San Antonio is Mexican-flavored and budget-friendly
How is it that San Antonio, a world-class tourist town oozing Latin atmosphere, has remained a bargain-lover's delight? For one thing (or five things) there's the military, once the city's main employer. San Antonio is ringed by Air Force bases - Brooks, Lackland, Randolph - and near the city's center sits historic Fort Sam Houston, headquarters of the U.S. Army Medical Command. And even though tourism is now tops here in the eighth-largest city in the United States, a working-class mentality still pervades the predominantly Hispanic populace, where family and community are often valued over financial status. Strong cultural and business ties to Mexico, a closer neighbor than the Texas cities of Houston or Dallas, have also kept the cost of living down by bringing in inexpensive labor and imports. The city has also been blessed by a wealth of philanthropists who've created parks, art and history museums, and other attractions open to the public, free of charge. Moreover, San Antonians possess a collective respect for the past, resulting in the recycling and preservation of its old buildings: an Ursuline academy becomes an art school, an old cement plant becomes a booming shopping mall, an abandoned brewery becomes a fine arts museum, and old buildings that have yet to be reborn aren't torn down, but sit empty, patiently awaiting a new life.
Publishing is big business, too, considering the plethora of free magazines and city guides found in motels, restaurants, inside newspapers, and at the San Antonio Visitors Center (207-6700* or 800/447-3372), across the street from the Alamo. And what does this flood of slick literature mean for frugal travelers? Coupons, coupons, coupons. Free desserts with entrees. A dollar off museum, zoo, botanical garden, and IMAX theater admissions. Two dollars off a city tour. With a bit of organizing, substantial savings are yours for the clipping.
What goes on in San Antonio
Tourist-courting San Antonio has more than its fair share of pricey amusement parks scrubbed clean of any regional flavor - Sea-World, Six Flags Fiesta Texas. But just scratch the surface and you'll uncover treasures unique to the Alamo City, many of which are beyond cheap: they're free.
Downtown San Antonio is a splendid spot in which to be lost. And believe me, given the wiggly wanderings of the Riverwalk and the fact that the streets must have been laid out by someone using a wet noodle as a ruler, you will be lost. (And while you're lost, you'll be approached by other lost tourists asking the way to the Alamo or the Menger Hotel.) As you drift about, however, the city will slowly reveal bas-relief Indian head and buffalo nickels carved in the side of an art deco edifice, ornate iron bridges across the Riverwalk, or an antique rose in furious bloom. If you do tire of hoofing it, you can hop aboard one of the nostalgic red or green streetcars that run frequently along four expansive downtown routes: 50[cents] each way, or an all-day pass is only $2 (362-2020).
Eventually, of course, you will make your way to the Alamo, the most visited site in Texas and a solemn shrine - albeit a crowded one - to the Texans who fought and died here. (In recent years, historians - as well as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the custodians of the Alamo - have tried to separate the facts from the mountain of myths surrounding the Alamo, and the Wall of History in the courtyard is a grand start in this truth-seeking journey.) Follow the Mission Trail signs south from the Alamo (300 Alamo Plaza, 225-1391) to four other less ballyhooed, but no less splendid, Spanish colonial missions, where you can soak up eighteenth-century history for nary a doubloon.
For a vivid picture of how the upper echelon lived more than 250 years ago on this wild frontier, head over to the Spanish Governor's Palace (105 Plaza de Armas, 224-0601), completed in 1749 and splendidly restored, complete with eighteenth-century antique beds, tables, chairs, and cooking utensils. (Admission: a mere buck, 50[cents] for kids under 14. Be sure to take a peek at the before-and-after pictures in the museum's photo album.) The nearby San Fernando Cathedral (115 Main Plaza, 227-1297) is a history-rich freebie, with sections dating back to 1731, making it the oldest cathedral in the United States. The church is also (debatably) the final resting spot of the remains of the defenders of the Alamo.
For a completely different cultural experience, trek over to El Mercado (514 W. Commerce, 207-8600), where tourists actually wear their beers, in test-tube-like vessels dangling from cords around their necks. Skip the cheesy souvenirs (trust me, your coworkers don't want a sequined sombrero or a paper-mache banana) and concentrate instead on the festivities that seemingly infect the market eight days a week: mariachis, Tejano bands, folkloric dances, food booths serving up fajitas and cabrito. Stroll through the garish but beautifully landscaped park next door and ask yourself, "Did some fast-talking streetlamp salesman make a killing here or what?"
