This is the second in a series of seven articles about my 9 month trip through the Southern US.
I spent one month in San Antonio in January 2022. These are my thoughts.
This had to be my favorite feature of San Antonio. On hot days, you can descend downstairs and walk along the San Antonio river winding its way through the city as you pass by cafés and restaurants. Palm trees arch overhead providing shade, as do the the tall buildings that embrace it from both sides. I could probably spend half a day in a cafe watching the riverboats and passersby.
If you head south and away from the the heart of the city, the river grows wider, and you can actually follow it for miles to places like the Spanish missions. It’s also less crowded, so you can bike or run for miles as you follow the river through the many parks along the path.
It was not what I’m used to coming from Seattle. It ranged from near freezing to 75 degrees in the same day. That said, most days I could expect to enjoy a sunny day in the afternoon and go for a run by the riverwalk. I understand the summers are rather brutal, so I’d probably have to run in the morning and take shelter during most of the day. At night it’d cool down enough to go downtown in short sleeves. All in all, I think I’d be cool with it.
I went on Zillow and from a cursory look I saw housing prices are definitely going up here (as they are everywhere), but it’s certainly nowhere near as crazy as it is in Seattle ( or nearby Austin, for that matter).
I didn’t see many neighborhood cats in Arizona where I had traveled from (perhaps they were all indoors because of coyotes?), so as a cat lover it was nice to see many friendly neighborhood kitties where I happened to be staying.
After a month of driving around, I found the roads easy to navigate and rarely stressful. I was told Texas drivers were aggressive but I don’t remember getting tailgated or honked at once.
While the roads are generally pretty navigable, there does seem to be a trend of people dumping mattresses and other furniture by the side of the road. Anecdotally I’ve heard there are lots of issues with drunk drivers, meaning the later you go out the less safe you might be. Also, San Antonio really needs to get on repainting its traffic lines.
You can’t turn a corner without finding a Mexican restaurant, and all of them I went to were above average by my reckoning as a Northwesterner. I especially loved that I could get chilaquiles, huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos practically anywhere.
While the restaurants in Seattle are wonderful, it’s increasingly started to feel like the dining experience in many places, from the lighting to the fonts on the menu have been meticulously crafted by a marketing team, resulting in a strange uniformity where one swanky cocktail bar seems interchangeable with the next. Although there are some places like this in San Antonio, I feel like many dining spots have retained their humility and their souls—places where the focus is on the food alone and not an overproduced “dining experience”.
San Antonio is moderately liberal, with 58.2% voting democratic in the last presidential election. I saw as many “Refugees are welcome” yard signs as I did trump signs and “Thin Blue Line” flags. Something interesting happens when your neighbor has completely different views as you—it becomes increasingly difficult to dehumanize them as the “Other”. In a purple town, it is easier to recognize the humanity of those who think differently from you.
Close to Austin, but not too close
Austin is less than an hour and a half from San Antonio, so I paid the city a visit over the weekend. To me, Austin felt a lot like an over-the-top amusement park where every restaurant and music venue goes out of its way to express some form of quirkiness. I had fun while I was there—but it didn’t feel like home to me. That said, it’s a nice perk that Austin is nearby. It’s a place that I wouldn’t mind visiting often, but not a place where I’d like to live.
In San Antonio, reminders of its history are everywhere, and lovingly preserved. It’s hard not to feel delighted to walk through a neighborhood full of brightly colonial revival houses. In fact, many houses in the neighborhood I was living in were over 100 years old. This means that if you move into one of these houses, prepare to spend your life maintaining them. Also, you’ll need to get a permit for any external changes to your home, otherwise you’ll be slapped with a fine.
In Seattle, where development proceeds at a blinding pace, it’s easy to feel untethered. That cafe or dive bar where you used to hang out are gone: replaced by a high rise condos and office buildings. The places where you used to make memories have vanished, leaving you to feel as though the world is passing you by.
San Antonio, a city that radiates from the Alamo at it’s very center, is all about preserving its history. This can be a source of comfort, as it gives you a sense that time isn’t just racing past you and will forget you after you die. However, it can also be a source of pain, as I imagine it would be for a person whose ancestors were slaves who sees a beautiful homestead house perfectly preserved and the only thought is: someone who looked like me was forced to work there against their will.
Texans love their history, but it’s a history that is, at its center, jingoistic. It’s dedicated to perpetuate the mythos of their state’s greatness, while ignoring the racial violence and genocide that is very much a part of the state’s history too. So I feel both comforted and uneasy when I find myself in these historic places. If anything I am reminded that the comfort I enjoy now is due in no small part to the suffering of those who came before me.
Revisiting San Antonio in Summer 2022
Of all the cities I had visited on my trip through the southern US, San Antonio felt the most like home to me. It most certainly has its problems and I’m certainly concerned about climate change and impending water scarcity (San Antonio gets its water from the Edwards Aquifer, a limited resource).
After visiting several other cities, I decided to revisit San Antonio in the summer of 2022 to see if I could handle the heat and I found that I could handle it pretty well. I’m not sure what it is but 90 degrees just hits differently here. I walked downtown for about 30 minutes in mid summer and found that the slight breeze and drier air made the heat all the more tolerable. Also, shaded areas are perfectly comfortable for someone like me who prefers warmer weather, even in midday. Mornings are cool enough that I can go running by the river, and the evenings are cool enough to enjoy a warm evening on a bar’s terrace or patio.
The riverwalk is still my favorite feature of the city but my enthusiasm is tempered by the mediocrity of most of the restaurants that line it. Many of them are chains and seem to provide the lowest common denominator of a dining experience. They mostly churn through tourists who likely just stop by these spots for the sake of convenience. I still enjoy walking along the river in the mornings and evenings though.
After wandering the country for the better part of a year, I chose San Antonio as a place to live because it just clicked for me. The city has its problems, to be sure, but as someone who has chosen to live here, I feel more motivated to get involved and help fix those problems in what small ways I can.
The funny thing was, I almost didn’t visit this city at all. I had an airbnb booked in Austin and the lady who rented out the place asked me if I was sure I wanted to visit Austin in January as it’s “too cold” and there was “nothing to do here”. I decided then to try a city I knew nothing about and that was San Antonio.
Saint Anthony of Padua, the city’s namesake, is the patron saint of lost people and things. Perhaps I didn’t find the city, but instead the city found me.
I give San Antonio, TX four out of five stars.
Previous Stop: Tucson
Next Stop: New Orleans