Discovering the San Antonio Riverwalk
Since moving to Austin, Texas Peter and I have been making time on the weekends to explore our new city and state. Recently we had the opportunity to head south to San Antonio to explore the San Antonio Riverwalk. We absolutely loved it and wanted to share our discoveries and gorgeous photos of the area with you!
While San Antonio may not be as well known as the larger metropolis of Dallas or hipster Austin, it has a wonderful charm and successfully blends its Mexican/Spanish/Native American roots with modern big city influences. And the San Antonio Riverwalk is the perfect example of this.
I know the San Antonio Riverwalk is a “touristy” location but after looking through the cute Riverwalk photos on Pinterest we had to check it out. Actually, Peter and I usually always visit what many would deem as touristy, I mean why not, it’s so visited for a reason.
After spending just a day along the waterfront, we knew we’d be back to explore it at full length and attend some of the very cool events that take place on and around the river during the year.
Let’s take a look at what we found and what we look forward to on future visits!
San Antonio Riverwalk History
San Antonio and its river have a long and storied history, visited by early explorers and home to a large Spanish mission system, as well as a Native American population. The repeated flooding of the river over the centuries changed the landscape of this town and broadened its borders. It also changed the face of the population and how the town would evolve.
The largest change to the river took place from the 1920s to 1940s, after severe flooding damaged the town and resulted in numerous deaths. A small dam, floodgates, and a bypass were constructed to prevent future damage. In addition, they built walkways along the river, stairs up to street level, footbridges, and decorative rock walls. This became known as the San Antonio Riverwalk, for obvious reasons.
Over the years the Riverwalk has undergone renovations, additions, and extensions, including the addition of a botanical garden in 1956. But the biggest changes occurred when the architects of Disneyland drafted a report in the 1960s on how San Antonio could capitalize on the tourist traffic along their riverine pathway.
That report would act as the guiding influence to develop the San Antonio Riverwalk into what it is today: a beautiful setting, with hotels, restaurants, shops, lush greenery, pedestrian bridges, bike trails and so much more.
Currently, the San Antonio River Improvements Project is in its last phases, which will link over 2,000 acres of public land with the river, accessible to hikers, bikers, and a large number of visitors and citizens who enjoy this venue year round.
The San Antonio Riverwalk Today
Located one level down from the traditional auto roadway, the 15-mile Riverwalk is a network of pathways that hug and cross the river (on special pedestrian bridges). There’s no need for a car, as this pedestrian path connects many of the city’s tourist destinations, including 5 miles through downtown San Antonio.
In addition to the many shops and restaurants that line the Riverwalk, you can also access the five Spanish missions, the San Antonio Museum of Art, Arneson River Theater, the heart-shaped Marriage Island, and the Pearl.
The Best Things to Do – San Antonio Riverwalk
There is so much to see and so at the San Antonio Riverwalk that I could never do it justice in a blog post, but I want to give you a glimpse of some of the wonderful things we saw and experienced, so you can start to plan your journey to the Riverwalk.
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
There were 5 frontier missions created by the Catholic Church out of Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries. While the goal was to bring Christianity to the native population, these missions also created towns and served as outposts for a developing area. Four of the five missions are included in this national park and are all located on or within short walking distance of the Riverwalk. They are worth exploring, as they tell a great story on how this area developed over the centuries. And how often do you get to see buildings that are 300 years old?!?
The fifth mission, not part of this park, is the Alamo. The mission became a Spanish military outpost in the early 1800s and remained so after Mexico became an independent nation. The famous battle for Texas Independence saw the Alamo in the thick of things. While the Alamo eventually fell, the famous line “Remember the Alamo” was uttered by General Sam Houston at an epic battle near what is now Houston. And the rest, as they say, is history.
We weren’t able to take the guided tour (which I would recommend), but we did get to wander around the battlegrounds and compound. We saw the Alamo Church, the Long Barrack Museum, and even wandered around the gift shop. Every stone is steeped in history and I would highly recommend making a stop to get a better understanding of this piece of American history.
The Majestic Theater
This is truly a magnificent theater, both inside and out. A grand dame at 90 years old, she has held up well, thanks to a $15 million dollar facelift in the early 1990s. The theater plays host to musical giants, Broadway plays and musicals, national dance tours, and holiday special events. If you are an architectural buff, try and get a peak inside…it will take your breath away.
This is a great example of revitalization along the Riverwalk. Originally a brewery founded in 1881, this property has seen a renaissance of sorts in the last decade. Buildings have undergone complete renovation and restoration and now house the Culinary Institute of America, 15 food venues, weekend farmer’s market, hotel and apartments, 13 retail venues, and a yoga studio.
This historical gem dates back to the 1880s when it was one of the first neighborhoods in San Antonio. While it fell into disrepair at different times in its life, it has been completely restored and now is host to an Arts Village.
We meandered among all the buildings and especially enjoyed the work by local artists at the galleries and shops. From pottery to stained glass, woodworking to oil paints, it was a feast for our eyes. You can also pop into the La Villita History Exhibit to get a better feel for the rich history behind this plaza or catch a performance at the outdoor Arneson River Theater.
