I don’t care if you’re from the North Pole or wear a red suit and white beard all year. You cannot compete with the merriness and festiveness of San Antonio, Texas. Most people know it as the home of the Alamo. But if you visit around the holidays, you’ll find an explosion of twinkly lights, bright colors, amazing food, and cozy family traditions. You can even enjoy it all in a light jacket. It’s essentially North Pole South, but the first jolly man you see will be wearing a cowboy hat.
Ho ho ho in San Antonio. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Here are the many levels on which you cannot compete:
Does your neighborhood do a festive light display in every house, where all the neighbors come together to execute a carefully chosen theme? I’m sure it’s adorable.
But San Antonio has lined the downtown portion of its River Walk with traditional twinkling lights, holiday-colored floodlights, and even underwater lights in the actual river.
From dusk to dawn until Jan. 2, you’ll find festive lights up and down the River Walk. (Photo: Getty Images)
Alongside the riverbank this weekend, you’ve got about 6,000 luminarias (a Mexican Christmas lantern made by placing a candle in a small paper bag. Volunteers spend nearly two hours lighting the candles each night.
Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery is so festive, it leaves these lights up all year. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
And for indoor lights, head to Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery, the sparkliest Mexican restaurant ever. They’re open 24 hours and have so many Christmas lights, they leave most of them up all year.
Photo: Lara Naaman
There is even a shrine to Tejano singer Selena (above) that has nothing to do with Christmas – it’s just awesome.
Do you belong to a caroling group and go from house to house singing? These ladies do it on a boat.
Caroling is better when it’s done on a boat. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
More than 185 choral groups, bell choirs, folk bands, and Latino ensembles cruise the river performing carols aboard boats. You can watch from a restaurant patio or a bridge. Singing along is encouraged, and you’ll be listening by choice. Not because strangers rang your doorbell.
Holiday Boat Caroling: This weekend. A different group performs each hour between 6-8:15 p.m.
You can’t say Christmas without a San Antonio Spurs tree! (Photo: Lara Naaman)
3. Themed Christmas trees
San Antonio likes to put a local spin on its décor. In front of the Alamo, the tree is done up in San Antonio Spurs paraphernalia.
The Witte Museum, a natural history museum dedicated to the science, history, and culture of South Texas, has this antler tree topped with peacock feathers. The Hotel Emma, San Antonio’s hottest new lodging, has added some real cactus to its tree for an extra Western feel.
A real cactus for a tree ornament. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
4. Christmas tamales
You may have a favorite holiday cookie recipe that you bake in large quantities to take to parties, give as gifts, or serve at home. People may have told you they are delicious.
Your cookies are nothing.
San Antonio has tamales. These delightful corn masa-based treats are a holiday tradition, and can be sweet with raisins and cinnamon. They can be savory with cheese, meat, beans, and spices. The most important ingredients are lard and fun. You’re supposed to grab family members or friends, get everyone an apron and a bowl, then chat and laugh while you mix and boil.
Why doesn’t everyone eat tamales for Christmas? (Photo: Lara Naaman)
And if gathering in the kitchen with your family is a notion that sends you straight for the egg nog, pick up some ready-made macarons at Bakery Lorraine. They have rotating seasonal flavors including egg nog, sweet potato pie, and peppermint.
5. The Nativity Scene
San Fernando Cathedral in all its Christmas glory. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Your local church may have its traditional Mary, Joseph, and baby in the manger. But San Antonio has an entire façade at San Fernando Cathedral lit up with projected, dancing lights that tell the city’s history.
Nearby food trucks sell Mexican Hot Chocolate to keep you warm during the 20-minute light show.
(Show times are 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.)
6. Holiday Shopping
Your local mall has many adorable ornaments, traditional stockings, and holiday garlands.
San Antonio’s Historic Market Square operates year-round but goes extra festive in December. Why don’t you replace your boring red-and-white stocking with a Texas flag stocking! Your regular twinkly lights could certainly use a little bit of Howdy. Why not also hang some Cowboy boot Christmas lights? And be sure to add a little Mexico flair with some sombrero or piñata ornaments.
Santa would prefer stuffing a Texas flag stocking. (Photo: Lara Naaman)
And if you’ve had your fill of holiday cheer, there are tons of other things to keep you entertained. Here are just a few
Hotel Emma. This gorgeous yet cozy boutique hotel was originally Pearl’s Brewhouse, and has integrated features of the brewery into its modern industrial décor. Rooms are comfortable with cozy local touches. Coffee and muffins are served each morning in the Hotel Lobby. Oh, and if you normally take milk in your coffee, they suggest you upgrade with some readily available dulce de leche.
NAO Latin Gastro Bar. Travel through all of Latin America in just one menu. The creative offerings rotate seasonally. If you can get the chocolate chip cookie bread pudding, you win at life.
Get some culture
The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Having just opened in September 2014, the building itself is one of the most visually fascinating in the city. It combines an existing Spanish Mission façade with a sprawling modern, angular metallic addition. The panels of the new exterior become an LED light show at night. And if you want to go inside, the calendar is full of world-class and local performances to enjoy.
Get some history
San Antonio Missions National Historic Park includes the four missions that aren’t the Alamo: Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Espada and Mission Concepción. The park was recently named a World Heritage Site, the first in the state of Texas. While I was there, a park ranger was demonstrating how to use an atlatl, a giant throwing spear used by the native South Texas tribes for hunting. It was pretty awesome.
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