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A Warm December in San Antonio, Gruene, and Austin

A Warm December in San Antonio, Gruene, and Austin

The Riverwalk, San Antonio’s second-most-famous attraction, has expanded since our last visit around 2002, with many new paths both downtown and out of town (not all of them referred to as Riverwalk). With a bicycle, you can even follow the path all the way through the series of Spanish missions along the San Antonio River (see the section on Concepción Mission and the Southern Riverwalk). Even in town, several stretches are very quiet and peaceful with no commercial development; we even saw an egret in a very busy, section near the Convention Center. Of course, other sections are raucous and touristy, full of restaurants and shopping malls, as well as tour boats. Interesting and creative plantings abound. My favorite part is from César Chávez south through the historic King William neighborhood until the walkway crosses the river on stepping stones. Another, showing more evidence of human intervention but still noncommercial, heads south ands west from the Hotel Emma to downtown. Both sections are very peaceful, with neither stores nor restaurants a the river level, bringing calm to the urban residential scene above it.

The river itself is heavily channelled and doesn’t look anything like a wild stream in any of the sections we saw; apparently it had once been much curvier. Still, between the people watching and the nature watching, it should be art of every visitor’s itinerary.

San Antonio Botanical Garden is beautifully landscaped. Many desert and semiarid plants. Regional gardens from around Texas (and some 19th-century log homes from the Texas Hill Country). The Conservatory complex has a glassed-in main room focused on orchids and tropical plants, with smaller rooms for cacti and ferns among others. Next to it, a Japanese garden that looked pretty but made all of us feel uncomfortable. The Feng Shui seemed to be off; it may have been missing Wabi-Sabi, the necessary asymmetricality in Japanese culture. 

We happened to be there during a temporary exhibit of giant Adirondack chairs and chessboard, very Alice in Wonderland. Also a series of beautiful metal sculptures of humanoid figures with features like beaks and wings. 

Concepción Mission, The Alamo, and the Southern Riverwalk

Starting with the Alamo and heading south, San Antonio has a string of 18th-century Catholic missions along the river. We’d seen them all on our previous trip, but our son hadn’t. Our plan was to park at Concepción Mission, the first one going south, and then use bikeshare bikes to explore a few of the others before meeting other family members for lunch. However, we discovered that the bikeshare program here requires a $10 one-day membership. We didn’t think it would be worth $30 for three of us to bike for the short time we had, so instead we toured the old Franciscan mission (which only took about ten minutes) and then walked half an hour each way along a very rural part of the river, full of egrets, herons, cormorants, turtles, and other wildlife.

According to its web page, the Alamo is open every day except Christmas. But it turns out to be closed on Christmas Eve as well, and that was the day we’d planned to see it. There were still plenty of people milling around the souvenir shops and looking at the very unusual San Antonio Spurs-themed Christmas sculpture in front of the mission, but we’d seen all that already. So instead, we walked over to Market Square. Touristy but fun, Market Square features a few dozen vendors of Mexican crafts, clothing, and food. It’s very colorful, low pressure (unlike similar markets within Mexico), and fun for a short visit. At the edge of the square, Texas A&M University maintains a small art museum. During our visit, they had a wonderful exhibit on Tree of Life interpretations by painter Kathy Sosa and sculptor Veronica Castillo.

We did go back to the Alamo a few days later, waited half an hour to get in, and at first were confused because the main exhibits are not in the buildings but in the courtyard. We found them eventually, and learned about the active recruitment of people from the US to settle Texas, struggles between Federalists and Centralists in the early governments of Mexico, Texas’s decision to secede once the Centralists won and all power was concentrated in Mexico City rather than the various states, and of course the battle of the Alamo. Then we rewarded ourselves with a stop at Schakolad Chocolate Factory, 112 Broadway Street, about 3 minutes walk away. They had a delightful selection of exotic home-made truffles and we bought a six-box for the three of us. All were quite tasty.