San Antonio Riverwalk Restaurants
There is no shortage of restaurants, cafés, bistros, and bars along the Riverwalk, many of which have patio tables overlooking the water. No matter the time, what you’re hungry for, or your budget, you can find it here. While there are some national chain restaurants, many of the offerings are locally owned.
We especially liked Bakery Lorraine, a Viennese patisserie that made the most scrumptious macarons. (We tried pistachio and strawberry on our visit paired with a coffee from Local Coffee across the way.)
We also stopped in at Boudro’s for some guacamole, made tableside with the freshest of ingredients. I loved being able to tell the waiter exactly how spicy I wanted it! Perfect Tex-Mex cuisine.
I really wish we could have sampled a few more food venues. Maybe a margarita at Café Ole or frosty cold one at the BierGarten, dinner at Biga on the Banks (I read about this in Gourmet magazine), or some good ol’ Texas BBQ at The County Line. (Mmmm, I’m hungry now!) Anyway, there is no way you’ll go away hungry while trekking around the Riverwalk!
This may be a shopping mall, but it’s one that far exceeds anything from my hometown! A modern mall with classic architecture, it houses over 100 retail shops and restaurants, multiplex cinema and large Marriott Hotel (complete with rooftop pool). It’s a nice detour off the Riverwalk and perfect for retail therapy.
San Antonio Riverwalk Boat Ride
A narrated boat ride that is the perfect way to start your day on the Riverwalk. These open-air boats give you a good glimpse of all there is to see and do on the Riverwalk. While it’s $10 for a one-way pass, you can splurge on a $12 pass and get a ride one way in the morning and another in the evening, or spend $16 and get a museum pass to boot!
Best Time to Visit San Antonio Riverwalk
There’s really no bad time to visit the Riverwalk, however, if you have an aversion to extreme heat, don’t like rainstorms, or want to see some of the more colorful events that happen on the river or on the Riverwalk, then we’ll narrow it down for you.
Weather in San Antonio
The weather in San Antonio ranges from moderate winters to steaming hot summers. December through February, you’ll see daytime temps in the 60s, with very little rain. March and November run in the 70s during the day and see about 2 inches of rain. April, May, and October hit the 80s and get 3-4 inches of rain.
June through September you can expect HOT and humid. The weather will be in the 90s during the day and barely cooling off to 70 degrees at night. Humidity tends to be high. You’ll also see rain in the 2-4 inch range.
I should mention that rainstorms come and go in the blink of an eye. One minute you are walking in the sunshine, then a burst of thunderous rain hails down for 30 minutes, and then it’s gone, replaced by sunshine. (It’s like nature’s way of making you stop for a cappuccino or a glass of merlot!)
We visited in March and as you can see the sun is shining and I didn’t even need a sweater!
San Antonio Riverwalk Events
It’s never a dull moment on the San Antonio Riverwalk and there’s always something to celebrate! Both the river and the Riverwalk play host to a variety of festivals, parades, and activities throughout the year. Here is a glimpse of just some of the more popular events to plan your visit around.
April: Texas Cavaliers River Parade
One of several river parades held throughout the year, this annual event began in 1941 and is now run by the Texas Cavaliers Charitable Foundation. A huge event, with over 250,000 spectators, you’ll witness festively decorated boats, a regatta of floating floral arrangements, hear some great music and eat some wonderful food. Proceeds from the event support local children’s charities.
April: Mariachi Festival
This 3-day festival, sponsored by Ford, features mariachi bands and Folklorico dancers from local schools and communities performing up and down the river! That’s right, musicians and dancers board flat-bottomed boats to serenade and entertain diners and visitors along the Riverwalk.
May: Yellow Ribbon Project
Throughout the month of April yellow ribbons are sold to honor our armed forces. Each ribbon is printed with the name of an honoree and hung on trees along the Riverwalk from May 7th to May 20th, when the Armed Forces River Parade takes place. Great weather, great cause, a great way to show your support for our troops, too!
August: Ford River Race
The only day of the year where the river is taken over by canoes! This annual event, hosted by the Boy Scouts, pits different categories of participants against one another in a canoe challenge. Local celebrities battle it out in one race, Boy and Girl Scouts in another, and Corporate teams get cutthroat to see who can paddle to the finish line first. Even better, most of the teams dress up in costume! Sip on a cold beer and cheer on your favorite team!
November: Holiday River Parade
This is one event that has become so well known that it is now televised across America! Held the day after the Thanksgiving, this spectacular event features 27 handpicked and lavishly decorated floats. Traveling along the river, you get to see some over-the-top costuming, listen to holiday music, and marvel and the decorating genius.
Artists and craftspeople from near and far descend upon the Riverwalk on a regular basis for their artisan shows. There’s the Fiesta Artisan Show (April), Memorial Day Artisan Show (May), Fourth of July Artisan Show (July), Summer Artisan Show (July), Labor Day Artisan Show (September), Fall Artisan Show (October), and the Holiday Artisan Show (December).
As you can see, there is plenty to do and see at the San Antonio Riverwalk. One day was just not enough, so we’ll take a long weekend sometime soon to go back and explore more of what this beautiful area has to offer. I hope you’ll think about doing the same!
PS. If you’re planning on visiting San Antonio, make sure to take the short drive to Austin, Texas! I lived thre for a year and that city really has so much to offer! Check out my travel guide – The Best Things to do in Austin!