By: Ariana Speyer
There’s nothing fancy about brisket barbecue juice dripping down your arm while you’re seated at a linoleum-topped table under the fluorescent lights at Cooper’s in Llano. Or listening to a teenaged Tejano band nervously strum and sing for the passing throngs at El Mercado in San Antonio. Or brushing by cacti while climbing the pink granite dome of Enchanted Rock. In fact, this swath of Texas – San Antonio and the Hill Country to the northwest – specializes in a particularly Texan brand of no-frills glamour that harks back to a simpler time in U.S. history.
Coming here is a way to experience the mythic America of the past – expansive vistas, small-town warmth, quirky cultural charms – alongside an au courant sophistication that extends to everything from wine to museums to organic dining. Not that there’s a dearth of McMansions or McDonald’s here, but for those who know where to look, all of that noise fades away and what’s left is some of the best of this country’s old and new. And in these precarious times finding authentic experiences amid the strip malls is its own kind of luxury.
Encompassing a little country, a little city, some cowboy bluster, some Mexican history – not to mention food choices from breakfast tacos to schnitzel – this part of Texas delivers a tantalizing brew of influences and traditions that can be enjoyed over a long weekend or a full-fledged vacation. In an area settled by Czechs, Germans, Mexicans, Spanish conquistadors, and, going back, Comanche and Tonkawa tribes, the uniting element is a generous dose of laid-back Lone Star charm.
San Antonio: Things to Do
While not a hipster haven like Austin to the north, San Antonio is the state’s prime tourist attraction, thanks to its much vaunted River Walk (210-227-4262; www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com) and the Alamo, among other postcard-worthy sites. But there’s a lot more than the obvious draws, including a thriving art scene, dining that’s both rarefied and homey, and an ongoing expansion of River Walk’s attractions. And perhaps best of all, in the face of all this cultural wealth and easy good times, zero pretension.
The heart of the River Walk is the canal-like San Antonio River. Flanked by lush landscaping and pedestrian paths (and traversed by diminutive footbridges), the river winds through the downtown tourist hub below street level, like Texas’s answer to Venice. The route is packed with theme restaurants, bars, and hotels – and it’s, shall we say, a little crowded. Last May a new stretch of the River Walk opened about 2 miles north of the downtown section: The Museum Reach meanders by the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum and culminates at a bold urban reclamation project called Pearl Brewery (369 Pearl Pkwy., Building 2; 210-212-7260, ext. 205; www.pearlbrewery.com)
The Brewery – a still expanding development on the site of a 19th-century beer brewery – is the brainchild of Kit Goldsbury, a reclusive philanthropist and former owner of the Pace Picante sauce business. Part New York City’s High Line, part Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Pearl Brewery now houses a new outpost of the Culinary Institute of America (312 Pearl Pkwy., Building 3; 210-222-1113; www.ciachef.edu/sanantonio) devoted to Latin cookery; Il Sogno (200 E. Grayson St.; 210-223-3900), San Antonio hero chef Andrew Weissman’s latest offering, focused on northern Italian cuisine; and the popular Pearl Farmers Market (200 E. Grayson St.; 210-212-7260, ext. 205; www.pearlfarmersmarket.com) stocked full of local delicacies like peach-and habañero jam. Until the Culinary Institute launches its pan-Latin restaurant later this year, Il Sogno, which opened in August to instant raves, will likely remain the undisputed food star of the complex. Weissman broke onto the national stage with Le Rêve, an acclaimed French restaurant in San Antonio, but he recently shuttered what had come to be a local institution in favor of expanding his empire at the Pearl. “I think it’s going to be a hub for the city, an urban gathering place,” Weissman says. “I wanted to be one of the first to plant my flag there.”
