will change your life.
The McNay Art Museum
https://www.mcnayart.org/ emphasizes modern art and we have a strong preference for the Old Masters, but the reviews were so good we decided to check it out. To our surprise, we really enjoyed its outstanding collection of Georgia O’Keeffe, some lesser-known Impressionists, the German Expressionists, and stars of the Harlem Renaissance 1910s-1930s. But the real revelation was the room devoted to truly out-of-the box contemporary creators like Ken Little (see photo of his Red and Turquoise Elk, made of found objects and vinyl).
San Antonio is about to be discovered by foreign travelers: the global travel industry’s leading marketplace and conference for inbound travel to the U.S. is going to be held there in May 2023. It will take some time before the attendees from 60 countries get the message out, so you should consider going there ASAP before it becomes too popular.