Written by Claiborne Smith
Pity the poor employees at the San Antonio tourism office. All anyone can remember about the city is the Alamo, the site of a bloody battle between Texan settlers and the Mexican army that took place in the long-ago year of 1836. But don't let its key role in American history eclipse the fact that San Antonio has recently reinvented itself as a sophisticated, beguiling, and funky city, all the while paying tribute to a rich, complex past.
San Antonio feels like Mexico, visitors say, and they're right. Mexicans settled Texas a full century before the arrival of Anglo-American colonists, and signs of Mexican culture are everywhere, from the vibrant murals on the walls of downtown buildings to restaurants serving updated versions of traditional Mexican cuisine. But San Antonio also feels über-Texan, with the spectacle of its country bars and those iconic cowboy boots and hats. (A bar packed with people dancing the Texas Two-Step is something to behold.) The city's saloons are a legacy of the state's ranch culture, when cowboys-or vaqueros, if they were Mexican-came to San Antonio to get away from all that cattle.
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The city also has a more sedate, glamorous side. Not the forbidding, velvet-rope kind of glamour-San Antonio is an unfailingly warm and friendly place. The elegant King William district was founded in the late 1800s by wealthy German immigrants. Its streets are lined with imposing, baronial mansions-some of which are now bed-and-breakfasts-as well as artsy cottages, hip restaurants, and the Blue Star Arts Complex, with an array of cutting-edge galleries.
San Antonio was one of the first cities in the country to effectively harness the historic-preservation movement. Almost every store, restaurant, and museum is housed in a building once used for an entirely different purpose. "That's part of our wonderful pioneer spirit," says San Ángel Folk Art gallery owner Hank Lee. "We make do with what we've got. We've always rehabilitated things, which gives the city an independent spirit that keeps it going. San Antonio is a place where things stay alive."
Take, for example, Pearl, a development of restaurants, shops, and outdoor spaces that occupies what was once the state's largest brewery. A handsome example of late-19th-century Texas architecture that has been augmented with up-to-date structures, it is home to some of the city's celebrated tastemakers. At Osteria Il Sogno, chef Andrew Weissman's paean to Roman and Florentine cooking, San Antonio's business and political leaders cinch deals. For her kitchen shop, the celebrated cookbook author Melissa Guerra has scoured Latin America for ingredients, tableware, and art to create an eclectic inventory. The Culinary Institute of America has a campus at Pearl, adjacent to the stables where the brewery's draft horses were once lodged. La Gloria serves Mexican street food across from the Twig Book Shop, one of the state's most successful independent bookstores.
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Pearl is located on the River Walk (also called the Paseo del Rio), a waterfront trail that winds alongside the San Antonio River. In the 1530s, Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to write about the San Antonio River, which connects almost everything in the city. The River Walk was created in the 1930s, and gradually became a haven for tourists. Today, it's a rallying point for the city's community spirit. In recent years, when the authorities drained the river and scrubbed the River Walk clean, San Antonians even elected an annual Mud King and Mud Queen, based on who raised the most money for one of the local riverkeeping groups.
The downtown section of the River Walk, near the Alamo and convention hotels, is packed with enormous Tex-Mex restaurants and bars. That segment of the walk could charitably be called "overdone." But the Museum Reach, which opened in 2009 on the northern end of the River Walk, features 11 art projects installed underneath bridges and along the riverbanks.
The most elaborate work of art on the Museum Reach is Carlos Cortés's The Grotto, a three-story, Dalí-esque faux-bois structure situated in a bend of the river. Inside his grotto, Cortés has carved human and animal faces amid waterfalls and spooky walkways festooned with stalagmites and stalactites. The effect is that of suddenly entering a cave in the middle of the city. Another Museum Reach project is the reinstallation of the graceful Ewing Halsell Pedestrian Bridge, once used for rolling beer barrels from one section of the Lone Star Brewery to another.
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Art historian Susan Toomey Frost says that in San Antonio, "You can't swing a cat without hitting an artist." Frost once saved a colorful 1930s tile mural from a house that was being demolished, recently donating it to one of the foundations spearheading the Museum Reach. "There's so much going on visually in San Antonio," she says. "I think a lot of that is the Mexican influence, which has blended in so well it's become part of our nature."
The mural that Frost rescued, with its scenes of Mexican village life, is now located near El Tropicano hotel but is easy to miss: It's not large and it doesn't really call attention to itself. But San Antonio has done such an excellent job of resuscitating its history that this stunning work of art-which in another city might be preserved in a museum-is out in the sun, an active, cosmopolitan part of urban life. "San Antonio is always reinterpreting its past," says historian Jesús F. de la Teja, who's been writing about the city for 30 years. "In the process, it's turned into one of those distinctive American cities like New Orleans or Santa Fe. It continually sharpens its image."
Jay Fielden, the editor in chief of Town & Country magazine, grew up in San Antonio in the 1970s and '80s, and now marvels at the fact that it has become the seventh-largest city in the U.S. "It was big back then," he says, "but it seems particularly gigantic to me now. No matter how vast the surrounding area is, though, the heart of the city-the part that is surprising to most people who have a sense of Texas as being flat and arid and full of women with helmet hair and guys with big cowboy hats-really is something quite different from anything else in Texas. This city was founded hundreds of years ago, and you feel that with the missions and the old neighborhoods like the King William district and Alamo Heights, with their beautifully grown-over streets of live oaks. That's the magical, transporting part of San Antonio, and I think that's very much intact."