Not gonna lie, we really miss travel. After going from a schedule of two to three trips per month to zero literally overnight on March 16, our wanderlust instantly turned to wanderimpotence.
But as things have started getting ever-so-slightly back to normal, we decided to venture out and test the waters of the San Antonio riverwalk (not literally, of course, ewww), making our weekend headquarters the incredible 22-acre Pearl district with our masks on and everyone in the Alamo City at least six feet away.
During these pandemic times, it’s comforting to know that patios can be found in abundance throughout San Antonio—and everywhere at the Pearl—making it easy to dine outdoors for added safety. Heaters and fire pits have also ignited for the season.
We have wanted to stay at Hotel Emma since before it was even completed, learning about it on our very first visit to the former Pearl Brewery site several years ago. It’s almost always sold out, so it definitely pays to book far ahead, but you never know when you might find a last-minute room available (say for a Thanksgiving week road trip).
Located on what we consider the beautiful part of the San Antonio riverwalk—the part north of the bustling, tourist-heavy section—Hotel Emma bursts with Texas chic at every turn inside its historic walls. We could easily check in and never leave the building.
There’s the gorgeous Sternewirth for cocktails in a dramatic space with 25-foot ceilings and fixtures from the brewery’s heyday. (That’s for after you enjoy a complimentary margarita after check-in in the guests-only library). Supper, meanwhile can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch or dinner. (You simply must get the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.) There’s also a nice pool and plenty of public spaces (many by roaring fires) throughout the building for sitting a spell and people-watching to your heart’s content.
Rooms here are exquisite, with dramatically high ceilings and many of the structure’s original elements kept intact, all blending seamlessly with modern design and comforts from the cozy four-poster beds to the spacious walk-in showers that could easily host a small group function. Make sure to purchase some of the lavender bath products to take home, too. We’ve never enjoyed washing our hands so often.
Best of all, should you actually decide to leave your room, there’s plenty to do within walking distance or a very short drive or ride share. Or simply call room service and shelter in a different place.
EAT & DRINK
Some people enjoy mimosas for brunch, but we have fallen in love with tequila—in croissant form. Luckily, La Panadería offers both. Visit either the original Alamo Heights location or check out the downtown outpost, just a short drive or scenic 30-minute walk from Hotel Emma. They have a full brunch menu available every day, which is great if you’re visiting mid-week. Try the signature tequila almond croissant with your coffee then transition to a savory ranchero eggs Benedictine or a chorizo-and-egg breakfast sandwich. Sandwiches during lunch are amazing, too. Of course, we also recommend a box of pastries for the drive back to Dallas (if they last that long).
Southerleigh Haute South & Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery
Tex-Mex may rule the dining scene in San Antonio, but the city also boasts superb examples of nearly any type of cuisine imaginable. If you find yourself in need of some major retail therapy, take a drive to The Rim where you’ll find pretty much anything you could ever need—including delectable fried chicken and seafood at Southerleigh Haute South. A vast selection of fresh oysters make a great beginning (along with one of several cocktails on tap) before settling in with some delightfully spicy pimento and beer cheese queso loaded with pulled rotisserie chicken and served with housemade potato chips. If you can’t decide between chicken and seafood, order a sampling of each. The gulf coast seafood basket and a half bird with sides offer more than enough food for three to four people to share. Because you’ll want to save room for their insanely decadent fried hand pies.
Tip: If you’re looking to stay closer to your Pearl home base, there’s a Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery right in the complex, serving many of the same dishes, plus steaks, pork schnitzel and meatloaf.
Crawl out of bed and across the grassy plaza at Pearl and snag a patio seat with a view of all the high-energy activity taking place around you. This charming French bakery specializes in macarons, pastries and breads, so you know it’s a great place for breakfast or brunch. We devoured the decadent croque madame and smoked salmon on an everything croissant, while still managing to make room for chocolate and almond croissants. If you’re a late sleeper, don’t worry, they’ve got you covered for lunch, too, with sandwiches ranging from traditional ham and cheese on baguette to a hot and juicy Texas angus patty melt with frites. And just like La Panadería, make it a point to get some treats to-go.
Chef Johnny Hernandez has a trio of fab restaurants in SA, but this one gets highest marks on this trip because there’s a location right at the Pearl. Specializing in Mexican street food, you’ll find an affordable menu of tacos, tortas, ceviches and our personal favorite—queso fundido, available in three different preparations. Plenty of outdoor seating, views of the river and good stiff drinks all add to the appeal.
Down on Grayson
Each night of our short weekend stay, we ended up at this beautiful outdoor space right on the edge of the Pearl district. On each occasion, we’d already eaten so much that we came to end the night on a high note with a cocktail and conversation around a fire pit—also great for social distancing if you want to meet up with friends. They close fairly early (10:00 p.m. weeknights and 11:00 p.m. on weekends), so don’t wait too long to grab your nightcap.
We discovered this place purely by accident, but what a happy accident it was. This Mexican import has dramatically reduced the economic stress of eating and drinking out by offering a menu of tacos, burritos, tostadas, subs, mini burgers, cocktails and beers (including micheladas and clamatos), each for the exact same price: $3. THREE DOLLARS!
When we were invited to take part in this immersive art experience, we fully expected “just another Instagram selfie place.” But wow, were we wrong. This LGBT-owned venue takes interactivity to new, joy-inducing heights. The permanent, 20,000-square-foot gallery features 14 immersive, interactive installations from more than 40 artists that will change over time. In some cases, your movements control the artwork. In others, you become part of the art. The VR Yourself room (pictured above), puts you in the spotlight to dance before being randomized on a giant screen for everyone else to enjoy. There’s also a room of secrets where you can record a deep, dark confession into a phone booth on one side of the room before venturing to the opposite wall to listen to the secrets of visitors before you. Every room offers something unique, and it’s possible to enjoy each with a cocktail procured from the bar upon entering (and, of course, another one after exiting).
San Antonio Museum of Art
Located a very short walk from Hotel Emma, this riverwalk-adjacent museum makes for a perfect respite from a day of eating and drinking (especially during the summer months when the air-conditioning makes us appreciate art more than ever). The Latin American Popular Art Collection is one of the best anywhere. There’s also Tre Trattoria, an Italian cafe with tranquil balcony views of the lesser-traveled section of the riverwalk.
The San Antonio Riverwalk
Of course, we can’t ever write about San Antonio without a mention of the number-one tourist attraction in the state of Texas. As we mentioned before, we’re less fans of the busier, chain-restaurant-packed riverwalk section downtown (we call it San Antonio’s Bourbon Street) than we are the northern stretches where the crowds disappear and nature takes over. But anyone visiting for the first time should experience all sections of the riverwalk and make their own determination. Holiday lights are in full effect now, too, so book a cruise on the river to see them or take a stroll at your leisure. Your social media photos albums will thank you.
To explore everything there is to do in San Antonio before your trip, check out the official Visit San Antonio website at visitsanantonio.com.