By Trudy Ring
Originally published on Advocate.com April 18 2013 4:00 AM ET
When you visit San Antonio, you’ll no doubt remember the Alamo, but you’ll also find much more that’s memorable about this beautiful, diverse, LGBT-friendly South Texas metropolis: delicious Mexican-influenced food, culture high and low, and a readiness to party, especially for a good cause.
And springtime, a perfect season to visit San Antonio, is when the city hosts its annual “party with a purpose,” Fiesta San Antonio (Fiesta-SA.org). This year’s Fiesta runs April 18-28 and consists of more than 100 official events, all produced by and benefiting local nonprofit organizations and military units, San Antonio being home to Lackland Air Force Base and other military installations.
The Fiesta provides a good opportunity to get to know this charming city, which has a lot going for it. With a population of 1.3 million, it’s the seventh-largest city in the United States and the second-largest in Texas (yes, bigger than Dallas, and taking a backseat only to Houston). But even with such a large population, it’s compact and manageable, big on natural beauty and historic architecture. Politically, it’s an oasis of blue in the deeply red Lone Star State.
Visitors may be inclined to forget about politics while enjoying the Fiesta, though. Tourists and locals alike turn out for Fiesta events, which offer something for just about everyone. The most gay-popular celebration is the Webb Party, this year on April 19, the largest fund-raiser of the year for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. It’s held at the majestic, castle-like Lambermont Estate (built in 1894 by a former ambassador to Belgium in homage to European architecture) and features cocktails, music by bands and top DJs, and cuisine from the city’s best restaurants.
Another not-to-be-missed Fiesta event is the Texas Cavaliers River Parade on April 22, with floats that literally float — they’re boats on the San Antonio River. Spectators gather in the city’s scenic Riverwalk, a network of walkways through downtown San Antonio that’s lined with restaurants, bars, and shops, to view the festively decorated boats that usually come with musical accompaniment. Riders on the floats will also toss you beads, as in the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.
Then there’s a Night in Old San Antonio, actually a four-night food and entertainment festival, in La Villita, the city’s oldest neighborhood, with structures dating as far back as 1835. Set for April 23-26, NIOSA offers more than 240 food and drink booths for sampling San Antonio cuisine. (Be sure to try the Broadway chicken, a spicy chicken filet on a stick topped with a jalapeño pepper.)
Fiesta events also include “taste of” food fests in several other neighborhoods, a masquerade ball, fashion and art shows, a display of traditional Mexican equestrian arts called a charreada, a casino night, and many more. A popular custom is collecting the decorative pins, known as “medals” to locals, that are for sale (or sometimes given away) at events and wearing them on a sash. Residents often trade medals with one another, and while there’s no official competition for amassing the most, more is definitely better.
As many Fiesta events require a lot of walking, at some point you’ll be happy to settle into a theater seat to sit back and just laugh for a couple hours. And laugh you will at the Cornyation, a sketch-comedy review that satirizes politicians and celebs and benefits local AIDS charities, among others. Last year, targets of the show’s irreverent, campy, and sometimes risqué humor included Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann; one joke had the latter considering a move to Texas after her failed presidential campaign, as it was the only state morally bankrupt enough to have her. There are two performances nightly April 23-25 at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, a beautifully restored former vaudeville and movie house.
Though it’s not an official Fiesta event, you shouldn’t miss the inaugural San Antonio Q Fest, an LGBT film festival benefiting Pride San Antonio. It will be held April 21-23 at the historic, rehabbed Woodlawn Theatre. The lineup was still being assembled at press time, but you can get more info at FarrisFamilyFP.com.
San Antonio offers ample LGBT-centric places to party. Downtown is the Bonham Exchange (pictured above; BonhamExchange.net); it’s a dance club in a historic building with daily drink specials and a weekly comedy contest. Farther afield, there’s a concentration of gay clubs along North Main Avenue. They include Heat (HeatSA.com), a hopping video and dance club that also has drag shows; Sparky’s Pub (SparkysPub.com), with a mellow, British-style atmosphere; and Pegasus Nightclub (PegasusSanAntonio.com), four bars in one, with karaoke, video, leather, and country venues. A bit farther north, on Coachlight Street, is the new and popular SA Country Saloon (visit its Facebook page). These clubs all have a mostly gay clientele, but they’re welcoming to lesbians, trans and straight folks, and everyone else.
San Antonio is a food-lover’s paradise. On the Riverwalk, a couple of great choices are La Paloma (LaPalomaRiverwalk.com) and Boudro’s (Boudros.com); there’s a distinct Mexican flavor to the menu at both, but other influences too. A bit outside of downtown, La Gloria (LaGloriaIceHouse.com) offers delicious re-creations of Mexican street foods at the Pearl Brewery (AtPearl.com), once Texas’s largest beer brewer, now reborn as a home to trendy shops, restaurants, and a year-round farmers’ market. Also at the Pearl is a campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIAChef.edu/Texas), where you can take a “boot camp” to learn how to make gourmet dishes and also dine at affiliated restaurants. Near the King William District is the Guenther House (pictured above; GuentherHouse.com), the former mansion of a flour-mill entrepreneur that’s now a lovely museum with a restaurant serving luscious breakfasts and fabulous bakery goods. And several restaurants offer unforgettable cocktail and dinner cruises on the river. Find a list at RioSanAntonio.com.
Home2 Suites by Hilton (Home2Suites3.Hilton.com), in a renovated 1919 building, offers comfy studios and one-bedroom suites, including cooking facilities, in San Antonio’s easily walkable downtown, just blocks from the Riverwalk, the Alamo, and other attractions. Other recommended hotels include the picturesque, historic Hotel Havana (HavanaSanAntonio.com), built in 1914 and located on the northern stretch of the Riverwalk, and the luxe Westin Riverwalk (WestinRiverwalkSanAntonio.com), overlooking the river downtown.
Art and Culture
The San Antonio Museum of Art has a diverse collection that includes a trove of Mexican folk art amassed by the late politician and philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller and, in the contemporary galleries, Ed Saavedra’s painting of gay pioneer Harvey Milk. Don’t miss one of the museum’s most unusual pieces, a tapestry copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which Picasso commissioned master weavers René and Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach to create in the 1950s. SAMuseum.org
Villa Finale, a mansion built in 1876, was once the home of bachelor stockbroker, investment banker, and inveterate collector Walter Mathis, who bought it in 1967. Today it’s a showcase for the many artifacts accumulated by Mathis, who died in 2005. Every room is filled with fine furniture, pieces of art, and collectible items reflecting Mathis’s varied interests: the life of Napoléon Bonaparte, European decorative arts, and Texas painters, to name just a few. VillaFinale.org