River Walk, San Antonio (Cruising the Riverwalk photo by Bob Howen & visitsanantonio.com)
San Antonio’s River Walk, Austin’s SoCo capture each city’s essenceThey’re two of the hottest meetings cities in the nation, located just 90 miles apart in the same state. But this surge of popularity has happened so suddenly that many planners are still becoming acquainted with the outstanding features of each city. San Antonio and Austin have been shooting up the national rankings in many categories—and in some cases, reached the very top. In November San Antonio topped SmartAsset’s list of Best U.S. Cities for Conferences (Austin was sixth) and in December, Forbes rated Austin No. 1 on its Next Biggest Boom Towns in the U.S. list (San Antonio was fourth). Both cities have been experiencing robust growth in practically all areas, but have retained their unique identities as they’ve added new features to the mix. “San Antonio is a unique destination woven through 300 years of history, as well as cultural and economic development,” says Casandra Matej, executive director of San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. “What sets us apart is that we have preserved our history and cultural identity while growing to become the nation’s seventh-largest city.” This can be vividly seen—and experienced—at San Antonio River Walk (Paseo del Rio), a network of waterways along the banks of the river. Lined by restaurants, bars and shops, the River Walk is a vital part of the city’s urban fabric and a major tourist attraction. Since 1939, when it was first developed, the River Walk has gone through several expansions and transformations. Austin doesn’t have one particular area that is as central to its identity as the River Walk is to San Antonio, but it boasts a hopping downtown area and some unique streets—including South Congress Avenue, Sixth Street and Rainey Street—that have a rich history and continue to thrive. South Congress Avenue, often referred to as “The Main Street of Texas,” is located one-half mile south of the Colorado River. One stretch of the avenue perhaps best embraces the spirit and essence of Austin and its slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” The area oozes with homespun character and captures the feeling of the city’s yesteryear in its boutiques and eateries, all with a modern—and often eccentric—twist. Like the River Walk, South Congress has undergone recent transformations that make it an even more attractive area for visitors. These areas reveal much about the character of their respective cities and are must-see destinations for meeting groups.
San Antonio’s River Walk
Mariachi performance at Fiesta San Antonio (photo by visitsanantonio.com)It’s virtually impossible to overestimate the significance of the River Walk to San Antonio. “Not only does it connect so much of what we are known for—including great restaurants, Spanish Colonial missions, hotels, boutiques and artisan shops, museums and outdoor adventures,” Matej says. “It also provides a fantastic landscape for meetings and leisure travelers, which has made tourism one of the city’s largest economic sectors. It’s one of San Antonio’s most identifiable attractions. “Along its banks, people, culture and traditions converge to create a very distinct sense of place for visitors and locals alike.” A recently completed $358.3 million project lengthened the River Walk from 3 to 15 miles. The Museum Reach effort connects downtown with museums, cultural districts and the historic Pearl neighborhood. The largest ecosystem restoration in an urban area, Mission Reach links the original River Walk to four Spanish Colonial missions in South San Antonio. Hiking and biking trails now are available along the river.
Eat & Drink
Food preparation at Supper restaurant, San Antonio (photo by Jody Horton)The River Walk features a wide variety of international cuisine, from traditional to cutting edge. It’s hard to describe the satisfying feeling of sitting at a table at the Texas bistro Boudro’s along the riverbank while sipping a prickly pear margarita and enjoying a tableside guacamole presentation. The Pearl, a cool urban district that formerly housed Pearl Brewery, features 15 chef-driven restaurants and cafes, including The Granary ’Cue & Brew, Green, Cured, Il Sogno Osteria and La Gloria. Groups looking for high-end cuisine often opt for Biga on the Banks, featuring New American cuisine. New restaurants frequently open on the River Walk. Last year’s highlights include Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, which offers 10 beers brewed onsite and seafood boils with Gulf Coast catches. Also, Supper, a restaurant focusing on seasonally fresh green-market-cuisine, opened at Hotel Emma, a new property.
San Antonio Museum of Art (photo by visitsanantonio)The River Walk is the central gathering place in San Antonio. Most annual fairs, festivals and celebrations either take place on—or involve—the main stretch of the river, including the not-to-be missed Fiesta San Antonio, which attracts 3.5 million people each April. The 11-day party, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, features constant fun, including float parades and other special events on the river. Arneson River Theatre, located in La Villita Historic Arts Village, is one of the focal points of Fiesta, as well as the site of other events year-round. Located right on the river, the outdoor theater hosts music, dance and theater performances, among other things. No trip to the city is complete without a Rio San Antonio Cruises river tour or rio taxi ride, which makes 39 stops along the River Walk. The narrated tours last 35 minutes and a 10 percent discount is given to groups of more than 25 that buy tickets online. Rio San Antonio Cruises also offers dinner excursions that seat 20 guests and include a meal catered by one of the many great restaurants along the river; cocktail cruises for up to 30 guests featuring appetizers and drinks catered by River Walk restaurants; and chartered tours for up to 40 people that include a narrated history of the River Walk. Thanks to Museum Reach, several intriguing museums now can be easily accessed. The Briscoe Western Art Museum preserves the rich art, history and culture of the American West through engaging exhibitions, educational programs and public events. San Antonio Museum of Art contains large collections of ancient Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American works. The Witte Museum is the city’s premier museum for natural science, South Texas heritage and science. It is in the midst of a $100 million project that will include 100,000 sq. ft. of renovations and expansion of the main building, as well as a new facility for special exhibitions and events. Group tours can be arranged at all three museums. San Antonio’s five Spanish Colonial missions have just been collectively named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Four of them, comprising San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, can be accessed from the River Walk. Located just off the River Walk in the downtown area, HemisFair Park is undergoing a 37-acre redevelopment project that will feature new, independent tenants including a coffee shop, paleteria (Mexican ice pop shop), brewery and cafe. Yanaguana Garden, the first phase of the project, opened in October, featuring a 4.1-acre play area for people of all ages.
