The dust flies as a cowboy, clad in boots, chaps, and spurs, gallops into the arena, horseback, ropes a steer, and leaps off his horse to finish the job. Fans cheer from the surrounding bleachers. It could be any Texas rodeo if not for the tejano music playing in the background and the cowboy’s wide-brimmed sombrero.
Each spring, San Antonio honors its historic ties to Spain and Mexico with Fiesta, a 10-day citywide celebration. Parades, performances, and festivals fill the calendar, but one of the most unique events is Charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo put on by the San Antonio Charro Association.
Rooted in centuries-old customs that pre-date the American cowboy, Charreadas began as a way to prepare riders for war. Today, it’s the national sport of Mexico, with events that test the competitor’s horse riding, team roping, and bull riding skills. One routine, dubbed the “Pass of Death,” requires a rider to mount a horse in the middle of a full gallop. While “Escaramuza” challenges women dressed in colorful, hand-embroidered skirts to perform a series of exercises all while riding sidesaddle. It isn’t a kitschy tourist show, but rather a tip of the hat to a time-honored tradition.
To experience Fiesta and this unique cultural celebration, you must visit in April, but historic sites, Southern hospitality, and access to the beautiful Texas Hill Country make San Antonio an ideal destination year round.
Beyond the Alamo
Even if you’ve never been to the Alamo, you’re probably familiar with it. A symbol of pride overseeing the bustling, modern city that has sprung up around it, the curved stone edifice is iconic, cemented in Western pop culture through various films and books. People come from far and wide to learn about the fateful battle for Texian independence that took place inside its walls and hear the cry, “Remember the Alamo.”
But Mission de Valero—the Alamo’s official name—has a long history that predates every Texan story of independence. It is the first in a string of five self-sufficient Franciscan missions built in the early 1700s under Spanish rule. Five miles south of the city, along the banks of the San Antonio River, sit its sister missions: San Juan, Espada, Concepción, and San José. Without them, San Antonio wouldn’t exist.
“The goal of the Missions was both to save souls and to settle this part of Texas for Spain,” explains Janet Dietel, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which has worked to preserve and protect the Missions for future generations since its founding in 1924. In 2015, it was instrumental in the designation of the Missions—part of the National Park Service—as the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Texas, joining the ranks of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Everglades national parks.
“A key reason the missions became a World Heritage Site was the intact ranching and farming landscape surrounding the missions,” Dietel says. “When the missions were secularized, beginning in the 1790s, the productive agriculture system made the land more valuable and attracted settlement and investment.”
For example, though currently closed for restoration, 30 miles from Mission Espada, Rancho de las Cabras, or Goat Ranch, served as one of the Mission’s primary sources of meat. A 1745 report estimated that, at one time, the vaqueros of Mission Espada cared for as many as 1,150 head of cattle, 740 sheep, 90 goats, and 30 horses and oxen.
Visitors can still experience 18th century mission life today. Church services—in both English and Spanish—are held weekly at each of the missions, and include two mariachi masses. The oldest functioning Spanish Colonial aqueduct in the United States can be found at Mission Espada. At Mission San Juan, a demonstration farm details how the missions provided for their inhabitants with crops like corn and cotton. A water-powered gristmill at Mission San José, the “Queen of the Missions,” showcases how the community could grind a bushel of grain every hour—enough for 1,000 loaves of bread a day.
North of the missions, in present-day midtown San Antonio, the Pearl Brewery has established the modern farm-to-market approach. The area, built around the former brew house, has become a hub for restaurants, shops, and cultural events. Located on a quieter stretch of the famed San Antonio Riverwalk away from downtown, the Pearl is more of a local’s hangout.
At Cured, an industrial-style restaurant housed in the Pearl’s old administrative building, the focus really is on the food itself. As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by a custom-built charcuterie case featuring hanging slabs of meat courtesy of the restaurants two full-time butchers. There are no table cloths and the walls are void of art so that the beauty of the historic building can shine through. While it could go the way of a pretentious eatery, chef Steve McHugh insists on balance.
“For us, it’s important to have a really good $8 burger and a simple steak and fries entrée right alongside a funky pot of mussels. Not everyone is going to want to come in and eat charcuterie. We recognize that.”
Raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, McHugh also personally understands the hard work that goes into a harvest and strives to convey that to his team.
“You’re going to feel really bad if you burn that steak, knowing the rancher who raised it,” he says. “Likewise, if you’re getting that bacon out of a box, you don’t respect it. If you actually butcher it, cure it, slice it—well, then it’s like gold because you realize and understand the process.”
On the weekends, the Pearl Farmers Market sets up shop. For chefs like McHugh, it’s an opportunity to source ingredients.
“To be able to walk outside my door and into the market with my guys and a cart is pretty awesome,” McHugh says.
The frequent interaction with ranchers and farmers has allowed McHugh to see the hardships they face first hand and inspired him to take a specialized approach to his menu, which includes purchasing and utilizing the whole animal, and working with ranchers to customize his orders.
Travis Krause, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, works with McHugh, as well as chefs at other S.A. restaurants like Southerleigh in the Pearl and Restaurant Gwendolyn downtown.
“Guys like Steve really understand what it means to be locally produced and small scale. They understand the challenges we face as far as delivering the same amount of product every week,” Krause says. “We’re not Cisco, where you can place an order and change it the next day.”
Travis and his wife, Mandy, raise cattle and poultry on more than 1,500 acres in D’Hanis, a small town about an hour west of San Antonio. Parker Creek Ranch has been in his family since 1846.
After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in wildlife fishery sciences, Krause moved back home and saw an opportunity to utilize progressive ranch management practices.
“That was in 2010 and the whole farmer’s market trend and selling directly to restaurants hadn’t really caught on here,” Krause says. “We were starting from a clean slate.”
