In downtown San Antonio, nothing is far from the River Walk, an urban oasis of greenery, meandering pathways, public art and wildlife.
You may not even notice it when you're heading along busy St. Mary's Street. But find a staircase under a traffic bridge, or cut through the lobby of a chic hotel like the Valencia and descend to river level, and you'll find a lush place where flat-bottomed riverboats ply the shallow waters and couples stroll in the shadows.
Constructed in the 1930s and 1940s for flood control, today the River Walk is like a bit of Venice in the heart of this Texas town. There are hotels and restaurants along every inch of it, photogenic footbridges, private terraces and overhanging trees, festooned in tiny lights. It's like a great big outdoor patio party on a sultry Texas night.
But the River Walk has recently expanded - literally doubled in length. The new $74-million Museum Reach section of the walk ties the downtown restaurant strip with the spectacular Museum of San Antonio, in the repurposed historic Lone Star Brewery, and the Pearl Brewery site. It's an urban-renewal project that has created a new place for food and culture lovers to gather, and a destination for those who really want to explore San Antonio on foot.
Local billionaire Christopher (Kit) Goldsbury (of Pace Picante Sauce fame) is behind the company that is repurposing the Pearl Brewery buildings (circa 1883), and already has some spiffy tenants and partners - from the new Culinary Institute of America San Antonio campus to stylish restaurants like Il Sogno and La Gloria, a large Aveda Institute spa and the farmers market. They've carved an amphitheatre out of the riverbank for outdoor concerts and you'll find public art and secret riverside grottos to explore.
ART IN THE ODDEST PLACES
Southwest School of Art & Craft
300 Augusta St.; swschool.org
Start exploring the artistic end of the River Walk at the Southwest School of Art & Craft in the historic Ursuline convent. Sign up for a workshop or just take away a $5 piece of local art from the funky Art-o-Mat vending machine. From here, the new 2.1-kilometre River Walk extension leads through green spaces and public art installations found beneath the highway underpasses: from Carlos Cortes's waterfall grotto to the ever-changing colours of Stuart Allen's mesh panels and Donald Lipski's colourful fibreglass sunfish. Explore on foot or boat by boarding a river barge water taxi that passes through the state's only lock system.
MONKEY BREAD AND OTHER DELIGHTS
Pearl Farmers Market
200 East Grayson St.; pearlfarmersmarket.com
The old Full Goods building at the Pearl Brewery is the site of the Saturday and Wednesday farmers market. It's a "producers only" market so there's plenty of local stuff to sample, from organic melons to cinnamon monkey bread from Biga on the Banks bakery, Chrissy Omo's fresh goat cheeses, and nuts from the Ocker Pecan Co. Find all this, plus cooking demos from local chefs, inside the old brewery warehouse and spilling out onto the riverside parking lot.
La Gloria Ice House
100 East Grayson St.; lagloriaicehouse.com
La Gloria means "the heavens" and chef Johnny Hernandez creates heavenly, addictive Mexican street food at his casual restaurant in the Pearl District. Mr. Hernandez goes back to his roots with his fresh Mexican menu. Sit on the patio that overlooks the river and enjoy his version of the carnitas of Michoacan, tlayudas of Oaxaca, tortas, handmade tamales and blue agave tequila - divine flavours and little bites that will transport you to the taquerias and street carts of your favourite border town.
200 East Grayson St., Suite 122; melissaguerra.com
Inspired by the historic Mexican tienda, this is a culinary store with a Tex-Mex twist. Alongside the colourful Le Crueset cookware find Mexican comales, hand-painted pottery and tequila cups. There are artistic treasures and functional gadgets, from beautiful etched margarita glasses to tortilla presses, molcajete (the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle) and racks for filling tacos at home.
HISTORY ON THE RIVER
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 West Jones Ave.; samuseum.org
The San Antonio Museum of Art, with its incredible collection of Latin American folk art, is a must-see on the recently opened Museum Reach end of the River Walk. It's housed in the former Lone Star Brewery building, with soaring display spaces and the casual Café des Artistes bistro next door. Stop for a coffee and French pastry on the patio overlooking the river, after perusing the pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial and American art collection.
146 East Houston St.; acenar.com
Ácenar is the next generation of Tex-Mex cuisine - old recipes and gourmet ingredients, with cool cocktails, in a bold contemporary space along the historic River Walk downtown. Try chef James Sanchez's fried oyster on crisp yucca chips, blue crab tacos or mushroom crêpes topped with huitlacoche, a delicate and delicious corn fungus known as the Mexican truffle. Wash it down with a sweet blood orange mojito.
ITALIAN IN A TEX-MEX TOWN
100-200 East Grayson St.; pearlbrewery.com/pages/eat_ilsogno.html
Il Sogno is the latest for local chef and restaurateur Andrew Weissman - a cool and casual Italian eatery in the Pearl Brewery district. Start with a sampling from the antipasto bar - the octopus carpaccio in mint vinaigrette is great - then move on to prosciutto pizza from the wood-burning oven or classic osso bucco with creamy risotto. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but a seat at the communal table or at the open kitchen bar can be fun and enlightening.
Special to The Globe and Mail