A sign in Il Sogno’s kitchen announces the credo "excellence isn’t our goal. it’s where we begin." The restaurant’s no-reservations policy means going early for breakfast or lunch is a smart bet. Otherwise, be patient because specialties – like pappardelle with wild hog ragú and truffled egg on asparagus – are worth the wait. Across the way, Melissa Guerra (200 E. Grayson St., Suite 122; 210-293-3983; www.melissaguerra.com) offers a cornucopia of striking Latin American home items and cookware, including embroidered Peruvian pillow covers and majolica pottery.
Unlike the River Walk, The Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza; 210-225-1391; www.thealamo.org) is perhaps best seen at night. The site of a 13-day siege in 1836 pitting Mexican troops against Texans seeking independence, the fort now exhibits military paraphernalia. After dark, the onetime Franciscan mission exudes a special magic when spotlights make it radiant and a little ghostly.
South of downtown, the river also passes through the historic King William neighborhood, home to over-the-top Victorian mansions built by the city’s leading merchants in the late-19th century. Here, the Edward Steves Homestead (509 King William St.; 210-225-5924; saconservation.org/tours/steves) is one of the few area homes open to the public and suitable for indulging in some real estate voyeurism, circa 1876.
San Antonio: The Art Scene
San Antonio hosts a thriving indie art scene and a raft of worthy museums, with the McNay Art Museum (6000 N. New Braunfels Ave.; 210-824-5368; www.mcnayart.org) a standout among them. As the state’s first modern art museum, the McNay houses a stellar permanent collection, including works by Diego Rivera and Edward Hopper, in an impressive Spanish colonial mansion. An ambitious new addition that opened in 2008 provides a striking, sleek contrast to the original building.
Since 1995, the nonprofit Artpace (445 N. Main Ave.; 210-212-4900; www.artpace.org) center has boosted the city’s arts visibility through a combined residency and exhibition program that has featured international heavyweights such as Felix Gonzales-Torres, Maurizio Cattelan, and Annette Messager. On Fridays, a taco truck stationed in the courtyard fortifies visitors with solid fare. But take heed: A short drive from Artpace is the busy, no-frills Taco Taco (145 E. Hildebrand Ave.; 210-822-9533; www.tacotacosa.com), which serves what many believe to be the city’s best breakfast taco, a holy grail for San Antonians.
A lack of pretension is a hallmark of the contemporary art scene, distinguished since the 1980s by an ever-morphing collection of tiny galleries and artist-run spaces in and around the neighborhood of Southtown. Sala Diaz (517 Stieren St.; 210-695-5132), established in 1995 in a rickety frame house, is probably the best known. Although the gallery regularly hosts high-profile artists like John Smith and Karen Finley, the standard procedure at openings is grabbing a beer and heading out to the sprawling backyard where cats roam and guests gather by a fire. Just across the street is Unit B (500 Stieren St.; 312-375-1871, www.unitbgallery.com), open since 2006; gallery director Kimberly Aubuchon (an artist herself) aims to showcase emerging artists from Texas and beyond. “Community is one of the defining principles of the art scene down here,” Aubuchon says. “It’s never a priority to sell something. I’m more focused on always bringing something new and interesting in.”
San Antonio: Where to Stay
The older parts of the River Walk adjoin some of the city’s best hotels. The Omni La Mansión del Rio (112 College St.; 210-518-1000; www.omnihotels.com) has an inviting Spanish colonial vibe. Its historic 1852 structure encompasses a pretty pool, a popular riverside restaurant, and recently renovated rooms with exposed beams. Sister hotel the Watermark Hotel & Spa (212 W. Crockett St.; 866-605-1212, www.watermarkhotel.com) is worth checking out for its state-of-the-art spa, where guests of La Mansión get access gratis.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Riverwalk Vista (Riverwalk Vista 262 Losoya St.; 210-223-3200, www.riverwalkvista.com), a bed and breakfast, is one of the city’s best values. Housed in a former wholesale grocery building from 1883, the Vista provides 17 spacious, loftlike rooms and Americana decor, with antique quilts adorning the walls. The more modern Westin Riverwalk (420 W. Market St.; 210-224-6500; www.westinriverwalksanantonio.com) has a lobby with lovely, secluded patios overlooking the water (perfect for for enjoying a cocktail) and top-notch rooms and service.
