Dine & Play Along the San Antonio River Walk

Start with a wholesome breakfast in an old mansion, then amble up to museums, shopping centers, restaurants, and missions.Read More

Stretching some 15 miles, the San Antonio River Walk is the centerpiece of the city. (Source: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone)

San Antonio has an urban charm that often goes unnoticed. Perhaps that’s little surprise – given all that Texas and its many cities have to offer. But we are partial to San Antonio; it has a young, energetic vibe; its restaurant and shopping scenes are top-notch; and there’s always something to do – indoor and outdoor. In fact, one of our favorite activities is to wander the San Antonio River Walk, dining, shopping, and sightseeing as we amble. For a memorable day under the Texas sun, then, we recommend an unbeatable River Walk itinerary.

A brief overview of the San Antonio River Walk

Also known as Paseo del Rio, the San Antonio River Walk stretches for 15 miles along the San Antonio River, though the core of it is a 2-1/2-mile stretch through downtown. Construction of the River Walk was a long process; it began in the wake of flood mitigation efforts in the 1930s. Given the flood danger, few council members were keen on approving any kind of pedestrian zone near the river but a few stalwart architects and visionaries pushed their ideas through until they final found acceptance. In 1946, the first restaurant opened on the River Walk.

Since those early days, the River Walk has been extended and improved several times, notably in 1968, 1988, and again in 2011 when the walkway was extended to Mission Espada (known now as the Mission Reach section of the River Walk).

As the popularity of the River Walk has soared, shops and restaurants have gradually opened on or near the river’s banks. Today, dozens of eateries, boutiques, landmark sites, and parks are connected to the sprawling pedestrian walkway.

Where to go on your tour of the San Antonio River Walk

1: Start with breakfast at The Guenther House.

If you can, grab a seat on The Guenther House patio. (Source: The Guenther House Facebook)
If you can, grab a seat on The Guenther House patio. (Source: The Guenther House Facebook)

In the heart of downtown – and just off the River Walk – sits the quaint store and restaurant dubbed The Guenther House. The building itself dates to the 1910s and sports a hefty helping of Art Nouveau stylings, including stained glass and plentiful plant motifs.

If you can, grab a seat outside under the veranda with views of the River Walk and city beyond. You’ll be enveloped by greenery, so while you’re in the thick of things, you’ll still feel like you’re dining in a refuge.

Come breakfast, we’re griddle fiends, so we highly recommend the Pioneer Pancake Platter – with San Antonio River Mill Brand Sweet Cream pancakes – or the Chicken & Sweet Cream Waffle. Oh, and if you’re feeling extra indulgent, ask about their daily pastries, then get your fave with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (yep, it’s a thing).

Pancakes anyone? (Source: The Guenther House Facebook)
Pancakes anyone? (Source: The Guenther House Facebook)

Once sated, we recommend taking a self-guided tour of The Guenther House to soak in all of the Southern style – just be sure to get permission from the staff first.

When you’re ready for some River Walking, find your way down to the banks by either Guenther or Alamo Streets.

2: For a taste of history, head north until you reach the Edward Steves Homestead Museum.

Just a hop, skip, and a jump north of The Guenther House sits the Edward Steves Homestead Museum – a three-story mansion built in 1876 for the founder of a lumber company. Architecturally, the building is a marvel – a limestone façade, mansard roof, wrought iron cresting, and 19th-century Italian villa stylings are prominent throughout.

The pristinely symmetrical, quasi-Italian Steves mansion (Source: Shutterstock / Carolyne Parent)
The pristinely symmetrical, quasi-Italian Steves mansion (Source: Shutterstock / Carolyne Parent)

Behind the house sits one of the earliest known indoor swimming pools; the pool has been covered up, unfortunately, but the building is still used by San Antonio Conservation Society members for various events. Take a peek – it’s a curious artifact.

You can also look inside the servants’ quarters and carriage house while onsite – both of which have been restored. If you’re keen on a tour, head to the visitors’ center (housed in the servants’ quarters) where you can buy tickets. The website has complete tour times and ticket information so be sure to head there for all the details.

When you’re ready for the next adventure, head back to the River Walk and start north a few paces until you come to Villa Finale.

3: Enjoy the gardens and museum of Villa Finale.

We all love a good ending, right? Such was the story at Villa Finale, where floods, subdivisions, and changes in society might have spelled the end of the old house. Fortunately, they didn’t.

