New Perspectives in San Antonio

I had imagined San Antonio as smaller than Austin. I don’t know why— I had never looked up the populations of either city or even really seen comparable pictures. It was just a feeling I had stored away in my head under the label of “fact” when, it turns out, it’s not true at all. Austin has a population of about 931,800 people while San Antonio is home to 1,437,000. So yeah, I was very wrong. Perhaps it was the size, but I found San Antonio a little harder to get a feel for than Austin. It was more difficult to just happen upon things to do, although we did plenty.

Every blog will tell you to do the Riverwalk and mine is no exception. It really is amazing how much your world changes just by walking down a flight of stairs. The Riverwalk feels like a jungle — a literal urban jungle — with green river-water winding through leafy green trees. The atmosphere is misty and wild and it feels extremely different to the dry Texas air of the streets above. Before going, I had pictured it as more of a park, like Montreal’s Lachine Canal. But the Riverwalk is very active! We passed by countless restaurants while we strolled. Most of them are actually accessible from the street as well, but using the Riverwalk entrances made it seem like two totally different places. It reminded me of a strange sort of parallel universe. We decided to do a boat tour down the river, which is the kind of thing my family doesn’t usually do. To be honest, as our tour guide told us to wave at the pedestrians diners on the shore I did feel a little embarrassed, but I got over it. The tour gave a really cool view of the city. It’s not often that you can look up at the street — at the bottom of buildings all the way to the top. It’s a feature that really makes San Antonio a unique city, one with something I had never experienced before.

I found the Riverwalk at night very beautiful. The trees were all lit up with fairy lights, and I mean all lit up. I couldn’t help but be impressed by whoever’s job it was to climb up into the trees to string those lights. The effect was dazzling. It would have even been magical if it weren’t for the countless drunk partiers all over the place. I’m not against a good time and I can appreciate the fun of a good night out. However, with so many people so wasted, it did make it a little difficult to enjoy the stroll down the walk. Plus, since I guess drinking is the main focus of the nighttime Riverwalk, past 11:00 it was impossible to find anything that wasn’t alcohol. All we wanted was to sit by the water and have a little coffee before heading back home, but no place had it. I guess that’s not so strange for nighttime, but with so many places open, it was surprising that none of them could offer anything but alcohol. Maybe my reaction would have been more positive if I had been there with friends and had been in the mood for partying. But with my family and in the mood for a nice stroll, it seemed a shame. It’s also possible that we were simply at the wrong part of the walk. Maybe along other parts of the river things are quieter, even at night.

And then, of course, there’s the Alamo. The Alamo is one of those big parts of American history that I vaguely remember learning about in high school enough to know that it’s important, but not enough to have a real understanding of what happened. I approached our visit there ready to learn, and I promise that I really really wanted to enjoy it. I consider myself a historical traveler. I think spending time learning about the history of the place you’re in is important, so I tried hard not to be bored. I didn’t want to be one of those people bored by a historical monument, but I was. First of all, we waited for ages to get in. The line literally wound around the street corner although, to be fair, it did move relatively quickly. Once we got in there were so many people I could barely see the place. I wanted to appreciate the architecture but there was too much jostling. There was quite a bit of history in the barracks section, but it focused exclusively on military history (not surprising) and I found it quite difficult to engage with it.

But as it turns out, the Alamo is only one of four historical missions in the San Antonio area. There’s actually a bike route that you can take to each of them. We didn’t know about it ahead of time so we didn’t have time to do it, but it sounds like it would have been really nice. If you’re visiting, definitely check it out. Biking always adds an extra element to any activity. The only other mission we had time to see was Mission San Jose and I was very pleasantly surprised. After the Alamo I had slightly lost interest in the missions, but as soon as we got to San Jose I was reminded why I love visiting historical places so much. The church itself is big, but not too imposing. The dusty colour of the stone and its rounded top almost made it look like a hill in the distance while we were walking towards it. It reminded me of a church you would find in an old Spanish pueblo, which of course is exactly what it would have been modelled  after.

The church was at the end of a long grassy space enclosed by a rectangular of tiny houses which were home to the Native Americans who lived at the mission. The whole thing was very well restored. By that I mean that while the buildings had been fixed up to be in perfect condition, I could still feel the history. I wandered into one of the casitas by myself and just stood in the middle of the floor taking it in. There was one small rectangular window which let in just enough light to get my imagination really moving. I felt like I could really picture life there. I pictured small children growing up in this beautiful mission, in its shadow. Of course it’s not a happy history to imagine. Missionary work in what is now the United States was often bloody and cruel. I couldn’t help but wonder about the things the people who lived in this little house had seen. How many brothers, mothers, or children had they lost? Were they happy? Could they be happy as their world was being forcefully changed and ripped apart? It was a strange feeling because while I was surrounded by such a beautiful place, it was also so sad thinking about what had happened there. But I like that dissonance. I think it’s important to be able to appreciate the beauty that comes from history while still being critical of the history itself.

