By Sherri Telenko
Think “romantic city” and San Antonio, Texas might not be the first thought that pops to mind, unless you’ve been there recently.
The Riverwalk, a 15-mile landscaped stone pathway adjacent to either side of the city’s central river, is the best place in the Lone Star state to hold hands and stroll for hours from the city’s central mall to the newly constructed extension south towards one of North America’s largest urban renewal projects. Stay at many of the downtown hotels, such as The Westin Riverwalk, and you’ve got backdoor access to this winding stone pedestrian walkway lined with rock gardens, cafes and waterfalls, and easy staircase access to the city’s most famous historic site: The Alamo.
But before you leave the Riverwalk and enter the street-level world of urban traffic, city blocks and tourist attractions such as wax museums, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a ghost tour that attracts those with kids and average standards, spend more time at the Riverwalk–this time on the river. Rio San Antonio Cruises run flat boat tours along the scenic site originally designed in the 1940s as part of a lock extension to prevent flooding downtown.
San Antonio’s most charming feature evolved almost by fluke. A 27-year-old architect designed the project but added the landscaping component as an afterthought, creating a municipal park of cobblestone trails, gardens and waterfalls, attracting both strolling tourist and locals looking for an ideal route to run. On the boat tour (also available via pre-booking as a river breakfast, lunch or dinner cruise) you’ll learn about the historic details of the site’s history, including which restaurant (among many) was the first here and is still owned by the same family six decades later.
Culture, less attractive to little ones, is easily found at two museum forms: The San Antonio Art Gallery opened in 1981 in the former Lone Star Brewery and the McNay Art Gallery. The first museum is a multi-level documentation of global art and artifacts. Once on the edge of town, The San Antonio Art Gallery is now connected to the center core by the Riverwalk ‘museum extension’ added in 2009.
However, the McNay Art Gallery might be the most romantic edifice to true love I’ve encountered on travels yet. On the surface, the museum is part 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival home with fountain courtyard built to house a private art collection in the early 20th century, abutted by a modern glass addition designed to attract travelling exhibitions such as ‘Robert Indiana Beyond Love’ exhibit there in 2014.
But the backstory is where the McNay gets curious: oil fortune heiress Marion Koogler McNay was married four times during her life, including a ten-year span with ophthalmologist Donald Atkinson, who built and lived in this house with her on 32 acres of property. Yet, she reverted back to her first husband’s last name, McNay, and that’s the moniker she gave the gallery when she endowed her home as a public art gallery in 1954, establishing the first in the state dedicated to contemporary art. She was married to McNay for less than a year because he died a short time after the couple moved to San Antonio from Ohio in 1918. Some speculate McNay was her one true love (next to art) despite three other attempts all ending in divorce, and this was her final homage to him.
Finally, there is The Alamo, San Antonio’s historic crown jewel–and the place where every man, woman and child visits when in town. It’s a Spanish mission built in the 1700s, later the site of a dramatic standoff between occupying Texas Revolutionaries and the defending Spanish army that’s come to represent Texas’s fierce independence and Davy Crockett’s’ final undoing. The city has built up to the Alamo walls, but inside is a garden courtyard, costumed interpreters and free tours and admission. Visit it first, then decompress at the McNay Art Gallery or scramble back to a Riverwalk cafe and wile the evening away over a margarita or two with your one true love, or the travel companion of the day.
– Photos courtesy Sherri Telenko
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