Where to go in San Antonio for culture, culinary and shopping? The Pearl District!

Behold America’s coolest culinary and cultural capital (Photo credit: Julie Warenoff)

Hip wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when visiting San Antonio for the first time. The city is known for Fiesta and its River Walk – both famous, but not exactly trendy. Then I ventured into the San Antonio Pearl District, a mix use neighbourhood that comprises the Culinary Institute of America, inventive restaurants, boutiques and the palatial new Hotel Emma. To say I was enchanted, would be an understatement.

The Pearl San Antonio

The historic neighbourhood began life in the 1880s – around the same time Laura Ingalls was frolicking on the prairie, and when, in this town, the Pearl Brewing Company sprung up. Linked by the river and the brewery, the Pearl neighbourhood is now gentrified after years of neglect since the brewery closed in 2001. Now it’s a cultural and culinary destination, sporting a vibe like Austin rocked before it reached peak hipness. If you’re looking for a warm, cultural getaway, consider San Antonio. Then make a beeline for the Pearl District. Here’s a game plan for your time there.

San Antonio Hotel Emma

At the heart of the district is Hotel Emma (Photo credit: Madeline Ritchie)

Where to eat in the Pearl District

Jump-start  your day with a French-style patisserie from Bakery Lorraine. The pastry chef owners met while working for Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bakery in Napa Valley. The loft style space has an industrial feel about it, but cheeky political art dotting the walls warms it up. You line up and order at the counter, then meals are brought to your table.

french lunch

You’d think you were in France eating Quiche Lorraine at Bakery Lorriane. (Photo credit: Nick Simon)

Chocolate lovers are sure sure to ooh and ahh over the European-style hot chocolate. It’s so thick, it coats your teeth. I was in heaven sharing a gooey croque madam, then moved onto white corn grits topped with roasted mushrooms, piperade (stewed tomatoes and onions) and a perfectly poached egg. Lunch is also worth popping in for with elevated sandwich fixings crammed between thick slices of pinch-ably soft house-made bread. The kitchen closes at 6 p.m., so earmark this for your breakfast or lunch destination.

For dinner, consider Cured, where Chef Steve McHugh is a James Beard finalist. This is the spot for house-made cured dishes from pickles to charcuterie (regular and fancy speciality meats like Pineapple Chile Pork Rillettes). In summer, try their five-course corn tasting menu.

Music lovers can’t miss Jazz,TX. Situated in the cellar of the bottling house of the former brewery, it’s as atmospheric as you might expect. The menu at this upscale jazz club is small, but full of soul. Think rabbit-rattlesnake sausage to round out your mac and cheese, creamed mustard greens and foie gras brisket tacos.

There are only three Culinary Institute of America outposts in the U.S., and one just happens to be situated in the Pearl District. This one offers public classes! You can sign up for a two to five day boot camp to get schooled by the world’s top culinary instructors. Pressed for time, or perhaps afraid you’ll get yelled at by a chef? Chose to dine at their restaurant: Nao, operated by students.

san antonio farmer's market

All year round on Saturday and Sunday there’s a farmer’s market. (Photo credit: Scott Martin)

Shopping in the Pearl District

Between meals, there’s plenty of places to indulge in a little retail therapy. It’s all indie shops – many of which focus on local artisans and South Texas culture. The Tiny Finch offers earthy, one-of-a-kind gifts, homewares, clothing and jewelry. I adored Melissa Guerra, which specializes in Mexican cookware, kitchen supplies and specialty ingredients.

You could lose hours inside Twig Book Shop, San Antonio’s most well-known independent book store. For the modern gentleman, The Sporting District carries clothing, accessories and lifestyle merchandise. And Dos Carolinas is the spot to get a bespoke Guayaberas shirt made.

Hotel Emma

The pulse of the Pearl District beats at Hotel Emma. Until 2001, it was a brewery. Now, it’s one of America’s coolest hotels. A brew aficionados dream, its stunning restoration preserved the brewery, yet the space feels more intimate than industrial. A stay here is more like visiting a well appointed home versus checking into a hotel.

Sternewirth Hotel Emma

The public areas in Hotel Emma are worth lounging in (Photo credit Madeline Ritchie)

Contributing to that vibe is the hand crafted margarita all guests are issued in the library immediately upon check-in. Go ahead and explore the 3,700 book collection or skulk around the property. You’ll find repurposed Co2 tanks and bottle fillers transformed into chandeliers.

texan bedroom

Guest rooms are luxe artisanal but not hippy (Photo credit: Madeline Ritchie)

Pearl Brewery Restaurants

Guest rooms are all about the details, from Frette towels to a hidden icebox stocked with provisions. Sip a cocktail at  Sternewirth bar and you might get seated inside a brewery tank. For light eats, check out the Larder Cafe, a bustling mercantile dishing out salads, house-made biscuits, glasses of wine and groceries. Next time I visit, I’m going to park myself next to the rooftop pool.

Neighbourhood guide to the Pearl District San Antonio

I didn’t expect to become so smitten with San Antonio, but that’s the beauty of travel. It opens your eyes to wonderful places you never had on your radar. The city is less than a three-hour drive from Houston. Air Canada now flies there direct from Toronto. I know I’ll be back.

Have you ever been to San Antonio? What are your favourite spots in the city?

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