If you are endowed with any sense of romance at all, you will eventually find yourself on the Riverwalk, a lushly landscaped waterside promenade running below street level. There are raucous sections lined with hotels and restaurants for those who can only appreciate an attraction if they're sharing it with several thousand strangers, but tranquil stretches abound for those seeking solitude. My favorite part - and I really don't know why I'm sharing this with you - runs south in the King William Historic District, a wonderful enclave of restored, ostentatious Victorian mansions built by the city's German settlers. At the far northern reach of the Riverwalk is a study in architectural contrasts: the Southwest Craft Center (300 Augusta, 224-1848) housed on the former campus of an Ursuline school built in 1850, and the graphic, enchilada-red Central Library (600 Soledad, 207-2500) designed by Loggorreta Arquitectos of Mexico City and completed in 1995.
HemisFair Park, a waterworld of spewing, burbling, and cascading fountains is respite from the hustle and bustle, and if your interest in history leans more towards people than places, fork over $4 (children 3-12 and seniors, $2) to learn more about the ethnic groups of Texas at the fascinating Institute of Texan Cultures (801 S. Bowie, 458-2300). You can also see all of San Antonio - albeit from 500 feet in the air - for a mere $3 ($1 kids 4-11) if you take the elevator to the top of the Tower of the Americas (600 HemisFair Park, 207-8615).
San Pedro Springs Park (San Pedro and Ashby, 207-8480), in the historic Monte Vista neighborhood, is the second-oldest public park in America, created in 1729 when Spain's King Philip V declared the land surrounding San Pedro Springs public property. Fort Sam Houston (1210 Stanley Rd., Building 123; 221-1886), built between 1870-1875, sports more than 900 historic buildings, giving the base a Norman Rockwell-esque air. The Quadrangle, the fort where Geronimo was held prisoner in 1886, transcends nostalgia; the mix of army personnel in fatigues wandering among the free-roaming bunnies, deer, peacocks, and geese that live here is positively surreal.
Art aficionados can study priceless works by Monet, Cessna, and others for absolutely nothing at the McNay Art Museum (6000 N. New Braunfels, 824-5368), housed in the 24-room, Spanish-style mansion once belonging to art patroness Marion Koogler McNay. On Tuesdays from 3 to 9 p.m., you can even slip into the San Antonio Museum of Art (200 W. Jones, 978-8158) for free to peruse the grand collection of ancient, folk, and decorative art housed in the former Lone Star Brewery (all other times: $5 adults, $1.75 children 4-11).
Downtown is dominated by luxury hotels, but the city is shot through with a barrage of highways and loops, and it's in those areas, usually less than ten minutes from the central attractions, that you'll find the best bed for your bucks. And in this land of seemingly endless discounts and coupons - from AAA to S.A.V.E. (San Antonio Vacation Experience) - you'll seldom be forced to pay rack rates, except during the most frenzied events like Fiesta. Stop by any Advantage Rent-A-Car or the San Antonio Visitors Center across the street from the Alamo for a S.A.V.E. coupon booklet, or simply ask for the S.A.V.E. rate when booking a room. Also, pick up a free publication called Traveler's Guide, available at Denny's Restaurants and lots of truck stops, that's loaded with discount coupons for chain motels.
On the interstates
Out in the great open spaces near the old coliseum are two perfectly comfortable motels hugging Interstate 37, just 3.5 miles east of the Riverwalk: the Ramada Limited (3939 E. Houston St., 359-1111), where doubles run as low as $37.95 and come with a puddle-sized pool, hair dryers, and complimentary continental breakfast, or the slightly retro Days Inn East (4039 E. Houston St., 333-9100) with its palm-fringed pool and big picture windows, where doubles bottom out at $49.95. (Why so cheap? It may be the location east of Interstate 35, the dividing line between downtown and a much-less-swanky part of town.)
Along Highway 281 North and Loop 410 near the Intercontinental Airport, motels cluster together beneath a halo of neon. At the Super 8 Airport (11355 San Pedro Ave., 342-8488), a coupon from the aforementioned Traveler's Guide will knock $10 off the rack rate of $59.95 for a spotlessly clean, very bland double king room. (And you can closely study the underbellies of 747s and DC-10s as they take off to the west.)
You'll also discover a number of healthy bargains surrounding the South Texas Medical Center north of Loop 410 along Interstate 10. The friendly staff at the Ramada Limited (9447 I-10 West, 800/757-4707, 210/558-9070) obviously takes pride in the spotless property, where the $79.95 rack rate for a double can drop as low as $49.95 Sunday through Thursday, continental breakfast included. Some of the rooms are large enough to turn cartwheels in and come with microwaves and refrigerators. A few rooms even boast a city view, albeit across the freeway.
