WORLD CLASS FOOD, FUN, ATTRACTIONS, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, GREAT PEOPLE!
THE ALAMO CITY: ONE OF THE GREATEST PLACES ON EARTH!
We looked around in amazement as we stumbled our way across the dance floor, making our best attempt at the Texas Two Step. With one slight deviation from the normal flow of traffic (the other dancers), we would most certainly be overrun by cowboys flying around the dance floor twirling their dance partners around and around! The local band was playing a selection of Texas country music hits, as people of all shapes, sizes, and ages danced their hearts out (seriously from age 3 to probably the mid 80’s). Soon, we decided to take a beverage break, and we walked from the bar to the rodeo ring, right as one of the cowboys was mounting a bull. The bull didn’t seem to be thrilled about what was happening! Next thing we knew, the bull was bucking like crazy, and this cowboy held on for dear life. After what must have been the longest 8 seconds in this man’s life, the bull threw the cowboy to the ground. We couldn’t watch as we were positive he had broken something or was seriously injured. He rolled around, hopped up, and the crowd roared as the cowboy dusted himself off and celebrated, knowing that he had just finished the ride of his life. We were clearly out of our element here, but these people made us feel like family and most importantly, made us feel like true Texans. This was the start of a long, wonderful journey in this great state! Nowadays, Kristen often tells me that I should start a second career as a San Antonio tour guide. While that may still be a possibility someday (not really :-)), in the meantime, I thought I could share some of our favorite things to see and do (and eat! :-)) in San Antonio……..
In 2009, I found myself back where I felt I had always belonged ‐ TEXAS! My military career had first brought me to Texas (the beautiful Fort Hood in Killeen, TX :-)) in 2002, and my first job out of the military was in San Antonio. Everything about the Alamo city felt right, from the weather to the people, and when I saw an opportunity in Texas to expand the company for which I was working, I jumped on it. Throughout my life, I have lived and worked in many places, but never have I seen a place with more to offer than San Antonio. This town has jokingly become the place we call the “land of opportunity” because the growth potential and opportunity to prosper are staggering. Bottom line, if you can’t find work in San Antonio (with an unemployment rate of 3.5%, 6th lowest in the U.S.), you’re just not trying hard enough!
Back in 2009, I invited my girlfriend (now wife :-)), Kristen, to San Antonio for 5 days to try to convince her to spend the winter with me in the Alamo City. I had been commuting from Indianapolis to San Antonio every week, and those commutes with a new business and new relationship didn’t seem like a good long‐term plan. Because of the time I knew I would be spending in San Antonio, I had decided to purchase a second home in San Antonio, and I wanted Kristen’s input, as I hoped she would live there for at least part of the year as well!
Kristen had always lived in Indiana, so introducing her to San Antonio and convincing her to live here for part of the year would be a difficult task. She did seem to like the idea of trading the gray, frigid, Indiana winters, for a place where sunny skies are the norm, and the thermometer may only hit freezing one or two nights during the year. We were visiting in November, which is one of the best times to visit Texas. Warm temperatures (but not blazing) and clear and sunny skies shine down almost every day. In general, people who haven’t been to Texas seem to visualize a desert-like climate. This definitely isn’t the case, as San Antonio has lots of trees, green grass, flowers, and plenty of topography as it serves as the gateway to the Texas Hill Country. A lot of people don’t know this, but San Antonio actually has cooler weather in the summer time (and less humidity), and warmer weather in the winter time than Dallas, Houston and many of the other Texas cities.
We took an evening flight from Indiana and didn’t land in San Antonio until after midnight. After a delayed flight and short layover, we sacrificed dinner to make our connecting flight. Needless to say we were both starving, and even back in our dating days, Kristen wasn’t the friendliest person to be around when starving (she’s even friendlier today :-)). After arriving late, we wouldn’t normally have many good dining options, but fortunately one of the best restaurants in San Antonio was just getting warmed up!
