I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into as my friend and I made our way to the dead end of a quiet side street in San Antonio. We were in search of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 76, a 110-year-old Victorian mansion we’d been assured is one of the best places in town for a cold drink on a cool night. Yet I still hesitated at its iron archway, thinking we might be crashing a private event. Just beyond two howitzers, a crowd mingled among bright picnic tables and passed around buckets of longnecks. Folks lined up at a taco truck for chicharrón-filled gorditas as the riffs of the band’s bajo sexto guitars began drawing in passersby out for a stroll along the San Antonio River. By the time we were raising our own $3 longnecks, each dressed with tangy beer salt, we knew: We’d found our spot.
I’ve been to San Antonio on numerous occasions, having lived in Texas nearly all my life, but each time I visit I’m charmed anew by its vibrancy. Austin may be the buzzier town—SXSW is only growing—but San Antonio remains the most visited in Texas. Even though it’s the second-largest city in the second-largest state, it feels less like a modern metropolis and more like a series of come-as-you-are block parties. “It is still a frontier city in spirit,” remarked Holiday magazine in the fall of 1948, noting that San Antonio “hankers more for boisterous fun than for fame or riches.” This will still be true in 2048. As one of Texas’s first settlements, it exudes a vitality rooted in a deep reverence for history (remember the Alamo, y’all) and in a unique swirl of Hispanic-German-Southern
The famed River Walk, a 15-mile promenade set below street level (flat-bottom tour boats are available if your feet get tired), thrums with revelers downtown. Here hotels are wedged cheek-to-cheek, with multilevel restaurants and bars eager to ply you with margaritas the size of kiddie pools. There’s no shame in having a good touristy wallow, wandering through La Villita, a block of ’40s-era buildings with artisans’ galleries—but I like to leave the fray behind. A half mile north of the River Walk’s epicenter, the 27-room Hotel Havana ($115-$565) dates to 1914 and was reimagined as a retro-Cuban retreat a few years back by Austin-based hotelier Liz Lambert. It’s quick with a wink (painted maracas are available in the minibar) and rich with enchanting pockets: The Havana’s glassed-in restaurant, Ocho, will woo you with its lush view of the river below, to say nothing of the persuasive powers of its Hemingway daiquiris and tortas cubanas.
San Antonio has a lovely habit of repurposing the past as it pushes itself forward. Take the Pearl. The decommissioned brewery, founded in 1881, has been flipped into a mixed-use development anchored by Hotel Emma, a Kimpton property (opening early next year) and specialty shops like Dos Carolinas (where you can buy that bespoke guayabera you never knew you always wanted). I go mainly because some of the city’s best restaurants are here, plus it’s easy to get to and from the Havana via a river taxi. Infused with the aromas of smoky brisket and handcrafted beer, Granary ’Cue & Brew sits in the poritcoed home built by the German immigrant who was the old brewery’s chief barrel maker. The Pearl’s 1904 administrative building has been transformed into Cured, where charcuterie enthusiasts relish such “land-to-hand” dishes as apple-jalapeño pork rillettes and pan-seared quail with mole grits.
Over in Southtown, the Blue Star Arts Complex was fashioned from 1920s warehouses that have been converted into hangouts like Barraca, where my friend and I retreated for late-afternoon tapas and sangria. Because San Antonio’s artistic hives offer some of the city’s most vibrant street parties, it’s worth rigging a visit to coincide with one of Blue Star’s gallery crawls, a lively jumble of art, music, and food trucks amid a cluster of warehouses turned studios.
The crawl can be an endearingly incongruous counterpoint to an afternoon spent canvassing the area’s King William Historic District, a neighborhood of restored Victorian manses built by early German settlers. Packed with collectibles, Villa Finale, an Italianate home from 1876, is worth a tour. It’s also less than a mile from the Alamo. The site of the 13-day siege during the battle for Texas’s independence from Mexico in 1836 gets crowded, but it is, after all, the state’s spiritual birthplace.
Or you could do what I did: Skip the long line and admire the mission’s sole surviving (and shockingly tiny) building from the outside before walking a few blocks west to wait in another line—the one that leads to the pastel-colored panes dulces and platters of Mexican comfort food at Mi Tierra. The senses may take a moment to catch up with the tumult of mariachis roving through rooms that drip with piñatas, fluttering paper banners, murals, and twinkling lights, but that’s half the fun. In this city more has always been more.
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO DRINK
MENGER BAR This wood-accented cocoon at the Menger Hotel, the Alamo’s next-door neighbor since 1859, was Teddy Roosevelt’s preferred Texas saloon. After perusing the Rough Rider memorabilia on display, settle into a dark cubby. > 204 Alamo Plaza.
ESQUIRE TAVERN Never mind its long wood bar or its address on the River Walk. The divey tavern will earn your everlasting admiration with its devotion to worldly spirits (Swiss absinthe, Norwegian aquavit, Cocchi Americano). > 155 E. Commerce St.
OCHO Whether or not you’re staying upstairs, descend to the Hotel Havana’s intimate, red light-tinged basement to savor the bracing margaritas and tequila juleps from the comfort of a cushioned wingback chair. > 1015 Navarro St.
THE BROOKLYNITE Housed in a blacked-out storefront between downtown and the Pearl Brewery, this parlor worships at the altar of the classic cocktail but goes out on a limb with offerings like Cereal Milk Punch #2 (infused with Fruity Pebbles). > 516 Brooklyn Ave.
BARBARO North of downtown, this pizzeria-pub is blissfully off the tourist radar. They may even think you’re a local as you belly up for a celery soda highball or a Topo Chico–topped El Scorcho, a concoction of tequila and ancho chile liqueur. > 2720 McCullough Ave.
This feature originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine