This itinerary is a bit like the walking tour of downtown. The biggest differences between the two are that this one hits only the big attractions and leaves the Alamo for late afternoon (btw. 4:30 and 5pm) and the Tower of the Americas for later in the day when the sun is low and the view is at its best. Both tours were designed so that you'll avoid the crowds at the Alamo, which are largest during the midday hours. Also, this itinerary includes a stop at the IMAX that could not be put in any self-respecting "walking" tour, even though I feel it helps make for a more enjoyable experience at the Alamo. See which one works best for you. It's usually warm in San Antonio, so you may want to take a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Fortunately, downtown San Antonio is compact, and this itinerary isn't taxing. You can stroll along easily, even with kids in tow.
1. Market Square
If you haven't eaten breakfast, you can begin by having a bite at Mi Tierra, a restaurant in the middle of Market Square that is very much a reflection of the local culture. The same can be said of this market area. It's a blend of Mexican and Texas styles and is enjoyable in the mornings, when it's semideserted. Facing Market Square is a large building, the modern and attractive Museo Alameda, recognizable by its singular metal screen facade bordered by elaborate ironwork.
Walk 1 1/2 blocks east on Commerce Street. On your right will be the:
2. Spanish Governor's Palace
Don't let the word "palace" lead you to expect something grandiose. It's a translation of palacio, which in Mexico means any building used as the seat of government. This was the house of the garrison's captain. It's a handsome building constructed of adobe and stone that dates from 1722. Look for the keystone above the entrance that bears the double-headed eagle -- a symbol of Habsburg rule -- as well as the date of 1749, when the first addition was added. The palace sits on the old Military Plaza, or Plaza de Armas, which was the center of town after Texas became independent. The famous chili queens would set up their stalls in this plaza until they were moved to Market Square in 1886.
Walk 2 1/2 blocks east. You will come to the city's Main Plaza and the:
3. San Fernando Cathedral
The San Fernando Cathedral had humble beginnings as a parish church. It was commissioned as a simple stone church in 1738. The colonial society of the day was divided into two principal classes: the Canary Islanders, who, having been born in the Old World, were above those of Spanish descent born in the New World, which included most of the garrison and their families. But the project of building a church united them, and in choosing the patron saints, they selected one from each continent -- from Europe, Our Lady of Candlemas, and from the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe. What you see today mostly dates from the 1870s when the church was elevated to cathedral. Changes continue into the present century. Enter and have a look at the gilt altarpiece that was introduced only a few years ago.
Walk a couple of blocks farther east; you will come to the:
4. River Walk
The section you see was man-made and is the plainest part of the River Walk. Cross the bridge over the river and turn right. Follow the river and you'll soon find an access stairway leading down to the walkway that follows the original riverbank. Continue in the same direction and you'll come to the prettiest section of the River Walk, with tall cypress and palm trees, patches of flowers, ornamental bushes, and bridges crisscrossing the river this way and that.
5. Take a Break
Take a breather at this fun and fine old German restaurant, Schilo's, where Commerce Street crosses the river. You can fill up on one of their moderately priced sandwiches or a slice of the cheesecake. 424 E. Commerce. tel. 210/223-6692.
Head 1 block west on Commerce Street to the Rivercenter Mall.
6. IMAX Theater Rivercenter
The main course of the Rivercenter Mall was built over a section of Blum Street, where the house of a famous desperado and scalp hunter named John Glanton, fictionalized in Cormack McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian, once stood. The IMAX theater has multiple showtimes (almost hourly) of a 45-minute documentary about the siege of the Alamo. This and the diorama in front of the ticket counter give you good context for what you're about to see at the Alamo. The movie schedule is subject to change, so call ahead for times and ticket reservations. Or buy your tickets at the theater and spend time exploring this pleasant mall while you wait.
When you exit the theater, turn right and walk down the main concourse to the door leading to Blum Street. Make another right at the corner. Walk a block and on your right you'll see:
7. The Alamo
By midafternoon, the crowds will have thinned here. The church and long barrack are good examples of frontier colonial Spanish architecture, whose traits were to give shape to the region's architecture. The grounds are lovely and reflect the fact that San Antonio is on the cusp of four different ecological zones: Hill Country, Gulf coast plains, South Texas chaparral, and West Texas desert. Thus you'll find magnificent live oak trees, gnarled mesquites, fronded palms, and prickly cacti and ocotillo, all growing within the walls of the mission. In addition to the native species, here and there grow patches of flowering ornamentals to lend more color and please the eye. What today is Alamo Plaza was the original atrio of the church -- a walled plaza for celebrating Mass when the celebrants numbered too many to fit into the church. It played a prominent part in the battle.
Head south on Alamo Street and in 4 blocks you'll see a group of buildings on your left. This is:
8. La Villita
In colonial society, even on the frontier, society's divisions shaped settlement patterns. While the Canary Islanders settled on the west side of the river, the families of the garrison soldiers settled on the east side in what is now La Villita. In the mid-19th century, La Villita became a popular residential area with the Europeans (Germans, Swiss, and French), giving the Spanish village some European flavor. Its well preserved architecture earned it its designation as a historical district. Though it has been a craft center since the 1930s, my favorite thing about it is the architecture. I like it best when the shops are closing and there's just enough bustle to give it a lived-in feeling.
Across Alamo Street, at about 2 blocks' distance, you'll see the needle that is a distinctive part of San Antonio's skyline.
9. Tower of the Americas
Built for the HemisFair world exposition of 1968, the Tower of the Americas is still the tallest building in San Antonio. The observation deck on top provides a grand view of the city in every direction, and the glass elevators provide the rush.