By Christopher F. Schiel, Travel Correspondent
Winding through downtown San Antonio, a Rio Cruises tour boat passes a cluster of bustling restaurants before gliding under the blackened iron frame of the Presa Street Bridge. "Presa means dam," explains captain Doug, "with water diverted through 15 miles of hand-dug acequia ditches that irrigated the farmland of the five Spanish missions." The statement hints at the origin story of America's seventh-largest city, a story that begins with the first and most famous of those mission churches and the site of the most storied battle in Texas historythe Alamo. Down the river and roughly 15 yards south of the River Walk, history surfaces again at the Riverwalk Plaza Hotel & Suites, where poster-size monochrome photographs line guest-floor hallways, chronicling the nearby Franciscan missions, the 1968 world's fair, and the buildup of downtown.
The guest rooms themselves were recently renovated, with bedclothes and decor calling to mind the warm palette of mission wall frescoesyellow ochre, burnt sienna, eggshell white. The dark-stained wood of bed frames, side tables, and desks complements the earthy tones, which mix with the light hues of exposed brick in many rooms. Most east-facing river-view rooms feature a small balcony for gazing at the 750-foot Tower of the Americas or teasing pigeons with complimentary Otis Spunkmeyer cookies.
Pool-view rooms face the palm-speckled, fourth-floor courtyard surrounding the heated swimming pool. For poolside reading, the lending library on the ground floor shelves dozens of borrowable books ranging from romance novels to locally relevant historical fiction. The ground floor offers further reading and relaxing opportunities; travelers can laze fireside upon a white leather couch in the quiet Monterrey Lounge. For more lively environs, sojourners can seek out the small Bar-Salona, where bartenders pour house-made sangria and draughts of Dos Equis. The bars late-night crowd sometimes spills over into the adjacent Signature Tapas bistro, which during the day and evening serves up small plates such as empanadas and sicilian nachos.
Along the walkways and countless bridges scattered around the San Antonio River's downtown loop, picturesque eateries and bars transcend the car-ridden commotion at street level. The vibe lands somewhere between that of a Venetian canal and a canyon gorge, with walls made of buildings rather than sandstone. Each twist of the River Walk path presents little surprisesintriguing landscaping, compelling views, or public art, such as a school of glass fishes suspended below a bridge on the walk's newly opened extension reaching north to the San Antonio Museum of Art.
A few blocks east of the river, the Alamo remains the most-visited tourist site in Texas. Though its an integral part of local and state history, the famous site is actually one of five historic Spanish missions clustered around the San Antonio River. Travelers looking to avoid the touristy bustle can head 5 miles south of downtown to explore Mission San Jose, the largest of the missions, whose famed Rose Window is once again on view after an extended renovation.
Scattered around the downtown area, San Antonio B-Cycle's computerized stands rent bicycles by the day and week (though bikes must be docked at any stand every half hour to avoid additional fees). Just south of downtown, the 25 bikeable blocks of the King William Historic District send visitors past a parade of palatial manors mostly built by German merchants of the late 19th century. Nearly silent in comparison to the bustling River Walk, the residential neighborhood boats a number of picturesque homes including the Italianate Villa Finale, former home of catalyzing preservationist Walter Mathis.
Cell-phone audio tours guide visitors past this neighborhood's many notable mansions, many of which were built by German merchants in the late 1800s.
James Beard Award nominee Bruce Auden concocts exemplary New American fare served in a chic dining area perched above the river.
Lasting 3540 minutes, these comically narrated boat tours traverse 2.5 miles of the river and its canal branches, illuminating notable buildings, architects, public art, and Texas history.
Koi ponds, lush greenery, and a maze of stone paths pepper this scenic garden cultivated in an abandoned quarry in Brackenridge Park.
This historical arts village, connected to the River Walk at the Arneson River Theater, houses studios and boutiques showcasing the work of artists, craftsmen, and clothing designers.
Dauntless Tex-Mex cuisine pairs splendidly with the signature prickly-pear margarita at this River Walk staple.
A storied brewery recast as a social epicenter features shops, the worth-the-trek Il Sogno restaurant, and the Aveda Institute.
Hands-on natural science, paleontology, Texas history, and mummies converge in exhibits that delight and surprise children and adults alike.
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