If you’ve lived in San Antonio for any length of time, you’re probably a seasoned pro at the whole River Walk thing by now. This colorful downtown attraction has been the epicenter of tourist and leisure activity for years. In fact, a recent study by the Paseo Del Rio Association revealed that the River Walk accommodates over 10 million guests every year, most of whom are out-of-town tourists and guests.
...But while these same tourists and guests are enjoying prickly pear margaritas under the river walk’s signature colorful umbrellas, locals of all kinds are also busy in other parts of downtown, cultivating the art scene, re-claiming historic buildings, and innovating new ways to have fun in the Alamo City. Because, while we do indeed love the Sa n Antonio River Walk, it’s not the only thing (or even necessarily the best thing) to do downtown.
The Pearl Brewery + Hotel Emma
Image Courtesy of USA Today
Though technically The Pearl Brewery connects with the northern tip of the River walk, this reclaimed turn-of-the-century masterpiece has an ecosystem all its own. Comprised of fifteen restaurants and cafes, thirteen retailers, eighteen resident businesses, over three hundred apartments, and a bi-weekly Farmers Market, the Pearl Brewery his always humming with a sense of effortless activity.
Originally a very successful brewery (that even managed to survive the obvious difficulties of the prohibition era), The Pearl eventually shut down production in 2001, leaving questions about what would happen to this dwindling part of town. Fifteen years later, reclaimed and transformed into what some call “industrial-chic”, the beautiful Pearl complex attracts architecture buffs, design junkies, foodies, and any other type of curious onlooker.
Last year brought what has perhaps been the most exciting salvage yet: the transformation of the century-old brewery building into the luxury “Hotel Emma”. Keeping the original Victorian structure, Hotel Emma contains all the charm and mystery that comes from making a hotel out of an old brewery. From the guest rooms to the lobby, which includes a gorgeous library, Emma has a vibe that manages to be both utilitarian and decadent.
Image Courtesy of Hotel Emma
So the next time you’re downtown, take your excursions to the Pearl, visit the Farmers Market, have a drink at Hotel Emma’s Sternewirth Bar, or explore the “Elephant Cellars” (a grand ballroom)!
Southtown + King William
Image Courtesy of Texas Monthly
As you might expect from its less-than-creative name, SouthTown is located just south of downtown. However, what SouthTown’s name lacks in creativity, its art scene and culture more than make up for in uniqueness. Southtown is the happy, eclectic intersection of three distinct San Antonio neighborhoods: The King William Historic District, the Blue Star Arts Complex, and Lavaca (San Antonio's oldest existing neighborhood).
Originally a collection of grand homes in the midst of Mission San Antonio de Valero’s farmland, the King William neighborhood experienced a revitalization in the 1960s, showcasing architectural styles like Greek Revival, Victorian, and Italianate. Soon after, activity began to hum around an old warehouse that would eventually become the Blue Star Art Complex, the heartbeat of the city’s contemporary art scene. The Blue Star now houses apartments, restaurants, a theater, and numerous smaller galleries and artist studies.
A mixture of historic homes, shops, museums, and eateries, SouthTown offers a breath of fresh air to creatives all over town. A slightly hipster vibe emanates from the reclaimed streets, calling out to millennials and art enthusiasts interested in experiences like Stella Public House, a new “farm-to-pizza” hot spot that also happens to offer a killer brunch.
Japanese Tea Garden
Image Courtesy of Jingu House
It’s common knowledge that San Antonio is full of culture...from Mexico to Germany, the Alamo City was built by a fusion of cultural influences. But did you expect Japan to be one of them? Perhaps one of the city’s favorite hidden gems, The San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden showcases beautiful Japanese architecture and culture in the midst of a once-abandoned limestone rock quarry.
With a history of over 90 years, the tea garden claims a spot on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. A recent restoration project has nurtured the garden into a its full glory, which includes walkways and stone arch bridges shaded by lush gardens and complemented by a 60-foot waterfall and koi ponds. Strollers can also enjoy an island and a Japanese pavilion, along with The Sunken Garden amphitheater, which seats 6,000 spectators. The Japanese Tea Garden is officially a public park, which means it’s open to visitors all year during daylight hours.
The tea gardens offer a true atmosphere of tranquility. Besides being a sweet spot for a picnic or date night, the gardens have become a local favorite spot for small weddings, vow renewals, and other various events. Enjoy the gardens and then pop into the Jingu House Cafe for a Bento Box!
Market Square District
Image Courtesy of AARP
If you thought the River Walk was the epitome of San Antonio’s Hispanic influence, you’ve yet to visit the Market Square District...a cultural force to be reckoned with! Arguably the liveliest section of downtown, this three-block outdoor plaza is lined with shops, restaurants, food stands, and produce. If you weren’t already convinced, Market Square boasts the title of “largest Mexican market outside of Mexico. No big deal (actually, it is).
Start off your visit with the "El Mercado" section of the market, home to over thirty specialty shops selling anything from handmade candies to beautifully embroidered garments and leather goods. Next, head out to Farmers Market Plaza, which boasts eighty locally-owned shops and stands offering produce and beyond! The craftsmanship and artistry is also unrivaled in Market Square -showcasing musicians, dancers, painters, and more.
Some locals even argue that the most delicious and authentic Mexican Food (and margaritas) are located in this section of the city! If you venture to Market Square, be sure to visit Mi Tierra Cafe Y Panaderia, which is literally a year-round fiesta. And, if you’re really looking for a party, visit Market Square during Cinco de Mayo, a celebration without rival.
The emerging South Flores Arts District
Image Courtesy of San Antonio Current
If you would have suggested a trip to “Second Saturday” a few years ago, someone might jab you in the ribs and whisper, “You mean First Friday?” No...in fact, you did indeed mean Second Saturday: an artistic gallery-centric event much like SouthTown’s First Friday, but with fewer crowds and a lot more free beer. Sound like heaven? Head down to South Flores on (you guessed it) the second saturday of any month to enjoy the area’s quiet hum of vibrancy and authenticity.
Also known as the Lone Star Arts District, and most recently rebranded Southtown The Arts District, the South Flores area is sort of local bohemia, complete with galleries and art collectives striving to think outside the box. Galleries like Gravelmouth showcase contemporary artists “with a bias for street culture”, among other influences. Besides the art scene, you can explore the urban landscape around the old Lone Star brewery. South Flores is an area that might be showing early signs of gentrification...but we kind of hope it keeps its weird brand of charm, complete with post-apocalyptic street murals that will leave you scratching your head.
So, we’re calling to all hipsters, locals, culture-seekers, and visitors weary of the river-walking: post up and relax at a new downtown spot! Explore the lobby of Hotel Emma, grab some vegan ice cream at The Pearl, bask in all the tranquility that is the Japanese Tea Garden, and above all: keep exploring the full experience that is downtown San Antonio.
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