One of the great mysteries of Austin life is that so many locals don’t take better advantage of San Antonio. Not only is the Alamo City a cultural jewel with more than 300 years of history proudly on display, it is also a strikingly modern city with chic boutique hotels, innovative restaurants, and some of the best shopping in Texas.
In a time when cities across the world are starting to feel numbingly the same, San Antonio has kept its identity. What’s travel if not a chance to experience some place unique?
Where to eat and drink
After a long period spent renovating its 1906 building, this project from owner chefs Jenn and Jeff White debuted in January with a comforting menu melding the best of Southern and Hill Country cuisine. The dishes — catfish, meatloaf, and even spinach artichoke dip — certainly appeal to traditionalists, but Eastside doesn’t exactly deliver home cooking. That catfish is stuffed with sweet blue crab, the meatloaf comes with a side of black garlic broccoli, and the bacon Parmesan streusel topping the dip was never in a Junior League cookbook.
The newest player in the downtown bar scene is literally underground, giving it an exclusive speakeasy vibe. Still, once revelers descend the steps, it’s clear that its head is in the clouds. Taking style cues from midcentury airports, the lounge has vintage vibes without looking like a Mad Men set. The cocktails are fully contemporary, using ingredients from destinations all over the world.
The owner of this Southside restaurant, Steve Pizzini, is San Antonio restaurant royalty. His aunt Ernestine Pizzini Chapa founded Teka Molino in 1938 before father Herman Pizzini launched Taco Hut in 1958, and both quickly rose to become some of the Alamo City’s most beloved concepts. That’s a lot to live up to, but Pizzini rises to the occasion with extravagantly overstuffed gorditas, shatteringly crisp puffy tacos, and deep caramel flan baked every day.
Swine House Bodega
This downtown sandwich shop is serious about its sourcing, using only ethically raised breeds from area farms. For owner Joe Saenz, it's not just a matter of being a responsible global citizen. Pasture-raised meats also taste better, a fact readily apparent in the Swine House’s New York-style subs and biscuit sandwiches. Be warned that the shop is only open weekdays for breakfast and lunch. What better excuse to extend a weekend day trip?
Where to Shop
If Lisa Frank had started her career in San Antonio, she might have created this happy Olmos Park boutique, selling accessories, party supplies, home decor, and cheerful apparel. Although everything is colorful and even a little bit silly, owner Ginger Diaz curates a collection that toes the line between humor and kitsch. Peruse rainbow piñata earrings, necklaces, enamel pins, patches, and puppy guayaberas no dog owner will be able to resist.
Tressa Castro, the owner of this Alamo Heights boutique, has a master’s degree in textile design, a fact apparent in the breathtaking fiber arts spread throughout the shop. Working with fair trade artisans in Mexico, she has filled the gallery-like store with breezy embroidered blouses, handwoven pillows, and sunny palm accessories like a piglet-shaped purse. Each one-of-a-kind item tells a story.
Housed in a converted Airstream trailer, this tiny shop comes from the folks behind Bexar Goods Co. Every corner is packed with rugged gear like handsome satchels, flasks, ball caps, copper cuffs, and more. The shop has been even known to squeeze a few axes among the leather goods. Paul Bunyan never looked so stylish.
The Twig Book Shop
This bibliophile’s dream at the Pearl is stuffed to the gills with classics, children’s books, and best-selling novels, but that’s just part of its charm. While many of the same paperbacks can be ordered online, Twig’s sense of community cannot be replicated. Check the store’s calendar to find a jam-packed schedule of author appearances, sit and signs, and story times for the kiddos.
What to see
Blue Star Arts Complex
Located in the eclectic Southtown neighborhood, this pioneering mixed-use development is the heart of the city's vibrant arts scene. The anchor of the complex is Blue Star Contemporary, a nonprofit incubator for some of the area’s most promising emerging artists, but smaller galleries and studios are sprinkled throughout. The best time to go is on the first Friday of every month, when the entire neighborhood gets in on the fun.
This playful museum was built for kids, but parents will have just as much fun. Children can break out a magnifying glass for the Spy Academy — a puzzle game come to life — or learn about physics on the Force Course. Everyone in the family will marvel at the Sensation Studio, a thumping space devoted to light and sound.
San Pedro Springs Park
Dealing with South Texas’ blistering heat requires a game plan, so it’s smart to follow locals' lead. For generations, San Antonians have been splashing in the shade of giant cypress trees at the city’s most breathtaking public pool. Though the 1923 watering hole is nearly a century old, the surrounding park is even older, having been established in the 19th century.
Where to stay
The Fairmount Hotel
Not to be confused with the Fairmont Hotel chain, this downtown hotel is a graceful representation of Beaux-Arts architecture. Although it has all the modern amenities like a fitness center and sleek rooftop bar, the rooms are old-school European with flouncy window treatments, grand headboards, and marble galore. Its downtown location is one of the most enviable in San Antonio. Not only is it steps away from attractions like the Alamo and River Walk, two of the most acclaimed restaurants in the city, Nonna Osteria and Silo Prime, are conveniently located on the grounds.
It’s likely most Austinites have heard of this enchanting property before. In case they haven’t, let us fill you in. Every detail of this Pearl anchor oozes luxury, from the linens to the private library bar reserved just for guests. It ain’t cheap, but no other hotel in town makes a special occasion seem more special.
Hotelier Liz Lambert opened this boutique hotel back in 2010, but the property's history dates back to 1914, when a local grocer opened a decidedly less glamorous hotel of the same name. Under Lambert's tutelage, the Hotel Havana become of the city's chicest spots, from the perfectly appointed rooms, to the gorgeous Ocho restaurant, to the certifiably swanky underground Havana Bar.