Ever landed in a spot so déjà vu-inducing that you find yourself cross-examining your map, wondering if it's playing tricks on your sense of place? Minus the eagle proudly perched above the bar at San Antonio's Mi Tierra, I might start questioning whether I accidentally strolled over the border into Mexico. At 9am, surrounded by piñatas, waiters donned in Jalisco dresses, a mariachi ensemble and six thirtysomething gents, sharp in white and black tuxedos, we raise a toast with mezcal margaritas. Too hard, too early? Not a chance.
Kudos to the fabulous local journalist at the nearby table, grilling the gents about their get-together. As it turns out, they make an annual pilgrimage to San Antonio for a rendezvous. "All Texans have two homes: wherever they live in Texas, and San Antonio," I recall David, one of my hosts, telling me over dinner the night before - the sentiment couldn't ring more true. With 75 per cent of its population rooted in Latinx heritage since even before Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836, San Antonio is a haven for authentic Mexican cuisine and the country's timeless traditions. Tacos, Day of the Dead, salsa, tejano, Pride - pick a theme, and you'll catch its celebration swinging through the city at some point in the year.
Green spaces and historic buildings in the city
No wonder San Antonio struts its stuff as the seventh most populous city in the US, snagging the silver medal in Texas (right after Houston), and is one of the fastest-growing spots in the nation. The secret? Maybe it's the tacos and fiestas working their magic - or the effortless embrace of a laid-back, community-first vibe that doesn't stumble in its authenticity by trying to be something it's not.
As the sun throws a farewell glow, the Tower Life building sparkles in the distance behind Hemisfair Park. A squad of teenagers, hyped for the event of the year - Día de los Muertos - wear anticipation like a blush on their faces. And just as their smiles kick in, an all-female mariachi crew armed with a vihuela, a hefty guitarrón and two snazzy trumpets kicks off the annual fiesta.
A mere few years back, San Antonians gave the side-eye to indigenous aspects, striving for assimilation. Fast forward to today, and they're not just embracing but giving a bear hug to these cultural roots. Curious about Day of the Dead slipping into the mainstream, I pop the question: is this cultural appropriation? The resounding response? A unanimous "No". According to David, its mainstream spotlight aids young Latinx in proudly owning their heritage.
Diners beside the river, left, and Day of the Dead celebrations
Only in San Antonio can your schedule flip from a Day of the Dead parade to a Dolly Parton contest in the blink of an eye. Stepping into the deep red hues of The Lonesome Rose, the city's infamous honky-tonk venue, wearing a vivid orange silk wrap top and a Frida-esque flower crown, I can't help but lament my lack of cowgirl heels. Faux pas or missed opportunity for a two-step? I let the Dollys decide.
Yes, they come complete with voluminous blonde curls, hourglass curves, sequins and wide grins, and we swiftly get down to the nitty gritty. How does Shania hit those high notes? Does Dolly want to be a feminist icon? On stage, Summer Dean from Fort Worth, Texas, swings her twangy western guitar. The lyrics? "Clean up your act if you want to talk dirty to me", goes one tune, followed by a simple message: "You either know what country music is or you don't. I won't tell you what it is or isn't." Looks like I've officially landed in the Lone Star state.
The next day, the musky scent of marigolds hangs in the air along the lush banks of the River Walk - San Antonio's centuries-old communal pulse, a lifeline for indigenous peoples, Spanish explorers and silent witness to the city's evolution. The vibrant orange flowers, believed to guide souls from burial to family homes, delicately adorn shrine-like altars. Amid clay-moulded sugar skulls, candles and pictures, offerings including tamales, chillies and pan de muerto (a fluffy bread for the occasion) await the hungry. For a heartfelt toast, there's mezcal. A sign reads, "Grief is the last act of love we give".
Festivities in San Antonio
All over town, the festival honours entire groups, such as the Mexican-American civil rights champions whose dedication "bridges past and present". Local luminaries get their due, too, including Lila Cockrell, San Antonio's trailblazing mayor - the first woman to helm one of America's 10 largest cities, and known for swapping the at-large city council model for a single-member district plan to better represent multicultural communities.
One of the Alamo City's current local champions is chef Johnny Hernandez, who is hell-bent on making San Antonio synonymous with Mexico's culinary riches and celebrations. His signature? An enchilada triptych, strategically offering a taste journey from sweetly creamy poblanas de camarón to spicy and savoury enchipotladas, and Gulf-fresh, Nikkei-inspired ceviche resting in a crisp pool of avocado and coriander.
Tower Life Building, left, and the city's botanical gardens
Hernandez, who inherited the hospitality gene from his father - Johnny Sr ran the first cafeteria-style joint in town - reigns over 11 eateries, a stoneground tortilla factory (using his own non-GMO corn harvested from his nearby fields) and a fleet of margarita trucks. Back in 2010, with the unveiling of his flagship Southtown restaurant La Gloria, he catapulted San Antonio onto the national culinary stage ("before, everything was just Tex Mex"), even snagging Unesco's attention; the destination earned the prestigious title of a Creative City of Gastronomy in 2017. Oh, and let's not forget the time, in 2016, he whipped up the Obama family's Cinco de Mayo dinner at the White House. "This is what we live for, to host," he grins.
