San Antonio travel guide: 20 reasons to visit San Antonio, Texas

1. WALK: SAN ANTONIO RIVER

A slice of Europe in the heart of downtown San Antonio, the 24-kilometre River Walk runs through the city, but also extends north to the Museum Reach and south to the Mission Reach (thanks to a recent $US258-million upgrade). The pedestrian-only downtown section, which flows one storey beneath the streets alongside the San Antonio River, is lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, artwork and hotels. visitsanantonio.com

2. TOUR: THE ALAMO

You've heard about the Battle of the Alamo, seen the movie, perhaps even own a Davy Crockett hat, but only when you step inside the ruins of the Alamo does it finally make sense. In December 1835, during Texas' war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan volunteers occupied the Alamo (a former Franciscan mission) and held the fort for 13 days. Although they lost the battle, the Alamo has become an enduring symbol of their heroic resistance to oppression. Smack in the middle of downtown, entry to the Alamo church and grounds is free. See thealamo.org

3. MARVEL: THE BRISCOE WESTERN ART MUSEUM

For a dose of the Wild West – think Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa's saddle, a Wells Fargo stagecoach – the Briscoe has it all. Not just American art and artifacts, but pieces from Mexico and South America. All up more than 700 objects can be viewed across three levels, plus an outdoor sculpture garden. Opened in 2013, the museum is housed in a repurposed building that was once the public library. Tuesday nights are free. briscoemuseum.org

*4. STAY: THE ST ANTHONY, A LUXURY COLLECTION HOTEL

Nicknamed the "Waldorf of the prairie", this iconic hotel has undergone a two-year renovation, bringing back the glamour and glory that made it famous when it first opened in 1909. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, as much for its luxury as its legends (John Wayne, Princess Grace of Monaco and Ginger Rogers have all stayed here) its position on Travis Park in the heart of downtown is unrivalled. Boasting 277 guestrooms (including 80 suites), six restaurants and bars, and a rooftop pool, it's the perfect retreat after a day of sightseeing. Don't miss dinner at Rebelle, famous for farm-fresh Texan produce. See thestanthonyhotel.com

5. SHOP: MARKET SQUARE

A three-block outdoor plaza lined with restaurants, shops and produce stands is the largest Mexican market in the United States. Specialty stalls sell everything from leather boots to hand-embroidered dresses, with more than 80 shops alone making up the Farmers Market Plaza. Colourful paper "picado" Mexican flags add a cultural atmosphere, so too musicians, dancers and working artists. See visitsanantonio.com

6. DINE: RANGE

The newest restaurant from acclaimed Chef Jason Dady is a modern American chophouse showcasing the bounty of Texas Hill Country. Expect serves are as big as Texas, ice-cold martinis mixed at your tableside and steaks aged for 45 days. Gulf seafood, organic poultry and a nightly vegetarian dish keep the non-carnivores happy. The wine list is interesting, broken into "fish friendly", "field focused" and "beef centric" categories. On the River Walk Range, it is open for lunch and dinner. rangesa.com

*7. RIDE: GO RIO ELECTRIC BOATS

Since October 1, a new fleet of electric, ecofriendly barges has started plying the main section of the San Antonio River offering guests a 35-minute, fully narrated tour. Painted in a range of five bright colours, with jaunty cutout sides resembling Mexican paper flags, the barges pass all major sights on the River Walk, gliding under arched bridges and alongside some of the city's best urban art. Leaving every 15-20 minutes (from various locations) the tours cost $US12 and run from 9am to 10pm. See goriocruises.com

*8. EXPLORE: SAN ANTONIO MISSIONS

A chain of Spanish colonial missions strung along the San Antonio River are a reminder of one of Spain's most successful attempts to expand its dominion in the 1700s. Collectively – Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Espada – make up the UNESCO World Heritage-listed San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Approximately four kilometres from each other, the best way to get there is by the #40 VIVA Missions bus ($US2.75 unlimited day pass). Entry to all missions is free. viainfo.net

9. ADMIRE: THE WITTE MUSEUM

Where nature meets science meets culture, the bright and airy Witte Museum is a treat for all science geeks. Visitors can get up close and personal with the skeleton of a meat-eating Acrocanthosaurus, learn about the 9000-year history of the pre-historic hunter-gatherers and view detailed panoramas of the flora and fauna of Texas. 2018 will see the return of the after-hours Cocktails and Culture program. See wittemuseum.org

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10. TASTE: TEXAS BARBECUE

A Texan barbecue is in a class all of its own. Nothing is tossed, turned or burned within an inch of its life, rather the meat is cooked slowly, over hickory wood, and served with pickles, potatoes and slaw. One of the best barbecue joints is The Granary 'Cue and Brew, a celebration of craft beer and barbecue. Housed in a 19th-century building, it is part of the redeveloped Pearl complex. Go for the market-style, three-meat plate (brisket, sausage and ribs) matched with a house-brewed beer – hipster carnivore at its finest. See thegranarysa.com

