SAN ANTONIO’S FAMOUS River Walk offers travelers plenty of entertaining options: a romantic barge ride under a canopy of 200-year-old cypress trees, riverside tables perfect for sampling margaritas and local cuisine, and plenty of spas, restaurants, bars, and shops. Ever since the 1968 HemisFair put the spotlight on the ingenious development that turned the land along a former flood-prone river through the middle of town into one of the most alluring urban developments, the River Walk has drawn people from around the world to its banks for alfresco dining, shopping, and nightlife.
Author Terry Scott Bertling Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Your home is the luxurious Watermark Hotel & Spa on the River Walk, with 99 guest rooms and an elegant spa. The Watermark exudes Texas sophistication. Sidewalks on the River Walk level are lined with tables and blue umbrellas and have a view of a stone-arched footbridge crossing the river. As a barge coasts by, you’re likely to overhear the guide explaining that actress/singer Jennifer Lopez stood on this very bridge in the 1997 movie Selena. Read the bronze plaque and you’ll know that there’s a much deeper history here. The bridge is dedicated to Robert H.H. Hugman, the young architect credited with the vision of what this River Walk became. After a deadly flood downtown in the 1920s, civic leaders threatened to pave over the river and turn it into a street and drainage culvert. The “Father of the River Walk” joined efforts to save the stream, envisioning it as the romantic center of commerce for the bustling downtown that exists today.
Breakfast is at another landmark, Schilo’s Delicatessen, a perfect example of the tradition of good cooking that German immigrants brought with them to San Antonio. Go for the hardy Pappa Fritz breakfast— eggs, bratwurst, and hash browns with a side of biscuits and gravy.
The best way to get an overview of the River Walk’s beauty is to take your own 30-minute narrated tour on a river barge. Catch a ride from Rio San Antonio Cruises at the Rivercenter Mall. Your guide will educate and entertain you with fun facts and even point out the popular Marriage Island that you might otherwise miss. The best times for cruises are early morning and evening, both of which avoid the midday sun.
Next, venture over to The Alamo for a history lesson and a walk around the luscious, meticulously groomed grounds. Large oaks shade the lawn where frolicking squirrels entertain busloads of schoolchildren on tour. Don’t expect to take photos inside the chapel, the building most recognized for the curved top and historical façade you’ve probably seen in movies starring John Wayne or Billy Bob Thornton. This is hallowed ground, where gentlemen are expected to remove their hats to pay respect to the Texans and Texians who died here in the 13-day siege of the Alamo in 1836. Your best photo op is outside the front doors of the chapel, along Alamo Street. Be patient; it’ll take good timing to get a shot that isn’t filled with camera-toting tourists.
Believe it or not, you have Texas’ top two tourist spots—the Alamo and River Walk—under your belt, and you haven’t even had lunch! Time to grab a patio table at Boudro’s and enjoy fresh guacamole prepared tableside. You can’t beat the empanada langosta at this local hot spot—pan-seared lobster tail on a pepper jack cheese and spinach empanada, with avocado, crème fraîche, and red-pepper chipotle beurre blanc.
It’s afternoon and time to wander south along the San Antonio River to the historical King William neighborhood. First, swing by SegCity to join a Segway tour. Don’t let the film on safety scare you; practice finding your balance on this two-wheeled marvel and you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Take a path along a quiet stretch of the river and glide along the shady streets lined with mansions in King William. By the time you hit open road, you’ll have mastered the tricks of controlling your speed and turning.
Follow the excitement with some downtime back at the hotel in the serene spa for a predinner massage. After you’re relaxed, stroll to Biga on the Banks, where you have dinner reservations. This much-lauded restaurant on the river is where chef Bruce Auden works magic nightly in the kitchen, preparing ultracon-temporary cuisine in a casual but chic atmosphere above the river. Long after Biga was named one of the five best restaurants in the state in 2000, Auden is still calling upon classical French techniques and inspiration from the cuisines of Mexico and Asia for dinners that are nothing short of perfection. Splurge with the chef’s tasting menu, for which Auden puts together such choices as crab-stuffed wild Alaskan halibut and Moroccan spiced ahi tuna. Finish off dinner with the decadent signature dessert: sticky toffee pudding with English custard. On your walk back to the hotel, stop by Swig Martini Bar for a nightcap. Go ahead, have the famous chocolate martini.