But creativity isn't just served on plates here; it's splashed across canvases, too, giving Austin a run for its paintbrushes."The city has abundant arts offerings and such a supportive and dynamic creative community," Mary Heathcott, executive director of The Contemporary at Blue Star, tells me. For Heathcott, a San Antonio Trinity University graduate who then worked at Chicago's MCA for more than three years, it felt natural to settle here.
City architecture, left, and seasonal celebrations
Since its inception in 1986, this WAGE-certified, artist-centric space hasn't just thrown down the gauntlet for larger institutions - it's practically dared them to spotlight local artists. As a bonus, its surrounding Southtown neighbourhood has morphed into a vibrant hub. I ask Heathcott how art reflects the city's cultural fabric, and she promptly points to the influence of the US-Mexico border and cultural identity in a region that was first inhabited by native populations and a part of Mexico as common themes. "Conversations on racial inequity in power systems are a touchstone for many artists, too, as is highlighting this hard history and amplifying diverse voices that these systems have historically not welcomed," she says, adding that state politics and Texas' reputation for blazing its own trail come through, too.
Heathcott, like everyone I meet, lives by the creed that "more encourages more". Because being a true San Antonian is about unabashedly showcasing your cultural palette - whether it's through art, culinary delights or drinks - all year round, no excuses needed.
An essential guide to San Antonio, Texas
Where to stay
Omni La Mansión Del Rio
Omni La Mansión Del Rio
Just a skip from the Omni La Mansión Del Rio, a former law school-turned-338-room design haven, the Selena Bridge, a stone arch immortalised in J.Lo's Selena biopic, marks the spot where the late Tejano singer and her sweetheart dreamed of their future. As you glide into this meticulously revamped mansion with its grand hacienda vibes, that romantic aura lingers. Arranged around an all-season courtyard pool, a spa retreat and a chic Texan eatery, each room boasts killer views - whether of the River Walk or the tranquil courtyard.112 College St, 78205 +1 210 518 1000 omnihotels.com
Nestled in the heart of the Pearl, a dynamic cultural enclave in its own right, packed with restaurants, boutique shops and cafés, Hotel Emma defines a new era in Southern Texan hospitality. Industrial chic meets the warmth of rustic fireplaces, and original stonework harmonises with contemporary design accents. Formerly a brewery's hallowed grounds, the hotel pays homage to a captivating local character - Emma Koehler. The wife of Pearl president Otto Koehler, her tale unfolds with unexpected twists involving not one, but three Emmas (the other two being her nurses, both engaged in extramarital affairs with Otto who, after jealousy took hold, dies at the hands one of them) - who steered the brewery through Prohibition's challenges, keeping the wheels turning while others crumbled.136 E Grayson St, 78215 +1 210 448 8300 thehotelemma.com
Where to eat
Chef Johnny Hernandez' menu at La Gloria reads like a love letter to Mexican flavours, from his traditionally baked enchiladas to street-style tacos. The riverside locale is a firm favourite among young professionals, families and even famous Spurs basketball players. Everything here, from the music to the design, is typical of the city's many festivities and the host: colourful, casual, fun.100 E Grayson St, 78215 +1 210 267 9040 chefjohnnyhernandez.com/la-gloria-pearl
Pina colada for breakfast? In the form of macarons? Yes, please. Find them at the Pearl district branch of Bakery Lorraine, the brainchild of Jeremy Mandrell and Anne Ng, who, when setting out from California to San Antonio, thought they'd left their baking careers for good. The Alamo City had other plans for them. Since the opening of their first airy, California-cool space, accolades have included a James Beard Award 2023 nomination for best pastry chefs, honouring their sweet roster and deft precision.306 Pearl Pkwy #110, 78215 +1 210 862 5582 bakerylorraine.com
Open since 1941, Mi Tierra's vibrant decor is a visual feast: piñatas dangle from the ceilings; murals depict local legends (and a jogging Bill Clinton); even the pastries seem to tell a story. Come for the breakfast tacos, and leave with a newfound fondness for the comfort of warm corn tortillas, creamy kicks of melted cheese, and velvety refried beans topped with fresh salsa.218 Produce Row, 78207 +1 210 225 1262 lafamiliacortez.com
The Good Kind
The Good Kind
Hailing from rural Canada and cultivating her own grub, The Good Kind's founder, Tim McDiarmid, doesn't ride trends; she practically invented farm-to-table in her back yard. After a decade in the Big Apple, she planted roots in San Antonio just as its culinary scene started flexing its flavour muscles. In her Southtown haven of comfort-first lunches and dinners, with its communal tables, snug nooks and outdoor patio, organic produce and ethically raised proteins take the limelight. The bonus? It's like a farm-fresh fiesta with a view of San Antonio's skyline.1127 S St Mary's St, 78210 +1 210 801 5892 eatgoodkind.com
