|Deep in the heart of Texas
By Randy Cosby
Geography and history tell us that San Antonio isnt in Mexico, although the Hispanic flavor of the citys culture and cuisine seem to indicate otherwise. Its difficult to imagine another major American city, especially east of the Rockies, where Spanish is spoken more frequently by passersby, Hispanic history is more prominent and excellent Mexican food is more plentiful.
Certainly any trip to San Antonio must include a visit to the Alamo, so named for the Mexican hometown of a Spanish cavalry unit once stationed there. It was at the Alamo, which is the Spanish word for cottonwood, that 189 Texian and Tejano volunteers died in 1836 during the 13-day siege that provided a battle cry for the Texan army and an eternal shrine to statehood.
But the scope of the pitched battle that took place here is difficult to visualize because the remnants of the mission are neatly tucked away between a row of tourist shops, a hotel , post office and mall.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the Alamo is to first stop at the interpretive center at 6701 San Jose Drive adjacent to the restored Mission San Jose. Interactive displays and a 23-minute film explain the history of the five existing San Antonio missions, and a tour of the mission next door features a layout that brings the one-time scale of the Alamo into focus.
Before or after your Alamo visit, stop in the Imax Theatre next door in the River-center Mall to see Alamo...The Price of Freedom, a 45-minute docudrama that gives a detailed description of the battle.
A number of tours of varying lengths depart from the Alamo Visitor Center next door, and from the tourist bus stops across Alamo Plaza; there are tour routes that allow passengers to get on and off along the way. The tours are a great way to learn the lay of the land and to get around downtown.
Stroll through the plaza, which offers a small Cowboy Museum featuring a giant jackelope and mock-up of a western street; The Texas Adventure,a multi-media show portraying the fight for Texas independence; the Plaza Theatre of Wax, featuring figures from history and Hollywood; and Ripleys Believe It or Not!
A trolley hits the most popular tourist attractions but a large number of sites are downtown within walking distance of one another. A few blocks west of the Alamo is the Buckhorn Saloon and Museums, featuring an eclectic collection of horns and animal mounts in themed dioramas, and the Hall of Texas History Wax Museum, where more than 15 scenes depict events from Texas history.
Just up the street is the San Antonio Childrens Museum, featuring an ever-increasing assortment of hands-on activities.
A few blocks farther west are San Fernando Cathedral, dating from 1738, and the Spanish Governors Palace, a structure dating from the 1720s that has been painstakingly renovated and filled with authentic period furnishings.
Not all of San Antonios attractions date back hundreds of years. Breathtaking views of the city day or night are found on the 579-foot observation deck of the Tower of the Americas, located in HemisFair Park, a 10-minute stroll south of the Alamo, and from the glass-walled elevators that carry visitors to the observation deck and the Tower Restaurant.
HemisFair Park, the site of the 1968 Worlds Fair, also is home to the Institute of Texan Cultures, a magnificent University of Texas at San Antonio museum that uses creative interactive exhibits and displays to show how the contributions of 27 different ethnic groups have been interwoven to form the fabric of modern Texas. The nearby Mexican Cultural Institute offers a year-round schedule of activities and performances designed to familiarize visitors with Mexicos artistic heritage.
The San Antonio Zoo and Aquarium, and several other attractions in Brackenridge Park are found north of downtown, off Highway 281. With more than 3,000 animals and 750 species, the 35-acre zoo is located at the headwaters of the San Antonio River.
A miniature railway is located across the street from the zoo in 343-acre Brackenridge Park. The park also is home to the Japanese Tea Gardens, a lush, year-around, free garden; and the famed Witte Museum, a regional history and science museum. A two-mile, 18-minute ride on the miniature train lets passengers off at, or near, most activities in the park.
Next door to the Witte is the low-key but informative Pioneer, Trail Drivers and Texas Rangers Memorial Museum, 3805 Broadway. The history of the famed Texas law enforcement agency, as well as that of the often nameless yet dedicated drovers who furnished food on the hoof to the rest of the nation, is conveyed via first-hand accounts, photographs and through authentic artifacts.
San Antonio also is rich is art museums. The collection at the San Antonio Museum of Art (200 W. Jones Ave.) ranges from Greek and Roman sculptures to Latin American folk art; the private McNay Art Museum (6000 N. New Braunfels) collection includes works by European and American masters from the 19th and 20th centuries; and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (1300 Guadalupe St.) uses theatre arts, literature, visual arts, media arts, music and dance to instill pride in Latino art forms.
The efforts of artists with green thumbs working with hand spades is displayed at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. The 33-acre garden includes samples of wild flowers and roses from throughout Texas, a fragrance garden and a 90,000-square-foot conservatory.
If children are in the entourage, Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio are musts. Both have excellent water parks with which to beat the heat; and new attractions routinely are added.
Walk the Walk
When a break is needed between San Antonios seemingly endless attractions, many visitors find themselves drawn right back downtown to the Paseo del RioThe River Walk. Restaurants offering all types of food, specialty shops and nightclubs line much of both sides of the narrow river, which is located below street level, making this an entertainment and dining district that is unique among American cities.
Yanaguana Cruise boats packed full constantly glide by within yards of filled outdoor seating areas and walkways. First-timers should try the San Antonio-style Mexican food at Casa Rio, a fixture on the River Walk since 1946. If red meat and gravy is your thing, dont miss the Lone Star Café, where Texas-size steaks and chicken fried steak rule.
Given its Hispanic heritage, no trip to San Antonio would be complete without visiting La Villita, a National Register Historic District comprised on restored structures in the village that was the original settlement of San Antonio. The restaurants, shops and local artisan galleries now occupying the buildings make this a pleasant area for a leisurely stroll and a little upscale shopping.
Also downtown is Market Square, or El Mercado. Billed as the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico, Market Square peddlers sell everything from clothing and glassware to clay garden ornaments, making this the perfect place to take care of that list of affordable souvenirs.
When the shopping is finished, be sure to stop for lunch or dinner at Mi Tierra, located in the heart of Market Square since 1941. Open 24 hours, the food is delicious and an on-site bakery sells some of the tastiest Mexican pastry and candy imaginable.
The San Antonio scene is peppered with Hispanic history and culture. Enjoy all of that, plus a varied collection of sights and activities and youll soon understand why this charming city is deep in the heart of Texas.
Randy Cosby is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
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