Mi Tierra, oh Mi Tierra. Let’s get this out of the way right now…there are 3 types of food that you MUST eat while visiting San Antonio: Tex Mex (IE Mexican food), BBQ, and a good steak! It may have been 1:00 AM, but as their sign says ‘We Never Close,’ there was NO better place to grab a fun-filled Mexican meal than Mi Tierra Café. Tex Mex----check! Even at 1am, there were hardly any parking spaces available. We managed to find a spot, entered the restaurant, and immediately felt like we had been teleported into a quinceanera…holy cow! Mariachi bands everywhere, people dressed in authentic Mexican outfits, and LOTS of great Mexican food! We were immediately serenaded by one of the Mariachi bands. One of my favorite aspects of Mexican cuisine is that they bring you chips and salsa right away when you sit down. I understand why other restaurants don’t do that (because they don’t want you to fill up), but I sure wish they would! I ordered the variety fajita platter, and Kristen ordered the Chile Relleno, which is a stuffed Chile pepper full of cheese and other wonderful things. This was honestly more than we bargained for in the wee hours of the morning, but we weren’t complaining. We sang a quick tune with the Mariachi band, then headed to our hotel on the Riverwalk.
Nowadays, we own and manage many rental properties in San Antonio, and one of our favorite places to stay when we’re downtown is www.vrbo.com/423385. First of all, it’s a house versus a stuffy hotel room. So, if we have friends in for events downtown (like San Antonio’s Fiesta celebration in April), it’s so convenient to be able to stay together and enjoy the amenities of a home (versus separate hotel rooms). It’s a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath home (with a garage) that sits on an extremely large lot for downtown. Inside, the décor is ultra-modern, as it has the feel of a city loft, but then you realize it’s a full-size, single-family home. The downstairs features a completely open, efficient floor plan with a kitchen, living room, dining room, half bath, and laundry room. The upstairs features all 3 bedrooms, and 2 full bathrooms (master en-suite). There is also a queen-size sleeper sofa in the living room for additional sleeping capacity. The back yard features a beautiful stone patio, stainless steel gas grill, lots of outdoor living space, and a HUGE fenced-in yard. It rents for $195/night, which is less than many hotels downtown that can only accommodate 2-3 people. The best part is the location. Nestled in a quaint neighborhood right next to the Alamo Dome, and less than one mile from the Alamo and River Walk, the location is top notch. Many people ask how close the home is to the River Walk, but they don’t understand that the River Walk winds through all of downtown San Antonio, which is 5-6 miles long. Our home is located less than one mile from the River Center mall area (next to the Alamo), which is one of the main parts of the River Walk, but we ALWAYS recommend that guests rent a car, as San Antonio is very spread-out, and only offers VIA, the local bus network, for public transportation. If guests rely upon paying for taxis, they will spend a mint, as many parts of San Antonio are quite a long drive (San Antonio’s geographical spread is huge).
Okay, so back to our adventure…
Day 1 – With one of the 3 major San Antonio food groups checked off of our list, we were prepared for our first full day in SA! We couldn’t miss the most important meal of the day, especially when that meal featured the Guenther House , a historic home-turned-restaurant located in a quiet part of the River Walk, just a few miles from where we were staying.
Here, breakfast is served all day, and once you try it, you’ll understand why. Weekends feature a scrumptious brunch, and during the week, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Being a heavy eater, I couldn’t resist Guenther’s Favorite Breakfast Platter, which consisted of two freshly baked Pioneer Brand Buttermilk Biscuits, a side of Pioneer’s Country Gravy with crumbled sausage, our choice of one of their San Antonio River Mill preserves (peach, strawberry, blackberry or jalapeño), served with fresh seasonal fruit and our choice of Applewood smoked bacon or country sausage patties. Wow, I’m getting hungry just writing this! Kristen tried the Southern Sweet Cream Waffle, a delicately light, sweet waffle made from Guenther’s world famous River Mill Southern Sweet Cream Waffle Mix. The coffee was wonderful, and our day could officially begin!
We decided to spend our first full day in San Antonio downtown, as we wanted to be sure to see many of the famous landmarks for which the city is known. As a general rule of thumb for San Antonio visitors, everyone wants to see the Alamo and River Walk downtown, but there is SO MUCH more to see in San Antonio (as you’ll soon find out J), so as you’re planning your trip, be sure to allocate time to explore other parts of the city. San Antonio is like 20 different cities in one, with fun things to see in many different areas. As the number one tourist destination in Texas, everyone wants to see the Alamo, so that’s where we decided to begin our adventure. We walked to the River Center Mall, which is located right next to the Alamo and is one of the major hubs along the River Walk. The mall features more than 100 retailers, restaurants, entertainment (like Dave & Busters, Imax theatre, etc), and of course, the Marriott River Center, which is a 1,000 room hotel.