Best Quality Daughter
Best Quality Daughter
Think San Antonio is all about Mexican flavours? Bucking the trend is Best Quality Daughter, Jennifer Dobbertin's Asian-American diner - a culinary concoction of her Chinese mother's cooking, teenage cravings for American comfort and global inspirations from places such as Bangkok. Brace yourself for a warm, lively setting, lashings of Dobbertin's legendary creamy tom yum soup and an array of family-style plates.602 Avenue A, 78215 +1 210 819 4236 bestqualitydaughter.com
Ever heard about Venezuela's thriving Japanese community? At Botika, chef-owner Geronimo Lopez turned it into a culinary sensation. With a James Beard Award nomination up his sleeve and a top spot at San Antonio's Culinary Institute of America, he's not just blowing smoke, either - unless it's from his one-of-a-kind charcoal oven. The menu stands at the crossroads of East Asia and South America, and is worth lingering over in the casual-cool vibe of Lopez' open-kitchen space.303 Pearl Pkwy #111, 78215 +1 210 670 7684 botikapearl.com
Love guacamole? At Boudro's, it's not just a dip; it's a tableside ritual. Fresh avocados, zesty lime and a dash of orange come together in a theatrical performance by your server, setting the stage for a feast featuring grilled achiote shrimp or the iconic Boudro's filet. Sip a prickly pear margarita or a ruby red mojito while savouring River Walk views - whether it's the soft glow of evening lights or the Texas sun kissing the patio by day.421 E Commerce St, 78205 +1 210 224 8484 boudros.com
Where to drink
The Esquire Tavern
The Esquire Tavern
Within the shadows of downtown's skyscrapers, The Esquire Tavern is a serious old-school saloon (it opened in 1933) with a 30m-long wooden bar - one of the longest of its kind in Texas. The dim glow of antique chandeliers, the scent of aged wood and well-worn leather, and sepia-toned photographs all evoke the venue's spirit of a bygone era. While the jukebox houses plenty of artworks, cocktails are still its main art form, and are as effortlessly cool as the clientele.155 E Commerce St, 78205 +1 210 222 2521 esquiretavern-sa.com
Nestled in a former convent dating back to the late 19th century, the laid-back Liberty Bar in Southtown is a cherished establishment, offering you a sense of stepping into the past while enjoying modern comforts. Its courtyard, shaded by ancient pecan trees, provides a tranquil escape in this up-and-coming area, and often hosts casual gatherings and special occasions.1111 S Alamo St, 78210 +1 210 227 1187 liberty-bar.com
What to do
In downtown's heart, the Alamo stands tall as a historic symbol of Texas' fight for independence. An 18th-century Spanish mission that was the location of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, where gutsy Texans faced off against Mexican forces, today, its limestone facade whispers tales of resilience and sacrifice. Beyond the Alamo, all five San Antonio missions are part of the Unesco World Heritage site, telling the story of the native people of South Texas and their role in colonising New Spain.300 Alamo Plaza, 78205 +1 210 225 1391 thealamo.org
Fondly known as "El Mercado", San Antonio's Market Square - the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico, with over 100 locally owned businesses - pulsates with the energy of a perpetual fiesta. Here, traditional papel picado (elaborate designs cut into sheets of tissue paper) flutters in the breeze and the aroma of sizzling fajitas and tacos wafts through the air. The soundtrack? Mariachi meets Latin pop.514 W Commerce St, 78207 +1 210 207 8600 marketsquaresa.com
Blue Star, left, and Ruby City
A self-guided art tour
You can easily spend a day delving into San Antonio's art scene. Start at Contemporary at Blue Star, a dynamic space showcasing a curated fusion of emerging and established talent that gives voice to the innovative spirit and artistic evolution of the city. While you're here, don't miss Hank Lee's San Angel Folk Art Gallery, a local institution featuring the finest folk, visionary, outsider, and self-taught art from the US, Mexico, Latin America, Europe, Haiti and Africa. Then, stock up on vintage clothing and art at the Divine Sunshine Collective, shop art prints at Mockingbird Handprints, and check out Flight Gallery's current offering. In town on the first Friday of the month? Catch a First Friday event, where spaces stay open late, inviting people in for drinks, music and more.
Next, head to Ruby City, a contemporary art centre standing as a testament to philanthropist and collector Linda Pace's vision, with a gorgeous garden and striking design by renowned architect Sir David Adjaye. Housing Pace's extensive collection, it serves as a tribute to its founder's enduring legacy in San Antonio's cultural landscape.
The San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), housed in a historic brewery complex on the River Walk, boasts a diverse collection spanning 5,000 years of global art history, from ancient Mediterranean artefacts to contemporary works.
For more information and ideas on planning a trip to San Antonio, head to visitsanantonio.com