This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of RIO Magazine, the official magazine of the San Antonio River Walk Association.
When traveling to a new city, the first person you want to make friends with is your hotel’s concierge (con-see-air-zh). They are the go-to people for the most current information on things that are happening in their town. Restaurants, museums and theatres keep concierges updated on specials, exhibitions and live performances to pass along to you and yours, and San Antonio’s concierges have the 411 to share with both first-timers and regulars.
El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel
Art Garza, the hotel’s manager on duty at El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel, says that the first thing he does when guests ask for things to do and see in San Antonio is to give them a map of downtown. He circles the Alamo, the River Walk, the Shops at Rivercenter, the Convention Center, San Fernando Cathedral, HemisFair Plaza and The Historic Pearl, all within walking distance of the hotel.
El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel opened in 1962, allowing it to lay claim to the first-hotel-on- the-River-Walk crown. Located on Lexington, the hotel remained in the shadows of downtown for years, but when the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opened in September of 2014 just across the street, the Tropicano’s profile rose considerably.
Their daily Happy Hour from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. provides a perfect meeting place to give local craft beers and other adult beverages a try before a performance. And what other downtown hotel gives you and your family a chance to commune with a live toucan (“Ricky”), a tortoise (“Speedy”) and love birds (“Romeo and Juliet”)?
Garza says to keep your eyes open while you’re at the Tropicano. Artists who are being recognized at the Tejano Music Awards hang out at the Trop before they go on, and if you’re into “The Walking Dead,” you might run into one of the stars who are in town for the annual Alamo City Comic Con.
Garza expects people from all over the world to travel to San Antonio this year to help celebrate its 300th birthday, and he’s grateful that El Tropicano is at the center of everything.
Carlos Ortiz, the assistant general manager of the Sheraton Gunter, has been in the hotel business for more than 30 years. When the Gunter opened in 1909, Ortiz says that it was known as the Cattlemen’s Hotel, while the St. Anthony, also opened in 1909, was known as the Oilmen’s Hotel. An underground tunnel joined the two so that when raids occurred during Prohibition, patrons could skedaddle to the other hotel to escape arrest.
The two most frequent questions that guests ask Ortiz haven’t changed much over the years: 1) Where is the Alamo? 2) Where is the River Walk? Aside from those two “must visits,” he also encourages guests to check out Market Square, the Spanish colonial missions, San Fernando Cathedral, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, King William Historic Neighborhood, San Antonio Museum of Art and the Japanese Tea Garden, also known as Sunken Gardens.
Ortiz says that guests also want to know the best places to eat on the River Walk. His advice is to stroll along the 1.5-mile, horseshoe-shaped Downtown Reach, read the menus, get a sense of the restaurant’s atmosphere and decide. For breakfast tacos, Ortiz favors Blanco Cafe at 419 North St. Mary’s.
For visitors with kids, Ortiz recommends Kiddie Park, The DoSeum, the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Zoo and the miniature train. All are accessible via VIA Metropolitan Transit’s #11A Cultura route that picks up in front of the Alamo. An all-day pass costs $2.75 and may be purchased on your phone using VIA’s goMobile app.
Omni La Mansión del Rio
Nolan Cowans has only lived in San Antonio for a little less than a year, but he has grown to love the Alamo City. He says that his colleagues at La Mansión helped him learn the city, but he also did a lot of research on his own. The thing he loves most about San Antonio is its food.
The Mexican donuts at the Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar on the River Walk are “absolutely amazing,” according to Cowans. For $8.50, you can enjoy made-from-scratch donuts with a sweet cream filling that are dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with a Kahlúa fudge sauce. He’s also a big fan of Boudro’s Texas Bistro on the Riverwalk’s tableside guacamole and prickly pear margaritas.
While I was interviewing Cowans, he received a call from a guest who was in town to celebrate his wife’s birthday. He talked through restaurant options with the guest, who was interested in steak houses that would wow, and he reserved a horse-drawn carriage to pick up the couple at the hotel and take them for a spin through downtown.
Cowans believes that visitors should talk with concierges because they know everything that is going on in town. On top of that, concierges have coupons that will save guests money.
The Westin Riverwalk
David Swift, one of The Westin Riverwalk’s original employees, has been with the hotel for 18 years. Swift says that his hotel hosts a great deal of business meetings for people from all over the United States.
While I was there, the National Van Lines moving company was hosting a conference in the hotel, and their employees were headed to a ranch just north of San Antonio for a Western Night. Swift helped guests find places to purchase cowboy boots and hats for the occasion.
According to Swift, the Alamo is always the number one question he receives, but there are some guests–mainly from the North–who have no idea what the Alamo is. (Quick refresher: The Alamo, originally known as Misión San Antonio de Valero, is the shrine of Texas’ liberty. Mexican soldiers wiped out Texian defenders in a 13-day siege that ended on March 6, 1836. The cry, “Remember the Alamo!,” emboldened Texian soldiers during the Battle of San Jacinto, which resulted in Texas’ freedom from Mexico.)
In addition to the Alamo, Swift also recommends that guests enjoy the river cruises and water taxis. The Briscoe Western Art Museum is also just a hop, skip and a jump down the River Walk from the Westin.
Mokara Hotel & Spa
Jenny Chavez, current president of the San Antonio Concierge Association, has been in the hotel business for 34 years. She started off as a housekeeper at the Hyatt in 1983 and worked her way up to concierge before retiring in December of 2015. In February of 2016, Mokara Hotel & Spa asked her to consider working just one day per week. Chavez was happy to jump back in because she was bored at home. She missed helping people experience San Antonio’s unique, local spots.
The number one question Chavez is asked is where to purchase stamps for postcards. (Walgreen’s on Houston.) The most unusual question she has ever been asked it where to obtain a helicopter license. (The guest was licensed in another country, but he wanted to rent a helicopter to tour San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country. Chavez found what he needed, and she says that she received a very handsome tip for her trouble.) Another unusual question: Where to buy rattlesnake? (Central Market on Broadway.)
Chavez says that she’s purchased birthday cakes, stored breast milk, and arranged flower petals for guests. She believes that concierges will never be replaced by the Internet because the Internet doesn’t smile or make jokes or help guests figure out the restaurant where they celebrated their tenth anniversary so she can make reservations for their twentieth.
“We are at their service,” said Chavez.
For even more ideas of fun things to do and see in San Antonio, visit Barnes & Noble, The Twig, Half Price Books on 410 across from North Star Mall and on Broadway near downtown, San Antonio Museum of Art gift store, and Fiesta on Main to purchase “100 Things To Do in San Antonio Before You Die” by yours truly. Please like my Facebook page to stay in the loop on every San Antonio Tourist post.
Denise Barkis Richter, Ph.D., author of “100 Things To Do in San Antonio Before You Die,” has been blogging about San Antonio since June of 2010. Her love affair with the Alamo City began at HemisFair in 1968. The McNay Art Museum, also on VIA’s #11A Cultura route, is one of Denise’s top recommendations for visitors to San Antonio. Take a picture of yourself on the tile steps in the courtyard!