South of downtown in the historic King William neighborhood, the Ogé House (209 Washington St.; 210-223-2353; www.ogeinn.com) is an impressive neoclassical inn set on a handsome riverside plot. The chinoiserie is a tad stifling in a few of its 10 rooms, but the three-story building’s grandness and grace befits the neighborhood.
San Antonio: Where to Eat
When it comes to finding a choice meal in the thick of the River Walk, Boudro’s (421 E. Commerce St.; 210-224-8484; www.boudros.com) is where both locals and visitors flock for prickly pear Margaritas and guacamole whipped up tableside. Diners also can’t go wrong with its carnivorous specials, including the Texas sirloin with chimichurri sauce that would not be out of place in an Argentine parrilla.
La Tuna Grill (100 Probandt St.; 210-212-5727), a short drive from the Unit B gallery, is a local favorite, ideal for unwinding after a spell of viewing art. Mostly an outdoor collection of picnic tables set atop a ground cover of beer bottle caps, La Tuna is renowned for its excellent fish tacos and addictive Cheesy Burger.
A similar stripped-down charm pervades El Mercado (514 W. Commerce St.; 210-207-8600; www.sanantonio.gov/dtops/marketsquare) a sprawling Mexican market near downtown where stall after stall is piled with serapes, turquoise jewelry, and guayaberas. Outside and indoors, mariachi and Tejano bands play at all hours. Grab a good seat in the middle of the action at Mi Tierra Café Y Panadería (218 Produce Row; 210-225-1262; www.mitierracafe.com), a family-run institution since 1941 that’s a combination restaurant, bakery, and bar. The place is hard to miss – colorful lights trumpet the fact that it’s open 24 hours. Go for a nightcap of aged tequila or a breakfast of pan dulce and Mexican hot chocolate.
For an elegant change of pace, Francesca’s at Sunset (16641 La Cantera Pkwy.; 210-558-6500; www.westinlacantera.com/dining) – the restaurant at the Westin La Cantera resort about 16 miles from downtown – serves refined South Texan cuisine. Try the Three Sisters Tamale, a melt-in-your-mouth combo of black bean masa, Mexican crema, and sweet corn sauce; or the corn crepe–lobster enchilada, a Mexican staple made decadent. Sommelier Steven Krueger has stocked the wine list with vintages from the best Texan vineyards including Becker, McPherson, and Alamosa.
In the historic King William neighborhood, visit the Guenther House (205 E. Guenther St.; 210-227-1061; www.guentherhouse.com) for a breakfast of fluffy pancakes and Jurassic-size cinnamon buns at a perch overlooking the river.
Hill Country: Overview
A picturesque but onetime hardscrabble region that stretches about 100 miles between San Antonio and Austin, Hill Country has long attracted everyone from European pioneers to contemporary second-home owners. These days it’s a mecca for antiquers, wine lovers, and travelers seeking an idyllic getaway. While the area is clogged with belabored B&Bs and cloying beer gardens, one can sidestep these and enjoy exemplary accommodations and delicious cuisine of all sorts, as well as communion with nature and history.
It only takes about an hour to drive from San Antonio into western Hill Country, but the landscape – part atmospheric desert, part lush greenery – makes one feel far removed from city life. In spring especially, with the profusion of blooming wildflowers, the setting is simply stunning. Pick an inn in centrally located Fredericksburg, and take day trips to the surrounding constellation of small towns and attractions.
