Looking for a cultural experience in downtown San Antonio, Texas? Take a stroll down the River Walk. With museums, restaurants, boats rides, and shops, this Venice-inspired destination provides a unique twist to the cowboy town.
“Did you see it?” asked Steve Thurgood’s dad nine years ago. The Thurgood family had just moved from Delaware to Texas, and they were exploring what their new home, San Antonio, had to offer. Steve looked out the car window and asked in confusion, “See what?”
“It” is Paseo del Rio, or the River Walk, San Antonio’s own two-and-a-half-mile stretch of Venice-inspired charm and excitement that runs through downtown San Antonio. It is easy to miss because it is partially hidden by the buildings and by the streets that bridge over the river.
Eighty-nine years ago, the city developers nearly rerouted the San Antonio River because of flooding, but architect Robert H. H. Hugman proposed a system of floodgates that would protect the city. Hugman’s plan transformed the riverbanks into a delightful array of cafés, boutiques, shops, restaurants, hotels, and boat rides.
“If you didn’t know there was a river running through the city, you wouldn’t find it because it’s hidden by trees and buildings,” Steve says.
Visitors to San Antonio expect to find the Alamo, cowboys with accents, and a desert with tumbleweeds. However, the River Walk offers a surprising vision of San Antonio, complete with cobblestone walkways, flowing fountains, delicately arching bridges, and old-fashioned street lamps. The River Walk is now one of Steve’s favorite places in San Antonio. Whenever friends come to visit his family, he says, “the first thing we show them is the River Walk—it’s the best thing San Antonio has to offer.”
The River Walk, however, is more than a beautiful destination; it also boasts a unique personality and a welcoming atmosphere. “You walk down the sidewalk and there are people standing outside their restaurants trying to get business,” he says, “but they also just talk to you. It’s a really friendly atmosphere… There are people walking around in costumes, just making people smile.”
A major contributor to the unique atmosphere of the River Walk is the Peruvian pan-flute band, Andean Fusion, that plays on the steps of the mall daily. They use their native instruments (pan flutes, drums, and strings) to express the soul-soothing sounds of the Incas. Their harmonious melodies are meant to transform and transport you toward “interior peace” and to help you “feel the life and the beautiful song of mother nature.” The Rivercenter Lagoon, where the band plays, is a lovely place to sit and relax with the help of the peaceful music. If you really enjoy their music, you can purchase one of Andean Fusion’s many CDs while you’re there.
Rio San Antonio Cruise
The best way to enjoy the charm and history of the River Walk is the Rio San Antonio Cruise, a 35-minute guided boat tour of the River Walk. A friendly tour guide will entertain you with fascinating tidbits from River Walk history. You’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about the River Walk—a lot of which you probably never would have thought to ask.
Each tour guide has his or her own favorite bit of random trivia to point out, so the tours never get old, no matter how many times you take them. One tour guide may point out a tree that was transplanted by a flood and is now growing out of the high branches of another tree. Other tour guides may note the gargoyles on one of the many buildings that line the River Walk. Steve still learns new things on the riverboat tours. “The last time I went,” he says, “the guy pointed out a duck that was the only one of its kind on the River Walk. They’ve even named the duck—Frank.”
As the boat sails along, you’ll pass Marriage Island. The “island,” which is not much more than a pretty rock extending out of the water, is the most popular place on the River Walk to get married. In fact, the island averages about one marriage per day. You may even witness a marriage as you float past on your tour. That’s what happened last time Steve went on the riverboat tour. “As we were floating by, the bride hadn’t gotten to the pastor yet,” he says, “so the pastor turned around and started joking with us—he offered to marry anyone on the boat if they wanted!”
Shops and Stores
After traveling by boat, you can explore the rest of the River Walk on foot. It isn’t hard to find great shops, galleries, restaurants, and entertainment. The Shops at La Villita Historic Arts Village offer not only great shopping but also great historical charm. The area is actually San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood: it was originally an outpost of huts for Spanish soldiers who were stationed at the Mission San Antonio de Valero, now known as the Alamo. Visitors can also step into riverside specialty shops like En Fuego Sauce and Salsa, a unique one-stop shop for all things spicy. Those looking for a more mainstream shopping experience can always visit the Rivercenter Mall.
Museums and Galleries
There are also several interesting museums and galleries along and near the River Walk. For a unique experience, visitors can stop by the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum, which includes a wildlife museum and a Texas Rangers museum as well as a café, a gift shop, and even a shooting gallery. The Eclectic Art Gallery offers an unusual variety of original artwork at very reasonable prices. The Briscoe Western Art Museum features a sculpture garden and a beautiful view of the River Walk.
The River Walk experience is incomplete without the delicious food. Steve says that every time he goes to the River Walk, he eats at The Original, the first Mexican restaurant on the River Walk. They claim to have defined San Antonio-style Mexican food, so it has to be good! According to Steve, “lots of people go there for the food alone. I know we do!” In addition to the appetizing meal, there is the festive atmosphere, which includes a live mariachi band and the option of al fresco dining under colorful umbrellas.
The River Walk has so much to offer—food, shopping, music, art. But what it’s really all about, according to Steve, is that “it’s nice to kick back and relax for a while . . . It really is the heart of our city.”