Random Musings From A Solo Traveler in San Antonio

by Gray Cargill on January 30, 2013

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Last week when the temperatures in Vermont dipped down into the negative digits, I was basking in the 70-degree sunshine in San Antonio, Texas. My timing could not have been better. I expected to have a wonderful time during my first trip to Texas, and I did. Still, San Antonio wasn’t without its challenges. Over the next few months, you’ll see more detailed posts about my time there, but for now, here are some of my initial thoughts on the city:

The Riverwalk is as beautiful as everyone says, especially during the day. It is very crowded in the restaurant/bar sections at night. But not all areas of the Riverwalk are as well-populated or well-lit as images you may have seen on the Internet and in magazines. It is easy to get turned around at night and wind up in a dark, creepy and deserted area of the Riverwalk. (Especially when you’ve just arrived in town and you’re night blind. Hey, at least I didn’t tumble into the river!) You may even encounter a rat or two. (Yeah, thatย  happened, too.)

The bright side is that those same deserted areas that are creepy at night are really lovely for peaceful walks during daylight. Bring your camera.

(Dear San Antonio: Please increase the lighting all along the Riverwalk. Sincerely, a Night Blind Solo Female Traveler.)

Riverwalk

I’ve never visited a tourist destination with such empty downtown city streets as San Antonio. My first perplexed reaction was โ€œWhere the F— is everybody? Did I miss the memo about the Apocalypse?โ€ Of course, Monday was a holiday, but there were still plenty of tourists in town, as I could see from the nightly crowds on the Riverwalk. The lack of people walking around the streets during the day freaked me out at first; I wasn’t sure it was actually safe for me to walk around by myself at street level, but eventually, I got used to it. And it was much easier and quicker to get from Point A to Point B at street level than the meandering Riverwalk level.

You will see lots of homeless people everywhere downtown–in plazas, on the streets, and on the Riverwalk. For the most part, they minded their own business. Only one asked for change as I passed by, and another particularly sad woman asked me to pray for her because her dog had died.

The public transportation in downtown San Antonio wasn’t as convenient as I thought it would be. Luckily, many tourist attractions you’d want to see are within walkable distance if you’re staying downtown and are reasonably fit. But if you do think you’ll use public transportation, buy your tickets online well in advance of your trip.

Streetcar

Do find time to make it out to the Japanese Tea Garden near the San Antonio Zoo. It has a beautiful waterfall, a koi pond, walking trails and lots of nooks and crannies where you could sit and read a book if you like. It’s a lovely place to enjoy the great outdoors in San Antonio.

If there is a restaurant you very badly want to try, make reservations well in advance. The good ones are naturally always busy. I never was able to get in for dinner at Boudro’s, and I’m still kicking myself about that.

I recommend seeing the IMAX movie The Alamo: The Price of Freedom before visiting the Alamo. It’s a good reminder of how that bit of history unfolded and helps put what you’re seeing in perspective.

Also be sure to visit the Alamo both during the day (when it’s open) and at night (when it’s not). I found it to be much more beautiful and peaceful at night, and it felt more like sacred ground at that time than during the day when it was crawling with tourists.

Alamo at Night

The 360-degree views of San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas were spectacular. This is the second tallest freestanding observation tower in the country (at 750 feet), after the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. It has a revolving restaurant at the top called the Chart House. Eat there.

Even if you’re not staying there, check out the lobby of the Drury Plaza on the Riverwalk. It’s located in an old bank building and is gorgeous. It has a stained glass window depicting the Alamo in the lobby. If you’re looking for a budget hotel, this is a good one. They offer free wifi, free breakfast, and a daily happy hour from 5:30-7pm with free drinks and appetizers which could easily double as dinner.

Definitely visit all four Spanish missions on the Mission Trail, not just the two that are easily available via most tours and public transportation. If you are reluctant to rent a car, there is one tour company that will take you to all four missions: Historic Texas Tours. That tour was one of the highlights of my time in San Antonio.

Mission San Jose

Schilo’s Deli on East Commerce Street makes the best damn rootbeer I’ve ever had in my life. It tasted like a cross between rootbeer and cream soda. I drank two glasses before a waiter told me they were about 500 calories each.

The Spanish Governor’s Palace is definitely worth a visit. Just be aware that it’s not a palace, nor did a Spanish Governor ever live there.

I’ll admit that before going to Texas, I was a little worried about their politics. Texas is a red state. Vermont is a blue state. On the surface, you’d think Texas and I wouldn’t mix very well. But I found the people to be incredibly friendly and nice. They love sharing their history and culture with visitors. I learned a new favorite expression on this trip that can be found on bumper stickers all over Texas:

I may not have been born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.