River Center Mall
We wandered into the IMax theatre and purchased tickets to the 11:00 AM showing of ‘The Alamo’. This isn’t the 2004 version, this is the original 1960’s version of ‘The Alamo’ starring John Wayne and Richard Widmark. Kristen wasn’t overly excited about the movie choice, but the great thing about the 1960’s version is that it’s the most historically accurate version of the actual Alamo battle…more than any movie or documentary in circulation. It’s a great experience watching it on the IMax screen, but we tried to pay close attention to the details, because as soon as it ended, we walked across the street to the famous site itself. Many people are disappointed when they actually see the Alamo, because it’s not a large structure. It’s literally one city block tucked into the middle of downtown San Antonio. Only one building still stands from the original fortress, which is the famous chapel that you see in all of the pictures. Don’t let the size of the Alamo fool you though…it’s all about the historical significance of this famous battle as 200 Texans defended the Alamo for 13 days against an onslaught of thousands of Mexican soldiers led by Santa Anna’s Army. Eventually the Texans were overrun, but that battle in 1836 and the hallowed ground of the Alamo have come to symbolize both Texas and American Liberty, as it played a large role in our nation’s love for the underdog today. There are guided tours of the Alamo, and you can also do a self-tour. We downloaded the ITour App, which provided a narrated tour of the Alamo for $1.99, and made our own way around the Alamo, which took an hour or so. It was amazing to set foot on this hallowed ground and think about the sacrifice and heroism of so many Texans.
Our bellies were still full from breakfast, so we decided to skip lunch and check out the famous River Walk. We walked across the street from the Alamo back to the River Center Mall, took the escalator down to the river level, and bought tickets for the river boat tour (Rio San Antonio Cruises). Tours are $8.25 for general admission, $6.00 for seniors and military, and $2.00 for children under 5 years old. In return, we received an hour-long boat tour of the River Walk and a pretty amazing history lesson of San Antonio. I won’t ruin the tour for you, but to wet your whistle… they’ll tell you about the World’s Fair in 1968, the flood that destroyed San Antonio in 1921, and the 500-room hotel that was built in a record 212 days, amongst many other cool tidbits of San Antonio history. They’ll also tell you about (and show you) the unusual architecture in downtown San Antonio. You can catch the river tour in 3 or 4 locations along the River Walk, but the River Center Mall worked best for us. After we completed the tour, we set off on foot to explore many of the places we just learned about. If you’ve never been to San Antonio, think of the River Walk as the entertainment hub of San Antonio. The river is located below-ground, so there are restaurants, bars and nightlife lining both sides (and above) the river. Part of the River Walk is man-made, but the majority is set on the actual San Antonio River. Fun fact: they drain the man-made portion twice each year to clean it, and each time, they find more than 10,000 cell phones at the bottom of the river. I guess that’s what happens when your boss calls after having too many margaritas!
Some sites to check out on the River Walk: watch a performance at the Arneson River Theatre, browse through the shops at La Villita, and definitely take time to have a drink at the Esquire Tavern (opened in 1933), which is the oldest bar on the San Antonio River.
The Arneson River Theatre.
La Villita – Home to local shops and restaurants.
Depending on the time of the year, BE SURE to check out the holiday lights and if you’re visiting around Thanksgiving, check out the Holiday River Parade and lighting ceremony….it’s pretty spectacular. If you’re visiting during St. Patty’s Day, the river will be dyed green and all of the Irish pubs will be rocking! Be sure to check performance schedules, and if possible, check out an off-Broadway show, symphony performance, or concert at one of the 3 main performing arts centers downtown: the Aztec Theatre, Majestic Theatre, or Tobin Center for Performing Arts. All three theatres are very nice.
The Majestic Theatre
Tobin Center for Performing Arts
If you’re visiting during college bowl season, don’t miss the Alamo Bowl, located right downtown at the Alamo Dome (possible future home of the Raiders as I’m writing this). Finally, if you’re in San Antonio during basketball season, it’s an absolute requirement to go to a San Antonio Spurs game! The Spurs are always one of the best, and most highly-regarded teams in the NBA, but it’s all about the experience of seeing how passionate the fans are in San Antonio. The Spurs are San Antonio’s only ‘major league’ sports franchise, and the love that this city has for the Spurs is incredible. The Spurs play at the AT&T Center, which is 4 miles or so east of downtown, just minutes from two of our rental properties www.vrbo.com/450284 or www.vrbo.com/423385 .