Hill Country: Things to Do
One of the biggest draws in the region is dedicated to a statesman who still casts a sizeable shadow in these parts: the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park (Stonewall and Johnson City; 830-868-7128; www.nps.gov/lyjo). Two distinct areas comprise the park, one in Stonewall, 15 miles east of Fredericksburg, that’s usually referred to as the LBJ Ranch; and the other in Johnson City (named for a relative of the president), 15 miles further east. It’s well worth spending some time at the LBJ Ranch, also known as the Texas White House, to get to know this gun-toting, beer-drinking, totally Texan president.
Johnson and his ancestors were from Hill Country, and the president spent a quarter of his five years in office here. It’s easy to see why. The rolling property flanks the lovely Pedernales River and contains a still-working ranch (the president-rancher owned a prizewinning herd of Herefords). When giving visitors a tour, Johnson would set out across the 7,000-acre expanse in his Lincoln convertible, followed by a pickup truck filled with beer and ice. But the most compelling part of the ranch is the Texas White House itself, open to the public since the 2008 death of Lady Bird Johnson. The ranch house, though modest by today’s standards, is where the First Couple entertained an impressive cast of political characters. The cozy floral sofas, fireplaces, and fifties kitchen (where holiday meals were prepared until quite recently) paint an endearing picture of the Johnsons’ world.
En route to Fredericksburg, stop in the town of Comfort, known for its array of antiques shops on dusty High Street. Mexican pottery and vintage farming tools are the standouts at its Antique Mall (734 High St., Comfort; 830-995-4678).
About midway between Llano and Fredericksburg, the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (16710 Ranch Rd. 965, Fredericksburg; 830-685-3636, www.tpwd.state.tx.us), dominated by a large pink granite dome, offers a 360-degree view of the countryside from the summit – a quick, but steep hike. Considered haunted by the Tonkawa tribe, this place is a serene nature stop.
In Fredericksburg, the shopping and dining are major attractions. The classic Peach Tree (210 S. Adams St., Fredericksburg; 830-997-9527; www.peach-tree.com), a café and lifestyle store, features everything from Fredericksburg Farm preserves to Italian stationery. Root (306 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 803-997-1844; www.rootfashionandaura.com), projecting the ambience of a hip Brooklyn fashion boutique, stocks lines like Sage Machado perfumes and Saint Grace clothing.
Hill Country is rich with vino – more than 20 vineyards in the area comprise a much visited wine trail. But while many of these wineries are beautiful, not all produce compelling vintages. One of the oldest, and a standout, is Becker Vineyards (464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; 830-644-2681; www.beckervineyards.com), near Fredericksburg. Try the cabernet sauvignon or the viognier in the tasting room, and take in the surroundings, which include several acres of lavender.
Just a few miles away (but on a different cultural bandwidth) lies Luckenbach (Off Hwy. 290, east of Fredericksburg; 830-997-3224; www.luckenbach texas.com). Popularized in the seventies by Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, the tiny compound is comprised of a dance hall, a bar, and a general store packed with corny Luckenbach souvenirs. Despite the bald commercialism, there’s something transporting about sitting around a campfire under the stars with a cold Lone Star beer, while someone strums away on a guitar.
Hill Country: Where to Stay
In Fredericksburg, a bustling hub that functions as Hill Country Central, accommodations run from country retreat to Main Street hideaway. The Roadrunner Inn (337 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 888-559-8555; www.theroadrunnerinn.com), just three suitelike rooms set above a store on the main drag, is refreshingly mod and Jonathan Adler-esque. Also in town, but tucked on a quiet side street, Hoffman Haus (608 E. Creek St., Fredericksburg; 830-997-6739; www.hoffmanhaus.com) offers what owner Leslie Washburn calls a “small boutique inn with B&B sensibilities.” A complex of 14 rooms, cottages, and small houses, Hoffman Haus gets the sophisticated-rustic look just right, with impressive wooden antiques, claw-foot or whirlpool tubs, and modern kitchenette amenities.