Spent the entire next day celebrating Christmas with our daughter’s fiancee’s extended family, starting with Midnight Mass and continuing through 7 pm. The mass we attended, in a medium-sized, modern Catholic church, was surprisingly informal. The choir director stood in front of his small chorus with a guitar, at one point telling us to “sing, y’all.” Everything was pleasantly laid back. Some observations about San Antonio:

         A very car-oriented city. The city limits go quite some distance, and several major highways run through it. Off-highway, many wide boulevards allow easy passage in any direction, as long as you’re on a road that isn’t cut in half by any of the numerous railroad tracks (with many at-grade crossings, surprising in a city with such constant train traffic). It’s not uncommon to be on a highway ramp for half a mile or longer before it merges in—an absolute orgy of asphalt and concrete. Considering how open and relatively uncrowded things are, drivers are surprisingly aggressive and impatient. Several times, people seemed to begrudge my slowing down to make a turn and responded with tailgating and honking.

         The average vehicle size is huge. At home, we’re used to lots of Corollas, Priuses, Honda Fits, and similar small cars. Here, our relatives’ Ford Explorer seemed like a toddler among the masses of extra-large pickup trucks and Suburban/Escalade/Expedition-class SUVs. The Corolla we rented was more like somebody’s pet indoor poodle that had gotten loose and was frightened. Also, despite its heat-absorbent properties, black is far and away the dominant vehicle color.

         The highest density of churches I can remember seeing anywhere. Most of them Protestant and fairly large.

Brackenridge Park is a large family-oriented recreation area with such amenities as a train and golfing. It also includes a lovely and very unusual Japanese garden built around stonework and water features, which exudes a feeling of tranquility throughout the 20 minutes it takes to explore it. There are also some nature trails through some very pretty but very tiny woods; I wouldn’t really call it hiking.

On our final day, we spent over an hour just waking the streets of the Monte Vista Historic District, lined with big, beautiful early 20th-century homes and mansions—many now converted to human service agencies—and gorgeous old trees including one that protruded into the street at about four feet in diameter. It made me very happy that they’d actually rerouted the street around it rather than chop it down. Another highlight here was Fiesta on Main is located at 2025 N. Main Ave. at Ashby a Mexican craft store that filled multiple floors of several buildings, including one of those big Victorians. The William R. Sinkin Eco Centro, a sustainability outreach center located at 1802 N. Main Avenue at Locust, looked interesting but was closed when we walked by. It’s only been open since the spring of 2014, but the website shows some innovative programming.

A few miles out from central San Antonio, Olmos has some cute shopping areas, including a series of restaurants and boutiques in real boxcars. One of the restaurants was even a reservations-only place with a dress code.  I’ve never seen a boxcar food court before.

Much closer in—an easy and enjoyable stroll from downtown along the Riverwalk are Pearl Parkway and the Hotel Emma area. A former brewery, this hip and popular complex is possibly the nicest industrial-reuse project I’ve ever seen. The outdoor architecture is a mix of modernist sharp-edged red brick and glass and early 20th-century industrial. The interiors feature enormous ceilings, elegant wood and marble, and a feeling of great comfort, even while incorporating some of the old brewery equipment. It’s also a great place to bring vegetarian and meat-eating devotees of local food, with several great choices from Green Vegetarian Cuisine (sit-down vegetarian and vegan café, which we chose) to grab-and-go (The Larder, a gourmet deli with many vegetarian options) and several other possibilities.  We also enjoyed browsing the coffee-table art books in the hotel lobby, delicious all-natural and extremely unusually flavored home-made ice cream at Lick,—we sampled such wonders as beet-mint and goat cheese-thyme—Twig bookstore, and more, before heading downtown again on the Riverwalk.

Gruene and Austin

The drive between San Antonio and Austin along I-35 is easy and ugly. We broke it up with an hour or so in Gruene (pronounced “Green”), a cute, artsy hamlet near New Braunfels, crammed with antique shops, gourmet specialties (sweet-and-spicy pickles, pecan treats, unsweetened pecan-flavored coffee), German-themed shopping, and lots of businesses with names punning on the green theme. The General Store offered a number of free samples of various jams, relishes, and salsas. Storekeepers were extremely friendly and it felt consistently genuine. The oldest dance hall in Texas is also worth a quick walk-through; going inside feels like a step back to the 1920s (with performer photos from more recent eras). At the far end of town from I-35, be sure to visit “Uptown,” a side road going one long block from Downtown. It happens to have many of the best stores.

