Saturday, October 19, 2013

Weekend Getaways - San Antonio

Remember the Alamo
Every now and then, I get the urge for a quick weekend getaway, just to get out of the house for a couple of days.  Fortunately, if you live in the Dallas area, we have a couple of great options that don't even require flying - Austin and San Antonio.  I'll cover a weekend in Austin in a future post, but today, I'll hit up the Alamo City, and highlight some things you can see and do in a typical weekend.

NOTE:  you can theoretically do San Antonio as a day trip from Dallas, but I don't recommend it.  It's 270 miles, which means a 4 1/2 hour drive assuming you DON'T get stuck in a traffic jam on IH-35, which isn't an assumption you want to make.  Stay for an entire weekend, and you'll have a much better, more relaxed time anyway.

First Decision - Hill Country or Downtown?

Most people automatically associate San Antonio with the Riverwalk and the Alamo, and perhaps Sea World.  That would be a safe assumption to make, but in fact, San Antonio is also a gateway to the beautiful Texas Hill Country, and many of the big hotel chains (Hilton, Hyatt, Westin, etc.) have constructed large resorts that allow for activities like hiking, horseback riding, golf, or even spa days.  Before you decide to go for a weekend, check both options and decide which side you'd like to explore.  Trust me when I say, you won't have time to do both, plus if you're staying at one of the Hill Country resorts on the northwest side of town, it's a long drive back downtown.  You won't really feel like making that drive after a day full of activities.  On this trip, we mostly stayed downtown, which will be the focus of this post.

The Trip Plan

We had planned this trip for our wedding anniversary, and had settled on the following as a to-do list.  I'd say that for a quick weekend trip, this is a pretty good list if you'd like to get a flavor of the city.

Day 1 - explore the Riverwalk, visit the Alamo, get some Tex-Mex, see some of the old missions, have a nice dinner
Day 2 - see the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch/Natural Bridge Caverns, get more Tex-Mex

As you can see, if you're going to come all the way down to San Antonio, getting some of that famous San Antonio-style Tex-Mex needs to be on your list multiple times.

Getting There

Getting to San Antonio is pretty easy - take IH-35 south from Dallas, or IH-10 west from Houston.  Driving time is 4 1/2-5 1/2 hours from Dallas, depending on traffic, and about 3 hours from Houston.  If you're coming from Dallas, you might also consider taking the long way in, by taking Highway 67 to Stephenville, then US 281 south to San Antonio.  While slower, it is a scenic drive through the Texas Hill Country, and far less annoying than being stuck in traffic on 35.

Or, if you live too far away to drive, you can fly into San Antonio International Airport, about 15 miles north of downtown.  Southwest Airlines is the primary airline serving the city, and cheap fares are available more often than not.

When to Visit

As with Dallas, the best time to visit is mid-March through late-April and mid-October through mid-November, when the weather is warm without being obnoxiously hot and humid.  A typical summer afternoon features highs in the upper 90s, with temperatures remaining hot until well into the evening. 

And without further delay, we start our virtual tour...

The Riverwalk

You shouldn't even think about coming to San Antonio without seeing the Riverwalk, or the Paseo del Rio as it is sometimes referred to.  The "Riverwalk" basically refers to a series of walking trails constructed along the San Antonio River and a couple of tributary canals downtown, roughly bounded by Crockett Street to the north, St. Marys Street to the west, Market Street to the south, and Alamo Street/Losoya Street to the east, though one arm extends further east to the Rivercenter Mall and Tower of the Americas. 

Because of its central location, many people choose to stay in hotels along the Riverwalk, and there are many, many options to choose from at various price levels (I won't attempt to go through them all, but click on the Riverwalk link above for more information).  We picked the Hotel Contessa for our stay, which proved to be a good choice.  The Contessa is an all-suite hotel, which makes it a good option for a couples getaway such as a wedding anniversary, we found the service to be friendly (they brought up a plate of chocolate covered strawberries at no charge without us even asking), and it has a good, central Riverwalk location if you plan to spend most of your time downtown. 

Anyway, after a late evening arrival on Friday, we began our exploration on a beautiful Saturday morning.

We walked around for an hour or so, and then made our way to the city's most famous landmark...

The Alamo

300 Alamo Plaza, accessible from the Riverwalk
Open daily, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (9-5:30, except 9-7 June - August)

The Alamo is arguably the city's most famous resident, serving as both one of the original Spanish missions set up when San Antonio was first settled in the 1600s, and the scene of one of the most well-known battles during the Texas Revolution.  Ironically, the Texans lost the battle badly, but the loss served as a rallying point for the resistance, and led to the famous declaration of "Remember the Alamo!" when General Santa Anna was defeated a month and a half later on April 21, 1836. 

The well-recognized facade of the Alamo.

The original grounds of the mission.

An example of a cannon used during the Battle of the Alamo.

The entrance to the on-site museum.

A small plaza displaying the six flags that have flown over Texas ( from left to right - United States, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, Mexico, France, and Spain).

