Photo: Witold SkrypczakEvery day feels like Christmas at Mi Tierra, San Antonio’s best-loved bakery and restaurant. Neon-coloured fairy lights, draped over every wall, are migrating to the ceiling, while glittering star-shaped piñatas hang in flocks overhead. Adding to the festive feeling is the colourful array of cakes and biscuits on display, laden with nuts or flavoured creams or super-sweet dulce de leche.
Mi Tierra is a local landmark, one of the favourite gathering places for San Antonio’s large Mexican community. This southern part of Texas used to belong to Mexico, and the majority of the population is still Hispanic. You can feel the influences everywhere: in the restaurants; in El Mercado, the largest Mexican market in the US, which lies just across the way from Mi Tierra; and in the murals.
Mexicans have elevated the mural into an art form, and more than 100 works adorn walls in the neighbourhood known as Westside. Depictions of the Virgin Mary – both in traditional and psychedelic purple versions – alternate with other images, including colourful floral patterns. My particular favourite, outside La Chiquita bakery, shows couples dancing while a guitarist plays, accompanied by an accordion. The dance steps are marked on the footpath beneath the mural, so you can practise the steps.
The Latin influence has dominated San Antonio since the 17th century, when Spanish priests established a number of missions here. Living alone on the frontier, the missionaries built self-sufficient communities that featured not just magnificent churches but also gardens and orchards, kitchens and workshops. Most of the missions now lie just outside town – however, the one in the centre of town has become a touchstone of Texan history.
The mission originally known as San Antonio de Valero is now better known as The Alamo, and was the scene of a disastrous battle in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. At the next battle, the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texan troops rode into battle crying, “Remember the Alamo!” and vanquished the much larger army of General Santa Anna. For many Americans, The Alamo is something approaching a shrine, but the building itself is dark and offers little to see.
A better way to approach the topic is at the nearby Briscoe Western Art Museum, which has a very effective diorama of the battle, including eyewitness accounts. It’s worth taking a look at the rest of the museum, too, particularly the impressive portraits of Native Americans and the interesting collection of artefacts.
The other missions are much more interesting, particularly if you walk to them along the River Walk, San Antonio’s most celebrated landmark. Set below street level and lined with cypresses, the landscaped walkways along the San Antonio River offer a pleasant alternative to the city streets, particularly in the heat of summer. In the centre of town, the River Walk is lined with bars and restaurants; further afield, it grows more tranquil.
The River Walk now extends 24 kilometres. You can take a barge trip, but if you’re mobile, strolling is a far more pleasant option. From the centre of town, it will take about half an hour to walk to the San Antonio Museum of Art, housed in a converted brewery. You’ll need a couple of hours to explore the highlights, which range from paintings by Van Gogh, Cézanne and Pollock to collections from ancient Rome, ancient Egypt and pre-Colombian cultures. There’s also an Asia and Pacific gallery that has some lovely Buddhist sculptures.
San Antonio’s other converted brewery, The Pearl, is another must-visit. It’s become one of the city’s most-happening restaurants hubs, with some of the best food in town. There’s La Gloria, which offers Mexican street food, and Cured, which combines a hip fit-out with delicious food – everything from the bread to the pickles to the superb charcuterie is made in-house. Perhaps the standout restaurant is The Granary ‘Cue and Brew, which offers an updated version of that classic Texan dish, barbecue. Wash it down with a local craft beer.
Before heading back to your hotel, wander down to the River Walk to see the loveliest artwork in town – a school of fibreglass fish floating beneath the Camden Street overpass. The sculptures, by Donald Lipski, are lit up at night, making them appear to be swimming towards the lights of downtown.
Where to stay San Antonio’s best hotels are located on the River Walk. Mokara Hotel & Spa has river-view rooms and a spa, with rooms starting at $US259.
What to wear A 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots! Okay, just the boots.
What to eat For the best guacamole in town head to Boudro’s, where they make it at your table.
What to drink Texas has a booming craft brewery scene: it’s said the best beers are at The Granary ‘Cue and Brew.
Best souvenir A colourful Mexican plate from Historic Market Square.
Essential wordsHello: Howdy, folks.Hello: Hola, amigos.You’re right: Sure ’nuff.
Essential reading Empire of Bones by Jeff Long.
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