Arriving in Austin, we went straight to our homestay hosts who live north of the city, and they took us around town. We started at Mt. Bonnell, a scenic overlook on the Colorado River and the highest point in Austin. Most of the climb was by car, but we did get to walk up 106 stairs for the last hundred feet or so (there’s also an alternate path with a much-reduced climb that might be suitable for people with walking disabilities. I didn’t use it so can’t tell you if a wheelchair could manage). According to the chatter online about it, the peak is not accessible but no one even mentioned the other path. This overlook offers some great river and skyline views, though the landscape across the river is cluttered with mansions, communication towers, and other obstacles.

Next stop was the Mozart Cafe, also along the river. At Christmas time, there’s a sound and light show on the huge patio (making it the biggest coffee shop I’ve ever seen) at the beginning of each hour, which attracts a huge crowd. Great place to people-watch, but we were very unimpressed with the coffee and pastries. If you want a really good cup of coffee in Austin, try Cafe Ruckus, 409 W 2nd Street (wifi and board games, too).

We finished the evening (and well into the night) with a walk through the club scene on Austin’s East 6th Street, which the locals call “Dirty 6th.” Literally about 100 clubs are jammed into about four blocks, most of them featuring live music (there was a stretch of about six in a row with recorded hip-hop. Even on the night after Christmas, the area was crowded at our 11 p.m. arrival and absolutely packed by our 1 a.m. departure. We listened to several country and rockabilly performers before settling in at Flamingo Cantina, 515 E. 6th, for some well-played reggae and good dancing. (Sorry, I didn’t learn the name of the band.)

Just west of the club strip is the amazing Driskill Hotel (corner of 6th and Brazos), built in 1886 and with much original décor both inside and out. Stroll through the lobby and be sure to look up. Then go up a floor to the bar and look at the ceiling again. The adjacent Due Forni restaurant, 106 E 6th Street, served delicious and unusual upscale pizzas, pastas, and salads at reasonable prices (though with very small portions). We had a vegetarian pizza with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, a penne with crimini mushrooms, and a kale salad with citrus dressing—all excellent.

There’s also a stretch of much more upmarket bars a few blocks away on West 6th, which we drove through on our way back. Passing between the two areas, you go quite close to the state capital building, which is open for viewing. We contended ourselves with the outside, however. It’s a beautiful marble building modeled after the US Capitol. A visitors center on the grounds has a lot of information about state parks in all parts of Texas, as well as some local attractions.

There’s also a lovely riverfront walkway on both sides of the Congress Avenue Bridge. During the warmer months, the bridge is home to a large colony of nesting bats—but not during our December visit. We had to content ourselves with the informational signs about bats, their habitat and lifestyle.

As children of the 1960s, we found a trip to the LBJ museum (on the vast University of Texas campus) well worth a few hours. The museum focuses on his positive achievements around poverty and the environment and how he continually leveraged tragedies like the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King to push through a progressive agenda. But it certainly acknowledges the more challenging aspects of his presidency, particularly the Vietnam war—and gives a fair amount of space to a timeline of the 1960s, with many pop culture artifacts (books, record album covers, toys, snatches of music, and such) scattered around. It also charts his ambition and his personal career. I was intrigued at how quickly he assumed leadership positions in the Senate, really starting at the beginning of his second term. And although he voted with the segregationists for much of his time in the House and Senate, he shepherded through a major civil rights bill as early as 1957. I also hadn’t known he started his professional career as a school teacher in a mostly Mexican-American working-class community, before becoming a legislative aide and turning to politics. Or that he was heavily involved in rural electrification and other initiatives to reduce poverty as far back as the 1930s. Though a great admirer of FDR, he turned down Roosevelt’s offer to lead a rural electrification agency, choosing to stay in Congress. But earlier, he led the Texas branch of FDR’s National Youth Administration.

The museum also includes a replica of the Oval Office as it looked during LBJ’s presidency, an exhibit on Lady Bird, daughter Lynda’s reflections on growing up in the White House, numerous recorded phone conversations (including several between LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr.), and the presidential limousine. The building also contains five floors of archives, closed to the general public.

Shel Horowitz’s 10th book, Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, shows how the business community can profit by turning hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance:

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