Open Road

This Holiday Season, Gift Yourself a Trip to San Antonio

Get out of town—and do some quality last-minute Christmas shopping while you’re at it.

By Katharine Shilcutt November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Pearl Brewery

“Are y’all dentists?” asked the shopkeeper at a kitschy San Antonio souvenir store. My mother and I looked up from the Alamo-themed postcards we’d been browsing. Aside from my mother’s perfectly white and perfectly straight teeth, the question seemed completely unmotivated. “No, why?” I finally responded after a few puzzled seconds. 

“There’s about 50,000 of ’em in town this weekend,” the shopkeeper drawled on. Some kind of convention. Then again, there’s always some kind of convention here.”

It’s true, mostly. Still, there are two periods during which tourist-saturated San Antonio isn’t also full of convention-goers. The first of these, according to both the shopkeeper and the City of San Antonio, is the low season, also known as August, when the town’s scorching heat scares away all but the most intrepid visitors. The second is December. “It’s quiet here then,” said our shopkeeper, before adding that most Texan of comments about the winter weather: “And it gets cold enough to wear socks!”

Furniture finds at Mockingbird Handprints

It was mid-October at the time, and my mother and I were visiting San Antonio just as the first cool snap was settling over the city—not quite sock weather, but close. The 50,000 dentists mingled freely with the tourists who lined up outside Ripley’s Wax Museum and snapped selfies in front of the Alamo. By December, their numbers should have thinned considerably, making San Antonio—a shopping city par excellence—the perfect choice for a Christmas gift hunting, girls’ getaway weekend. 

Stop number one should be the swanky Alamo Heights district, where you can comb through local boutiques like Penny Lane—the handmade leather flip-flops with brass studs are particularly appealing—before lunching on tarragon chicken salad sandwiches and cupcakes a few doors down at Bird Bakery, which looks like what might happen if an Anthropologie exploded inside a patisserie.

The stores tucked under the wide ’50s-era awnings of nearby Sunset Ridge shopping center are also worth exploring, especially for the statement earrings at Aquarius, the candles and cookware at Sunset Ridge Home & Hardware (San Antonio’s answer to Bering’s), and the luxe camping gear at outdoorsy Tackle Box Outfitters.

The Pearl Brewery complex just north of downtown is alluring too, whether you’re in San Antonio to shop, dine, or just to poke around. After combing through vintage cowboy boots and handmade jewelry at Leighelena, handmade guayabera shirts at Dos Carolinas, papel picado placemats and freshly-roasted café de olla at Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market (a Latin version of Sur la Table), or trying on chic, colorfully embroidered wool jackets at Adelante, reward yourself with cortados and macarons at Local Coffee. Then, repair to the main green overlooking the Victorian-era Pearl Brewery building itself, where, on sunny December afternoons, the green plays host to throngs of children and dogs running amok, that and the occasional old man napping in a chair, a hardcover book opened across his face to block out the sun.

At night, consider visiting one of this writer’s favorite restaurants in San Antonio, The Monterey. Chad Carey—who also owns the much buzzed-over Hot Joy down the street—has created a menu in the King William District that will have the foodies in your family reveling in the unusual creations—e.g., bacon rillettes with yuzu vinegar, egg yolk, and whipped pork fat—while everyone else mows down the fried chicken with country ham macaroni salad and pulled pork sandwiches. As befits a restaurant carved out of an old Sunglo gas station, The Monterey is small inside, but there’s a large side patio ideal for spreading out and sipping wine under the San Antonio night sky—or under heaters during sock weather.

As for lodging, my mother and I couldn’t resist El Tropicano, a ’60s-era hotel on the quieter end of the River Walk that just completed a massive, multimillion-dollar renovation. The updates included spiffing up much of the midcentury kitsch that made El Tropicano such a destination to begin with, including its pool and fire pits, the tiki bar overlooking the River Walk (perfect for a nightcap of mai tais and mojitos), even its aviary filled with toucans. 

Another day should mean another shopping excursion, this time to Back Alley, an exceptional antique mall inside The Alley on Bitters—yet one more quaint shopping village filled with stores and cafés, just west of Alamo Heights. This is the place to find that unusual gift—old cocktail menus caught my eye, while my mother fell in love with some 18th-century French oaken armoires that, alas, couldn’t quite fit in my hatchback and for all I know may still be sitting there.

Many more gift ideas can be found among the galleries of the Blue Star Arts Complex south of downtown, which opened in 1986 as San Antonio’s first mixed-use development and continues to thrive, thanks to its beautiful views overlooking the San Antonio River, and perhaps too its proximity to I-10. On weekends, markets set up and sell everything from paintings to jewelry, old vinyl albums to handmade candles. The merchants to watch for are Mockingbird Handprints, offering custom furniture and textiles; San Angel Folk Art, a one-stop shop for crosses, boxes, baskets, Day of the Dead figurines, and luminarias, all by local metalworkers, woodworkers, and ceramicists; and the gallery of noted San Antonio pop artist Robert Lee Tatum, who sells everything from trays to napkin dispensers.

And no long, satisfying shopping weekend would be complete without grabbing a couple of lattes for the road at Halcyon, a coffee shop by day and bar by night inside Blue Star Arts. There’s no better place to lament the end of your perfect San Antonio weekend, your unspoiled, tourist-free, convention-less weekend, when you shopped without restriction and halcyon wasn’t just a coffee shop on the edge of town. 

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