Texas' Best Kept Secret

Texas' Best Kept Secret photo

San Antonio, Texas, may not be number one on your list of top vacation destinations, but its numerous and varied attractions make it Texas' best kept secret.

The city's biggest attraction is the Alamo, where 188 defenders fell on March 6, 1836, after repeated attacks by the Mexican army led by general Santa Anna. Spain established Mission San Antonio de Valero at an Indian village at the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country in 1718. The surrounding Fort San Antonio de Bexar protected the mission. The chapel, all that remains of the original fort, stands near the Long Barracks Museum and Library, which contain artifacts from the Battle of the Alamo.

The home, office and kitchen of Antonio Navarro, prominent Mexican-Texan patriot who was among signers of Texas Declaration of Independence, make up the Jose Antonio Navarro State Historic Site.

Besides the Alamo, San Antonio is best known for its Paseo del Rio or River Walk, which meanders for several miles one level below the busy streets of downtown. Here, many of San Antonio's hotels, shops, sidewalk cafés, and restaurants line the San Antonio River beneath giant cypress trees and palms, accented by tropical foliage and flowering shrubs. Take a riverboat cruise through this shaded oasis to escape the heat of the streets above.

Minutes from the River Walk is the 70-acre San Antonio Zoo with 3,612 animals of 674 species displayed in natural habitats. It produced the first white rhino born in the U.S. and the first penguin in Texas.

Also nearby is the Hertzberg Circus Collection displaying more than 20,000 items of Big Top memorabilia. Its exhibits show the evolution of the "the Greatest Show on Earth" through festive oil paintings, circus posters, miniature circuses, and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thumb's carriage.

La Villita, San Antonio's original settlement, lies across from the River Walk. This restored Mexican village captures the charm of the past in its narrow streets, shaded patios and authentic adobe houses now filled with restaurants and arts and crafts shops. Within it stands the General Cos House, where General Perfecto de Cos signed the Articles of Capitulation in 1835 after capturing San Antonio from Mexican forces.

Another center of Mexican culture is Market Square, called El Mercado by San Antonians, which offers the flavor of Mexico through a tasty blend of arts and crafts shops and a farmers' market, an assortment of strolling musicians, and a delicious selection of restaurants.

The Tower of the Americas soars 750 feet above HemisFair Park, site of the 1968 Texas World's Fair. It offers two sky-high dining levels plus an observation deck with panoramic view of the city. Within the park, foreign-accented restaurants and food booths, gift shops, an aerial tramway, and amusement rides edge tree-shaded walks, gardens and waterways. It's also the location of the San Antonio Museum of Transportation where you'll find a collection of vintage and classic autos, as well as a mule-drawn trolley.

The park also includes the Institute of Texas Cultures. Its free exhibits feature 26 ethnic and cultural groups — where they came from and what they did, their food and clothing, their music and festivals. Don't miss the multimedia show three times daily in the Institute's central dome. It's a great place to discover the roots of Texas.

The city boasts two art museums. Housed in a renovated historic brewery, the San Antonio Museum of Art houses pre-Columbian, Native American, Spanish Colonial, 18th-20th Century American painting and sculpture; photography, furniture and decorative arts. The McNay Art Museum occupies the former home of Marion Koogler McNay, patroness of modern art. Works of 20th century artists, including post-Impressionistic paintings of Cezanne, Gauguin, Toulouse- Lautrec and Van Gogh, as well as those of American painters Winslow Homer and John Marin and Mexican Diego Rivera compliment Indian arts and crafts from New Mexico.

To get a flavor for late 19th century San Antonio, stroll through the King William Historic District, settled by prominent German merchants in late 1800s. Virtually all the homes and mansions have been restored. Look for the unusual one-story Victorian cottages.

If all the history gets to be too much, spend an afternoon at Sea World of Texas, San Antonio's major theme park. With over 25 shows, exhibits and attractions, this 250-acre marine zoological park features Texas Splashdown, a flume ride with four-passenger boats that negotiate a twisting, turning half-mile route with two steep drops from elevations as high as five stories and Rio Loco, a river rapids ride that sends you down an 1,800-foot-long raging stream in a six-passenger raft.

Another quieter cooling spot is the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, with 33 acres of formal gardens, pools, fountains, and natural areas. It includes an area of flowers popular with pioneer settlers, plus a Biblical garden, rose garden, and a garden for the blind with raised beds, braille plaques, and plants of significant leaf texture and fragrance.