Feature by Paul Pence
Growing up in Central Texas, I found many excuses to explore San Antonio. Like most Texans, I felt a civic duty to pay my respects to the defenders of the Alamo. As a student of history, I marveled as I explored the city’s 300-year-old Spanish frontier missions. Tourists can spend whole days having fun at Sea World or Six Flags and those of us who have family buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery have yet another reason to be there. Whenever I found myself in downtown San Antonio, I was always happy to find the cool, quiet oasis offered by the San Antonio Riverwalk.
As a kid, traveling with the family through San Antonio past the 1968 World’s Fair called “HemisFair” I had no idea that a tranquil paradise laid hidden below street level.
The Riverwalk had been around since the 1930’s, but I didn’t discover it until as a teen I attended a conference in the mid-70’s in San Antonio at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio. The hotel sits right on the Riverwalk with outside dining looking out over the garden-like stretch of the river.
I had read about the 21-story hotel being built in 202 days specifically for HemisFair with revolutionary modular concrete units many years before, so I was just as amazed by the building as I was by the river that ran behind it. I wandered in and out of the Riverwalk as I explored the rest of downtown San Antonio.
In those days, the Riverwalk was a mile-long horseshoe. This network of walkways and waterways built as a Depression Era public works project sits a couple dozen feet below the city’s main streets, running under bridges, making a loop around the center of the city.
The Riverwalk sits behind bars and restaurants, but it didn’t take long for them to discover that they had a pleasant back porch that attracted visitors. Soon, the back porches became the front doors for restaurants and the downtown Riverwalk transformed from a secret park to a tourist attraction of its own – a dining and nightlife destination.
In my college days, San Antonio was my weekend destination of choice Of course, being a self-supporting student, I couldn’t indulge in the restaurants and bars, but there were public festivals and museums to visit, and art galleries to explore.
When I brought my now-wife to experience Texas, I made it a point to take her there. We started by riding one of the flat-bottomed tour boats, enjoying a guided tour of the river and the nearby landmarks.
The tourist boats are one of the most popular attractions on the San Antonio Riverwalk. They offer a unique and scenic way to explore the river and take in the sights and sounds of the city.
The boats are powered by electric motors allowing them to navigate the narrow and shallow sections of the river. They are operated by a number of different companies, and there are several different types of tours available.
The most popular type of tour is the narrated tour, which is led by a knowledgeable guide who provides information about the history and culture of San Antonio as the boat travels along the river. These tours typically last between 30 minutes and an hour and are a great way to learn more about the city and its landmarks. Some people even take a romantic evening cruise with dinner and live music.
Of course, the Riverwalk evolved over the years.
The construction of the riverwalk began in the late 1930s, with the excavation of a section of the river that ran through the heart of downtown San Antonio. The project was funded in part by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was established as part of the New Deal to provide employment opportunities and support for public works projects during the Great Depression.
Over the next several decades, the riverwalk was expanded and improved through a series of additional construction projects and enhancements.
Then in the 1960s, the city undertook a major expansion of the riverwalk as part of the HemisFair '68 World's Fair, commemorating San Antonio’s 250th anniversary. This expansion included a number of new features including waterfalls, fountains, and a variety of new restaurants, shops, and other attractions.
From that point on, the Riverwalk became increasingly popular destination.
After our tour, we walked two blocks off the Riverwalk, past the Menger Hotel where Teddy Rosevelt recruited his Rough Riders, and found ourselves at the Alamo.
The Alamo sits just outside the Riverwalk, so it was easy to combine a pleasant stroll along the Riverwalk with introducing my future Yankee wife to the most revered and important locations in Texas history. I knew my way around, but had I forgotten the way, accessing the Alamo from the Riverwalk would have been easy and convenient by simply following the signs or asking a local for directions.
As we explored the Alamo, we encountered a variety of historic buildings, courtyards, and other structures that showcase the mission's unique architectural style.
Though she was as familiar with the story of the Texas Revolution and the defense of the Alamo as any other non-Texan, my then-future-wife was struck by the weight of history. She learned about the famous 1836 Battle of the Alamo where Texans who considered themselves Mexican citizens defended the Mexican constitution of 1824, overturned by dictator Santa Anna. They fought against vastly superior forces and died to the last man, costing Santa Anna’s troops dearly, and delaying them long enough for Sam Houston to build an army to later defeat the dictator, winning independence for the Republic of Texas.
As we stood in the iconic chapel of the historic mission, we were reminded of the courage, determination, and resilience of the early settlers who helped shape Texas and the sacrifice of those who fought and died there was.
Of course we both were amazed by the stories told by the guides and were mesmerized by the Alamo's extensive collection of artifacts and exhibits.
We could have attended one of the many events and activities that take place at the Alamo throughout the year, including reenactments of the Battle of the Alamo, cultural festivals, and more had our timing been different.
Today, the Alamo serves as a powerful reminder of Texas' rich history and cultural heritage. It is a place where visitors can learn about the struggles and triumphs of the early settlers who helped shape the state, and reflect on the important role that Texas has played in the history of the United States.
After the Alamo we went back to the deep shade of the Riverwalk and continued to explore, winding our way to La Villita.
La Villita was the original town of San Antonio, with its history extending into the 1700’s, long before the days of the Battle of the Alamo. Today it is a historic arts village, home to a variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants.
We strolled to La Villita by way of the Riverwalk and my wife was enchanted by its picturesque beauty and unique character. With its historic buildings and cobblestone streets just begging to explore on foot.
The shops and galleries each offered a unique selection of handmade crafts, jewelry, pottery, and other gifts. We also found a bite to eat at a café and soaked up the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere.
Back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, La Villita offered more than charm and culture. This village was once the entirety of San Antonio.
“The Little Village” was once home to a bustling market, where local farmers and craftsmen would sell their goods to traders and merchants from all over the region. This market was a critical part of San Antonio's early economy, and helped to establish the city as a major trading center in the Southwest.
Like the Riverwalk, La Villita is home to a variety of arts festivals, cultural events, and other activities throughout the year, and is a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.
After our snack, we wandered through La Vallita’s narrow streets and alleyways , transported back in time to a simpler, more connected era in San Antonio's history.
We did wander over to the HemisFair fairgrounds. That event not only extended the riverwalk, it also left behind an excellent convention center with half a million square feet of exhibit space and the 750-foot Tower of the Americas with its unparalleled views of the city and its surrounding landscape.
But the Tower of the Americas is more than just a towering structure taller than Seattle’s Space Needle - it also offers a variety of attractions and activities for visitors to enjoy. One of the most popular attractions is the observation deck, which offers breathtaking views of the city and its surrounding landscape.
We didn’t go up the tower, but from its vantage point, we could have seen all of San Antonio's most iconic landmarks, including the Alamo, the San Antonio Riverwalk, and the historic downtown area. Some visitors enjoy a meal at the Tower's revolving restaurant, which offers stunning views of the city as you dine on delicious cuisine prepared by some of San Antonio's top chefs.
Instead, we headed back to the Riverwalk to dine at one of the excellent TexMex restaurants (after all, San Antonio is where TexMex was invented) and finished up our evening listening to the music drifting out of one of the popular night spots as we soaked our tired feet in the river.
I live in New England now, so my excuses to get to the San Antonio Riverwalk are fewer. On our last trip to San Antonio we visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, about three miles from the classic Riverwalk and discovered that it sat on Riverwalk. The linear park had grown to over 15 miles long, extending well beyond the mile-long horseshoe in the center of downtown.
At this rate, I may never finish exploring it!
For more information
• www.VisitSanAntonio.com • www.lavillitasanantonio.com