Texans tend to go a little gooey about San Antonio. Dallas' big money may eye Austin's hippie vibes with suspicion, while Austonians often snark at the Big D's consumerism. Houston gets a bad rap from everyone. But love for the Lone Star State's second biggest city seems to be just about universal.
It's not hard to see why. Easily walkable and peppered with evocative reminders of its formative years as an outpost of the Spanish Empire – not least the legendary Alamo – its compact heart has a mellow, unhurried charm. The Alamo City's good looks and relaxed demeanour may lure the tourists but that's only part of the story. Beyond the centre, the city's current economic boom is fuelling a cultural renaissance, breathing new life into hitherto neglected neighbourhoods, renewing old monuments and transforming its culinary scene into one rivalling the best of the US.
Why should I visit now?
San Antonio celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2018, taking the opportunity to spruce up its museums, beautify its green spaces and put on an almighty fiesta. Recent years have seen skyscrapers shoot up across downtown and the derelict old Pearl Brewery complex transformed into one of the city's most buzzing quarters.
The anniversary finds San Antonio at a fascinating point in its evolution. In population terms, this is the fastest growing city in the US, and – long a cultural melting pot – the only one with a majority Hispanic population. Cosmopolitan and outward-looking, it's as fond of upending the Texan clichés as its preppier northern neighbour, Austin. In 2017, San Antonians felt sufficiently at ease with themselves to elect one of the US's most progressive mayors on a ticket celebrating diversity. Visit now, and you'll experience the Texas of the future.
San Antonio's skyline © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
So, which sights shouldn't I miss?
Most of San Antonio's major sights are easily accessible from the lush, shady River Walk, which loops and snakes through the city along the languid San Antonio River. The diminutive sandstone chapel of the Alamo Mission makes an obvious first stop, a poignant symbol of Texan pride, where Davy Crockett and his ragbag of doughty adventurers heroically battled an overwhelming Mexican assault during the state's bloody struggle for short-lived independence. It's worth noting that visiting early is crucial to avoid being besieged by crowds.
Likewise, the River Walk is at its most atmospheric once it wriggles free of its commercialised central strip. A leisurely stroll along its attractive northern extension reveals one of the city's trio of superb art museums: the San Antonio Museum of Art, which combines a preeminent collection of fantastically well-preserved pre-Columbian folk art with striking modern works from Latin America. Look out, too, for the weird and wonderful ethnographic pieces in its Asian galleries.
A couple of miles north, in the leafy surrounds of Brackenridge Park, the newly revamped Witte Museum is a gloriously entertaining romp through Texan history, science and culture. Coming face to face with the giants in the spectacular dinosaur galleries, you'll realise that everything has been bigger in Texas for at least 80 million years. While in the park, stop by the idyllic Japanese Tea Garden, one of the city's most picturesque and tranquil spots.
Focused on the grassroots Blue Star Contemporary, San Antonio's up-and-coming local arts scene is at its most vibrant in the well-heeled Southtown neighbourhood, a mile south along the River Walk from the Alamo, especially on the monthly First Friday when dozens of studios and galleries fling open their doors.
The Blue Star is also the ideal launch point from which to explore the four outlying colonial missions, strung out along Mission Reach's hiking and biking trail, the River Walk's newest addition. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, these peaceful compounds, each set around a simple stone church, provide a redolent picture of 18th-century frontier life: a pleasing contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Alamo.
Finally, back in the city's main plaza, as dusk falls try to catch San Antonio: The Saga, an imaginative and immersive son et lumière projected most evenings on to the ornate facade of San Fernando Cathedral.
Mission San Juan, San Antonio © Edward Aves
Where should I eat?
San Antonio's Mexican identity infuses its food scene, and you'll find Tex-Mex cuisine here far more nuanced and varied than anything you'll experience at home. Pull up a seat on Iron Cactus' cool terrace, slap in the middle of the River Walk, for an excellent introduction. Guacamole is made fresh at your table and queso compuesto – a generous fondue-style dip, pimped up with grilled meat and tasty pico de gallo – is a sinfully moreish highlight. With more than 80 different types of tequilas on offer, this is also one of the city's top spots for an ice-cool margarita.
