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 Hotel Emma. To say I was enchanted, would be an understatement.
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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 Pearl. Here’s a game plan for your time there.
The Pearl San Antonio Restaurants
There are many fantastic restaurants to eat at in San Antonio and many of them lie within Pearl. 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.
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 in Pearl, consider Cured, where Chef Steve McHugh is a multi James Beard Foundation Awards Finalist for Best Chef Southwest.. This is the spot for house-made cured dishes from pickles to charcuterie (regular and fancy speciality meats like Pineapple Chile Pork Rillettes). One summer, they had a five-course corn tasting menu!
Music lovers visiting San Antonio 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 sausage stuffed quail, jalapeno corn fritters with mole and brisket tacos.
There are only three Culinary Institute of America outposts in the U.S., and one just happens to be situated in San Antonio, in the Pearl District. This CIA 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: Savor, operated by students.
Pearl District Shopping
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. Likewise, Feliz Modern POP offers a dash of colour and candy to Pearl.
Beware, 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 San Antonio
The pulse of Pearl 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. We’re talking 19th century architectural bones here. So while it is all very grand (as evidenced by the AAA Five Diamond hotel designation), the old world charm doesn’t come with a side of pretension. We’re still in Texas, y’all.
Contributing to the big hearted hospitable 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 also find repurposed Co2 tanks and bottle fillers transformed into chandeliers. Guest rooms are all about the details, from Frette towels to a hidden icebox stocked with provisions.
Pearl Brewery Restaurants
In addition to the hotel, this old Pearl Brewery sports a few restaurants. 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 prepared meals like salads, house-made biscuits and gourmet groceries. For a more substantial bite, hit up Supper, an American eatery that offers creative, seasonal dishes.
For sure the next time I visit, I’m going to park myself next to the rooftop pool with another handcrafted margarita by my side.
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. I know I’ll be back, especially since Houston is such a hub and pretty much every major U.S. and Canadian city offers direct flights to Houston. From Houston, you can drive or take a short flight into San Antonio. You can also score connecting flights directly into San Antonio from hubs like Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, NYC and Denver, too.
Have you ever been to San Antonio? What are your favourite spots in the city?