San Antonio

Stroll the Past, Present and Future Along San Antonio’s River Walk

In 1718 Spanish settlers made the San Antonio river home, naming it “refreshing waters.” Little did they know that 300 years later, visitors to this vibrant city would continue to flock to the refreshing waters of the river.

Only today, rather than a small village of Payaya people, the San Antonio River Walk is a beautifully landscaped, well-designed center of shopping, dining, drinking, celebrating and just plain fun.

The Backstory

The impetus for the River Walk came in 1921 when a devastating hurricane throttled the city with high winds and 14 inches of rain, which caused the river to flood 1,000 acres of land, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and 50 deaths.

Architect Robert H. H. Hugman had a brilliant vision for the river that would solve flooding issues by developing a bypass channel with a dam and floodgates, as well as a pedestrian walkway that would accommodate local shops and cafés.

He presented his plan for “The Shops of Aragon and Romula” to the civic leaders in June of 1929, and the bypass channel was soon built. Further construction was halted due to the Great Depression.

Eventually the Works Progress Administration revived the plan with $325,000 in funds and worked on the Spanish Colonial design from 1939 to 1941. Hugman’s original visions were never completed, as the focus then shifted to the Second World War.

san antonio river walk
Amble along the River Walk’s many tranquil stretches. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the early 1960s, Disneyland designers became involved in revitalizing the failing tourist attraction by adding that spark of Disney magic.

Prior to San Antonio’s hosting of the 1968 World’s Fair, the city added another quarter-mile to the River Walk, which led to the convention center, spurring more downtown growth and development.

Over the subsequent years, new sections were added to the walk, and by 2011 the River Walk was extended to 15.5 miles of walking and hiking trails linking most of the major attractions in downtown San Antonio.

America’s Venice

Frequently referred to as “America’s Venice,” the River Walk is the most recognized and visited attraction in San Antonio outside of the Alamo. The enchanting walk is now lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, cafés, bars and hotels.

In front of the Hotel Contessa, there is a small promontory known as Marriage Island, where more than 225 weddings a year are held. (The waiting list for this venue can be up to two years!)

The charming, romantic atmosphere of the River Walk entices old and young to meander along quaint cobblestone paths with lavishly landscaped nooks and crannies hidden beneath giant ferns, palm trees, arched bridges, waterfalls, colorful umbrellas and the beckoning blue Texas sky.

Some of the city’s most noteworthy restaurants line the River Walk. Bella on the River offers delectable Mediterranean fare in a rustic, romantic atmosphere, and at Biga on the Banks, Chef Auden offers world-class New American cuisine. Some favorites of the locals include Rita’s on the River, serving up traditional fajitas and margaritas, and Boudro’s for mouth-watering wood-grilled steaks and fresh guacamole made tableside.

The fiesta atmosphere continues well into the night at the numerous bars along the river. The Esquire, Dick’s Last Resort and Coyote Ugly are just a few of the venues offering drinks, music and partying.

The river serves as a parade route for floats throughout the year, is turned a whimsical green for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and is lit with 2 million lights for Christmas. It also hosts the annual Canoe Challenge, gets eerie and creepy for Halloween, shows its patriotism on July Forth with red white and blue luminarias, and is always ready to celebrate a Spurs win.

River taxis are always available to whisk you to your destination if you get tired of walking (or you’ve had too many margaritas along the stroll). Boats, barges and gondolas keep the waters churning, so hop on board and take a guided tour, reserve a seat for a very special dining experience, or sit back and listen to some breezy jazz music from one of the floating barges.

The Dream, Realized

Robert H. H. Hugman’s dream has finally been realized along the waterway 20 feet below street level, where locals and visitors can while away their time on the leisurely River Walk. Mr. Hugman lived to the ripe old age of 80 and was able to see the fruits of his hard work. Every turn along the winding path offers new views of gorgeous scenery, intimate courtyards, old-world charm and local color.