These days, though, an inspirational new generation of creative chefs is pushing San Antonio's culinary scene well beyond its traditional flavours. Its hub is the spectacular Pearl development – home to one of only three US campuses of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, alma mater of (among others) Anthony Bourdain.
Housed in a cute clapboard cottage that originally lodged the brewery's chief cooper, The Granary has brought top-class Texan barbecue to the city, delivered with a twist. By day, exquisite brisket and other traditional favourites are dished out market-style by the pound to queuing punters. By night, robust smokehouse flavours form the focal point of an eclectic and finely tuned menu, served up in the rustic, wood-panelled dining room, that in part draw on the global influences gathered during chef Tim Rattray's formative years in London.
Intense, melt-in-the-mouth charcuterie is the top draw at Cured, occupying the brewery's impressively refashioned former admin building. Take your pick of the delicacies, such as duck ham, lamb pastrami and culatello, aged in the prominent glass-fronted locker at the entrance, and make sure you leave room for the zingy mesquite cake to finish off.
Mesquite cake at Cured © Cured
Where should I go for a night out?
The River Walk has its fair share of rowdy bars, serving up giant frozen margaritas and spicy, refreshing micheladas to a party crowd, but for a bar and music crawl well off the tourist trail, make for the revitalised St. Mary's Strip in student-y Tobin Hill. Start the night with happy hour at Chisme!, a chilled joint towards the south end of the half-mile strip. The cocktails are superb here – cool down with a creamy, deceptively boozy Chismosa, their signature tipple – and matched by a creative Tex-Mex menu. Try the refreshing watermelon salad with spicy macha sauce, followed up with roasted cauliflower with cotija cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds – complex and richly flavourful.
Opposite, Paper Tiger is one of the city's top venues for indie music, while next-door Rumble's ample beer patio, converted from a gas station forecourt, is an ideal spot for people-watching. Vegan eats, Mexican cocktails and an outdoor stage are the big draw at La Botanica, and craft beer lovers should check out the draughts at neighbourhood specialist, Attagirl, tucked away off the strip's northern end. And if you're craving a 3am taco, then you're in luck: the Taco El Regio food truck dishes out the best in the city.
Where should I stay?
A blissful retreat from the heat and bustle, the classy Mokara Hotel occupies the site of a former saddlery in the epicentre of the River Walk's downtown loop. Decorated in soothing greens and browns, with leather banquettes and acres of sparklingly polished wood floor, rooms have a touch of colonial luxury about them, while the rooftop pool terrace is a fine vantage point from which to survey San Antonio's colonial remnants and burgeoning skyline. Across the river, its hacienda-like sister hotel – the Omni La Mansíon del Rio – is an atmospheric alternative; mariachi bands play around its courtyard pool in the afternoons, and guests at both hotels can use the Mokara's gorgeous spa.
Hotel Emma lobby © Edward Aves
The dramatic centrepiece of the Pearl, Hotel Emma has upped the bar for hotel conversions across the US. An eye-goggling fusion of steampunk industrial chic and Second Empire opulence worthy of a Wes Anderson movie, it occupies the complex's soaring former brewhouse: even if you can't afford the $350 price tag, drop into the Sternewith bar for a cocktail, where the huge cast-iron fermentation tanks have been repurposed as cosy seating nooks and former bottling equipment converted into eye-catching chandeliers.
If you're seeking a homelier vibe, opt for King William Manor, an immaculate B&B set in an elegant nineteenth-century mansion in the leafy suburb of King William Historic District. Period features abound and the eclectic restaurants and galleries of Southtown are just a short stroll away.
For more information see visitsanantonio.com and traveltexas.com. For car rental, contact Hertz, who offer seven days' travel from £230; consult their Road Trip Planner for advice on exploring Texas and further afield. Top image: © cheng cheng / Shutterstock