Texas’s second largest city is in the midst of a cultural revival, with the up-and-coming Pearl district leading the charge. With a burgeoning restaurant scene, historic restorations, and a raft of new construction, San Antonio is reinventing itself, becoming a multifaceted metropolis well worth exploring.
Here are seven reasons you should visit now:
1. The River Walk Expansion
San Antonio’s Paseo del Río remains its biggest draw. And though the below-street-level promenade continues to teem with tourists, major expansion efforts have thinned out the crowds and lured locals back downtown.
The eight-mile Mission Reach extension, completed in 2013, connects four of the city’s five 18th-century frontier missions (excluding the Alamo) with walking and biking trails and restores the San Antonio River to its natural state.
When combined with the previously completed Museum Reach segment, which connects the San Antonio Museum of Art to the Pearl neighborhood, the River Walk now encompasses a total of 15 miles—making the city’s cultural and historical offerings more accessible than ever.
2. UNESCO Recognition
In 2015, San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions, as a group, were designated a World Heritage site, joining the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and just seven other cultural properties in the United States on UNESCO’s list.
Mostly thanks to high school textbooks, everyone remembers the Alamo, the northernmost Spanish colonial fortress in the city. But I found Mission San José, known as “Queen of the Missions” due to its size—and one of the four missions composing the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (the Alamo, whose actual name is Mission San Antonio de Valero, is managed independently)—most worthy of exploration. Tip: Look for the “Rose Window” in the church sacristy and hand-carved religious statuary dating back to colonial times.
Whether you visit one or all five of San Antonio’s well-preserved Franciscan missions—which were founded to transform Native Americans into Catholic, tax-paying subjects of the king of Spain—there’s no excuse to skip out on the history lesson: Admission to each of the sites is free.
3. Miró at the McNay
The McNay Art Museum is the first modern art museum founded in the state of Texas, the result of a 1950 bequest by local painter and oil heiress Marion Koogler McNay, who donated an impressive array of Postimpressionist acquisitions along with her 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival estate in which to house them.
The relaxing oasis located in San Antonio’s quiet Alamo Heights neighborhood (about five miles north of downtown) has expanded its holdings to become a preeminent destination for aesthetes from both near and far. In addition to its eclectic permanent collection—which includes works by Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Henri Matisse, and Edward Hopper—on exhibit now through early 2016 is the must-see “Miró: The Experience of Seeing.” Barcelona-born Joan Miró (1893-1983) was an admirer turned friend of Picasso’s (both spoke Catalan), and his intensely colorful, graphic works are a fascinating feast for the eyes.
Part of the charm of visiting the museum lies in exploring McNay’s former residence and tracing its mansion-to-museum transformation. The 23-acre grounds, which include extensive gardens and outdoor statuary are also a joy. I spent an hour reading a book in what might be the loveliest spot in San Antonio—the koi pond in the museum’s stately courtyard.
4. Culinary Explosion
A decade ago, San Antonio seemed to be all Mexican food, all the time. But from the looks of it, the city has been branching out.
To the north of downtown, near the San Antonio Museum of Art, you’ll find two places I love: coffee and wine bar Rosella—which also serves up tasty pastries, sandwiches, and snacks—and Andrew Weissman‘s all-outdoor The Luxury. Tip: Try your hand at bocce ball under the twinkly lights at the latter.
5. Blue Star Bliss
The Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum may lie at the heart of the mixed-use Blue Star Arts Complex, but the Southtown compound’s cutting-edge cred is bolstered by a number of galleries and artist’s studios with signs welcoming visitors to pop in and say hello.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of art, stop by newly open Blue Star Provisions, a small grocery store offering a delicious selection of kolache. These yeasty pastries stuffed with sweet and savory ingredients originated in the Czech Republic and were popularized in Central Texas by Czech Moravian immigrants who settled in the region.
After that, if you have time and energy to spare, venture across the river to admire the grand houses of San Antonio’s King William Historic District, a neighborhood settled by German immigrants in the 1860s.
6. Top-Notch Performance Space
The gleaming Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opened last year on the River Walk and has been driving revitalization efforts downtown.
The sleek space is grounded by its setting in the city’s historic Municipal Auditorium. But don’t let the preserved exterior fool you; the inside has been transformed into a high-tech, acoustically perfect, 1,738-seat main hall that hosts performers and performances as varied as Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, comedian Janeane Garofalo, and The Nutcracker.
7. Rooftop With a View
Paramour, an 8,000-square-foot space that sits atop the Phipps building in downtown San Antonio, is the new local favorite for a night out.
The party starts early and goes late at this self-described “boozy oasis in the sky,” but the best time to visit is at sunset to take in the Museum Reach section of the River Walk and the rest of the city skyline. Tip: Take it from me, you won’t want to miss the ostentatious bathroom.