Zipping along the San Antonio River on a bike wasn’t exactly how I’d expect to spend my first few hours in San Antonio, but when I discovered that Mission Reach – the newest section of the city’s famous River Walk – had opened a new segment, I couldn’t resist the chance to explore.
I picked up my bike at one of the many B-Cycle bike-sharing stations around the city and followed a map to a bike access point on the River Walk. Along the way, I rolled through the King William Historic District, where dozens of beautifully restored 19th and early 20th century mansions line leafy streets just blocks away from the river. Two that are open to the public are the Steves Homestead, a three-story Victorian French Second Empire-styled mansion and outbuildings built in 1876 for local lumber magnate Edward Steves; and 6,500-square-foot Villa Finale, which combines Italianate and Beaux Arts features. The Villa Finale Visitor’s Center has its own exhibits detailing the history of the neighborhood as well as a gift shop selling local art, jewelry and books.
VIDEO TOUR OF SAN ANTONIO
Several restaurants, including Cascabel for authentic Mexican and Liberty Bar for American classics, are within walking distance. Back on the bike, I cruised to the Blue Star Arts Complex to tour galleries located in historic warehouses; poked into San Angel, which sells folk art from around the world; and popped into the Blue Star Brewing Company for a snack. Continuing along the pathway, I passed by the old Lone Star brewery, came across several kayakers taking advantage of just-opened river access, and saw joggers, egrets and fellow bikers enjoying the trail.
The eventual goal was Mission Concepcion, the stately stone mission built in 1755. With twin bell towers, ornate stonework and ocular window perfectly positioned to throw a spotlight of sunshine onto the altar on Aug. 15 for the Feast of the Assumption, the mission is both an artistic and technical marvel. By the end of 2013, riders will be able to continue along the entire Mission Trail, which encompasses all four of the Spanish Colonial missions (five if you count the Alamo) built along the river.
First conceived as a flood bypass channel in the mid-to-late 1920s, local leaders soon realized the potential of the river as a tourist destination, and by 1939, plans were in place to transform the channel, which sits below street level, into a pedestrian-friendly park accessed by footbridges and a series of open staircases. Later, as the River Walk was extended to link various historic and cultural destinations within the city, pocket gardens, waterfalls, tiny islands, restaurants, hotels and shops sprung up along the river’s edge.
To really get a sense of the 2.5-mile portion of the River Walk that meanders through city center, hop aboard one of the flat-bottomed cruise boats that ply the waters. Not only will you get a chance to do a little reconnaissance on where to eat and shop, but you’ll gain a better sense of the city’s history and pick up a little trivia on the way as well – such as the fact that Carol Burnett, Oliver North and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros were all born in the same riverfront hospital in San Antonio.
After the tour, stroll over to La Villita, which has been transformed from one of San Antonio’s oldest residential neighborhoods into an arts village filled with fine art galleries, shops and restaurants located within 19th-century cottages and other structures. Overlooking the river on Villita Street, the Little Church was built in 1879 from locally quarried stone blocks carried to the site by burros. Non-denominational services are held every Thursday and Sunday.
Another historic site along the river that’s been wonderfully repurposed is Pearl Brewery, which operated on the north end of town from 1883 until 2001. Today, the 22-acre site has become a hub of food, music, design and culture with shops, restaurants, arts exhibitions, residences and even a campus of the famed Culinary Institute of America, which offers culinary boot camps and classes for wannabe chefs. CIA’s on-site restaurant, NAO, is staffed by students and features New World tastes from Argentina, the Caribbean, Mexico and Venezuela paired with wines from Argentina, Mexico, California, Chile and Texas. The menu is filled with surprises like “stone soup,” a seafood-filled broth finished tableside over hot rocks, and four varieties of ceviche, the region’s spicy marinated fish salad.
For a taste of Texas, stop into Granary ‘Cue and Brew, which serves craft beer (and root beer) brewed on-site along with barbecue from Texas and around the world. Be sure to try Texas Toast – homemade bread slathered with barbecue butter – and, for dessert, soft-serve beer ice cream topped with caramel sauce and salty pretzel crunch. There are also a number of unique shops on site, including Dos Carolinas, which sells custom guayaberas, the embroidered warm-weather shirts worn throughout Latin America; Twig, an independent bookstore; and Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina, a Latin kitchen market that stocks gorgeous pottery along with cookbooks and cooking implements. There’s a Saturday morning farmers market, too.
Half the fun of Pearl – they’ve dropped the ‘brewery’ part – is getting there: in 2009, the Museum Reach section of the River opened, providing bike and walking access to the San Antonio Museum of Art, where you’ll find one of the largest collections of Latin art in the United States, as well as Pearl. Running about a mile and a half each way from downtown, the pathway passes by the Brooklyn Avenue Lock and Dam – which was created for river barges – as well as several public art installations including a school of bright, oversized sunfish strung from a street overpass; a soundscape of singing birds, croaking frogs and buzzing insects; a Disney-esque grotto and a thicket of shimmery metal panels. Groves of elm, sycamore and acacia trees provide shade and the banks are planted with colorful flowers. San Antonio’s mild climate means there’s always something blooming and it’s rarely too chilly to enjoy a stroll along what is quite possibly the world’s most decorated river.