I liked that. It felt true for me. Texas, you will see me again.

blackaeronaut June 12, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Ma’am, regarding Texas politics, one thing to bear in mind is that while Texas is most certainly Red for the time being, San Antonio is a Blue City. Still plenty of Republicans here, but if you ask around… ๐Ÿ™‚

Gray Cargill June 13, 2013 at 5:12 am

Aha! I knew there was a reason I loved San Antonio! ๐Ÿ˜‰

edward L February 13, 2013 at 3:43 am

Gray, most folks who aren’t from Texas hear about it being a red State — which is onky true as far as national politics & that only recently is concerned. I grew up in Dallas which has about as conservative a reputation as can be & I assure you from personal experience that the rednecks do exist and that for every redneck there is an anything-but-redneck and then there are the most of us flying under the radar. It helps if you remember that more than any other place I know of, Texas is more myth than place and never more so than at the Alamo.

Come back soon, edward

Gray February 13, 2013 at 7:12 am

Hi, Edward, Yes, conservative politics is what I was referring to, not being a redneck. We’ve got rednecks in Vermont, too. I see that as more of a lifestyle than political stance. Like I said, though, I liked what I saw in Texas, and I’d happily go back.

Christian February 6, 2013 at 11:24 pm

I noticed that there was hardly anyone around the city as well, but it made for a relaxing time to explore. And I totally agree about visiting the Alamo at night! I think sacred is the perfect word.

Gray February 7, 2013 at 7:04 am

You definitely didn’t have to “fight the crowds,” that’s for sure, Christian Which can be a nice change from overly crowded tourist destinations.

RobRob February 2, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Glad you (mostly) liked San Antonio! I’m a big fan of the city and, like you, find the Alamo particularly special at night. I could never explain why, but you hit it right on the head: It does feel like sacred ground then, without all of the traffic and tourists. I hope you got a chance to visit some of the great museums and maybe the theme parks – while I’m not a big Six Flags guy, I always enjoy Sea World. And yes, the Riverwalk is beautiful at Christmas…and could use more lighting the rest of the year. On your next trip, head out to La Fogata for some awesome Mexican food – It’s just as crowded as the Riverwalk, I’m afraid, but less touristy. And better, for the most part. Looking forward to more San Antonio randomness!

Gray February 2, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Great tips, RobRob, thanks very much!

Suzanne in VA February 1, 2013 at 8:22 pm

You really got alot in during your trip- i like that! I really enjoyed the Alamo and Tower of Americas when I was there last year. The japanese garden as you did and Hemisphere park in general (tower) really was beautiful. I was there during Fiesta so did not experience empty streets but I bet that was perplexing for sure.

Gray February 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm

So that’s what I did wrong! I should have visited during a Fiesta! ๐Ÿ™‚ Ah, it all worked out in the long run. Isn’t the Japanese Tea Garden beautiful? I’m always delighted by neat outdoor spots like that in a city.

Wends of Journeys and Travels February 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

As someone who has never set foot in America, San Antonio is an inviting flare. This is one of my bucketlists in the US and I agree, that Spanish Governor’s Palace is a great place to visit. I am a sucker for historical sites and where the pasts meets the present!

Gray February 1, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Well, if you like history, Wends, you’ll love San Antonio.

Don January 31, 2013 at 9:52 am

Fair assessment of out city. Those of us who live here often avoid downtown when we can. Thanks for the shoutout to Historic Texas Tours. Texas is the reddest of the red states, which makes us great..but we are more libertarian that hardcore Republican..lol

How was Guenther House?

Gray January 31, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Well, that explains the Downtown thing, Don. Guenther House was great! We ate outside in the tent.

Tracy Antonioli January 30, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Yay! I’ve been waiting to hear about this trip!

What an informative post. I just learned a LOT about how I’d visit San Antonio (and i’m GOING to visit San Antonio). i would definitely rent a car. i think i’ve decided to always rent a car in anywhere where car renting is a consideration (as opposed to places where you clearly do not need it, like New York, DC, Chicago, San Francisco etc.)

I laughed at your ’empty downtown streets’ comment. At one point on my recent trip to Pittsburgh I stepped out into a major downtown road, spread my arms out, spun in circles and shouted WHERE IS EVERYONE?!? I learned later that the last Batman movie was filmed there; I bet they didn’t even need to close down the streets!

Gray January 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm

If you can afford to rent a car, and want to go out beyond the city center, you probably should, Tracy. Hotel parking rates will of course suck, but that’s true of pretty much most cities these days. I don’t think you’d need a car for your entire stay, though. As I said, most places you’ll want to visit are walkable. But with a car, you could drive out to Fredricksburg or even up to Austin for a day trip.

Pittsburgh was like that too? What is UP with that?

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I loooooved San Antonio. I went during Xmas one year and it was magical!!!

Gray January 30, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Andi, there was a part of me that wished I’d gone at Christmas, for all the lights on the Riverwalk. I’ve heard it’s really beautiful then!

Jason January 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Love the random musings!

Gray January 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Glad to hear it, Jason!

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