Today, Travis and Mandy oversee all of the ranch’s daily operations, as well as host workshops and consult on sustainable ranching models.
When it comes to getting outfitted, on the other hand, San Antonio has a long tradition of cowboys and cowgirls getting geared up with some of the industry’s iconic retailers.
Renowned bootmaker Salvatore Lucchese first set up shop at Fort Sam Houston, now part of Joint Base San Antonio and then a U.S. Calvary school, in 1883. He later moved his operation downtown and made boots for famous filmmakers, military officers, and cowboys before his death in 1929. His legacy and boots lived on through his son, who continued to heel the likes of Audie Murphy, John Wayne, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the Dallas Cowboys football team. The company moved its primary operations to El Paso in 1986, but you can still shop or be measured for a pair of custom boots at the Lucchese store in the Alamo Quarry.
Downtown, on the corner of Broadway and Houston streets, Paris Hatters has been family owned and operated since 1917, making it the oldest surviving retail business in the city. Bison heads hang on the walls and an old 1930s cash register still sees regular use. Abe “the Hatter” Cortez and his wife, Myrna, are often found behind the counter, ready to help customers find their perfect fit based on their “height, shoulder width, weight, and overall stature.” Whether you like the wide-brimmed Gus variety or a sharp cattleman’s shape, you’ll be in good company. Paris Hatters has topped the heads of multiple heads of state—including four U.S. presidents and foreign royalty—as well as country music legends like June and Johnny Cash.
Of course, not all of the Alamo City’s makers are old hat. Recently, San Antonio has seen a surge of up-and-coming creative talent. Colt Lyons grew up riding his horse to school in Mason, Texas, a town of about 2,000, two hours away from San Antonio. A former rodeo athlete, he doesn’t ride bulls as much as his own custom-built motorcycles these days.
“Growing up, I was around motorcycles because of rodeo. When my parents would go to compete, my brother and I would tag along,” says Lyons, the son of professional rodeo competitors, Ray and Crystal Lyons. “We would go to Colorado, where the mountain roads are huge for motorcycles. We’d be driving and I would see these dirt bike tracks and I just thought it was so cool.”
It wasn’t until high school that Lyons first rode on a Harley Davidson. After that, he says, he was hooked.
“I lived on a ranch road and I remember going down our driveway, across the cattle guard and next thing I knew I was doing a 100 mph,” Lyons remembers, laughing. “I didn’t expect for it to kick me back so hard. It just took off, and it was something else.”
When Lyons decided to leave his bull-riding career behind, it was motorcycles that filled the void.
“Bulls were tearing me up, I had moved to a bigger town, and realized my life was changing,” Lyons says. “Motorcycles started giving me that same adrenaline rush I had found on the back of a bull.”
Today, Lyons operates his own custom motorcycle shop, Colt Wrangler Co., in San Antonio’s Southtown arts district. His specialty is vintage café racers—stripped down bikes that first became popular in Europe. The walls of the shop are decorated with old memorabilia and photos of his rodeo days, as well as a timeline of his parents’ careers.
“My mom was actually one of a handful of women who got invited to ride bulls at the NFR for an exhibition,” Lyons says. “I have a photo of her on a bull with her hair flying and the chutes in the background that say ‘NFR.’ If that’s not the coolest thing in the world for a rodeo cowboy, I don’t know what is.”
Even though Lyons has moved away from a traditional cowboy look—he now has dreadlocks and plays in a rock band—he says he considers his Western upbringing to be his “secret weapon.”
“I was raised with the idea that you don’t quit. You might have a bad hang up or get stomped on, but if you’re not hurt, you get up, dust yourself off, grab your bull rope and go get on another bull,” Lyons says. “You defeat that fear. You overcome problems. You learn about hardships.”
It’s these lessons that have served him well in owning his own business and an attitude he says is true to Texas.
“We didn’t just end up here, we fought for it with the war—the Texas Revolution,” Lyons says. “There are cowboys everywhere. There are ranches everywhere. But with everything Western, I think we take it a bit further. We’re very loud and proud.”
>Fort Sam HoustonQuadrangle
2831 Henry T Allen Road
Built in 1876, this former Army supply depot offers some of the best views of S.A. for free. Visit the museum to learn about the base, get up close with old decommissioned tanks, or feed the deer, peacocks, and ducks that call the quadrangle home. Enter through the east gates and don’t forget your photo ID.
>The Briscoe Western Art Museum
210 W. Market Street
Located on the Riverwalk, this museum boasts an impressive bronze sculpture collection, as well as interesting artifacts like Gen. Santa Anna’s sword and a replica of an original Wells Fargo stagecoach.
>Institute of TexanCultures
801 E. Cesar E. Chavez Blvd.
Located near Hemisfair park, this Smithsonian affiliate highlights Texas’s first settlers and the traditions they brought with them. Other family-friendly exhibits rotate on a seasonal basis. In town in June? Don’t miss the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
>The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum
318 E. Houston Street
Part saloon, part café, and part museum, this place has been a crowd-pleaser for more than 130 years. The exhibit halls include strange animal oddities from every continent, while the attached Texas Ranger Museum features authentic artifacts from the famous Lone Star law enforcement agency.
>The St. Anthony Hotel
300 E. Travis Street
In 1909, cattlemen founded the world’s first fully air-conditioned hotel. The John Wayne Suite is where the Duke himself stayed while filming The Alamo in 1960.
>The Menger Hotel
204 Alamo Plaza
Located behind the Alamo, the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi served as a meeting place for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.
>The Crockett Hotel
320 Bonham Street
Named for the legendary frontiersman, this reasonably priced downtown hotel features 138 renovated guestrooms, an outdoor pool, and Texas-shaped waffles.