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Below the streets of downtown San Antonio lies another world, alternately soothing and exhilarating, depending on where you venture. The quieter areas of the 5 miles of winding riverbank, shaded by cypresses, oaks, and willows, exude a tropical, exotic aura. The River Square and South Bank sections, chockablock with sidewalk cafes, tony restaurants, bustling bars, high-rise hotels, and even a huge shopping mall, have a festive, sometimes frenetic feel. Tour boats, water taxis, and floating picnic barges regularly ply the river, and local parades and festivals fill its banks with revelers.

Although plans to cement over the river after a disastrous flood in 1921 were stymied, it wasn't until the late 1930s that the federal Works Project Administration (WPA) carried out architect Robert Hugman's designs for the waterway, installing cobblestone walks, arched bridges, and entrance steps from various street-level locations. In the late 1960s, when the River Walk proved to be one of the most popular attractions of the HemisFair exposition, its commercial development began in earnest.

The River Walk may run the risk of becoming overdeveloped, with new restaurants and entertainment complexes opening every year, but plenty of quieter spots still exist. The city has extended the River Walk a couple of miles in each direction so that it's now fairly long. These extensions are quiet places perfect for walking, but they lack some of the features of the core, especially the majestic trees. Mornings are a good time to see the main part of the River Walk, when the crowds are smaller and the light filters softly through the trees. At night the River Walk takes on a different character; if you're caught up in the sparkling lights reflected on the water, you might forget anyone else is around.

All the streetcars stop somewhere along the river's route. The River Walk Streetcar Station at Commerce and Losoya is accessible to travelers with disabilities.