A Mind-Boggling Secret

San Antonio River Walk, courtesy of wikimedia.org

When I ask some of my well-traveled friends if they’ve ever been to San Antonio, normally they say no, often asking why anyone would want to go there. It seems incredulous to me that a city with 1.4 million people, the seventh-most in the United States, also is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets, but it is indeed the case with San Antonio. Widely regarded as one of the nation’s most unique, interesting cities by residents and visitors, and with an ethnic mix that is 63.2 percent Latino, it hasn’t become the major tourist destination that one might expect—although word is spreading.

Much of the country and world has been catching glimpses of the city during breaks in the action of the NBA playoffs telecasts featuring the San Antonio Spurs, and most of these shots show The Alamo and the River Walk, one of the liveliest, most picturesque areas in the nation. The roots of the River Walk extend back to 1938, when a bond issue raised funds for the 1938 San Antonio River Beautification Project. During the next several decades, the downtown river area has been further developed, altered and extended, and now covers 2.5 miles.

San Antonio River Walk, courtesy of wikimedia.org

The River Walk, one level below the city’s streets, consists of two parallel sidewalks that wind and loop under bridges. The sidewalks are lined with restaurants and shops, most with very reasonable prices, and connect with The Alamo, Hemisfair Park, San Antonio Museum of Art, Arneson River Theatre and Rivercenter Mall, among other major tourist draws. Visitors can stroll along the River Walk or take boat taxis, tours and charters offered by Rio San Antonio Cruises.

The River Walk is used for many community gatherings, including rallies and victory celebrations for the Spurs. The major event is Fiesta San Antonio (or simply Fiesta), an annual spring festival that dates back to the late 19th century. It began as a single event to honor the memory of the battles of The Alamo and San Jacinto and now is the city’s biggest festival, with an economic impact of $284 million. More than 3 million people take part in Fiesta; they can choose from more than 100 events that take place not only at the River Walk but also in other parts of the city and beyond.

One of the main events is the Battle of Flowers Parade, which attracts crowds of more than 350,000 on the second Friday of Fiesta. It is the only parade in the United States produced entirely by women, all of whom are volunteers. The women, dressed on parade day in yellow and wearing yellow hats, direct operations with the assistance of the Army National Guard. The parade originated in 1891, when local women decorated baby buggies, carriages and bicycles with live flowers, met in front of the Alamo and then threw the blossoms at each other. The event was a success and soon became an annual event. Soon, public balls, parties and a carnival were added, and the event became successively known as Carnival, Spring Carnival, Fiesta San Jacinto and finally, in 1960, Fiesta San Antonio.

Fiesta might be the best time to visit San Antonio, but the city’s many attractions and buoyant energy can be experienced year round. To read more about San Antonio and Fiesta San Antonio, look for the Texas feature in the August issue of Smart Meetings magazine.

—Dan Johnson