Explore the River Walk

It’s a stretch to call the entire River Walk a neighborhoodundefinedat least it will be in just a few years. The downtown segment that most people think they know is about to be extended from 2 to thirteen miles, connecting many of San Antonio's museums and historic districts ( including the work-in-progress development at the old Pearl Brewery where there’s already a thriving school for professional chefs and another, by Aveda, for cosmeticians) with the beautifully preserved Spanish-colonial missions to the south.

River Walk Facts
  • The River Walk is maintained and operated as a park by the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.
  • The source of the river’s headwaters are natural springs that are part of a vast underground lake called the Edwards Aquifer, also a source of drinking water for much of the Hill Country and San Antonio.
  • The reason the River seems small is because the headwaters are very near downtown. For instance, the “Mighty Mississippi” begins with a stream that’s only five feet across.
  • The San Antonio River ultimately flows for 131 miles through six counties, and empties into the Guadalupe River, a few miles inland from San Antonio Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

The River Walk Began as Flood Control
In earlier years, the city had experience flooding along the banks of the now alluring San Antonio River. Many city fathers favored paving over the river as a means of flood control. In 1924, the San Antonio Conservation Society battled to keep the river afloat and backed a design proposed by Robert H.H. Hugman in 1929undefinedthe River Walk. The project was finished with WPA funding  in 1938 and has remained a source of life and a hub of culture for the Alamo City.

River Walk South of Downtown
We'll begin with a fairy tale like section of the River Walk that runs just south of downtown through the historic King William District. So leave the new Lucchese boots in your room (but keep the new Stetson or Mexican straw hat) and come with us to breakfast; you’ll need it.

The southern terminus of the present-day River Walk is right across Guenther Street from the Pioneer Flour Mill and the adjacent Guenther House; it’s hard to miss the tower proclaiming White Wings flour. The enchanting house, built by the founder of the mill in 1860, is now a charming museum of the period, but for our purposes it’s the restaurant, housed in a light-filled half basement and arbor-covered, riverside patio, that’s the destination. Biscuits with gravy, hotcakes with syrup and sausage, waffles with strawberries… any of the above and more will fortify you for your urban adventure. Once well-stoked, cross the street and descend to the River Walk alongside the San Antonio River Authority building. Look upstreamundefinedwhat you’ll see is a kind of beacon that will be visible for much of your not-all-that tiring trek: the Tower Life Building. This multi-faceted 33-story tower, built in 1928, is visible from many points in the cityundefinedespecially during the Christmas holidays when its upper tiers are illuminated in red and green.

Bordering this lush stretch are the backyards of fashionable King William, with its Victorian and Italianate mansions. While strolling you might notice the alluring old Arsenal complex to your left. Built in 1859 to supply efforts  to tame the frontiers and borders, the facility was also briefly occupied by the Confederacy during the War of Northern Aggression. Today, however, munitions have been exchanged for offices, as the much renovated structures now house the headquarters of H.E.B., the city’s powerhouse grocery chain, itself celebrating 100 years of operation.

River Walk at La Villita
Speaking of sustenance, a Starbucks isn’t far away. Keep hanging to your right, past the International Center created from the shell of the former main library and you’ll soon come to the 1930s classic-revival library that replaced the earlier Carnegie facility on the same site. It was, until recently, the home of the Herzberg Circus Collection and is soon to become The Briscoe Western Art Museum. Next up is the Arneson River Theatre, with its romantic, mission-bell backdrop and the amphitheater that serves as a river entrance to historic La Villita (the city's first neighborhood). For many this is the heart of the original River Walk.

River Walk at the Convention Center
As we turn right past the Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel, built with pre-fabricated and furnished room modules for the opening of HemisFair, San Antonio’s 1968 World’s Fair, we come to the first, post-Hugman extension of the original River Walkundefinedit, too, constructed for the opening of HemisFair. This landscaped walkway originally ended in the lagoon between the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the Lila Cockrell Theatre of the Performing Artsundefinedwhere a new neighbor, the towering Grand Hyatt San Antonio now roots its way into the San Antonio skyline. Here, the intrepid urban explorer is encouraged to walk under recent extensions to the Convention Center and up a curling ramp to the Plaza de Mexico, a symbol of the long-time collaboration between San Antonio and the Mexican government, represented by the Universidad Nacional de Mexico and the Instituto de Mexico, a cultural center offering frequent performances by Mexican musical groups and free shows by Mexican and American artists. (A second, later extension culminates in the basin that is the core of Rivercenter Mall.)

River Walk on Horseshoe Bend
There is much to be explored back on the original horseshoe bend of the riverundefinednow a complete circuit thanks to the construction of a final pedestrian link courtesy of the developers of the Drury Plaza Hotel in the old Alamo National Bank Building. Restorations, adaptations and clever conversions have helped reinvigorate many of the historic buildings lining the fabled walkway. The Omni La Mansión del Rio Hotel, for example, was once the home of St. Mary’s College and School of Law. The newly minted Watermark Hotel and Spa was previously a furniture store, and farther upstream another former bank and office building has become the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The Hyatt Regency Hotel, however, was built from the ground up and it is here that the second River Walk extension, the Paseo del Alamo, is found. Enter the hotel’s soaring atrium next to the legendary Landing Jazz Club and continue up a landscaped water course to street level and, you guessed it, to the Alamo. There’s no escaping it.

Back down at River Walk level, many visitors are content to stay right here in the bustling downtown core, either exploring on foot or relaxing on a river cruiser. One good place to buy cruiser tickets is across from the Hilton, and as we are going to suggest venturing farther upstream, now would be a good time to anticipate cruising back down by buying your passage; the cruisers go as far as the River Walk now does, but will soon use locks to offer river transit as far as the Pearl Brewery development. Today we’re on foot, sharing the river with flocks of ducks and the less-crowded walkway with lunchtime joggers.

River Walk and a Quiet Stretch
This is a contemplative stretch of the river, shaded in spots by stately cypresses, but there are vistas to be savored around each bend in the winding waterwayundefinedincluding one that offers tantalizing glimpses of the “enchilada red” main library. There are public art projects such as tile-mosaic murals and faux-bois benches. And there is a special destination in the form of the Southwest School of Art and Craft, housed in the buildings that once harbored the Ursuline Academy of French nuns, founded in 1851. (Many of the school’s best exhibits are presented in the new annex across Augusta Street in a space that was once a Sears tire shop.) Near the end of your journey, the Mediterranean style Municipal Auditorium looms over the River Walk and another towerundefinedthis one the spire of the red-brick First Baptist Churchundefinedplays counterpoint to its White Wings southern cousin as it marks the northern terminus of the walkway. Relax and wait for the bargeundefinedevery 20 minutes they say. But we know you’re not  in a hurry.

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