A San Antonio river adventure your family will never forget

You remember the Alamo, don’t you? If you’re my 10-year-old daughter, and you sometimes daydream during history class, maybe not.

“Come on,” I told her as we approached the Alamo Mission’s famous gates on a warm, late spring day. “You know this place.”

“No, Dad,” she deadpanned.

San Antonio is home to more than the Alamo, the site of that historic confrontation between Texan volunteer soldiers and Mexican troops in 1836. This city is filled with other “remember me” moments, some expected, some not. The San Antonio Riverwalk, a path of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River, ties these memories together so that even a child can’t forget. And I know, because I traveled there with my three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. They’re still talking about San Antonio..

But let’s get back to the 10-year-old. Did she study American history? Yes, she did. Was she pulling my leg? Without a doubt. She knew, but what did she remember about the Alamo and the historic battle that put it on the map?

We discovered the details inside (admission is free) as we toured the church, the “wall of history” with visual depictions of the Alamo’s history, and the Long Barrack Museum. Each tells a separate part of the Alamo’s rich past. But the real draw here were the tents set up in the courtyard, where historic re-enactors explained life in the mission days.

My middle son, Iden, immediately ran to the food tent. A woman in an historically accurate dress explained how people ate in the day. Lots of corn and beans, it turns out. My daughter, who wants to become a doctor, found her way to the medical tent, where a re-enactor offered the gory facts on traumatic brain injuries and how they were treated by medical professionals back then. It was filled with lots of memorable “eeew” moments.

Something tells me they won’t forget the Alamo now.

But just in case they do, there’s the Institute of Texan Cultures, a museum operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio. It’s just a short walk from the river and the Alamo. It explores the cultural heritage of Texas, including the settlers who fought for Texas’ independence. Among the questions it tries to answer: “Why do Texans take themselves so seriously?” I’m not sure if I know the answer to that one even now.

The museum explores each immigrant group by ethnicity in a visual way that kids can understand. Among the interactive exhibits are displays that teach you how to write Chinese numbers, a section on Wendish wedding customs, and the narratives of Japanese American intern camp detainees. And, just in case you can’t make it to the Lone Star state’s other missions, the institute also has a new exhibit of artist Roberto Cardinale’s wood sculptures of Texas missions and churches. In includes highly detailed interpretations of San Antonio’s Spanish Missions, San Fernando Cathedral and El Paso’s Mission Ysleta.

The best picture opportunity at the museum is the neon Texas flag. Kids are drawn to it like a Texas-size mosquito to a hiker. Fellow fathers, get your cameras ready.

After a quick stop at Rosario’s, a local favorite, we set off to explore San Antonio’s famous Riverwalk. We’ve visited many American cities, but none comes close to having the energy and charm of the Riverwalk. If you’re having trouble picturing it, imagine a mashup of Venice, Chicago’s Miracle Mile and Manhattan’s Restaurant Row. Plus, with all the landscaping and walkways, it is visually arresting like no other city center. Sorry, Chicago.

My daughter, who strongly dislikes hiking, lost track of the fact that she’d walked almost two miles by the time we arrived at San Antonio Museum of Art. And here’s where things get really interesting. Instead of building new things, San Antonio took old factories and industrial buildings and turned them into something people wanted, like museums, apartments and hotels. The art museum is worth an all-day visit — don’t forget to check out the incredible Asian art collection on the top floors, which are easy to miss — but even more remarkable considering it used to be the site of the historic Lone Star Brewery complex.

The theme continued further down the San Antonio River, where the Pearl Brewery has been repurposed as a hotel, restaurant and entertainment complex. It’s home to the Hotel Emma, an upscale property respectfully created from a building originally designed by famed architect August Maritzen in the Second Empire style. If you take a deep breath, you can still smell traces of barley they used to store here. Talk about authentic.

The only question remaining after our river adventure was: Where will it end? For us, the final stop was a memorable dinner at Cured, housed in the Pearl brewery’s former administration building. Its menu is punctuated with organic ingredients and, as the name implies, cured foods. We had a chance to meet chef Steve McHugh, who explained the philosophy behind the food. That’s always a fascinating topic for our middle child, who loves food, in case you haven’t picked up on that. If you do nothing else, order the flatbread at Cured, which my entire family declared the best flatbread ever. Try the ice cream sandwiches for dessert, too.

But the real ending of this journey hasn’t been written yet. Plans are in the works to expand the Riverwalk, which means the next time we’re here, we might have even more to explore. I think we’re ready.

If you go …

Where to stay
For a city experience, check out the Hotel Emma. Don’t forget to head to the library for free margaritas or limeades in the evening. Or head to the hills and check in at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, a luxury hotel with perhaps the finest water park in America (and we’ve seen ’em all). If you go, put a breakfast at Cibolo Moon at the top of your to-do list.

What to do
After exploring the Riverwalk, don’t miss the Natural Bridge Caverns, thought to be the largest commercial caverns in the state. It’s a short drive from the JW Marriott and a welcome relief from the Texas heat. Temperatures in the caves are a constant 70 degrees year-round. And these are some of the most beautiful caverns we have ever seen.