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Authentic San Antonio

All photos courtesy San Antonio CVB

When a new attraction opens in San Antonio, there is a good chance it will mean fresh life for an old venue. This cosmopolitan city of some 2 million — Texas’ second largest — has a habit of adapting and reusing its historic sites and has undertaken many revitalization projects under the direction of the San Antonio Preservation Society.

“San Antonio is an authentic destination that is very concerned about preserving its unique, diverse heritage,” said Dorah Putney, director of tourism for the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Buerau. “We are focused on tourism’s importance to the city, and we work to maintain what we have while making plans to grow.”

Perhaps the most famous of San Antonio’s preservation projects is its top tourist attraction — the River Walk.  Flood control efforts in the 1950s turned the San Antonio River into little more than a downtown drainage ditch, but creative thinking led to the development of this oasis-like walkway, which lines the river with cafes, galleries and attractions.

A new 1.3-mile northern extension called the Museum Reach was opened last May, and future plans will take the River Walk south to the four Spanish colonial missions at San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. The River Walk will eventually encompass 15 miles when the $384.5 million San Antonio River Improvements Project is completed in 2014.

“These new sections of the River Walk provide visitors with completely different experiences,” said Putney. “The Museum Reach is an art-filled journey, while the Mission Reach will give a more natural, outdoor experience.”

Whether they travel by foot or by river barge, visitors are enthralled by the many public art installations that line the Museum Reach. Designed to naturally integrate into the river’s landscape, these works of art include the spectacular Grotto, an artificial cave that serves as a pocket park and natural art gallery.

Destinations on this northern River Walk corridor also prove San Antonio’s passion for preservation. The San Antonio Museum of Art, renowned for its Latin American folk art collection, resides in the former Lone Star Brewery, while the historic Pearl Brewery has been redeveloped into an art-filled urban village.

Incorporating eco-friendly technology that includes the largest solar panel system in Texas, the new Pearl Brewery offers visitors a variety of shops and restaurants, a Saturday farmers market filled with regional produce and the Pearl Stable entertainment venue.

Group travelers can arrange to take two-day, Latino-inspired cooking classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s new campus, which is dedicated to the study and instruction of Latino cuisine.

The eventual northern end of the River Walk, as well as the headwaters of the San Antonio River, is located near the city’s 343-acre Brackenridge Park. The park is home to the San Antonio Zoo and the newly renovated Brackenridge Golf Course, which opened in 1916 as Texas’ first public golf course. The Texas Golf Hall of Fame will be relocated there this year.

Brackenridge Park’s Japanese Tea Gardens have also been recently restored with new floral displays, a water garden and a dramatic waterfall; the restoration of the original Tea House will complete the refurbishment this summer. The site is designated as a Registered Texas Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic Renovations

When the Mission Reach section of River Walk is eventually completed, tour groups will be able to travel to the four Catholic missions — San José, Concepción, San Juan and Espada — established several miles south of the city. The first mission built in San Antonio was San Antonio de Valero, which is better known today as the Alamo.

Each year, some 2.5 million visitors come to “remember the Alamo,” at Alamo Plaza, where the chapel and Long Barracks are all that remain of the original fort. The neighboring Long Barracks Museum and Library contains relics and mementos from the Republic of Texas and offers a narration on the 1836 battle that led to the fall of the Alamo.

The nearby Main Plaza has been the heart of San Antonio since it was established in 1731 by the original Spanish settlers from the Canary Islands. “This historic plaza was recently redeveloped into a downtown gathering spot, and it features seating areas, five interactive fountains, lush landscaping, food kiosks and Wi-Fi service,” said Putney.

San Antonio’s historic restoration projects will continue throughout this year, beginning with the spring reopening of the 260-year-old Spanish Governor’s Palace following a $775,000 renovation. One of the oldest buildings in San Antonio, the palace is a National Historic Landmark that once housed the officials of the Spanish Province of Texas.

“And, in October, Villa Finale will open as the first National Trust Historic Site in the state of Texas,” said Putney. “It was once the home of San Antonio preservationist Walter Mathis, who led the revitalization of the city’s 25-block King William Historic District.”

Located just south of downtown, the elegant residential area is now a National Register Historic District.  The circa-1876 Villa Finale houses Mathis’ collection of Napoleonic materials, Texas art and furniture, and American and European fine and decorative arts.

A new museum dedicated to the art of San Antonio and South Texas is on the horizon, as the Dolph and Janey Briscoe Western Art Museum is scheduled to open in March 2011. Designed to celebrate the art, people and history of the American West, the Briscoe Western Art Museum will be housed in the former circa-1929 Main Library of San Antonio and a newly built gallery. An enclosed bridge will link the two structures, and a pavilion will overlook the San Antonio River and the museum’s sculpture garden.

Party Time

There’s no denying that San Antonio is a party town, as festivals and events take place throughout the year. From the Mud Festival to the Texas Folklife Festival to the Wurstfest, there’s always a celebration in San Antonio.

This spring the New World Wine and Food Festival will move from its original fall date to May 12-15 in order to coincide with the historic Valero Texas Open golf tournament at the new J. W. Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. The New World Festival is a showcase for San Antonio’s finest restaurants and chefs and celebrates the city’s reputation as a premier wine and food destination.

San Antonio’s premiere festival is undoubtedly the Fiesta, an amazing 11-day run of parades, carnivals, balls, art fairs, concerts and food each April. Held for the past 119 years, Fiesta San Antonio originally honored the memory of heroes from the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto; in recent years it has also celebrated San Antonio’s diverse cultures.

More than 100 events are scheduled for this year’s April 15-25 Fiesta, including the Texas Cavaliers’ River Parade, which fills the San Antonio River with illuminated floats; the Battle of Flowers Parade, which draws crowds of 350,000 to view beautifully decorated floats and musical performances; and the Fiesta Flambeau Parade, an evening event with dancers, bands, horses and light-adorned floats.

In addition, the Mariachi Mass blends a traditional Catholic service with the regional sounds of mariachi music at the circa-1731 San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral sanctuary in the United States.

Tour groups can journey around the world during the Fiesta’s A Night in Old San Antonio, a three-day celebration of the food, music and customs of 15 different cultures. This extravaganza is held in the historic La Villita area on the south bank of the San Antonio River. The city’s original settlement, La Villita is an artsy, eclectic blend of galleries, craft shops, jewelry shops and restaurants.

San Antonio Expertise
“San Antonio’s wealth of attractions and events draw some 25 million visitors to the city each year, making it the primary visitor destination in the state of Texas,” said Putney. “When hotel developers are looking at these statistics, we are considered a very attractive destination for development.”

To help group leaders and other tourism professionals learn about San Antonio’s hotels, attractions, culture and cuisine, the San Antonio CVB recently launched a Tourism Professional Certification Program (TPC) through the Web site. The TPC program also provides information about the CVB’s Web site and various planning tools such as itineraries.

“Since September, we’ve had 100 travel professionals sign up for this 45-minute interactive program, and 64 have received certificates of completion,” said Putney. “It isn’t a long time commitment, and the questions are linked directly to our Web site, making it very easy to utilize.

“Basically, we feel the more knowledge travel professionals have about San Antonio, the more effective they are at selling it as a destination and increasing their own sales, too.”

The CVB also has a new interactive neighborhood tour Web site — — that is designed to provide an easy-to-use guide to San Antonio’s many eclectic districts and neighborhoods. The site guides visitors to the best places to eat, shop or catch a show.