Five-Time Champion San Antonio Spurs!
If you’re staying downtown, and it’s a special occasion (birthday, anniversary, etc), consider having dinner at the top of the Tower of the Americas, which is the 2nd tallest observation towner in the U.S. at 750 feet (taller than the Seattle Space Needle, and shorter than the Las Vegas Stratosphere). The Chart House Restaurant (in the Landry’s chain) is located on top of the tower, and the food is phenomenal, although a bit pricey…you’re paying for the 360 degree rotating view. There is certainly nothing that can match the view of San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas.
Tower of the Americas
The city is in the process (as I’m writing this) of expanding Hemisfair park, which is the park surrounding the Tower of the Americas. It will eventually become a beautiful mix-use community (retail and residential), in addition to a spectacular park. We weren’t celebrating any special occasions (other than preparing to purchase a home), so we decided to stick with our favorite restaurant in downtown San Antonio, Boudro’s. Boudro’s is located at 421 E. Commerce St, and is accessible from street level or river level. The style of food served at Boudro’s can be best described as a Texas steakhouse with a touch of Cajun flair.
Remember the 3 types of food you HAVE to try while you’re in San Antonio: Tex Mex, steak, and barbeque? Well, we checked off type #2, because we both ordered the blackened prime rib. If you like steak, and prime rib in particular, you will not find a better-tasting prime rib anywhere (as long as you’re okay with a little spice). The prime rib is blackened with a Cajun seasoning and cooked to perfection over a bed of mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables. It’s also a necessity to order the fresh guacamole, which they made from scratch in front of our eyes at our table. We frantically jotted down the ingredient list, as it seems very simple, but it didn’t taste quite as good when we tried to make it at home! After dinner, we were pretty tired from a long day, but we decided to brave the San Antonio Ghost Tour. There are multiple companies that offer the Ghost Tours, but we chose Alamo City Ghost Tours. The cost for adults is $15 each, and $10 each for children. The tour lasted more than 90 minutes, and we visited such haunted sites as the Menger Hotel, Emily Morgan Hotel, several cemeteries, and the hanging tree. It’s a bit spooky (you’ll definitely have goose bumps), but more than anything, it’s another great lesson in the rich history of San Antonio. What a spectacular day!!
The Allegedly 'Haunted' Menger Hotel
Day 2 – After an action-packed first full day in San Antonio, we were excited to see what day 2 had in store. We decided to kick off our morning with a bit of exercise, after eating such ‘full-bellied’ meals the day before. There are five Spanish Colonial missions in San Antonio. A mission is a walled compound encompassing a church and community where the priests and local Native Americans used to live and work (in the 1600 and 1700’s). Of course, the most famous of the five missions is the Alamo, but the other four missions are actually much more impressive in stature and appearance. Together, they form the San Antonio Missions National Park, and this past year, the missions were classified as a World Heritage Site, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of additional tourists to San Antonio. There are 23 total World Heritage sites in the United States, and those sites are landmarks such as the Grand Canyon, Independence Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. So, we couldn’t allow our trip to San Antonio to proceed without paying homage to these wonderful sites. ‘Mission Trail’ begins in downtown San Antonio and connects all 5 of the missions. The missions are all located south of downtown, and the trail roughly parallels the San Antonio River. They are fairly spread out, and you can choose to either hike, bike, or take a guided tour. We chose the bicycling route, as we felt like we needed some exercise! Cycling from downtown San Antonio, visiting all 4 missions, and returning to downtown is a 16-mile roundtrip. If you start at one of the missions and return to that same mission (versus downtown, it is a 6 mile roundtrip). Either way, it’s a great day, or ½ day trip! All around downtown there are bike kiosks where you can rent a bicycle for the day for just a few dollars. We found the nearest kiosk and off we went!
