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Lunching on an open-air dining boat on the San Antonio river is only one of the ways you can enjoy this multi-faceted Texas city.

We watched a couple strolling hand-in-hand along San Antonio's River Walk (Paseo del Rio) as we enjoyed our shrimp salads. Shaded by towering oaks and cypresses, they browsed in boutiques tucked in among the hibiscus blossoms and waterfalls. Then we lost sight of them.

Boat on San Antonio River
Boat on San Antonio River
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Our river boat had glided under an arched footbridge and returned to a restaurant where our waiters picked up trays of strawberry mousse for the next leg of the journey.

River cruise

It's hard to believe that you're floating through the heart of one of the largest cities in the USA. Traffic sounds disappear here, 20 feet (six meters) below the downtown streets. Instead, in the evenings, you hear wisps of music from outdoor cafés.

You may even become part of a show as your boat floats through the Arneson River Theater. The audience sits on one side, while folk dances, operas and concerts are performed on the opposite bank.

You can board a boat at the Rivercenter, a three-tiered mall, housing more than 100 shops and restaurants. The best reason for coming here, however, is to see the IMAX film, Alamo...The Price of Freedom. A projector, the size of a piano, recreates the 1836 battle of the Alamo on a screen six-stories-high.

Free admission to Alamo

Later, when you visit the bullet-scarred adobe chapel, it's easy to visualize the siege in which 189 Texans held off the Mexican army for 13 days before finally being massacred.

Alamo at night
Alamo at night
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo was the first of five Spanish missions built in the 18th century to convert the Indians to Christianity. Each mission had living quarters, a farm, a church, a blacksmith and a tannery.

Except for the Alamo, all the missions are active parish churches today. All are included in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, making the city one of the few that encompass a national park.

The Mission Trail begins at the Alamo and winds along the San Antonio River. If you have time to see only one mission besides the Alamo, make it Mission San Jose. The most beautiful, prosperous and best-fortified, its entire compound has been restored, including the meter-thick stone walls and 84 Indian quarters.

El Mercado

Religious services have been held here for more than 250 years. Every Sunday, at noon, there's a mariachi mass in the church. Arrive at least a half-hour early if you want to get inside — earlier, if you want a seat.

The mariachi music is indicative of the Mexican influence here. San Antonio is only 240 kilometers from the Mexican border and nearly 60% of its 1.2 million inhabitants are Hispanic.

Nowhere is this more evident than in El Mercado (the Mexican Market) where you can buy piñatas and pottery in the shops and jalapeño peppers and dried chilies in the Farmers' Market. (Chile con carne, by the way, was invented here.)

La Villita

Stop by La Margarita for some fajitas, sizzling strips of beef brisket with grilled onions, guacamole, hot sauce and tortillas. Sip a margarita, listen to the mariachi music and you'll soon be transported south of the border.

Woman grinds corn to make tortillas at Institute of Texan Cultures.
Woman grinds corn to make tortillas at Institute of Texan Cultures.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Spanish influence can be seen in La Villita (Little Village), which was settled 200 years ago. Today, the restored buildings provide space for artists selling their wares and demonstrating their crafts.

Other cultures, too, are woven into the fabric of San Antonio life. The Institute of Texan Cultures shows the contribution of 30 ethnic groups in a multi-media show and hands-on demonstrations. Grind corn to make tortillas in a Mexican kitchen, sit by a teepee and play musical instruments made from cane, gourds and hide, or, visit a chuck wagon cook who describes life on a cattle drive.

King William District

The largest non-Hispanic group to settle in San Antonio was the Germans. In the 19th century, wealthy merchants built elegant mansions in the King William District south of the river.

Years later, the prestigious neighborhood deteriorated and the beautiful verandas, gas lights and wrought iron fences fell into disrepair. Then the yuppies moved in, renovated the homes, and made the district into the most fashionable in the city.

Take one of the Conservation Society walking tours then visit the Guenther House. Flour and corn have been ground at the mill here for 137 years. The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls, fruit cobblers and pecan streusel cakes will lure you into the bakery. A shop sells River Mill biscuit, muffin and tortilla mixes and accompanying jars of Texas honey, cactus jelly and salsa picante.

While the Guenther family used the San Antonio River water to power their mill, other German families discovered that the water was ideal for making beer. They lost no time in setting up breweries.

Buckhorn Saloon

The Buckhorn Saloon was patronized by cowboys who came to San Antonio in the late 1800s. It was the perfect place for owner, Albert Friedrich, to display his collection of cattle horns and antlers.

Trappers began bringing in horns to exchange for beer and eventually, the Buckhorn Saloon became a San Antonio landmark. In 1956, the Lone Star Brewery bought it.

Today, you can stroll up to the original bar and order a Lone Star or root beer on tap. The Saloon now has the largest collection of horns, antlers and trophy animals in the world.

Exhibits include Ol' Tex, a Texas longhorn with a 2.7-meter set of horns, a chandelier made from 2300 kilos of antlers, a Texas worm (a two-meter-long rattlesnake) and one of the few preserved pairs of the now-extinct passenger pigeons.

Texas history, natural science and anthropology are featured at the Witte Museum. In its "get-involved" displays, you can listen to the songs of native birds, peer inside a live beehive, watch baby quail hatching and examine the teeth of ancient Texans' skulls, with a magnifying glass, to learn about their diet.

SeaWorld of Texas entrance
SeaWorld of Texas entrance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

San Antonio Botanical Gardens

The San Antonio Botanical Gardens is known for its rose, herb, biblical plant, and children's gardens, as well as its scented garden for the blind. An underground conservatory features seven environments, ranging from frigid mountaintops to steamy jungles.

Dominating the Desert Room are three saguaro cacti that are at least 80 years old and weigh 1400 kilos each. The Tropical House abounds with coffee and cocoa trees as well as orchids and waterfalls. All that's missing is a palm-fringed beach.

Mission Reach River Walk

The original 11.3 kilometer (seven mile) San Antonio River Walk has expanded to 24 kilometers (15 miles) long.

The Mission Reach extension allows strollers to walk to more San Antonio attractions, such as the Blue Star Art Complex and four Spanish colonial missions.

Hiking paths and bike trails join San Antonio's San Jose, San Juan and Espada Missions to Mission Concepcion. Built in 1731, Mission Concepcion has limestone bell towers and original frescoes decorating the interior.

Mission Reach landscaping will include public art and native Texas plants and trees. The Mission Reach extension will connect San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery to the original downtown River Walk.

Where is the Mission Reach River Walk extension? It extends south from Brackenridge Park.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas

Although San Antonio is 240 kilometers from an ocean beach, it still has a sea — SeaWorld San Antonio, the world's largest marine life adventure park. It's both big, because it combines four theme parks, and blue, because of its sky-blue buildings, signs and numerous pools, fountains and aquariums.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas, another San Antonio theme and water park, has thrill rides, Oktoberfest, Mexican festivals, homecoming parades and Fourth of July celebrations.

In San Antonio, the Venice of the Southwest, candlelight marriage proposals regularly take place on the river boats. Like a traditional bride, romantic San Antonio has "something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue."


San Antonio Conventions and Visitors Bureau: www.sanantoniocvb.com

More things to see and do in Texas:

Dallas Texas - What to See and Do in DFW

Frontier Times Museum - Bandera Texas

Tex-Mex Grill