San Antonio Sizzles

Mariachis, margaritas and Mexican food

by Barbara and Jim Twardowski on March 1, 2008 - 3:55pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 2

Texas tourism commercials tout “It’s like a whole other country.” However, no passport is needed to visit San Antonio, where the mix of Spanish, Native American, Mexican and German influences has woven a colorful culture. The seventh largest city in the U.S. and the fastest-growing city in the Lone Star State, San Antonio draws some 20 million visitors a year. Over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007, we spent three days in the historic “Alamo City” and found it surprisingly wheelchair accessible.

A river runs through it

Twenty feet below the street level, the River Walk (Paseo del Rio) winds through downtown. The flowing San Antonio River is bordered by cobblestone and flagstone paths with lush green foliage. Towering cypress and 300-year-old oak trees provide shade along the walkway that meanders for nearly 2½ miles.

Numerous restaurants overlook the river where patrons sip margaritas as mariachi music drifts on the breeze. The atmosphere is festive. Our favorite spot to dine is anywhere outside. We stopped at the 50-year-old Casa Rio for Tex-Mex cuisine. The street level entrance to the restaurant has steps so we took a detour — walking across the street where we hopped onto an elevator that took us down to the river level and just a few feet from the hostess station. We were immediately seated at a table that was so close to the river, we could have touched the ducks as they frantically dove for the remains of chips that bus boys toss into the water.

The trees of the River Walk are decorated with hundreds of small lights. They twinkle and reflect off the water casting a magical spell each evening. During the holidays, the river shines extra bright. The Friday after Thanksgiving, the switch is thrown and more than 122,000 lights form a sparkling canopy over the river. Thousands of people gather for the lighting ceremony and for the parade of illuminated floats (boats) with costumed riders, bands and celebrities. Reserved seating tickets are sold months in advance and cost $10 to $20.

Most of San Antonio’s renowned River Walk is wheelchair accessible; the city continues to eliminate architectural barriers, creating new ramps, paths and elevators to the street level.

Every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., boats loaded with passengers glide up and down the river. The Rio San Antonio Cruises provides 40-minute tours and a water taxi service. There are more than 39 stops along the river where you can disembark to shop or dine. (Nine of the stops are wheelchair accessible. A handy map is posted on the company’s Web site Tickets may be purchased in advance or at boarding time. (One way is $4. A 24-hour Day Pass is $10. A three-day pass is $25.) The informative tours are a fun introduction to the river.

The City of San Antonio has been eliminating architectural barriers to the River Walk since the early 1980s. In the past two decades, they’ve improved more than 50 locations, generating new ramps, paths and elevators. Most of the River Walk is wheelchair accessible.

If you use a wheelchair, pick up a map to the River Walk that indicates where the elevators are located or download a map that was created by the Convention and Visitor Bureau.

Before we went anywhere, Jim would consult the map and determine the most appropriate route for me. If you want to enter a restaurant or shop that does not appear to be accessible, ask if there is a wheelchair entrance. Many do have an alternate entrance that isn’t always obvious. Friendly ambassadors, dressed in bright turquoise shirts, are stationed throughout historic downtown to answer visitors’ questions.

Sightseeing: Don’t forget the Alamo

The number one must-see attraction is the Alamo. While the story of the Alamo looms large in American history, first-time visitors are usually surprised at its small size. Located in the bustling downtown, what remains of the mission’s original compound are the church and the lower floor of the long barracks. For Texans, the Alamo is a sacred shrine. Men are asked to remove their hats upon entering, and photography is not permitted inside.

In 1836, a small band of Texas patriots made the Alamo mission their last stand in a fight to the death against the Mexican dictator, Santa Anna. For 13 days, the fierce battle raged. Although the Alamo fell, word of the defenders’ tenacity spread, steeling the resolve of soldiers throughout Texas. Their battle cry, “Remember the Alamo,” may be the most famous in American history. Before you visit the Alamo, take in an entertaining history lesson by seeing the 48-minute docudrama, “Alamo — The Price of Freedom,” at the IMAX Rivercenter (the mall at the River Walk).

Art in the heart of San Antonio

The San Antonio Zoo, which offers reduced admission prices for people with disabilities, features one of the largest bird collections in the world.

Along the brick-paved streets of La Villita is a cluster of historic homes converted to shops showcasing the work of local and regional artists and craftsmen. The smell of cinnamon wafts through the air, hypnotically luring you into the entrance of Scentchips, USA — the company’s candles, chips and potpourri are produced on the premises. Not all the shops in La Villita are wheelchair accessible, but you can spend an afternoon admiring the architecture of buildings dating back to the mid 1800s.

Shop in Mexico

Every weekend, musicians and dancers entertain the crowds at Market Square. You can shop for authentic Mexican pottery, jewelry, blankets, toys and more at El Mercado. Feeling hungry? Don’t miss Mi Tierra Café and Bakery, open 24 hours a day. Strolling musicians perform under the Christmas lights that encase the ceiling year-round.

Worth the drive

San Antonio is a sprawling city with attractions that are well worth the drive. Six Flags Fiesta Texas is a popular theme park. Stop by the Hospitality Center in Los Festivales for a “Guest with Disabilities Guidebook” which has detailed information on the accessibility of rides, shows, games and restaurants. SeaWorld San Antonio has the famous Shamu. Before you go, consult the 18-page Guest Safety and Accessibility Guide.

Ranked as one of the top zoos in the country, the San Antonio Zoo is open 365 days a year and boasts one of the largest bird collections in the world. Don’t miss seeing the endangered whooping crane. (Admission prices are reduced for people with disabilities.)

Home to the region’s finest display of Greek and Roman antiquities, Asian art, Latin American and folk art, and American paintings, the San Antonio Museum of Art is housed in the castle-like historic Lone Star Brewery.

The new Shops at LaCantera has upscale shopping (Nordstrom’s, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers) in an outdoor center. Stroll from shop to shop and stop to relax beside indigenous plants, sculptures and water fountains.

Where to stay

Numerous River Walk restaurants and cafes offer patio dining overlooking the San Antonio River, winding through downtown San Antonio.

The Hilton Palacio del Rio was the perfect location for seeing the River Walk. It’s just a few blocks from the Alamo and major tourist attractions, so we rarely used our car. (Valet parking prices are reduced for vehicles with disabled license plates.) Our room had a roll-in shower and a king-size bed. (Unfortunately, the hotel does not have roll-away beds, so our teenaged son slept on the floor.) The concierge at the hotel was a gem —advising us on where to dine, calling ahead to determine if properties had wheelchair access and patiently giving us directions. The additional perk to staying at a hotel located on the river is that Jim could indulge in a margarita at dinner and walk us back to the hotel.

The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau ( or (800) 447-3372) has information on accommodations and attractions. Check their Web site or phone ahead to ask about money-saving coupons.

The Twardowskis, who are frequent Quest contributors, live in Mandeville, La. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

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