SAN ANTONIO -- The small building's facade is one of the most recognizable in the world, with its distinctive hump and battle-scarred walls. Mission San Antonio de Valero -- better known to generations of schoolchildren and Western movie fans as the Alamo -- was the first Catholic mission in the city, built in the early 1700s.
Its enduring fame, of course, would come in 1836, when 189 defenders -- including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett -- would hold off Mexican Gen. Santa Anna's army for 13 days before finally being overwhelmed. Their deaths made them heroes of the Texas Revolution and symbols of courage against impossible odds.
Today the Alamo is one of the top tourist attractions in the Southwest, bringing in millions of visitors annually. The Alamo complex, which includes the famous mission as well as museums full of guns and other artifacts, is in the heart of downtown San Antonio. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, this impressive historical shrine is not immune from commercialism. Right across the street -- along what used to be the west wall of the Alamo -- are a number of tourist businesses such as wax museums, T-shirt shops, and the like.
Walking the river
Despite its significance in Texas history, the Alamo isn't even the top attraction in San Antonio. That distinction goes to the River Walk, a three-mile stretch of cypress-lined cobblestone and flagstone pathways along both sides of the narrow San Antonio River as it winds through downtown.
The No. 1 tourist draw in all of Texas, the River Walk was also rated by Forbes magazine last year as one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S., with more visitors than Hawaii's Waikiki Beach, Atlantic City's Boardwalk or even the Grand Canyon.
Designed as a WPA flood-control project in the 1930s, the River Walk has since become both an urban sanctuary and a hub of commerce, with dozens of hotels, restaurants, bars, and boutiques lining the shallow river just below street level. It makes for a great walk, strolling past brightly colored umbrellas and under arched stone bridges while listening to mariachi bands.
But if you don't feel like hoofing it, a good way to get a nice overview is to take a narrated 30-minute boat tour. The guides are personable and well-versed in the local lore. "And don't worry if you happen to fall overboard," our guide informed us. "Unless you're really short, you can just stand up and walk to shore."
Each year from Thanksgiving through the first week of January, the River Walk twinkles with millions of colorful LED lights hanging from the cypress trees and giving the entire area a magical look for the holidays. On weekends, thousands of luminarias (votive candles in sand-filled white sacks) are lit in a centuries-old tradition, symbolically lighting the way for the Holy Family.
By next year, a $358 million expansion project is expected to be completed, lengthening the River Walk to 15 miles and making it the largest urban ecosystem in the country. Much of the newer portion will be devoted to aquatic and woodland habitats, with areas for picnicking, hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking.
"That will give us a 2,000-acre park through the heart of the nation's seventh-largest city," said Steven Schauer of the San Antonio River Authority. "That's 2 1/2 times the size of New York City's Central Park."
Another way to get a look at the city's holiday light show is from the air. One night shortly after dusk we boarded a small copter flown by Alamo Helicopter Tours (www.alamohelicoptertours.com) and buzzed the downtown area, circling the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas, built for the 1968 World's Fair, before heading back to Stinson Airport.
A special theme park
The city is one of the few besides Orlando that can claim two major theme parks: Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio. Between them, the two giant parks bring in millions of visitors each year, a mix of locals and out-of-towners.
But there's a third theme park in town that's like no other in the country.
Opened in 2010, Morgan's Wonderland (www.morganswonderland.com) is the first major amusement park built specifically for people with disabilities. The rides and attractions in the 25-acre park are fully accessible for children and adults with a range of physical or mental challenges. For example, the carousel, train ride, and off-road racing cars are all usable by guests in wheelchairs.
The park was built by a local developer, Gordon Hartman, in honor of his daughter Morgan, who has special needs. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for children and special needs guests of any age are free.
"Families can come here and do things together they've never been able to do before," said Jere Delano, the park's volunteer coordinator.
When it comes time to eat, San Antonio has dining for every taste, from spicy Tex-Mex to sweet barbecue to gourmet fare. It's become such a foodie haven in recent years that the prestigious Culinary Institute of America has opened one of its three national campuses here, in the former Pearl Brewery complex. The 1880s brewery, now a burgeoning urban village, houses nearly a dozen restaurants, bars and shops, and more are planned.
The best-known eatery in town is the family-owned Mi Tierra Cafe (www.mitierracafe.com), a huge, colorful, noisy place that's been in business for 70 years. Popular with both locals and tourists, it's open 24/7 and serves some of the best Mexican food anywhere, with specialties such as cabrito (baked goat) and beef-stuffed poblano pepper. One of the walls is covered with a 70-foot mural featuring more than 200 Latino luminaries, from Carlos Santana to Cesar Chavez to Eva Longoria.
There are plenty of lodging choices in the city, and if you choose one along the river downtown you can park the car and forget about it during your visit. We stayed at the Westin Riverwalk on a quiet bend in the river but close to most of the River Walk attractions. And it even has a nice Italian restaurant of its own called Zocca.
With all that it has to offer visitors, it's little wonder that each year San Antonio entices more than 26 million people to venture deep into the heart of Texas.
Information: San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-447-3372 or www.visitsanantonio.com
Mike Kelly, a former reporter at the Toledo Blade, is a travel writer and editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.