11. ENJOY: BOTANICAL GARDENS

Texas has some weird and wacky plants. A few hours at the San Antonio Botanical Garden will help you sort your conifers from your cacti, and your hairy grama from your blue grama. The 4.5-hectare Texas Native Trail includes some 250 plant species, while the Water Saver walk features a variety of drought tolerant landscapes. Other gardens include the Sacred Garden, Sensory Garden and Gerties's Garden. See sabot.org

12. RELAX: AT HIATUS SPA + RETREAT

Hike or bike the entire 24-kilometre River Walk and you'll be in need of some serious relaxation. Thankfully, Hiatus Spa + Retreat is conveniently at the Pearl, which is right on the River Walk. Hiatus' approach to wellness is driven by the view that regular relaxation should be an empowering part of a healthy lifestyle. Choose from a range of massages including the Sports Buff, Kindred Spirit and the Glow-Getter, or enjoy a tailor-made facial, manicure or body wrap. See hiatusspa.com

13. MARVEL: THE SAGA AT SAN FERNANDO CATHEDRAL

If you only have 24 minutes to catch up on 300 years of San Antonio's history, don't miss The Saga, an outdoor video art projection beamed onto the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral. Starting with shimmering cave paintings of Indigenous ancestors, through to oil wells, Spanish colonisers, the Mexican revolution and the Battle of the Alamo it's a history lesson like no other. Show times are Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9pm, 9.30pm and 10.00pm. See mainplaza.org

14. SPEND THE DAY: THE PEARL COMPLEX

Pearl is San Antonio's hippest new hood; an 1880s industrial brewery turned culinary and cultural destination. Easily reached on foot or bike via the northern River Walk the multi-use complex features independent retailers, chef-owned and operated restaurants, green spaces, the 146-room boutique Hotel Emma, a riverside theatre, weekly farmers market and the third campus of The Culinary Institute of America. The outdoor artworks, constructed from repurposed brewery equipment, and the well-stocked The Twig Book Shop are reason enough to visit. See atpearl.com

15. SIP KILLER COCKTAILS: HAUNT BAR

Housed in the St Anthony Hotel, this moody bar is famous for its spirited cocktails named after ghostly legends from the hotel's past. Choose between Lavender Lady, Jilted Bride, Crooked Wig or Lady in Red. Sparkling wines, reds, whites and roses are available by the glass, plus a short menu created by Rebelle chef Stefan Bowers. A creative playlist of vintage soul and R&B completes the picture. See thestanthonyhotel.com

*16. KAYAK: SAN ANTONIO RIVER

Fewer than five kilometres from downtown, it is possible to kayak along a quiet section of the San Antonio River, gliding under bridges and gurgling down weirs. Part of the World Heritage-listed San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, the river has benefited recently from a $US258 million restoration project. In September 2017, the river was the recipient of the Thiess International river prize, the world's foremost award in river basin management. Home to 200 different bird species you can expect to see snowy egrets, great egrets, blue herons and cormorants. Keep an eye out for monarch butterflies and red-eyed slider turtles. See missionadventuretours.com, sara-tx.org

17. DRINKS: THE ESQUIRE TAVERN

The quintessential downtown bar, said to be the oldest bar on the River Walk (opened in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition), with the longest wooden bar top in Texas (more than 30 metres of beer-soaked wood). Superlatives aside, it's just a cool place to pull up a stool, snack on a burger and enjoy a local lager. While the long bar is the place to be, the quiet booths or terrace overlooking the river are equally lovely. See esquiretavern-sa.com

18. BREAKFAST: GUENTHER HOUSE

Start the morning with breakfast at Guenther's and you won't need to eat again for the rest of the day. Serving everything from buttermilk biscuits to sweet creme waffles, breakfast tacos to pancakes the size of your head, the menu is based on their own brand of Pioneer flour. Established in 1859 on the banks of the San Antonio River, Pioneer Flour Mills is the country's longest continuously family-owned mill. Today, the elegant home of the founder Carl Hilmar Guenther is a museum, restaurant and gift shop. See guentherhouse.com

19. LUNCH: AT ACENAR

Take the best of regional Texas, mix it with Mexican and give it a modern twist and you have Acenar, a contemporary Tex-Mex restaurant on a less-travelled section of the River Walk. Dishes include sizzling parrilladas, cheesy enchiladas, savoury chilli rellenos and flaky empanadas. Sit upstairs or down, at the pagoda-style patio or balcony. Don't miss a Latino-style cocktail or signature margarita. See acenar.com

20. RIDE: B-CYCLE BIKE SHARE PROGRAM

Rent – ride – return – repeat is the motto for San Antonio's bike share program. Unlike conventional rental bikes you can dock the bike at any B-station and grab another when you're ready to ride again, making it perfect for short trips and quick adventures. There are at least 50 B-stations across the city with another dozen on the Mission Trail. A 24-hour day pass costs $US12.00 including an unlimited number of 60-minute rides. See sanantonio.bcycle.com

Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Visit San Antonio, St Anthony Hotel and Rail Plus.

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