The first mission, Mission Concepcion, is a 3-mile ride from downtown along the San Antonio River. The new river trail is actually a recent extension of the River Walk, which makes for a scenic ride with picnic areas and plenty to see along the San Antonio River. Mission Concepcion was first dedicated in 1755 and contains the oldest standing unrestored stone church in the United States. Inside the church, you can see many of the original frescos, which are paintings on the walls and ceiling (the exterior frescos have faded over the years). A sense of peace and tranquility overtook us as we dove deep into the history of our U.S. culture. After spending 30 minutes or so at Mission Concepcion, we hopped back on the river trail and rode 3 miles to Mission San Jose, referred to as ‘The Queen of the Missions’ due to its stature as the largest of the San Antonio Missions. Mission San Jose is very impressive, and we honestly didn’t want to leave. It has the feel of not only a beautiful, historic place, but also a peaceful (you’ll see lots of people relaxing in the grass, enjoying the warm sunshine). Mission San Jose was established in 1720, as Spanish designers, directing workers from the local Coahuiltecan tribe, built the mission using Texas limestone and brightly colored stucco. At its height, it provided sanctuary and a social and cultural community for more than 300 Indians, and was surrounded by acres of fields and livestock herds. The mission had its own grist mill and granary, which have been preserved. Mission San Jose also contains the visitor’s center, museum, and bookstore for Missions National Park, so we took 30 minutes to watch the video, which we highly recommend. One interesting note, all four missions have active Catholic parishes that conduct regular services open to the public.
MIssion San Jose, the largest of the missions
2.5 miles down the river, we continued our ride to Mission San Juan. Mission San Juan is probably the mission that has deteriorated the most over the years, but it is still very impressive. This mission was built in 1731, and has a Romanesque archway highlighting the entrance, as well as a self-guided nature trail from the mission down to the river. The final mission, Mission Espada, is the southernmost mission, and is approximately 8 miles from downtown San Antonio. Mission Espada contains the best-preserved segment of the acequla, which is the ancient aquifer that used to transport water from the San Antonio River to the fields for irrigation. A fire in the early 1800’s destroyed many of the buildings, but the chapel, granary, and two of the compound walls still stand. A truly amazing place! By this time it was almost noon, and we had several real estate appointments in the afternoon, so we high-tailed it back toward downtown along the river trail. We quickly realized that the rental kiosk bikes weren’t quite like our road bikes, so it took us several hours to ride the 10 miles back to downtown San Antonio. Regardless, we had an unbelievable morning visiting some of the oldest and holiest sites in the United States.
Mission San Juan
Next on the agenda...real estate! We hopped in our rental car to go look at a few San Antonio homes. Would we find our dream home? Little did we know that one day of home searching would be the beginning of our real estate future in Texas.
We knew we wanted to focus on north Central San Antonio, specifically north of loop 410. There are two loops around San Antonio. Loop 410 is the inner loop, and Loop 1604 is the outer loop. Originally the city’s northern boundary was Loop 410, but now the city has grown far past 1604 (the outer loop). Inside loop 410, unless you’re planning to purchase downtown, the property prices are very expensive and not-so-nice in our opinion. There are some exceptions, like Alamo Heights, but generally speaking, the newer, nicer growth is outside of Loop 410. We started by looking at several homes in the Churchill Estates and Deerfield neighborhoods, which are large communities located halfway (give or take) between 410 and 1604. The prices in this area average $110/SF, and the homes were built in the 1990’s-early 2000’s. All 3 homes that we visited in this area were very nice, but they all needed substantial updating. Things like new flooring, fixtures, kitchen hardware, countertops, etc, which are pretty typical for homes built in the 90’s. We always call the 1990’s the ‘Golden Age’ of homebuilding, because of the ugly gold fixtures they used in that decade! In this part of the San Antonio, the school district is very desirable (and highly rated), so that adds to the investment value and desirability of the area. We liked this area but wanted to look at some newer options, so we travelled west of downtown to Westover Hills, which is a pocket of newer development surrounding Sea World and the 151 corridor on the west side of San Antonio (again, between loop 410 and 1604). Westover Hills is a popular destination for many of the larger companies moving into San Antonio. Microsoft has a huge data center there, Petco has a huge campus, Lackland AFB is located there, and one of the NSA’s largest data centers is also located in that area. Bottom line - it’s growing quickly which means many newer homes. This part of San Antonio has become SA’s version of Silicon Valley as dozens of tech companies began appearing several years ago. Sea World draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, which is one of many reasons why we own several rental properties (today) in that area. It really is a booming part of San Antonio.
