San Antonio River Walk a Downtown Gem

Newcomers to San Antonio are fascinated by the sight of a little green river snaking through the bustling business district. There it is, 20 feet below street level, framed on either side by a paradise of cypress trees, banana plants, crepe myrtle, palms, willows, caladiums, and ivy.

The river’s dim, murky past is all but forgotten as million of visitors each year make the River Walk – or the Paseo del Rio, as it is commonly known – the city’s leading tourist attraction. Ultra-modern office complexes continue to spring up throughout the river’s 21-block area, but the gentle river meanders along, creating a charming and secluded world of its own in a city of more than a million people.

It is in the bend of the river, in the center of downtown, that the pace picks up. This spot is a favorite of natives and tourists alike. Tempting fare such as chicken-friend steaks, beer-battered shrimp, fried catfish, and Mexican delicacies like enchiladas and chile rellenos, to name a few, can be enjoyed in settings ranging from a sidewalk cafe to an elegant restaurant, backed by the sounds of everything from Mexican mariachis to a country-western group to a Dixieland jazz band.

The cultural amalgamation of the River Walk is best reflected in its food. You can be sampling an appetizer of nachos with a pitcher of margaritas one minute and digging into a meal of Texas-sized sirloin and German beer the next. Pastas and pastries, continental cuisine and German sauerkraut – there’s something for everyone on the River Walk.

There’s also someone for everyone, it seems. With its gently flowing water and sidewalk cafes, the spot is a favorite romantic idyll for honeymooners past, present, and future. Above all, the River Walk is a people place. Visitors from all over the world become neighbors for a time as they pass each other in barges, or waving to one another at neighboring restaurants.

“People who wouldn’t dream of talking to each other at street level will strike up a conversation down here,” commented one River Walk boutique owner. “I’ve had customers in here from out of state discover that they live within 20 miles of each other back home, and then go off to have lunch together.”

Tourists are particularly enchanted with the Arneson River Theatre. The theatre’s stage is on one side of the river, and the grass-covered “bleachers” seating up to 1,000 are on the other. People on river barges often become part of the audience as they glide by on the water that separates the stage from the audience. During the summer, Fiesta Noche del Rio is a lively showcase of Mexican song and dance that has been delighting audiences for decades.

Strangely enough, the river wasn’t always the source of pride to San Antonians that it is today. After a devastating flood in 1921, city officials considered filling in the river bends with concrete, until a small but vocal group of conservationists fought to save it. By 1929, the river that had irrigated the five 18th century Spanish missions that were to eventually evolve into the city of San Antonio had degenerated into such an ugly health hazard that there was talk of hiding it beneath a highway and converting it to an underground sewer.

It took a visionary architect in 1938 named Robert H. H. Hugman, who dreamed of what the San Antonio River could become, to turn the tide. Supported by a group of citizens who recognized the unlimited aesthetic possibilities of a downtown River Walk, sketches were made and plans were drawn up. The plans showed curving flights of steps leading down from every street bridge to a River Walk lined with flowers, trees, and shrubs, and a string of shops beside the water. The idea was to transform the river into a Venetian-type canal with the ambience of Old Spain in a unique and multicultural combination it retains to this day.

Because of San Antonio’s mild climate, the city’s love affair with the River Walk is a year round pastime. People travel from everywhere to stroll down the picturesque sidewalks and float leisurely on barges that feature guides explaining the river’s rich history.

With year-round art shows, band concerts, festivals, dance performances, the River Walk comes alive with more than 11 major special events each year, sponsored by the Paseo del Rio Association in conjunction with business and civic groups throughout the city. Partygoers turn out by the thousands to eat, drink, and be merry during celebrations from January through December.

If you have to pick only one time of year to see the River Walk at its best – you can’t. You have to pick two! Fiesta Week and the holidays are the two must-sees at this captivating spot that will leave you raving to your friends about this delightful destination:

First, Fiesta Week. Have you ever seen a parade where the floats really float? The 10-day celebration in April features one the most beautiful sights to behold that week – the River Parade. Thousands of residents and visitors stake out their places along the River Walk to ooh and aah over dozens of lighted barges that wind their way along the parade route. The festive event is called the King’s River Parade in honor of “King Antonio” and his make-believe court, chosen each year to preside over the festivities. More than 150 separate events entertain a city that’s more than ready to put everything on hold and party hearty.

The River Parade is truly one of the week’s most stunning sights as a sparkling lineup of barges make their way through downtown San Antonio representing nearly 100 organizations and corporations. Barges from businesses, civic groups, the arts, social service agencies and more are strung with lights and flowers and occupied by the usual array of parade staples – brilliantly costumed singers, dancers, clowns, beauty queens, and an occasional VIP and celebrity waving to the crowds on either side of the river.

Music covers the full scale – everything from footstomping flamenco to symphony classics, from mariachi bands to country-western combos.

The custom of sending a parade up the river began in 1941, soon after a group of San Antonians took a trip to Mexico City which included a visit to Xochimilco, the famed “floating gardens” near the capitol. The flower-covered boats and barges gave the travelers the idea to introduce King Antonio in style, overseeing the festivities from his very own barge in the first river parade that same year.

Today, tens of thousands of volunteer hours go into the making of the two-hour River Parade, which is viewed by another half-million or so on area television. The viewers at home do have one advantage – they don’t have to scramble for that last grassy spot from which to enjoy the view. Others watch the parade in high style from one of the several elegant hotels along the River Walk that have rooms with a river view. Reservations are needed at least a year in advance for these coveted spots, and no wonder: You can have dinner and drinks sent up to your room, push a few chairs out onto the balcony, grab a frosty margarita or cold beer, and watch the parade float by.

As spectacular as Fiesta Week is, many visitors prefer to visit the River Walk during a cooler time (for Texas, that is) – the holidays. From Thanksgiving weekend to New Year’s Day, there are few sights as dazzling as the downtown River Walk. If you’re lucky enough to visit during this time, you’re in for a treat. The River Walk takes on a special glitter with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights that cast a magical spell. And yes, there’s another River Parade, this one on the Friday after Thanksgiving when the giant tree in front of the Alamo is lit up to signal the beginning of the holiday season. The fun continues as shoppers, diners, and visitors are entertained by carolers and mariachis singing holiday favorites each evening from floating barges.

As if zillions of tree-strung lights weren’t enough, the Fiesta de las Luminarias (Festival of Lights) adds the soft glow of thousands of candles along the sidewalks lining the River Walk. This tradition continues one started in the 1500s representing the lighting of the way to Bethlehem. Another living tradition is Las Posadas, a re-enactment of the Holy Family’s search for shelter. The poignant, song-filled procession winds its way along the River Walk and ends at the Arneson River Theatre.

Shoppers looking for those last-minute gifts can browse among the River Walk’s assortment of shops and booths featuring handmade arts and crafts along with quality goods from every corner of the world.

Residents are truly spoiled by the riches of the River Walk, and sometimes take for granted what countless visitors come to enjoy and marvel at. The lovely spot has become so much a part of the life of San Antonio residents that some natives can recall growing up under the impression that every city had it’s a River Walk of its own. Amid today’s enthralled tourists and loyal residents are echoes of past San Antonians’ triumphs in the river’s long history. First, the victory of the 1920 conservationists who rescued it, then the vision of architects and civil leaders in the 1960s who created the River Walk’s business community, right up to today with ongoing improvements, new hotels, exciting restaurants, and colorful shops. But beyond the history, the legends, the ghosts from the past and the plans for the future, there remains the River Walk’s most lasting legacy – its enduring and indefinable charm.

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