Discover Art & Culture in San Antonio
By Ann Nelson
San Antonio is a colorful city with a distinct personality and a festive flair! It is well known that Mark Twain classified less than a handful of U.S. cities as “unique.” According to Mark Twain, these “unique” cities included Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and San Antonio.
Colorful photographs highlighting hundreds of lively umbrellas dotting the river walk have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. When I had an opportunity to visit San Antonio, I jumped at the chance in less than thirty seconds. I love water, walking, culture, art and history. After a few days of exploring and looking into the nooks and crannies, I found the soul of this city is truly built on the foundation of its history. Artifacts found in the region indicate there were people living here 11,000 years ago.
The river walk, in itself, was even more impressive than I had imagined.
Thirty-five bridges cross along the river and they are all different. Cobblestone and flagstone paths border both sides of the river that winds twenty feet below the streets of downtown. The walk here is engulfed in nature with a path encompassed in giant cypress, palm trees, and tropical plants filled with color.
Brightly-painted boats offer tours along the scenic waterway, creating a true urban masterpiece in the heart of the business district. Many different aspects of history and culture are woven into this captivating and easy-going city. This is reflected in many of the cafes, restaurants, shops and historic hotels that surround the river front.
A $384 million river walk expansion and restoration project is presently in progress and will lengthen the walk from 8 to 15 miles. In addition to enhancing the hiking, biking and paddling aspects of this destination, the project will reintroduce native plants, enhance aquatic habitat and reconnect cultural and historical features of the river.
My home base in San Antonio was Hotel Havana. Built in 1914, this hotel was oozing with character, charm and the elegance of the old world. I spent mornings sitting on the deck of the Ocho Lounge sipping my coffee and enjoying the endless parade of the fabric of nature and people along the river. The hotel reflects the Latin influence of the Caribbean and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Alamo is often referred to as the soul of San Antonio and is certainly a standout in our national history. The 1836 battle became permanently etched in history when 189 Texans, including the infamous Davy Crockett, fought for independence from Mexico, turning The Alamo into a fortress and holding off some 4,000 troops for 13 days. An old mission church now serves as a shrine to those who died here. The three-acre site deeply touches the emotions of all who visit, including mine.
San Antonio’s culinary scene is said to rival those of much larger sophisticated, cosmopolitan cities. The Culinary Institute of America, located on the river walk, has made its mark here with exciting competitions that include The Iron Chef-style Paella Challenge. Attending this event gave us an exciting chance to talk with culinary masters from all over the country, including Bravo’s Top Chef Texas contestants.
Some of my favorite San Antonio restaurants were Mi Tierra and TreTrattoria. One night we had dinner on a floating barge while cruising down the San Antonio River at the river walk. A trip on the river barge is a must! There is not a better way to experience the colorful and open heart this city offers.
The art scene in this town is huge and just as vibrant and flamboyant as the colorful umbrellas that line the river walk. The cultural diversity is reflected in this creative patchwork of art that is inspired by the city. San Antonio was listed in the May 2011 issue of American Style Magazine as one of America’s top 25 cities for art.
Art is everywhere, from La Villita Historic Arts Village on the south bank of the San Antonio River, to the SoFlo (South Flores) Art District just south of downtown and San Antonio’s West Side featuring Mexican-American art with large-scale murals by well-known artists David Blancas, Mike Roman and many others.
The spirit and energy of San Antonio offers a perfect opportunity for artists to learn, exhibit and interact. Artpace San Antonio is an example of what is going on here. Artpace focuses on the artistic process and in reality is a laboratory for the creation and advancement of international contemporary art. International Artist-in-Residence program and exhibition programs are offered throughout the year.
Taking the river barge to visit The San Antonio Museum of Art was a perfect way to spend an afternoon. The museum, housed in the historic 1884 Lone Star Brewery, is home to 25,000 pieces of art and antiques representing 5,000 years of history from cultures around the world.
Culture and art are everywhere in San Antonio. During my stay, I went to a live International Aerosol Graffiti Festival. Artists from around the country were creating large-scale murals on the expansive outer walls of the Backstage Live building. The excitement and commitment they were showing through their art came through even during a rainy afternoon.
The Historic Market Square-El Mercado is the largest Mexican market in the U.S. and sells everything from arts and crafts to roasted corn. The 96-year-old 20-acre Pearl Brewery site was one of my favorite places to visit and saved from the wrecking-ball by a community that deeply cares about preserving its culture. Today the property is home to Pearl Farmers Market, fabulous restaurants, live-work lofts and The Culinary Institute of America.
Luminaria Arts Come to Light is a one-night event that brings together and showcases artists from architecture, dance, media arts, literary arts, theatre and street performers. All this takes place outdoors at HemisFair Park and features nine performance stages, three galleries and over 20 site-specific installations.
San Antonio is a city with a huge heart and home to many people who have cared enough to preserve its history and culture. It is an inspiring place to visit and a city that I definitely want to come back to.
IMPORTANT CONTACT INFORMATION:
San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau: Phone (210) 207-6700, or www.sanantoniocvb.com
Hotel Havana: Phone (210)222-2008, or www.havanasanantonio.com
Rio San Antonio Cruises: Phone (210) 244-5700, or www.riosanantonio.com
Ann Nelson is a freelance writer residing in San Diego, CA.