Okay, so back to that day (sorry, I jump around a bit, because I get SO excited about real estate opportunities in San Antonio)! We visited 4 properties in Westover Hills, and they were all very nice. Properties averaged $98/SF in Westover Hills (affordable, but up 10% in the past year). As an example, you could buy a nice 3,000 SF, in a gated community in that area for less than $300,000. With plenty to think about, we decided to head to one of our favorite BBQ restaurants in San Antonio, Rudy’s!
Rudy’s is a small local chain of barbeque restaurants, first started in Leon Springs (just outside of San Antonio), where the original restaurant still resides today. We decided to have dinner at the Westover Hills location, which sits right outside of Sea World and is one of 3 locations in San Antonio. Remember the three types of food you must eat while you’re visiting San Antonio? Tex Mex – check! Steak – check! Now, on day 2, barbeque – check!! Each part of the country that specializes in BBQ has a different specialty. In Texas, it’s beef brisket. Rudy’s smokes the brisket for 24 hours, before serving it steaming hot with their one-of-a-kind BBQ sauce. Kristen ordered a brisket plate, and I ordered a two meat plate with brisket and sausage. Kristen ordered cole slaw and potato salad as her sides, and I ordered cole slaw and Rudy’s world famous sweet cream corn!! It’s legendary, I promise! Rudy’s also offers a military discount for anyone currently serving our country. We sat on the picnic tables and stuffed ourselves with Rudy’s barbeque. Goodness, there’s a reason San Antonio isn’t known for having the skinniest people in the U.S.!
As a side note, if you have time during your visit, be sure to make the drive north to Driftwood, Texas (southwest of Austin) and experience Salt Lick BBQ. It’s quite an experience, and the best barbeque in Texas (in our opinions). After dinner, we decided to head downtown back to our hotel and have a nightcap at the Menger Hotel bar, which is a classic bar known for its historical significance as the location where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders. Pretty cool!
Menger Hotel Bar
Day 3 – Excited for our third day, we jumped out of bed early and decided to visit our favorite breakfast restaurant, Magnolia’s Pancake Haus. There are two locations now in San Antonio (I-10 northwest of downtown and 281 north). We chose the original location on 281 north. Magnolia’s, visited by Guy Fieri and featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, is known for their world famous fluffy pancakes, but EVERYTHING on their menu is fabulous. Be prepared for a long wait though. Even on weekdays, average wait times can run 30 minutes to an hour for a table. Trust us, it’s worth every second of the wait! I ordered the veggie hash, topped with 2 eggs over easy and a few slices of avocado. I also ordered a side of bacon, and every breakfast entrée comes with a side order of 2 mini pancakes. Kristen ordered a short stack of pancakes, and a side of bacon. Once again, Magnolia’s did not disappoint. Don’t miss it!
After breakfast, we had a few hours to spare before our next batch of showings, so we decided to visit the Witte Museum, located just north of downtown San Antonio. The Witte Museum displays a large variety of local Texas art and historical artifacts. We entranced ourselves into the history of this great (and very proud) state, and after a couple hours, we decided to take a stroll in neighboring Brackenridge Park, a 1,017 acre park (Central Park in NYC is only 833 acres to give you an idea how large it is) located next to the Witte Museum and San Antonio Zoo. The park contains a variety of youth sports fields, pavilions, hiking and biking trails, and so much more. You can spend all day there and not see everything. We picked a 2-mile trail and made a loop through the park, eventually ending up back at the Witte Museum. If you enjoy visiting zoos (which we do, but just didn’t have time this trip), the San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium is definitely worth your time. Tickets are very affordable ($14 for an adult and $11 for a child), and it’s a great way to spend the day.
