The San Antonio Riverwalk is the most recognized and visited attraction in San Antonio outside of the Alamo (which is the most visited attraction in Texas). Residents and visitors alike love the atmosphere, restaurants, and entertainment that the Riverwalk provides. However, after nearly 80 years of history and multiple expansions the Riverwalk offers much more than most realize. We chose a few of our favorites.
The San Antonio Riverwalk was partially funded by the Works Progress Administration.
Photo courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.
Famously known as the “WPA”, the Works Progress Administration served as a fundamental portion of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The goal of the administration was to provide work to the unemployed while also using the manpower to update and improve infrastructure throughout the country. The San Antonio Riverwalk was one project chosen to receive WPA assistance. Many of the bridges and walkways you see today were originally built as part of the program!
…serves as an intricate drainage system.
The Riverwalk may make for a great destination, but it also serves as an important drainage and floodgate system for the city of San Antonio. In the early 1900’s the downtown area suffered from periodic flooding, an issue that wasn’t helped by the San Antonio River, which ran straight through downtown. In fact nearly 50 people were killed in 1921 as a result of a downtown flood. The idea for the Riverwalk actually began as a simple drainage system incorporating the San Antonio River before Robert Hugman introduced the idea of having an intricate flood gate system that doubled as a marquee urban walk space. He felt as if the river was a great resource for the city that needed to be utilized effectively. Luckily, Hugman had the foresight to present a proposal that saved the river from turning into an urban drainage ditch, and provided the starting point for today’s Riverwalk.
…stretches to the Mission Trail.
In the past few years the San Antonio community has made an intentional effort to connect different San Antonio landmarks with the Riverwalk. Most recently, this has resulted in Riverwalk extensions known as the “Mission Reach” and the “Museum Reach”. The Mission Reach stretches from downtown past the Blue Star Arts complex, an eventually reaches trails leading to the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park a few miles downstream. This new connection allows the River to serve as a gateway between downtown and the San Antonio Mission Trail, connecting visitors directly to San Antonio’s recently announced World Heritage Site.
…connects to the Pearl Brewery Complex.
The Museum Reach portion of the Riverwalk connects the traditional Riverwalk area to the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Southwest School of Art, and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. However, many may not realize that at the very end of the extension lies the Pearl Brewery. That’s right, San Antonio’s most trendy new retail complex, and the brand new Hotel Emma are connected directly to the rest of downtown by the San Antonio Riverwalk. If the walk seems too long, you can even take a river taxi!
…is home to fish both above and below.
When walking along the Riverwalk at night there are a variety of artistic features that are hard to miss. From waterfalls and grottos, to twinkling lights, the River takes on a new form at night. The most notable works of art are the F.I.S.H. sculptures located under the Interstate 35 overpass. Serving the double purpose of lighting the area and providing beautiful art, the fish glow a variety of colors and appear as if they are swimming through the air.
…serves as a movie backdrop.
The Riverwalk has been used as a backdrop in many different movies and television shows. The plethora of bridges, views, and different levels make the Riverwalk a great backdrop. The smash hit “Selena” starring Jennifer Lopez famously filmed scenes at the river. More recently portions of Sandra Bullock’s “Miss Congeniality” were set in San Antonio, with one of the most famous scenes of the movie taking place on one of the river’s many picturesque bridges.
…connects the downtown area.
While the Riverwalk is famous as a tourist destination it’s also important to remember that San Antonio is a working city just like any other. Travel downtown on a weekday in the offseason and you’ll see that the Riverwalk also serves as a key piece of infrastructure for downtown professionals. Whether as a shortcut to the Bexar County Courthouse, or a quick connection to a good lunch, the Riverwalk selves as a central hub for the downtown workforce.
When walking along the Riverwalk you may notice that there is an island in the middle of the portion connecting the Rivercenter mall to most restaurants. While the island may seem unassuming, it is actually unofficially known as “Wedding Island”. The island is commonly mentioned as one of the most popular wedding venues in the city! Wedding Island plays host to hundreds of ceremonies each year and rumor has it that the wait time to be married there has been as long as two years in the past.
…serves as a parade route.
The Riverwalk is famous for hosting river parades throughout the year. San Antonio’s favorite way to celebrate, river parades invite citizens to line the banks of the Riverwalk while river barges are decorated as parade floats and navigate the river. From Fiesta, to Holiday Lights, to Spurs Championship parades, any excuse is a great excuse for a parade on the river! The most unique parade may be the St. Patrick’s day parade. In celebration of the occasion the entire river is dyed green!
…dries up once a year.
You may wonder why the city would go through the effort of cleaning up after a green river. The truth is that the Riverwalk is drained each year for cleaning anyway, so scheduling the cleaning directly after the parade makes perfect sense! Each year after the parade the Riverwalk is completely drained as crews come in to perform maintenance and clean out items that have been lost throughout the year. The crews tend to find plenty of long lost items, including everything from sunglasses to diamond jewelry!
…connects to the Alamo.
Nowadays it’s easy to take for granted that the Riverwalk connects directly to the Alamo Plaza. However, getting to the Alamo from the Riverwalk wasn’t always so simple. Before 1981 there was not a direct route from the Riverwalk itself to Texas’ top tourist attraction. That all changed when the Hyatt Regency hotel opened in 1981. The Hyatt provides a public walk through connecting the Riverwalk to the Alamo through a beautiful urban park lined with fountains.
…is marked by Johnny Cash.
It’s true that the influence of Johnny Cash can be felt throughout the Riverwalk. From the Hard Rock Café, to some of the biggest hits in country music playing in the background of busy restaurants, there is no doubt Johnny Cash has left his mark. He most interesting way Cash left his mark is actually quite literal. Johnny Cash sat on a Riverwalk bench with his first wife and carved “Johnny loves Vivian” into the wood. For many years visitors could sit on the same bench but the bench has since been removed for safekeeping.
…is a restaurant itself.
When touring the Riverwalk it’s not unusual to hop on a river barge and take a guided tour. But did you know you can set sail on the river for a gourmet meal? Boudro’s Texas Bistro offers patrons the opportunity to reserve a seat, or an entire barge for a first class dining experience including your own private tour of the river. A meal from one of the most notable restaurants in San Antonio combined with views of the entire Riverwalk makes dinner on a river barge provides the perfect way to celebrate an occasion.
…hosts a yearly canoe race.
Did you know the Riverwalk hosts a yearly canoe race? For each of the past 45 years the river has played host to the Canoe Challenge. Contestants from far and wide come to compete in a canoe race through the twists and turns of the river. Teams range from local companies to boy scouts in an event that provides a fun experience for all!
…draws comparisons to a famous floating city.
After spending some time at the Riverwalk you may notice a certain similarity to another famous city. With barges acting like gondolas and a water passage connecting portions of the city the Riverwalk has often been described as the “American Venice’. What may be most interesting is that the first official event on the Riverwalk welcomed a Venetian theme. While there may not be definitive proof that the Riverwalk was designed to resemble the Italian city, it seems clear the similarities have been noted since the beginning. Thankfully though the two areas are not similar in all respects. The Riverwalk isn’t sinking anytime soon and will continue to provide memories for years to come!