Villa Finale, just off the River Walk at Sheridan and King William Streets, was built in 1876 by a merchant. The surrounding area was quite popular with wealthy families at the time – at least until a flood wiped it clean in 1921. Not only did the flood cause damage to the buildings nearby, but wealthy families took nature’s cue to move away from the river. By 1967, Villa Finale was subdivided and being used by multiple tenants – until preservationist Walter Nold Mathis stepped in, purchased the house and the surrounding property, and set about his preservation work in the entire King William neighborhood.

A view of Villa Finale at night (Source: Villa Finale Facebook)
A view of Villa Finale at night (Source: Villa Finale Facebook)

Today, Villa Finale – lovingly restored by Mathis – is a tribute to the history and resilience of the neighborhood. Guests can not only admire the stately design of the rococo mansion but can take in the 12,000 pieces of art – from clocks and vases to portraits and chairs – Mathis collected and exhibited throughout his home. Self-guided tours are available to the public for $10; guided tours are $12. Check the website for all of the details.

Once wholly converted to the preservationist cause, make your way further north.

4: Shop and browse at the Shops at Rivercenter, followed by a pint.

Boat or walk to the many-layered Shops at Rivercenter. (Source: Shops at Rivercenter Facebook)
Boat or walk to the many-layered Shops at Rivercenter. (Source: Shops at Rivercenter Facebook)

As you wend your way along the rolling river, keep an eye out for the Main Plaza and Commerce Street. This is where the River Walk really buzzes with activity. Once back up on street level, head to the Shops at Rivercenter – a unique mall with top brands like H&M, American Eagle, and Macy’s (not to mention a Legoland for the kids) alongside restaurants like Morton’s The Steakhouse and Yard House, should you get peckish. There are four levels of shops, so it’s unlikely you’ll run out of place to spend and browse, but if you do, head ever so slightly southeast to East Nueva Street where you’ll find heaps of galleries, clothing stores, and souvenir outlets.

It’s also a good time to take a load off while watching the goings-on along the river. We recommend putting up your feet at Durty’s Nelly’s Irish Pub, where a pint of Guinness is always what the barkeep orders.

Energy restored, we recommend hopping on a river cruise for a spot more history.

5: Grab a ticket to a GO RIO narrated cruise.

With several stops along the San Antonio River, GO RIO Cruises is a great way to get a quick tour of the key hotspots in town. You can easily grab a ticket near the Shops at Rivercenter (prices start at $13.50); the tour itself lasts 35 minutes and runs every 15 to 20 minutes. You can also get a “hop on-hop off” tour ticket, which allows you to hop on a bus at various points to see more sites in the city.

For a modest price, get a narrated tour of San Antonio – and a boat ride. (Source: GO RIO Cruises Facebook)
For a modest price, get a narrated tour of San Antonio – and a boat ride. (Source: GO RIO Cruises Facebook)

If you’re not sure where or when you plan on taking a River Walk cruise, we recommend getting a Super Pass (check prices online) – this is all-access so you can hop on and off your boat of choice when you’re ready.

Cruise completed, catch a river shuttle back down to the Shops at Rivercenter.

6: Amble south to the Mission Reaches and explore Mission Concepción.

As GO RIO doesn’t shuttle visitors past the shopping mall, it’s time to get in an afternoon walk – and burn off that Guinness-y lunch. Take your time wandering down south, past the museums you saw earlier and The Guenther House where you relished breakfast, all the way to Mission Concepción just off East Mitchell Street near Confluence Park.

This mission is the oldest unrestored church in the U.S. (Source: Mission Concepción Facebook)
This mission is the oldest unrestored church in the U.S. (Source: Mission Concepción Facebook)

Built in 1755 by Franciscan monks, Mission Concepción has been remarkably preserved. In fact, it is the oldest unrestored church in America. While much of the original colorful design has faded, you can still see original frescoes in several of the rooms. The most famous one – located in the Convento room on the ceiling – appears to be a depiction of God as the sun (or, as some have posited, the sun as the eye of God).

The building itself is a classic example of Spanish colonial architecture. Cruciform in shape, it has a limestone core fitted with twin bell towers. Inside, archways abound while the chapel soars at the chancel with a domed ceiling high above the altar.

Admission to the mission and Four Voices Exhibit – highlighting the many cultural and epochal influences on the mission – is free, so no need to worry about tickets. Just take your time and enjoy the rich history of this age-old church.

When you’re done, you can either head to street level and rideshare or bus your way back to your hotel, or explore more of San Antonio’s vibrant downtown.

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There is, of course, more to the 15-mile San Antonio River Walk that’s worth exploring, but we believe the above stops are a good start and give you a sense of why this pedestrian stretch has become so central San Antonio life. For more information, visit the city of San Antonio’s tourism website.