Rediscovering San Antonio

You know you’ve been to SeaWorld a lot when Shamu  recognizes you. You’ve walked past Ripley’s Believe it or Not so many times that you’ve started to believe it. You can’t seem to get lost on the Riverwalk no matter how hard you try. Have you been to San Antonio too many times? Probably. Have you missed something? Definitely. There’s lots of fun things to see in San Antonio that somehow get overlooked or eclipsed by the obvious ones. Here’s my list of some amazing attractions that you should check out on your next visit.

Japanese Tea Gardens– Just ten minutes drive from the Riverwalk is the San Antonio zoo. If you have kids, you’ve probably explored the menagerie, but you might have passed right by the neighboring Japanese Tea Gardens. This beautiful little oasis is a great stop for a short walk across the bridges to feed the colorful Koi fish. The gardens were converted from an abandoned rock quarry and had a complete restoration and updating in 2008. There’s an Asian restaurant that serves Asian dishes and hot and cold tea. This little spot is so picturesque, it seems that there’s always a wedding or magazine photographer capturing it on film.

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park– The Alamo gets most of the press, but last year the San Antonio missions became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re all joined together by a 6 mile hiking path and are distinctly different from each other in appearance and condition, but give one a unique look at what Spanish missions were all about. Besides converting the natives to Catholicism, they taught them to farm, speak the foreigner’s language and protected them from attacks of some of the fiercer natives. Ironically, The Alamo is not part of the park but is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

McNay Art Museum– considered by many to be one of the finest modern art museums in this area of the country, the McNay museum holds an impressive collection of over 20,000 objects. Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keefe, and Pablo Picasso are a few of the artists with works in this converted 24-room mansion. Gaugin, Rivera and Cezanne round out this impressive collection. The museum is only about 12 minutes northeast of The Alamo.

The Magic Time Machine– If you’ve overdosed on Riverwalk Mexican food and would like to find a place with a little personality, look no further. This restaurant on the north side of town opened in 1973 and is a collection of wacky cubbyholes, mismatched furniture and iconic collectibles. The salad bar is actually a “salad car”. Yes, it’s an automobile with the top cut off and trays of greens and condiments juxtaposed within the interior- you’re not quite sure what kind of “carbs” you’re really looking at.The best part: everyone who works there is an impersonator, cartoon character or film persona. You might get Jack Sparrow waiting on you; or Minnie Mouse. The menu has prime rib and lots of other classics as well as some funky drinks. I ordered something that came in a giant bowl made for two. It was bright blue, smoking and bubbling. I asked my waiter, who was a dead ringer for The Dread Pirate Roberts from Princess Bride. He told me they used iocane powder. Happy about my find, I looked it up the chemical only to find that I’d been had. Iocane powder is the fictional drug from the Princess Bride movie that was used to knock off one of the bad guys. I was disappointed I couldn’t replicate the elixir, then very amused that Dread Pirate Roberts never broke character: even when serving drinks!

The Witte Museum-About fifteen years ago I accidentally stumbled onto a very interesting museum near the Riverwalk that featured a vast collection of circus memorabilia called the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum. The museum hosted a huge  assortment of circus posters, handbills, and lots of rare props from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Tom Thumb’s carriage, vintage magic illusions and everything else that you could imagine from the golden age of circus shows. The next time I visited, the museum was closed. It turns out that in the collector, Harry Hertzberg, willed it to the Witte Museum should the city of San Antonio decide not to retain it. The collection got a brand new home,adjacent to the San Antonio  zoo, making it a bit more accessible and giving the Witte Museum a world class exhibit to add to it’s prior collection of Texas artifacts, paintings, textiles, and some dinosaur bones. If you ever enjoyed the circus, you’ll appreciate this amazing slice of life from the Big Top.  

Natural Bridge Caverns– half an hour northeast from the Alamo is Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest cave in Texas. The chambers are impressive and the name is derived from a giant limestone slab arch that resembles a bridge. This all seems exciting enough, but even better, is that this cave system is the home of the largest bat colony in the world. From March to October, these Mexican free-tailed bats roost in the cavern and around dusk, they come out to feed. It’s an amazing sight watching thousands of bats flying out of the cave filling the sky. Bracken cave is a protected area and adjoins the section of the cave that visitors tour. To see the bats, you need to reserve a spot, and there’s even an option to join the Bat Conservation club.

Bandera, TX– Bandera is a little over an hour west of San Antonio, but the drive through the hill country is beautiful, possibly the prettiest spot in Texas. The town of Bandera has cute shops, fun bars and some interesting history from the cowboys and Czech settlers that made the town what it is today. Bandera is a popular stop for bikers that ride the trail between the Cowboy Capital of the World to Kerrville. If you want to take the long way around, you can stop in Luckenbach, Texas for some live music or Fredericksburg to visit Enchanted Rock.

So next time you’re driving past the giant Buccee’s on I-10 wondering what you can do in San Antonio that you haven’t already done, try a few places on my list. You won’t be disappointed.

Leave a reply