As the number one tourist destination in Texas, there's more to the Alamo City, San Antonio, than, well, the Alamo. Sure, the Shrine of Texas Liberty and the enchanting downtown River Walk draw millions of visitors each year, and the venerable missions, a 10-day annual Fiesta blowout, and killer Mexican food help close the deal. But there's a surprising side to San Antonio that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. After you've seen the usual must-sees, take some time to discover a gem or two among this sparkling city's more unexpected treasures.
5…Houston, we have a museum...too.
Overheard at the new Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions: "I can't believe I'm in San Antonio!" Ouch. Backhanded compliment though it was, it's true that the Texas art world was abuzz when the McNay Art Museum completed its $50.8 million expansion in 2008 to house large-scale contemporary exhibitions in an ultra-modern state-of-the-art wing. But it shouldn't have been that surprising: In 1954 the McNay was the state's first museum of modern art with masterpieces by Renoir, Van Gogh, O'Keeffe, and Picasso.
Tucked away in the tony residential Alamo Heights neighborhood (6000 North New Braunfels, 210-824-5368), the Stieren is like the hot new roommate to the prim and proper original Spanish Colonial Revival mansion built by educator and artist Marion Koogler McNay in the 1920s. The house and grounds are a shutterbug's dream - courtyard, gazebo, pond, fountains, and sculpture garden. Admission is $8 adults, $5 students, seniors, active military; 12 and under free. Free admission on Thursday 4-9 p.m. and the first Sunday of every month.
4… Park and ride.
You can hardly believe you're in the middle of the nation's seventh largest city, what with all the water, wildlife, playgrounds, picnic tables, nature trails, and zillions of trees at Brackenridge Park, a 343-acre riverside oasis (3910 North St. Mary's Street, 210-207-7275).
First things first: Park at the main lot across from the San Antonio Zoo and climb aboard the Eagle miniature train ($2.75 adults; $2.25 ages 3-11, under 3, free) for a scenic two-mile ride around the park. Hop off at the Japanese Tea Garden stop and climb the hill to find yourself overlooking stone bridges, lush gardens, winding paths, a 60-foot waterfall, and a koi pond. You can walk back to your car from there, and - still in the park - go to the Witte Museum of Natural History (3802 Broadway, 210-357-1900) for a look at dinosaur skeletons, cave drawings, mummies, and historic log homes ($8 adults, $7 seniors, $6 ages 4-11; 3 and under free). End your perfect day with chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, green beans, and Texas toast ($8.25) at Good Time Charlie's Bar and Cafe (2922 Broadway, 210-828-5392).
3… Theatre under the stars.
In the category of you've-got-to-see-this-to-believe-it, the opulent 80-year-old Majestic Theatre (majesticempire.org) is in a class by itself (224 E. Houston Street, 210-226-3333). From the outdoor box office kiosk to the 1920s bronze statue "Sweet Grapes" at the entrance, it just gets more over-the-top from there. One of the country's few remaining atmospheric theatres is as much of a show as any of the Broadway touring companies or musical acts that perform there. Get there well ahead of curtain to explore every ornate detail in the Mediterranean-inspired architecture and decor. Take a ride on the shiver-inducing (but perfectly safe) big old elevator to the mezzanine and balconies with a friendly, knowledgeable attendant. During the show, you won't be able to resist stargazing at the mesmerizing twinkling "sky" with its drifting, dreamy clouds. Afterwards, cross the street for tasty pastries at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel Bakery (205 E. Houston Street, 210-224-0363), then walk them off at the famed River Walk, around the corner and down the stairs 20 feet below street level.
2… Tour the King of 'Hoods.
The heart of downtown may hold the original San Antonio ("La Villita"), but the city's first historic district lies to the south - the gracious King William residential area settled in the late 1800s by German immigrants boasting Victorian, Italianate, and Greek Revival architecture. First, pick up a walking tour map from the San Antonio Conservation Society (107 King William, 210-224-6163). Two highlights: The Steves Homestead (509 King William, 210-225-5924) with daily tours ($6, 12 and under free) of the elegant Victorian mansion; and the Oge House Bed & Breakfast (209 Washington Street, 210-223-2353).
Okay, you've gone long enough without Mexican food, so head over to nearby Rosario's (910 South Alamo Street, 210-223-1806) for some of the best in the city – try the cheese-filled Enchiladas Mexicanas ($6.95 lunch) or the Pescada Veracruz ($11.95, dinner), tilapia laced with jalapenos, capers, olives, tomatoes, and onions. While in Southtown, stop in at San Angel Folk Art (110 Blue Star, 210-226-5588), for eye-popping paintings, metal work, ceramics, and textiles from Mexico, Latin America, Europe, and Africa.
1… Get out of (down)town.
If you don't have time for a jaunt to the fabled Texas Hill Country, soak up the atmosphere at one of the resorts on the northwest outskirts of town. A straightforward drive from city center puts you practically at the doorsteps of Six Flags Fiesta Texas (down the road from the Westin La Cantera Resort near IH10 and Loop 1604), or the country's biggest Sea World (across Highway 151 from the Hyatt Hill Country Resort). While the young 'uns are screaming their guts out on roller coasters, pack in a round of golf at the Palmer Course (Westin) or the Arthur Hills-designed course (Hyatt), both open to the public (the new J.W. Marriott mega-resort opens in January with the PGA-tour TPC San Antonio for members and guests only). Near Six Flags, The Shops at La Cantera have everything from Nordstrom's and Neiman Marcus to BabyGap. And because it is Texas, after all, even the most fabulous places are never stuffy, so don't be shy about stopping by Francesca's at Sunset restaurant at the Westin for a glass of wine (around $8-$14) as the sun sinks slowly behind the hills, or find a patio or window facing west and watch it for free.