It’s hard to deny that “going to the San Antonio River Walk to look at Christmas lights” sounds like an activity one does with one’s grandparents. But in the holiday season, a day in the river city south of Austin can offer a needed respite from the hipper-than-thou haunts of Austin. Spend an afternoon exploring San Antonio, as this reporter did Saturday, and you’ll find more than just the campy pleasures of the River Walk.
Start your day at Small World Hobbies, a hidden treasure in an otherwise vacant part of town. Located at 935 Fredericksburg Road, the shop is run by Arthur Flores, who studied architecture at UT during WWII. Though Small World Hobbies is more of a “collectibles and antiques” store than a hobby shop, the store sells everything you never knew you wanted: rows of model cars, a stuffed red macaw and a vintage postcard commemorating Charles and Diana’s wedding.
After stocking up on enviable goods at Small World Hobbies, head down the road to Kate’s Frosting, at 2518 N. Main Ave.. Sure, a lot of people have jumped on the cupcake train as of late, but not everyone does it as well as Kate. The bakery sells miniature versions of many of Kate’s flavor combinations, so you can go for variety without being a glutton. Grab a “ruby slipper” red velvet cupcake and make the short drive to the Japanese Tea Garden at 3853 N. St. Mary’s Street.
Walk up the concrete path just outside the Tea Garden and a jewel-toned, multi-tiered garden suddenly appears in what was once a rock quarry. Though culturally-themed parks often feel more Epcot than accurate, the long history of these gardens softens the edges of its giant stone pagoda. Built between 1917 and 1918, the garden was once tended to by the Jingus, a family of Japanese immigrants. Now a recent renovation has brought the gardens back to life and restored the Jingu Teahouse to a functioning restaurant. Though the park has free admission, it makes back the loss by charging for professional photo-shoots, so don’t be surprised if you get trampled by a Quinceañera party while you’re watching the koi.
At this point, you probably want something to eat. Head to Rosario’s, in the Southtown district of San Antonio at 910 S. Alamo Street, where the music is loud and the salsa is smoky. The menu here runs the gamut from lengua and sweetbreads to tried-and-true Tex Mex favorites like enchiladas. Almost all of the entrees are priced at or under $13. But if you’re missing the hipster vibe of Austin, try The Monterey at 1127 S. St. Mary’s Street, which offers trendy gastropub dishes at a similar price range.
With your belly full and the afternoon behind you, make your way to the inevitable conclusion of a December day in San Antonio: the Alamo and the nearby River Walk. Park at the Pearl Brewery at 200 E. Grayson Street and walk or take a river taxi through the Museum Reach section of the walk. You’ll pass charming sculptures like F.I.S.H, a gorgeous installation under Interstate 35 that features tropical creatures swimming through the air.
As you move closer to the Alamo, the bright, multi-colored Christmas lights draping the cedars will light up, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a winter wonderland, Texas style. The lights were lit Friday and will stay up until Jan. 2. Follow the signs to Alamo Plaza, where a gargantuan Christmas tree illuminates the icon of Texas culture. But of course, it’s still Texas, and it’s still Texas weather: there’s a vendor who sells snow cones on the Alamo Plaza during the winter. Grab yourself a lump of cherry-flavored ice and stare at the limestone legend, content in the knowledge that SA has more to offer than the mission’s storied halls.
Printed on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as: Exploring river city