With neither the modern skyline of an oil metropolis, nor the tumbleweed-strewn landscape of the Wild West, attractive and festive SAN ANTONIO looks nothing like the stereotypical image of Texas – despite being pivotal in the state’s history. Standing at a geographical crossroads, it encapsulates the complex social and ethnic mixes of all of Texas. Although the Germans, among others, have made a strong cultural contribution, today’s San Antonio is predominantly Hispanic. Now the seventh largest city in the USA, it retains an unhurried, organic feel and is one of the nicest places in Texas to spend a few days.
San Antonio is a delight to walk around, as its main attractions, including the pretty River Walk, the Alamo, Market Square and HemisFair Park, are all within strolling distance of each other. Slightly further out, but still accessible on foot, is the King William Historic District and the neighbouring Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center.
Founded in 1691 by Spanish missionaries, San Antonio became a military garrison in 1718, and was settled by the Anglos in the 1720s and 1730s under Austin’s colonization programme. It is most famous for the legendary Battle of the Alamo, in 1836, when General Santa Anna wiped out a band of ragtag Texas volunteers seeking independence from Mexico. After the Civil War, it became a hard-drinking, hard-fighting “sin city”, at the heart of the Texas cattle and oil empires. Drastic floods in the 1920s wiped out much of the downtown area, but the sensitive WPA programme that revitalized two of the city’s prettiest sites, La Villita and the River Walk, laid the foundations for its future as a major tourist destination. Recently several massive hotels (think Vegas) have been constructed to accommodate the booming tourism and convention industries. The military has a major presence in San Antonio, too, with four bases in the metropolitan area.
Since mission times, the San Antonio River has been vital to the city’s fortunes. Destructive floods in the 1920s and subsequent oil drilling reduced its flow, leading to plans to pave the river over. Instead, a careful landscaping scheme, started in 1939 by the WPA, created the Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, now the aesthetic and commercial focus of San Antonio. The walk, located below street level, is reached by steps from various spots along the main roads and crossed by humpbacked stone bridges. Cobbled paths, shaded by pine, cypress, oak and willow trees, wind for 2.5 miles beside the jade-green water, with much of the city’s dining and entertainment options concentrated along the way.
La Villita (“Little Town”), on the River Walk opposite HemisFair Park, was San Antonio’s original settlement, occupied in the mid- to late eighteenth century by Mexican “squatters” with no titles to the land. Only when its elevation enabled it to survive fierce floods in 1819 did this rude collection of stone and adobe buildings become suddenly respectable. It is now a National Historic District, turned over to a dubious “arts community” consisting mostly of overpriced craft shops.