San Antonio also has a lot of great museums of which we saw two, by mistake. I say by mistake because once we were all in the San Antonio Museum of Art with our tickets bought, we realized we hadn’t meant to go there. We had meant to go to the Briscoe Western Art Museum to experience something more local. But since we were there at the Museum of Art, we decided to check it out. I really enjoyed the collection and thought it was very well curated. Each piece was placed in an extremely well thought out spot with much attention given to the pieces around it. I especially liked the collection of South American art, José Luis Rivera Barrera in particular.

I love how well the horizontal movement of the sculpture pairs with the painting behind it.

Afterwards we did end up going to the Briscoe Museum. It had a lot of really cool old artifacts. I especially liked the saddles. I learned how to ride on an English saddle, and it was fun seeing how intricate and particular the Western saddles could be. My favourite part was looking at the old carriages, though. In the entrance of the museum there was an old stage coach which I couldn’t even begin to imagine traveling across the country in. But even more interesting to me was the chuckwagon. It’s a type of wagon designed specifically for feeding ranchers while they’re out with the cattle or doing whatever it is exactly that ranchers do. I had never really thought about the need for a specific way to feed ranch workers before. It had a lot of different compartments for keeping food, medicine, tools, and first aid things. Apparently the cook pretty much took care of all the ranchers’ vital needs. I learned that some chuckwagons are still in use today, but most ranches have switched to using pickup trucks. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but laugh at how even in a museum I’m immediately attracted to whatever has to do with food.

Which brings me to food. We at ate some great places in San Antonio, but the two highlights were Boiler House and The Luxury. The Boiler House is located in the Old Pearl Brewery, an industrial building which (just a wild guess here) used to be a brewery. It’s been renovated and now is home to lots of little shops and trendy restaurants. We went for dinner and it was very pretty in the night. Like the Riverwalk, it was all lit up with fairy lights but without all the drunk people. There were many places to sit near a fountain and around the square. It seemed like an absolutely perfect date spot — very romantic. There were many restaurants to choose from, but we had a reservation at Boiler House. The food was flavourful and we all really enjoyed our meals, but the atmosphere was definitely the best part. We sat outside, which was really nice, but when I wandered inside to use the bathroom I noticed that they had done a really good job at maintaining the original integrity of the building. It had a real industrial feel to it, which I love. It reminded me of a lot of places in the South West of Montreal.

My favourite was The Luxury, though. We found this place towards the end of the Riverwalk right next to the San Antonio Museum of Art. It’s a totally outdoor spot with a counter to order food and another to order drinks. It had a wonderfully laid back and chill attitude about it with many people sitting at either picnic tables or swinging chairs looking out over the river. The aesthetic was amazing too — I thought my sister was going to explode with happiness. They had a great collection of local beers and ciders which I always like to see. I believe I ordered a fish burger because I was feeling bad about the number of hamburgers I had eaten so far on this trip, but I later suffered from some serious food envy. My dad and Monica both ordered hamburgers and they insisted that I try a bit, so I did. It was seriously the best burger I had ever eaten. I’m not a huge burger person so maybe that isn’t saying much, but I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. If you make it to The Luxury and aren’t a vegetarian, the burger is a must. The only thing I didn’t like about the place was the fact that they don’t recycle. I was really disappointed when the bartender told me. Usually cool places like that at least follow the basics of sustainability. If they changed that one factor, the place would be absolutely perfect.

The award for our strangest meal, goes to the Alamo Drafthouse. This is not a purely Texas thing, but it was something this New England girl had never experienced before. For others who have never had an Alamo Drafthouse experience, it’s a movie theatre that serves you dinner and drinks while you watch. At later showings no one under the age of 18 (or something like that) is allowed in. It gives you absolutely everything a childish quasi grownup like me could ever want out of a movie theatre. We had such a great time! Although, especially watching the wildly inappropriate and hilarious adds before the movie, it was quite surreal. We went to see Why Him? with James Franco which was actually really funny and way better than any of us had expected. The food was also really good, which surprised me. Maybe I’m a snob but I had not expected a movie theatre meal to be of particular quality. They totally won me over with their adult milkshakes. Being a true lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream, I got the Grasshopper milkshake and it was to die for. I can’t wait to make it myself at home. It was our last night in San Antonio, and a really fun one. It felt like real, modern Americana.

If I’m being honest, I think Austin was more my style than San Antonio. If I were to do the trip again, I’d probably spend one more day in Austin. This is mostly because I felt the presence of other tourists more in San Antonio and I don’t like that. I like feeling like I’m really getting a feeling of the city, and the things we did in San Antonio were a bit more touristy. That being said, I had a lot of fun in San Antonio too. Plus, I was only there for a few days! There’s no way to really judge a place after such a short visit. In general, our trip to Texas was wonderful. We had fun, saw a very new kind of beauty, and were able to open up our minds and think differently about a part of the world we had never seen before. It was everything a good trip should be.