Guide to the coolest neighbourhood in San Antonio: Pearl District

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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About the Author:

I’m a freelance writer with bad hair, a loud mouth and a serious case of wanderlust. Whether it’s luggage, time or just life, I cram as much as possible into small compartments. Warning: Contents may shift during flight. My life is one bumpy ride! Follow me on Twitter or Pinterest.

14 Comments

  1. Meagan 09.09.2017 at 11:01 - Reply

    That hotel looks INCREDIBLE on the inside! I love decor like that – industrial chic 🙂 And set in a neighborhood like that? I don’t have any experience with Texas, but now I want to. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jody 09.09.2017 at 13:31 - Reply

      Yes, Hotel Emma is pretty spectacular. Love your term ‘industrial chic’!

  2. Heather 09.09.2017 at 14:11 - Reply

    I’ve never been to San Antonio, and clearly the Pearl District is a Must-Do when I do visit! I love the hotel that was re-purposed from an old brewery. It appears that they’ve done a really great job of making a functional cozy hotel, but still preserve the history. I’d love to spend a weekend there doing some shopping and kicking off my days at Bakery Lorraine. That quiche looks to-die-for! Thanks for putting this very hip district on my radar!

    • Jody 10.09.2017 at 19:41 - Reply

      Yes, they’ve done a fantastic job of preserving the history of the hotel and the neighbourhood. You’re sure to love it.

  3. Sarah 10.09.2017 at 04:57 - Reply

    What a unique neighbourhood! Hotel Emma looks very cool, I love the decor inside and all the repurposed artefacts. And take me to Patisserie Lorraine now – that quiche looks to die for! I live just across the French border and it’s making me want to take a day trip right now! Will definitely try and find our way here if we are ever in Texas, thanks so much for sharing!

    • Jody 10.09.2017 at 19:43 - Reply

      I’m so jealous you live right across the French border!

  4. amit 10.09.2017 at 06:29 - Reply

    Wow, this is really surprising, If I was to think of San Antonio, admittedly being from England I don’t know too much about it. However I wouldn’t think of it being a hip place. I have to admit it wasn’t on my list of places to visit when I eventually do my USA trip but reading through this post I might just have to add it on. Also would love to visit the JazzTX I love quirky bars in weird places 😀

    • Jody 10.09.2017 at 19:44 - Reply

      I didn’t know much about San Antonio either. But I did know about the Alamo. I was shocked that it’s right downtown!

  5. Reshma 12.09.2017 at 14:01 - Reply

    I have only heard different things about Texas, and San Antonio looks lovely. A lovely hotel like that fits oerfectly in a pretty neighborhood like this. Hope to be there someday!

    • Jody 12.09.2017 at 14:12 - Reply

      Yes, Texas is so very different. I was surprised by the diversity.

  6. Mia 12.09.2017 at 22:05 - Reply

    I love your description of the “pinch-ably soft house-made bread”! I had no idea that San Antonio had such a cool “hip” neighborhood. I’ve been to the River Walk but nothing like this. Hotel Emma is definitely a place I would stay. My hubby and I love craft brews so we’d be right at home there.

  7. Janna 13.09.2017 at 01:04 - Reply

    Okay wow that Hotel Emma sure looks so picture perfect! Loved the decor so much. I really like staying at hotels with charming and chic qualities like this one. I’m definitely checking this hotel out when I visit San Antonio.

    • Jody 13.09.2017 at 09:39 - Reply

      I hope you do. Please circle back and let me know if you made it.

  8. […] to the Culinary Institute of America (yes, you can take classes!), this mixed-use neighbourhood ticks all the right boxes. It’s got live music every Thursday night, a weekend farmer’s […]

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