Next, we hopped on 281 and headed north to an area called Stone Oak, which is located just west of 281 and north of 1604 (the outer loop). We spent the next few hours viewing a variety of properties in the area. Stone Oak is basically a city within a city. It’s an affluent, multi-use, deed-restricted, master planned community in far north central San Antonio. The population of Stone Oak is estimated to be more than 75,000 people, and judging by the construction activity in the area, it is growing very quickly! Homes in the Stone Oak area range from $300,000 to $5,000,000. And each neighborhood within Stone Oak offers its own unique set of amenities. Stone Oak Parkway is the main thoroughfare through the community, and along Stone Oak Parkway, there are a variety of restaurants, businesses, and nightlife. Also, Stone Oak is known for its superior medical care (there are 4 major hospitals in the area) which has drawn a large number of retirees. San Antonio isn’t known as a snowbird travel destination, but it’s the #1 retirement city for military members, and each year more and more retirees move to San Antonio from the north and Midwest. We were surprised by how much home we could buy for $300,000. One thing about Texans…the saying holds true…everything is bigger in Texas! For $300,000 you can purchase a beautiful home (2,500-3,000 SF, 4+ bedrooms) in a gated community with a private pool, in one of the nicest parts of town. There aren’t many cities that offer this type of value for the upper-echelon of the real estate market. After touring eight homes, we found several options that we loved. Of course, it’s a strong seller’s market in San Antonio, so many of the homes sell within hours of being listed. We immediately decided to make an offer on one of our favorites. The San Antonio market is very strong, but it’s still unbelievable what you can purchase here for your money. The weather is beautiful year-round, the people are extremely nice (our favorite part), and the economy is unbelievable here. We were excited about submitting an offer, so we decided to go celebrate (technically a pre-celebration) at one of our favorite restaurants in the city, The Grill at Leon Springs.
The Grill at Leon Springs
The Grill at Leon Springs, referred to simply as ‘The Grill’, is located in Leon Springs, which is just outside of Loop 1604 along I-10, which is a 10-15 minute drive from Stone Oak. ‘The Grill’ sits right outside of The Dominion, which is one of the most affluent and exclusive neighborhoods in Texas (where George Strait and many of the Spurs players reside). ‘The Grill’ is owned and managed by two spectacular people, who we have come to know very well over the past several years. Armand Obadia, originally from Israel, moved to the United States in 1974, and soon met Thierry Burkle, Master Chef and owner of the famous Rive Gauche restaurant in Washington, D.C. The two immediately became friends and have owned restaurants together ever since. Thierry is the Master Chef, and Armand manages the restaurant. In addition to serving fresh foods all made from scratch, Thierry and Armand are known for their support of our U.S. military. They host a fundraiser for local wounded military members each year in conjunction with our military charity, WISH for OUR HEROES (www.wishforourheroes.org), and they have a management philosophy of hiring local Veterans to run the restaurant. You’ll never meet two restaurant owners with bigger hearts…they are both incredible people. The type of food served at ‘The Grill’ is best described as a combination of European cuisine with a Texas Hill Country flare. Every item on the menu is made-from-scratch, and the menu changes every day. They are known for their fresh seafood, as they receive daily deliveries from the Texas Gulf Coast. That night, I ordered the grilled Red Gulf Snapper, with avocado risotto, red onions and tomatoes in Escabeche, which is one of their daily specials. I started off with their roasted beet salad with mixed greens, and had plans to save room for desert, but their portions were so healthy, those plans didn’t materialize! Kristen ordered the Yellow Edge Grouper, served Rockport-style, as well as a poached pear with goat cheese mixed green salad. For dessert, she couldn’t resist the Crème Brulee, and although I was stuffed beyond belief, I managed to try a few bites. Other highly recommended dishes: Chilean seabass, seafood paella, roasted venison loin, or just a good ‘ole fashioned steak (Center Cut filet or USD Prime Rib Eye). If you’re in the mood for something more casual, they have unbelievable burgers, pork chops, and things like that too. Entrée prices range from $15 to $35, which is very affordable considering the made-from-scratch, gourmet style of food preparation. Probably our favorite part of visiting ‘The Grill’ is spending time with Armand and Thierry. They will stop by, visit with you, talk to you about the menu, provide their dinner recommendations, and talk about anything (and everything) else you can imagine. If you are reading this and you’re planning to stay at one of our rental properties in San Antonio, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will send you a special VIP card for ‘The Grill’, which will entitle you to a VIP tour of the restaurant, priority seating, and a discount for your group. ‘The Grill’ is open for lunch as well, but the menu isn’t nearly as extensive. Finally, we recommend pairing a glass (or bottle) of either ‘A to Z’ or REXHILL pinot noir with your meal. Why? These wines were created by REX HILL winery (Willamette Valley, Oregon), which is partially owned by Coach Popovich of the Spurs. Coach Pop also happens to be a frequent visitor of ‘The Grill’, and that’s obviously saying something, because Coach Pop is known to be a food and wine connoisseur. Definitely put ‘The Grill’ at the top of your list of restaurants in San Antonio!
