More than Alamo

An 11-by-18-foot neon Texas flag greets visitors to the Institute of Texan Cultures, a museum that explores the contributions of the many ethnic groups that settled in the state.

SAN ANTONIO — This city is known for the Alamo and the River Walk, and rightly so, but don’t stop there. The small downtown is packed with interesting sites, and visitors can get around by trolley and river taxi. Beyond the city limits, Texas Hill Country beckons those with access to a car.

Step into the past The Alamo is smack-dab in the center of downtown. Even if you have a car, leave it at your hotel — parking is hard to find. The trolley runs every 10 minutes and costs only $1.10.

Admission to the Alamo is free. For an overview, catch one of the free history talks given in the courtyard daily at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. For more details, rent a video tour or pay for a battlefield tour.

During their final battle in 1836, the Alamo’s defenders holed up in the Long Barrack along the compound’s northern wall. That barrack is now a museum.

Although the Alamo is the best-known of San Antonio’s Spanish missions, it is just one of five built along the San Antonio River from 1718 to 1749. The other four — Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada — make up the San Antonio Missions National Park. You can drive, hike or bike among them, or take a public bus. All four offer cellphone tours in English and in Spanish. In addition, all four are active Catholic parishes that hold church services.

Back downtown, the San Fernando Cathedral, right off the Main Plaza, is an active church and a historic site. A marble coffin near the door holds the remains of the defenders of the Alamo, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.

The Spanish Governor’s Palace is a few blocks away. Admission is $4.

Hitting the shops The view from the back garden of the Governor’s Palace through a store window led me to the most interesting shop I found in San Antonio. Marti’s, at 301 W. Commerce St., imports artisan jewelry, designer fashion and decor from Mexico. A multicolored floor-length halter dress made by Armando Mafud was spectacular, and $2,500.

La Villita, the city’s first neighborhood, is nearby on the south bank of the San Antonio River. Most of the neighborhood’s historic homes now house shops and art galleries.

For even more shopping and dining, check out Market Square, also called El Mercado.

The River Walk La Villita and El Mercado are dotted with restaurants, but a better selection is on the River Walk, a five-mile stretch of the San Antonio River bordered by sidewalks and crisscrossed with bridges. The center portion of the River Walk is crowded with restaurants, bars and hotels. Strolling mariachi bands fill the evenings with music.

You can take a walking tour or a 45-minute tour by water. Or hop in a water taxi for a scenic cruise.

Good eating I ventured outside downtown for two of my Tex-Mex meals. Breakfast tacos are a San Antonio standard. A friend recommended Panchito’s, 4100 McCullough Avenue. The special taco, scrambled eggs with chorizo, potatoes and beans, was $1.59.

My friend also introduced me to the bean burger, also called the tostado burger, another San Antonio specialty. She sent me to Chris Madrid’s, 1900 Blanco Road, for a griddled quarter-pound beef patty augmented with a scoop of refried beans, a scattering of fresh onions, a handful of tortilla chips and a slice of cheese, all contained (barely) between two halves of a bun.

There’s no shortage of fine dining in San Antonio, either. When chef Mark Bliss opened a restaurant at 926 South Presa Str., the name he and the restaurant share proved to be prophetic. A meal at Bliss was, indeed ... blissful. My scallops and grits upped the ante on the shrimp-and-grits trend and won hands down.

On my way out of town I stopped for a quick lunch at Barbecue Station, 1610 N.E. Loop 410, just a few miles from the airport. This is a real barbecue joint, housed in a former gasoline station.