While most motels are exceedingly coy when it comes to quoting prices, Motel 6 blithely posts its rates in large print right on the lobby wall - $43.99 for a double Monday-Thursday, $47.99 on Friday and Saturday, and the Motel 6 Northwest (9400 Wurzbach Rd., 210/593-0013) doesn't buck this corporate policy, despite its newly refurbished rooms, a few of which come with microwaves, refrigerators, and spanking-new air conditioners. Its early Texas, cut-limestone architecture is a holdover from its days as a Texian Inn. Candlewood Suites (9350 I-10 West, 210/615-0550) is tucked back a bit from the freeway among high-end apartments. Something about it - the palms, the warm terra-cotta-colored exterior, the super-nice staff, the complimentary Wednesday-afternoon cookouts by the landscaped pool - lends a resort feel. The S.A.V.E. rate for studios, which come with a full kitchen, drops to $59 from the $69 rack rate.
Closer to the center
If you simply must stay within skipping distance of the action (and the energy of downtown is hard to resist), try the Motel 6 at Interstate 10 and Commerce (225-1111). For $47.99, you get a cookie-cutter but comfortable double room that's been recently gussied-up with fresh paint, carpet, and bedspreads, and there's a trolley stop a mere block away. Just five blocks from the Alamo, you can snag a comfy room at the Travelodge (405 Broadway, 222-1000), with a shady courtyard and a swimming pool (and a coffee pot in every tidy, if slightly worn, room), for as low as $69 Sundays through Thursdays. Although kiddos will get a kick from the special rooms decorated with Sleepy Bear bedspreads, Crayola lamps, microwave, fridge, and VCR, rates for these munchkin-friendly rooms never drop below $69.
The city's B&Bs
While most of San Antonio's many luscious bed-and-breakfast inns top $100 a night, you can stay in Victorian splendor at the historic Bullis House (621 Pierce St., 223-9426) for as little as $59 a night for a double, as long as you don't mind sharing a bath down the hall. In 1983, this former general's home, built in 1909 and just across the street from Fort Sam Houston, was converted into a gracious bed-and-breakfast inn. The innkeepers also operate the adjacent hostel, where you can bunk down dormitory-style for only $15.37 a night.
You can't toss a tostada in San Antonio without hitting a mom-and-pop taqueria where the eats are cheap, cheap, cheap. Although the city does boast a number of the state's top froufrou restaurants and some Riverwalk establishments will be happy to overcharge you, you actually have to try hard to spend a bundle on meals (although those heat-fighting margaritas can add up).
San Antonio has a stunning number of long-standing eateries that have been dishing out everything from chicken-fried steaks to chili, from Wiener schnitzel to enchiladas, for decades. Mi Tierra Cafe is one of them, in business since 1941 and open 24 hours a day. Despite the fact it's crawling with tourists, you can still get tasty Mexican food - and a lot of it - at a great price in a hyperfestive atmosphere. Try the caldo del mercado ($6.50), a Jethro Bodine-sized bowl of soup loaded with carrots, avocados, tortilla slices, and about half a chicken.
Schilo's (424 E. Commerce, 223-6692), a warm and woody spot, has been the downtown deli of choice for decades. For $3.55 you can nab a monster sandwich - pastrami, knockwurst, and more - and a mere $2.10 gets you a meal's worth of their famous split-pea soup served with rye bread. A breakfast of their potato pancakes with ham ($4.85) will last you long into the afternoon, or for a midafternoon pick-me-up, belly up to the bar for a mug of homemade root beer (95[cents]) or a more potent brew ($2.45).
If you liked the retro diner in Pulp Fiction, you'll love the Pig Stand (1508 Broadway, 225-1321, and two other locations). Since 1921, this Dallas-born chain has satiated lovers of chicken-fried steak ($6.95), pig sandwiches ($4.29), and thick malts ($2.49). And it doesn't matter when you crave a banana split or an order of onion rings; they're open 24 hours a day.
Torres Taco Heaven (1032 S. Presa, 533-2171), a colorful institution in fun and funky Southtown, serves up long-burning lunch specials, like sour cream enchiladas with rice and fritas rancheros for $4.99, as well as 99[cents] breakfast tacos and a huge bowl of menudo (don't ask), reportedly a hangover cure, for $4.
If hunger strikes when you're at Lackland Air Force Base checking out the free (rinky-dink) aviation museum (2051 George Ave., 671-3055) or the impressive fleet of aircraft encircling the parade grounds, stop into nearby Taqueria Mexico (7135 Somerset Rd., 922-1306). It's nearly impossible to spend more than $6 for food and drink at this Jalisco-style local favorite; a saucy burrito the size of a forearm is only $2.50, breakfast tacos are 85[cents], and a dinner plate (there are 22 to choose from and only one is more than $5) is easily big enough for two moderate appetites.
Even fast food in San Antonio has local flair at the ubiquitous, hot-pink Taco Cabanas (2908 Broadway, 829-1616, and more than 30 other locations), where you can dress up your cheap, straightforward tacos (99[cents] to $2.25) at the grand salsa bar featuring several piquant sauces, along with fresh cilantro and pico de gallo.
*Unless otherwise noted, all phone numbers are in the 210 area code