SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS -- Forget about the Alamo, folks. The action in the Lone Star State’s beloved Tex-Mex capital these days is on the river.
Listening to the breathless rendition of the last stand at this shrine to Texas liberty is still de rigueur for first-timers. But if you haven’t been to San Antonio lately, it’s time to come back and give it a second look. San Antonio has been busy upgrading one of its biggest assets, its meandering, tree-lined river of the same name. The $358 million project will extend 13 miles, from near the river’s headwaters to the city’s outer loop.
What was once an abandoned, weed-choked ditch has become a sparkling corridor connecting downtown and the historic Paseo del Rio to some of San Antonio’s best-loved attractions, some brand-new and others hundreds of years old.
It all adds up to a city that’s retained its laid-back charm but ramped up its options, making it more fun than it’s ever been. The project is divided into four distinct phases, and each offers a different flavor and a different access point to items you’ll want to include on your itinerary.
THE MUSEUM REACH
Meandering nearly four miles north from downtown, the corridor shifts from urban ambience to quiet nature setting and back again. Visitors can see it by boat on the River Taxi, taking a tour up through the new lock and dam to the new Pearl Brewery, one of this section’s highlights. Or they can walk and check out the sights along the way.
The sprawling San Antonio Museum of Art is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Latin American art, and sizeable collections from almost everywhere in the world. The classic art museum has taken advantage of the newly developed river to open the delightful open-air Café des Artistes. Further along you can sample a cold brew and enjoy a more laid-back ambience on the lawn of VFW Post 76, the state’s oldest VFW hall.
Continue on past mini-waterfalls and lush water gardens, under the overpass of I-35 where a colorful school of giant suspended sunfish trembles with the passing traffic, and on down to the Grotto, a fantastic faux bois creation by local artist Carlos Cortes. Further along you’ll want to explore a new San Antonio hotspot, the redeveloped Pearl Brewery complex. The cathedral-like brewery is at the heart of the complex, which includes restaurants, shops, studios, and even an amphitheater on the river that frequently features free concerts. Its distinction as the home of the Latin American-themed campus of the Culinary Institute of America has made it a magnet for standout restaurants, and for chefs who share their wares at the Saturday Farmer’s Market.
Continue north along the Museum Reach to reach the other museum along the river — the Witte, situated at the heart of Brackenridge Park. Wander among the graceful moss-draped Live Oak trees and watch the snowy egrets, crested night herons and other birds that congregate along this stretch of the river. Besides the Witte, Brackenridge is also home to the San Antonio Zoo and the magnificently restored Japanese Tea Garden.
Improvements at the heart of Downtown San Antonio have made a mark on the River Walk as well. The city’s Main Plaza, flanked by the historic San Fernando Cathedral on one side and the river on the other, has gotten a makeover in recent years, and is now the lively venue for a farmer’s market, a local film series, fiestas, concerts and other happenings.
This entry to the river is worth lingering over, to admire the gardens and to read the inscriptions representing the voices of the native peoples of these lands.
EAGLELAND/KING WILLIAM REACH
Just to the south of downtown is a stretch of the River Walk that isn’t new, but few visitors to the city make it this far from the bustling heart of the old Paseo del Rio. Venture a little further south and you’ll find a quiet stretch of river that passes through the historic King William neighborhood, with its graceful mansions dating to the early 1800s.
King William is home to innumerable artist galleries, restaurants and cafes, and it’s a lovely place to while away an afternoon. Until recently, the River Walk ended there. Now, however, it’s just the beginning of a whole new river project.
Continuing along to the Eagleland reach, you can leave the river at the Blue Star Arts Complex and Brewery. Here at this collection of artist studios and loft apartments, you can get a taste of the local arts community — or of a fresh local brew. Or, you can rent a bicycle and ride along an entirely different stretch of the San Antonio River — a river that’s returning to its roots.
THE MISSION REACH
This last stretch of river is the most ambitious — not only because it’s the longest, at eight miles, but also because the goal is to restore the natural ecosystem while reconnecting the river to the four historic missions that once were intimately connected to it. On July 2, another section opened, making 3 1/4 miles available to the public; another mile is expected to be open by November.
At first blush, this stretch of river, which will take years to return to a natural riparian habitat, might not seem as exciting as its more urban counterparts. But to those who appreciate the wildlife that is beginning to return to its waters, it is quite a thrill — a delightful place to gather and walk, fish or simply be still and enjoy the sounds of nature.
It’s also a great way to get onto the San Antonio Mission Trail and explore one of San Antonio’s greatest historic gems: the largest concentration of colonial missions in North America. Missions Concepcion and San Juan are just a short distance from the water, and a section of the river will be rerouted to where it flowed in the 1700s, restoring the other missions — San José and Espada — to their historic riverside glory. The entire Mission Reach, scheduled to be finished next year, will include a series of portals that relate the history of each mission and its connection to the river.
Wherever you enter the river, your experience will be different — but watch out. The flowing, living thread that connects this city may well connect you to San Antonio, too.
Tracy L. Barnett is the former travel editor of the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.