About 6 miles east of downtown Fredericksburg lies B&B Settlers Crossing (104 Settlers Crossing Rd., just outside Fredericksburg; 830/997-2722, www.settlerscrossing.com), a collection of salvaged fachwerk (timber and stone) cottages set a fair distance apart from one other, so arriving visitors really feel like they’ve come to their own country refuge. The mix of French country style (Pierre Deux) and Western Americana (mounted antlers) results in uniquely handsome interiors. Resident horses, goats, and deer complete the pastoral picture.
Hill Country: Where to Eat
It’s said that the two things Texans will fight about are barbecue and chili. In Hill Country, a pair of renowned restaurants illustrate two different camps of Texas barbecue philosophy, in which the proximity of meat to flame is an obsession. At The Salt Lick (18301 FM 1826 off U.S. Hwy. 290, Driftwood; 512-858-4959; www.saltlickbbq.com), about an hour’s drive east of the Texas White House, succulent and smoky ribs and brisket are served at worn wooden tables on a covered patio. The emphasis is on the smoke. At the appealingly industrial Cooper’s (505 W. Dallas St., Llano; 325-247-5995; www.coopersbbq.com) in Llano, about an hour’s drive north of Fredericksburg, the goat ribs (a local specialty) and brisket are crisp and peppery. Direct heat rules here. But the meat at both joints is mouthwateringly delicious, along with the cole slaw, pinto beans, and potato salad playing backup.
While The Salt Lick is virtually the only reason anyone visits the tiny town of Driftwood, Llano has more to recommend it than Cooper’s. Despite Hill Country’s thriving tourist industry, Llano and nearby Mason seem like towns that time forgot – with central squares straight out of Old West movies, Romanesque courthouses, and cafés where one can sit over a piece of pie reading the paper all afternoon. The roads to Mason and Llano are among the most beautiful in Hill Country with miles of open country, no billboards, and barely a car in sight.
To experience a taste of the local German heritage in Fredericksburg, try Der Lindenbaum (312 E. Main St.,Fredericksburg; 830-997-9126; www.derlindenbaum.com), a low-key restaurant that serves goulash, schnitzel, and German beer on tap. At August E’s (203 E. San Antonio St., Fredericksburg; 830/997-1585; www.august-es.com), Thai chef Leu Savanh makes incredible sushi, the best dining value on the rather pricey menu. For lunch and desserts, café-bakery Rather Sweet (249 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830-990-0498; www.rathersweet.com) is a popular stop for a sausage kolache or a fresh focaccia sandwich. A few miles north of town, the Hill Top Café (10661 U.S. Hwy. 87, Doss, just north of Fredericksburg; 830-997-8922; www.hilltopcafe.com), owned by local musician Johnny Nicholas, dishes out a mix of Greek and Cajun specialties in a converted old-fashioned filling station.
In the town of Comfort, lunch on the shady front porch of High’s Café (726 High St., Comfort; 830-995-4995; www.highscafeandstore.com), where fresh soups like chicken chipotle are the specialty. With its distinctly modern, clean-lined sensibility and adjacent boutique filled with Texas coffee-table books and gourmet goods, High’s seems to have been dropped down from another planet.
Long weekend: Spend two nights in San Antonio taking in the new River Walk sections, the McNay Museum, and El Mercado. The next two nights decamp to Fredericksburg to spend one day seeing Llano, Mason, and Enchanted Rock and another devoted to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park.
One week: Spend three nights in San Antonio taking in all the sites in the long weekend itinerary, along with the King William neighborhood and The Alamo. Spend four nights in Fredericksburg and add on to the long weekend itinerary
by visiting Becker Vineyards and The Salt Lick in Driftwood.
Ten days: Spend five nights in San Antonio and really dig into all the cultural and historical goodies the city has to offer, including the Mission Trail, the independent art galleries, and all the fantastic restaurants. Spend five nights in Fredericksburg and meander through Hill Country’s small towns, including Comfort. Also check out natural wonders like Hamilton Pool, and don’t miss the live music at Luckenbach.