San Antonio: Texas’s Most Popular City
By Max Hartshorne
A few weeks ago, I flew down to San Antonio, Texas, for a four-day visit. I came back with a positive view, and I figured out what makes the city such a magnet for Americans.
More than 13,000 people moved to San Antonio between 2020 and 2021, more than any other major city in the U.S.
Today the population is around 1.5 million, it’s Texas’ third largest city, and the city planners have done a lot of things right that make the city very livable.
Tourism is fast becoming the biggest industry here, with military bases and healthcare right behind.
I took a bike ride downtown with Brian Benavidez of Mural Ride Bike Tours, who explained that there is a new building boom on the city’s south side, with apartments, breweries, and food halls under construction. In fact, you can see housing being built all around San Antonio, and it’s not all for the very rich.
San Antonio’s Low Rents
Rents down here are around $13-15 hundred a month, affordable by most urban standards.
Brian’s bike rides are a great way to see the city and its more than 200 urban murals, and biking there is so easy; there are virtually no hills to climb, and the ride is mostly on bike paths.
The city has 210 miles of safe paths, and the famous River Walk can be ridden on once you get out of the pedestrian-heavy downtown area; it stretches for ten miles and becomes quite wild and rural in just a short time.
A Special Enthusiasm from Residents
Many aspects of San Antonio pleased me, and all of the people I met who live there have a special enthusiasm for the place.
There are dog parks, these bike paths, and there are even clean public bathrooms that people can use right downtown.
One person who sings the praises of SA is Jen Beckmann, a transplant from Chicago and a certified wine sommelier.
She runs a cozy wine bar and wine business called ReRootedWine in the HemisFair Park area of the city, which was built for the 1968 World’s Fair.
Today there are three parks here, the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas, a growing residential area, and local businesses like ice cream shops and restaurants at the location, which is an easy walk from the downtown River Walk.
Jen’s business uses a series of wine tanks like small beer kegs that she refills in reusable glass wine bottles. Customers buy her Texas wines and bring the empties to be refilled.
She swears, even as a certified sommelier, that you can’t tell the wine that’s been in a keg for 18 months, the varietal’s flavors come through strongly. Texas is a state without recycling, so any efforts to save on glass waste are very appreciated. She saves many thousands of bottles by reusing them.
Jen has come to really enjoy the top-notch downtown dining scene in San Antonio and cites Paloma Blanca and Clementine as her two favorite restaurants. Botika, which was nominated as a James Beard award finalist, rounds out her favorite local eateries list.
I asked Beckmann about the state’s reputation as a bastion of MAGA and that red state atmosphere. She explained that Texas is a huge state, and there are plenty of people who think like that, but in the major population centers like Houston and San Antonio, there are also plenty of people who think and act blue, acknowledging LBGT rights and recoiling at Governor Greg Abbott’s stunts against immigrants and others.
There are plenty of people, Jen assured me, who don’t agree with him and don’t even own a gun down here. That’s somewhat comforting for a blue-state guy like me.
Phil Collins and the Alamo
Did you know that Genesis founder and popular musician Phil Collins is a very devoted collector of Alamo-related documents, weapons, and other memorabilia?
Not only are his donations at the heart of the new Alamo Collections Center that opened this month, but Collins does his own narration of the story of the Battle for Alamo that can be heard over a diorama of the buildings and grounds in the center of the new collection in the city.
These and thousands of other artifacts will be relocated to an even bigger visitors center and museum that is set to open in 2026.
When you visit the Alamo today, you can see workers busy building on North Alamo Avenue; the first stage in the plaza to the right of the Alamo complex will be a recreation of the wooden walls that once surrounded the site.
In three years, a large new building will be built behind the famous Alamo Church… about that church and its famous arched top–I learned that when the battle was fought in 1836, the church actually had a straight roof line, the familiar arch was not added until 20 years later.
Five Famous Spanish Missions
Besides the five Spanish missions that the Alamo was a part of, San Antonio is famous for its River Walk, one of the first inner-city walking paths to really change downtown so significantly.
The walk here was built back in the 1940s for flood control, and today you can take one of the GO RIO 35-minute boat tours that navigate the canyons formed by tall buildings that go right up to the edge of the walk beside the San Antonio river.
Along with the River Walk and the newly expanded Alamo, there is a third important place that draws people to San Antonio: Pearl, a large shopping, dining, and open space in the heart of the city. Pearl is a historic district and cultural hub in the center of the city. People live, work, and gather here.
The property was a brewery from the early 1880s until 1999 when Pearl Beer moved its operations elsewhere.
A farmer’s market is set up every Saturday here and there are dozens of restaurants, retail shops, and a food hall, along with picnic areas and kids’ splash fountains that come out of the patio.
Stunning Hotel Emma
One of the gems at Pearl is the lovingly restored Hotel Emma, which was named for the wife of the first brewmaster at Pearl, Otto Koehler.
You can take a tour of the hotel’s marvelous common areas to find the high ceilings, walkways, and repurposed old equipment on display in the four-diamond hotel, which is very elegant and smells like eucalyptus.
We took a private tour of the magnificent two-story suite called the Emma, which features opulent rooms, two-story ceilings, and a giant deck overlooking the complex.
Hopscotch is a crazy immersive art gallery downtown, where you walk into rooms and can do funny things to create your own art, listen to secrets people have shared, and swim in a giant tank filled with foam balls.
It’s definitely one of those things you gotta experience for yourself. In one room, you take what looks like a can of spray paint, and it projects your writing on the wall, and then all of the colors begin changing; it’s both spooky and fun.
A lesser-known art gallery is free all of the time; it’s called Ruby City and was funded by the fortune made from Pace Salsa, the famous condiment, to house Linda Pace’s modern art collection. The reddish building itself stands out and some of the art exhibits are huge and wonderful.
Dining and Accommodations in San Antonio
We enjoyed our stay in a hotel that looks over the Alamo, the historic Hotel Gibbs, where room rates are around $179. www.hotelgibbs.com.
For something more high-end, consider a room at the Hotel Emma, around $600, or really take it up a notch with a stay at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country resort with a knock-your-socks-off waterpark and a PGA-quality golf course. This is located about 30 minutes outside of the city in the pretty hill country.
Cured is a specialty restaurant located in the Pearl complex, that uses organic methods to cure meats and pickles, featuring groaning charcuterie boards and their famous cured hams. website
For something a little more traditional, we enjoyed overflowing plates of barbecue at County Line BBQ on the River Walk. Be prepared for more food than you can possibly eat.
La Panaderia is a downtown bakery emporium with a case full of huge tempting sweets, including their famous almond tequila pastries and groaning plates, again too huge to even think of finishing. The restaurant Tre Trattoria, right on the River Walk at the San Antonio Museum of Art, is also very tasty and goes well with the excellent art collection in SAMA.
San Antonio websites:
La Panaderia: https://lapanaderia.com/
County Line: https://countyline.com/river_walk_san_antonio_tx/
Tre Trattoria: https://www.tretrattoria.com/
San Antonio Museum of Art: https://www.samuseum.org/
The Author’s visit to San Antonio was sponsored by Visit San Antonio, but the author’s opinions are theirs.