Out of Town - San Antonio, Texas

Although it draws more visitors than any other city in Texas, San Antonio has always been a little less pronounced as a gay destination than Austin, Dallas, and Houston. This is changing, however, as the city’s reputation for innovative arts, distinctive dining, hip boutique hotels, gay-friendly B&Bs, and friendly but lively GLBT nightlife has grown tremendously over the past decade. The tried-and-true, family-friendly classic attractions are still here: raucous theme parks, the glittery River Walk, and — of course — the Alamo. But now you’ll also find emerging arts districts and chef-owned restaurants specializing in everything from Belgian bistro fare to haute Nuevo Latino cuisine.

The city has made a concerted effort in recent years to reach out to gay visitors — note that the San Antonio tourism office has an LGBT section on its website (www.visitsanantonio.com/visitors/SanAntoniosLGBTScene/index.aspx).

Downtown San Antonio has been carefully protected by a zealous spirit of historic preservation. At the turn of the century, concerned local citizens fought developers bent on converting the Alamo into a hotel. Similar efforts led to the restoration of the city’s other iconic landmark, the San Antonio River, with its enchanting River Walk.

Only a fraction of the original Spanish Colonial mission known popularly as the Alamo stands today: the small chapel whose facade has come to symbolize the pride and independence of Texas, and one of the living quarters. The buildings are set within a tranquil walled plaza of lawns and gardens. It’s one of five missions built along the San Antonio River during the 18th century. The other four, which are south of downtown within 6 miles of one another, have been preserved and are open to the public. Stop by the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park for details.

Steps from the Alamo you’ll find the fabled River Walk, a network of cobbled and flagstone paths hugging the San Antonio River some 15 feet below street level. The branches of cypress and willow trees droop over the walk. During the day it makes for a peaceful stroll, and river taxis offer tours that provide an excellent sense of the architecture and greenery. Recently, the River Walk has been extended to the historic Pearl Brewing Complex, which has been converted to a dashing mixed-use complex of condos, studios, restaurants, shops, and branches of Aveda Institute and the Culinary Institute of America - there’s also a farmers market here on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

Between downtown and the Pearl, you’ll find the San Antonio Museum of Art, which inhabits the former Lone Star brewery and is famous for its Asian works and arguably the nation’s premier collection of Latin American art. If you have a car, it’s worth continuing north to such notable attractions as the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Tea Gardens, the San Antonio Zoological Gardens and Aquarium, and the McNay Art Museum (which doubled in size following a sleek and eye-catching expansion $50 million expansion in 2009). And on the city’s true outskirts, there’s fun to be had at Schlitterbahn Waterpark, Seaworld of Texas, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

A few blocks south of downtown, HemisFair Park contains the remnants of the 1968 World’s Fair attractions, including the 750-foot Tower of the Americas and several museums. Be sure to check out La Villita, a nearby complex of more than two dozen arts and crafts shops, as well as downtown’s impressive new Briscoe Western Art Museum. Continue south to reach the King William Historic District, where many of San Antonio’s early German immigrants settled and built elaborate Victorian mansions (one particular ornate one, the Edward Steves Homestead, is open for tours). It’s adjacent to the more modest but increasingly hip Southtown area, which buzzes with funky shops, galleries, and restaurants.

San Antonio emergence into a first-rate culinary destination has been rapid of late. It’s still worth considering classics like Paesanos (http://www.paesanosriverwalk.com), a festive Northern Italian trattoria on the River Walk, and elegant Biga on the Banks (http://www.biga.com), one of the first restaurants in town to earn praise for truly daring contemporary regional cuisine.

In Southtown, Azuca (http://www.azuca.net) is an airy space decorated with the colorful glass art (blown next door at Garcia Glass studio) and serving terrific Nuevo Latino fare, from ceviche to plantain-crusted salmon with olive-garlic butter. There’s live Latin music and dancing many evenings. A few steps away, La Frite (http://www.lafritesa.com) is known for hearty but sophisticated Belgian bistro fare, such as frisee salad with bacon lardons, and mussels prepared in several different ways. It’s a sophisticated storefront spot with closely spaced tables and a fun vibe. San Antonio’s famed (and gay-popular) Liberty Bar (http://www.liberty-bar.com) moved to Southtown in 2010 and remains a fine option for crab cakes, salads, and excellent cheese plates. Nearby in King William, Madhatters (http://www.madhatterstea.com ) draws a “who’s who” of local characters for coffee, beer, wine, conversation, and great food.