Rivercenter MallEstablished in 1939, La Villita Historic Arts Village became a center for teaching regional arts and crafts, and featured an artists’ market. Today, nearly 30 shops and galleries offer distinct handcrafted items—including paintings, folk art, textiles, sculptures, copper wares and jewelry—by artists from San Antonio and surrounding areas. Rivercenter Mall, located on the River Walk, houses 100 retailers, including six restaurants, and the 1,001-room San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter hotel. The mall has undergone a multimillion-dollar transformation, providing an additional 720,000 sq. ft. of retail space.
Austin’s South Congress Avenue
South Congress Avenue, AustinJust a few years ago, South Congress Avenue businesses were struggling and the area was a bit seedy. Now the part of South Congress stretching from the Colorado River to around West Annie Street is one of Austin’s most eclectic and vibrant areas, a place where traditional Western-wear stores somehow harmoniously blend with organic food suppliers, and where celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett often hang out. “It may be only one stretch of road, but South Congress stands out as a vibrant Austin neighborhood—enough so that it’s earned its own nickname,” says Shilpa Bakre, senior communications manager for Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. “‘SoCo’ is jam-packed with restaurants, bars, boutiques and music venues, as well as an eclectic group of trucks and street vendors, making it a standout destination for both business and leisure visitors.” The area offers a sweeping view of downtown, including the state capitol. It also is walking distance from the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, a 10-mile gravel pathway that passes beautiful natural settings as it circles Lady Bird Lake.
Eat & DrinkSouth Congress features a diverse, exciting array of restaurants and bars. With its unusual name, Hopdoddy Burger Bar attracts interest even before groups step in the door. The name stems from the handcrafted beer (hop) served and the nickname given to the native cow (doddy) in Aberdeen, Scotland. South Congress Cafe, housed in a 1940s building that originally was a drug store, melds the exotic and the familiar. It features wild boar, venison and quail, as well as specialty steaks and distinctive, fresh salads. Jo’s Coffee features tacos, sandwiches, great coffee and live music on the weekends. But it may be best known for its plain green exterior wall with “i love you so much” handwritten on it. In 2010, local musician Amy Cook took a can of red spray paint to convey her love to partner Liz Lambert, majority owner at Jo’s. People began flocking to the wall, taking photos with friends and lovers alike, and posting them online. The postings quickly went viral and remain popular today. The SoCo strip also is known for its food trucks. Burro Cheese Kitchen serves artisan grilled cheese sandwiches with fancy ingredients such as almond pesto aioli and spicy maple bacon sauce. Ms. P’s Electric Cock offers arguably the best fried chicken in Austin, created by a two-step brining process that includes fresh herbs and 12 spices. One of Austin’s original food trailers, Hey Cupcake! offers moist, traditional cupcakes with creamy and sweet icing—and some unusual names, such as Coco Loco and Michael Jackson.
Bats above Congress Avenue Bridge, AustinOn the first Thursday of each month, all of the stores along SoCo from Barton Springs Road to Elizabeth Street stay open later than usual. During First Thursday, some restaurants and bars have drink specials, many stores have special sales, artists’ markets pop up and music can be heard throughout the area. It’s like one big block party, Austin style. A highly unusual and immensely popular event, Bat Fest ATX, is held annually and features 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from under the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk, three stages with live music, more than 75 arts and crafts vendors, food and drink, a bat costume contest and other bat activities. The event is slated for Aug. 20, but the bat flight, featuring the world’s largest bat colony, can be observed every summer night around sunset. Another unique SoCo feature is sculptures that also serve as bike racks. In 2013, the City of Austin Art in Public Places program and the Downtown Austin Alliance installed two artist-designed bike racks on Congress Avenue. One, Stem Rack by Ann Armstrong, located at 111 Congress, depicts two vertical steel “stems” rising up from the sidewalk, both ending in a singular leaf. Gear Grove by Ben Harman, at 816 Congress, uses recycled bike parts to form three spires connected by supports reminiscent of bicycle crossbars. Sweets lovers can’t seem to get enough of Big Top Candy Shop, which offers virtually every type of candy imaginable—and even some that are unimaginable. Besides more than 300 varieties of bulk candy and some 2,000 kinds of wrapped candy, the shop features an old-fashioned soda fountain and humorous circus-themed decor.
Yard Dog Art Gallery, AustinYard Dog Art Gallery is an unconventional gallery that shows work by a broad range of artists from the United States and Canada. When the gallery opened in 1995, it featured folk and outsider art from the Deep South. The gallery quickly began adding work by other artists whose pieces fit in aesthetically with the existing art. Several of the artists featured are internationally known musicians, as well. Artists represented include Jon Langford, Tom Russell, Tony Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Harrison, Brad Ruppert and Sundie Ruppert.
Uncommon Objects, AustinEstablished in 1991 as a small antique collective, Uncommon Objects now is a unique emporium of transcendent junk. Its 24 vendors offer a quirky and eclectic array of antiques, including jewelry, taxidermy, gadgets and toys. An Austin tradition since 1977, Allens Boots features thousands of boots, packed from floor to ceiling and for every occasion. Groups will want to check out the Wall of Fame, with pictures of famous people who bought boots at the shop. Dubbed “Woodstock Meets Las Vegas” by a local writer, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds and Electric Ladyland is an 8,000-square-foot emporium crammed to the ceiling with costumes, masks, wigs, props, makeup, decorations, hats, shoes, boots, jewelry, boas, glitz and gaud. It boasts a carnival-like atmosphere and an eclectic mix of shoppers. Bob Dylan reportedly shopped there for retro outfits.