A sense of magic settles over the San Antonio River Walk when the holiday lights switch on in late November. Draped over the cypress trees that line each side of the river, they add a multicolored shimmer to the water as barges float by. By then, as the season’s cooler temperatures arrive, there’s nothing better than warm tamales or a mug of cinnamon-laced Mexican hot chocolate.
I was born and raised in this city of brightly colored buildings and deep Mexican roots. It’s a place that artists like Cruz Ortiz and writers like Sandra Cisneros have called home, where we still pay tribute to Selena, and where Tejano music is king. The mild fall and winter weather offers ideal conditions for exploring the city far beyond the Alamo.
Eat + Drink
The Original Donut Shop is a West Side institution, with a drive-through for those seeking a quick hit of a San Antonio staple: the humble, delicious breakfast taco. For a more elaborate morning repast, Guenther House, in the picturesque King William Historic District, serves Southern sweet cream waffles and buttermilk biscuits. Downtown’s Pearl district has established itself as a hub for diverse flavors and elevated cuisine, from chef Johnny Hernandez’s take on Mexican street food at La Gloria and the barbecue and house brews at the Granary to the inventive Southern dishes at Southerleigh. Not far from the River Walk, at Mi Tierra, dine on authentic Tex-Mex and fresh-baked pan dulce. Back on the West Side, Tellez Tamales & Barbacoa closes early, but you just know that any place that inspires customers to line up by 5 a.m. every Christmas Eve is worth a detour.
See + Do
The annual Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival, which takes place November 9 and 10, features artist-led workshops, dance performances, and artworks for sale at downtown’s Hemisfair and at Mission San José, one of four national historic sites that you can visit by biking the Mission Reach trail. In downtown’s Market Square, vendors beneath colorful papel picado sell food, handmade art, and clothing. After sunset, head to see the River Walk’s holiday lights. On November 29, the annual Ford Holiday River Parade kicks off the season with a procession of elaborately decorated river barges. The free light show at nearby San Fernando Cathedral is a prime way to cap off a weekend night. San Antonio | The Saga is a mesmerizing projection on the cathedral’s walls that details the history of the city in kaleidoscopic colors.
On the River Walk, Omni La Mansión Del Rio offers a central location, with hacienda-style Spanish architecture. For a splurge, stay at the Pearl’s Hotel Emma, a former nineteenth-century brewhouse turned boutique hotel. Farther north, La Cantera Resort & Spa provides easy access to the Shops at La Cantera, where you can get a jump on your holiday gift list.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “San Antonio Gets Into the Spirit.” Subscribe today.