You know how when you visit a new city, you always want to take the first day to get the lay of the land on foot, by bus, or even by driving around? Well, in San Antonio, the San Antonio River (and the Riverwalk) is such a central part of the city, that one of the first things you’ll want to do here is get the lay of the river. (I’m not actually sure anyone’s ever substituted the expression “lay of the land” for “lay of the river” before, but there’s a first time for everything, right?)
After wandering off in the wrong direction in the dark the night I arrived in town, it was a priority for me to take the river tour the next morning to figure out where everything was. I grabbed a river taxi at the very convenient Rio Taxi stop outside my hotel to take me to the boarding area for the Rio River Tour. (Yes, the same company that offers the tours also runs the taxis up and down the river.) As a bonus, because he knew I was headed for the tour, he didn’t charge me for the ride. (Thanks dude whose name I never got!)
As directed by my taxi driver, I went into the Aztec Theater (at the Riverwalk level) and found the ticket booth toward the back. Here, I bought my tour ticket for $8.25 (totally worth it). I was lucky enough that a tour was about to start, so I didn’t have to wait at all.
The guide on my tour was a native San Antonian named Alfred. Sometimes it was a little hard to understand Alfred, because he spoke very fast. But when I did understand him, he was funny. (Then again, I’m an easy audience when people are trying to be funny. I know how hard it is.) Alfred told us a lot of information about things he was pointing out along the way, but honestly, I’ve retained very little of it. I wasn’t taking notes, I was taking pictures!
This tour was a great way to get a feel for just how big the loop of the downtown Riverwalk really is (so I’d know later on how much walking I’d be doing to get back and forth to various places) and gave me a better sense of what was where along the Downtown stretch of the Riverwalk. All along the way there are access points to street level, so you can get to most places downtown by either street level or river level–though river level is definitely prettier.
The River tour helped me identify some of the neighborhoods of the city (such as La Villita, pictured above) that are accessible from the Riverwalk. And Alfred pointed out landmarks that later helped me get my bearings, such as the Torch of Friendship (a gift from the Mexican government to the city of San Antonio) shown below.
Along the way, we passed by the Rivercenter Mall and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and its gorgeous mosaic mural depicting the life, culture, and history of San Antonio.
One of the things that became obvious to me is just how well the city has utilized the resource of its river compared to most urban areas. This is thanks to Robert H. H. Hugman, a visionary architect who presented a plan to the city of San Antonio in 1929 to develop along the river a commercial neighborhood which also felt park-like. He believed that:
“Our Little River should be treated as a stage setting on which people are transported to the unusual; that all future architectural growth avoid modern styles; that the river’s tempo must be jealously guarded, remaining slow and lazy, in complete contrast with the hustle and bustle of street-level modern city life.”
He even put his money where his mouth was by opening his own office at river level. People thought he was crazy at first, since the river was known to flood on occasion. But the city eventually bought into his vision, and the rest is history.
One place the Rio River Tour does not take you is up to the Museum Reach of the Riverwalk. However, the Rio Taxi does go there (see route/pass prices below). I’d recommend making that trip as well, because it’s got a totally different vibe than the downtown area.
This section of the Riverwalk was formerly an industrial neighborhood that housed the Pearl Brewery. Today, it is a revitalized mixed-use residential and commercial area with shopping and dining opportunities. It’s very picturesque and quiet—a great place to go for a walk, read a book, grab a bite to eat and cold beverage at La Gloria restaurant, or just sit and contemplate the meaning of the universe.
What You Need to Know about the Rio River Taxis and Tours
Tour Price: $8.25 (with discounts for locals and senior citizens)
Hours: 9am to 9pm
See website for locations where tickets can be purchased, or purchase yours online.
Downtown Reach (Rio Taxi Yellow) – One-way $5, Day Pass, $10, 3-Day Pass $25
Museum Reach (Rio Taxi Red) – 24-hour pass $10, 3-Day Pass $25.
Combination 24-hour Pass (Downtown/Museum Reach) – $15.
Hours: 9am to 9pm
Tickets can be purchased aboard the boat.
*Be sure to double-check current hours and prices on their website.
Photo credit: That picture of me at the Riverwalk was taken by Teresa Vincent, The Joyful Journeyist.