An old live oak tree that has been standing since the Battle of the Alamo.

At this point, it was getting close to lunchtime, but on a Saturday afternoon, getting a lunch table at noon can be a losing proposition, so we decided to keep sightseeing for a while and do a late lunch.  We backtracked through the Riverwalk first...

...and then ended up at...

San Fernando Cathedral/Spanish Governor's Palace

The San Fernando Cathedral was built in 1731, and claims to be the oldest continuously functioning church in Texas.  We didn't go inside, but we did get a nice photo of the front facade of the church.

Immediately behind the cathedral is the Spanish Governor's Palace (105 Plaza de Armas, on Commerce Street between Flores and Santa Rosa Streets).  The palace was the first Spanish military garrison operated in San Antonio, and served as the residence and working office of the military commanders from 1722 until the early 1800s.  The palace doesn't receive a ton of visitors, but is well worth a visit, especially for those interested in the colonial history of San Antonio.

We then made our way to San Antonio Market Square, a large open-air market where you can buy pretty much any kind of junk imaginable from a myriad of street vendors.  This place also seems to have the largest selection of funnel cake vendors outside the State Fair of Texas.

Our primary reason for coming here, though, was to have lunch at Mi Tierra Cafe, one of the city's best known Tex-Mex joints (and an even bigger tourist trap).  Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, there was a 20-30 minute wait for the table; I'd have hated to see what the wait would have been at noon.  The food was good, though I wouldn't say great.  It was fine waiting 20 minutes, but waiting an hour probably wouldn't have been worth it.

Our bellies now full, we made our way back to the hotel for a siesta before finishing up our sightseeing for the day.  We then hopped in the car and headed to...

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Open daily

Many people who visit San Antonio overlook the city's historic Spanish missions besides the Alamo, which is a mistake in my opinion.  San Antonio Missions National Historical Park consists of four separate units, representing the four missions along the San Antonio River south of downtown that were founded between 1721 and 1755.  These missions, which were set up by Spanish Catholic missionaries to convert the local American Indian population, were the original settlements that eventually became the city of San Antonio.  I won't go into detail describing each mission - they are pretty similar, and the National Park Service website provides good descriptions - but will take you on a brief virtual tour, from north to south.

Mission Concepcion, 807 Mission Road, founded in 1755, and considered the oldest original stone church in the United States.

Mission San Jose, 6701 San Jose Drive.  Built in 1720 and known as the "Queen of the Missions".  Its most famous feature is the "Rose Window" (second photo from top), installed in 1755.  The meaning and significance of the feature is largely unknown, and the subject of many legends and conspiracy theories over the years.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, 9101 Graf Road.  It was originally founded in East Texas in 1716, but was moved to its present location in 1731.  Very little remains of this mission, except for a bell tower which is currently being restored.  There is a nice hiking trail behind the site along the San Antonio River.

And finally, Mission Espada, 10040 Espada Road.  This mission was originally founded in East Texas in 1690 (known as Mission Tejas, currently a state historical site between Alto and Crockett), but was moved to its present location in 1731. 

That was all we could squeeze in for the day, with daylight fading.  We had our nice dinner at the Contessa's restaurant, Las Ramblas, which serves Spanish cuisine.  We made reservations, but these weren't necessary, as there were only 3 or 4 tables occupied.  Good food, but in typical hotel restaurant fashion, a bit overpriced. 

We were set to drive home on Sunday.  After a short visit to my aunt's house for breakfast, we stopped at the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, a drive-through safari.  To get there, go north on IH-35, exit at FM 3009 (Natural Bridge Caverns Road), turn left, and then follow the signs.  You can also take the exit for FM 2252 (Nacogdoches Road) off of IH-410, go north, then turn left of FM 3009 and follow the signs.  Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is actually affiliated with Natural Bridge Caverns, which very conveniently is located right next door.  The caverns are also worth visiting, by my wife is afraid of caves, so we decided to skip it.  I didn't take any photos of the wildlife ranch; it's your typical cheesy drive-through safari.  Great if you have kids you need to entertain, but otherwise, kind of meh.  Just don't do what the idiots in front of us did, and taunt the ostrich to stick its beak through your car window.

We did have one last item of business, though, and that was to get some more Tex-Mex.  We came up via FM 2252, and saw a sign for Grumpy's Mexican Cafe (18817 Farm to Market 2252, open for breakfast and lunch only) on the way.  We decided to go check it out on the way back.  This is the type of hole-in-the-wall that I really like to visit, complete with the cheesy t-shirts on display. 

Grumpy makes both Mexican food and homestyle Texas cuisine, so we decided to try both (my wife had enchiladas, and I had a chicken fried steak).  Both were delicious, and Grumpy's would earn a 5 on my restaurant review rating scale.  This place is awesome, and you really should go here if you're visiting Natural Bridge Caverns or the wildlife ranch, instead of wasting money at the concession stands there.  Just really, REALLY think about whether a chicken fried steak is a good idea before a 4 hour drive back to Dallas (hint:  it isn't, but no pain, no gain, as they say). 

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