Southtown is also home to one of the better Tex-Mex option in San Antonio, Rosario’s (http://www.rosariossa.com0, a loud and spacious joint with live music on weekends, and such tasty dishes as chorizo quesadillas and steak ranchera topped with poblano peppers. Other reliably good bets for traditional Mexican food include La Fonda on Main (http://www.lafondaonmain.com), which is close to the gay nightlife district; El Milagrito (http://elmilagritocafe.com), a colorful and affordable spot on the hip St. Mary’s Strip, and Mi Tierra Cafe, in the touristy but fun Mercado, where you can find vendors selling roasted corn and shops carrying Mexican arts and crafts. If nothing else, come to Mi Tierra (http://www.mitierracafe.com) to admire the long case of delicious colorful cookies and sweets — it’s open 24/7.

Other restaurants of note around the city include downtown’s romantic Fig Tree (http://www.figtreerestaurant.com), which has outdoor seating on a stepped terrace that descends toward the River Walk, and the trendy and lively Zinc Wine Bar (http://zincwine.com), a downtown hot spot with great food and vino. Il Sogno (http://www.pearlbrewery.com) is one of the culinary draws at the Pearl Brewery Complex, serving superb modern Italian fare. Right around the corner, Josephine Street Cafe (http://www.josephinestcafe.com) serves steaks and fresh seafood in a historic storefront.

Other casual, affordable spots include Luther’s (http://www.lutherscafe.com), which is right across from several gay bars and has ample outdoor seating and tasty sandwiches, burgers, and salads; and Lulu’s Bakery & Cafe (http://www.luluscafeinsa.com), just south of the gay bar district, in a retro space and serving filling comfort food (hearty chicken-fried steaks) and pies. A longtime staple of the gay community, W. D. Deli (http://www.wddeli.com) is a cheerful spot with the best chicken tortilla soup around, and healthy sandwiches (try the turkey-avocado wrap) and salads. Finally, just north of downtown, Candlelight Coffeehouse (http://www.candlelightsa.com) is the perfect blend of a wine bar, cafe, and rainy-day hangout. In good weather enjoy the lushly landscaped patio.

San Antonio has about a dozen gay bars of note, one of which is downtown’s long-running (and enormous) Bonham Exchange (http://www.bonhamexchange.net), lovingly nicknamed the “Bottom Exchange.” It’s a high-energy club drawing a mostly gay bunch along with quite a few straights for hot dancing. Most of city’s other well-frequented bars are clustered along North Main Avenue, less than a 10-minute drive from downtown. Here you’ll find the pulsing dance club Heat (http://www.heatsa.com), which is jammed nightly with buff-bodied revelers, and The Saint, known for arguably the best drag shows in Texas.

Other North Main options include Pegasus, a convivial video bar with a volleyball court and patio out back, and Sparky’s Pub (http://www.sparkyspub.com), an English-style tavern in the space formerly occupied by Silver Dollar Saloon, a gay tejano and country club that’s moved just a few blocks north to an expansive new locale. Nearby, the Electric Company is a friendly neighborhood spot with a lesbian following, and the Annex is a rugged, cruisy bar with a leather-and-Levi’s following.

San Antonio has a wonderful mix of inviting accommodations, from quaint gay-friendly B&Bs to chic “designer” hotels to historic grande dames. Among gay-owned options, the lovely Ayres Inn (www.1908ayresinn.com) occupies a historic home with five smartly furnished rooms with a mix of contemporary and classic pieces, plus flat-screen TVs and L’Occitane bath products. This gay-owned property is one of the most romantic in town.

A marvelous boutique hotel set inside a 1914 Mediterranean Revival former boarding school, the 28-room Havana Riverwalk Inn (http://www.havanasanantonio.com) captures the sophisticated sensibility of 1920s Paris along with the romance of vintage Cuba. It’s on one of the less noisy stretches of the River Walk. The sleek and contemporary Westin Riverwalk (http://www.starwoodhotels.com) is centrally located, has spacious rooms (request one with a River Walk view), and an excellent restaurant, Zocca.

Hotel Contessa (http://www.thehotelcontessa.com) draws raves for its palatial rooms with floor-to-ceiling river views, 12-story atrium lobby, and friendly staff. The Mokara Hotel (http://www.mokarahotels.com), formerly known as the Watermark, occupies a former saddlery and has 99 of the snazziest rooms in the state, as well as a state-of-the-art spa and superb dining in its Ostra restaurant. Finally, looking more West Hollywood than Central Texas, the uber-hip Hotel Valencia (http://www.valenciagroup.com) provides a strikingly contemporary contrast to the historic downtown blocks that surround it. There may not be a sexier room in the city than the Valencia’s V Bar — definitely plan to toast your visit with a cocktail in this vibrant lounge.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com

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