After stuffing ourselves once again, we happily made the 20 minute drive downtown to catch a few Z’s. As we were leaving ‘The Grill’, we stopped to watch the spectacular fireworks display at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, which is located just a few minutes away near I-10 and 1604. Although we didn’t have time to visit Six Flags during this trip, hundreds of thousands of people visit San Antonio each year to go to Six Flags, Sea World, and Schlitterbahn, three incredible amusement parks. Six Flags is known for its roller coasters (especially the new Batman coaster); Sea World is known for its rides, animal interactions, and water park; and Schlitterbahn is known for its water rides (one of the top water parks in the country). One of the other favorite activities for local Texans is to float down either the Guadalupe or Comal Rivers on tubes, which is appropriately referred to as ‘tubing’. Tubing consists of either renting or bringing your own tubes, tying them together, packing a cooler of beverages, and spending all day floating on the river with your friends. Not a bad gig if I do say so myself, and I’d be lying if I said I’d never had a few drinks on the Guadalupe River! If you would like any information on the best places to tube, feel free to send us an email at email@example.com. And by the way, I’m not a shopper, but this blog would not be complete without mentioning the outlet malls in San Marcos. I have no idea how many stores there are (hundreds), but I know it’s one of the largest outlet malls in the country. San Marcos is a quick 30-minute drive from San Antonio, but if you’re like me, you’ll want to stay clear during the holidays…traffic is backed up for miles!
Day 4 – We tried to sleep in for a little while, but our phones started ringing early in the morning, as the listing agent called to present a counter offer. I discussed the counter offer with Kristen, and we called the realtor back to present our version. After several hours of negotiating, we finally HAD A DEAL! We were excited to buy the house of our dreams, and now we DEFINITELY had to go celebrate. With the home search behind us, we decided to have a nice meal (no shortage in San Antonio as I’m sure you can tell), then head out into the Hill Country to experience one of the most beautiful parts of Texas. After stopping by the title company to sign some paperwork, we decided to have lunch at Chama Gaucha, rated as one of the top 5 restaurants in San Antonio. Open for both lunch and dinner, Chama Gaucha is a Brazilian steakhouse known for their spectacular cuts of meat, and it’s conveniently located in the Stone Oak area. If you’ve never been to a Brazilian steakhouse, you MUST try Chama Gaucha. Here’s how it works: there is no menu...everyone pays a flat fee, and it’s all you can eat (it’s $44 per person for dinner and $29.95 for lunch).
There is an unbelievable salad bar with LOTS to choose from (10 different cheeses, meats, salads, artichokes, and lots of great items). Then, everyone is given a card. One side of the card is red and the other is green. When you’re ready for the meats to start coming, turn you card over so that the green side is showing. The gauchos (chefs) will begin bringing different types of meat. There are 14 total types ranging from top cuts of beef (ribeye, filet, sirloin), to chicken, pork, lamb, and sausage. Each type of meat is brought in fresh and cooked on a skewer over an open flame, and the gauchos are responsible for seasoning and serving their individual types of the meat. As a result, you can taste the pride in the food, which in our opinion, makes Chama Gaucha far superior to Fogo de Chao and other Brazilian steakhouses. Our advice to you is not to be tempted by the phenomenal salad bar…try a few different things, but BE SURE to save room for the wonderful meats. When you’re finished with your meal, ask for Kim, and ask her to prepare one of her flaming after-dinner drinks. It’s like drinking your dessert!
I’m not sure that either of us had ever eaten such a large lunch, so we grabbed a Starbucks to keep us awake on our journey into the Texas Hill Country. The Hill Country spans from north central San Antonio, north to the west side of Austin. The hills range from rolling hills to small mountains, and you never know what you’re going to see. Private safari tours, large sprawling ranches, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and fields of wildflowers surrounded us as we crested the hills and dipped down into the valleys. The MOST beautiful time to visit the Hill Country is during late March/early April when the Texas Blue Bonnets are blooming. The Texas Bluebonnet is the state flower, and it’s known for its beautiful blue/purple flower and delicate nature. There are a very certain set of conditions that have to be met for the Blue Bonnets to bloom each year, and Texas is the only place in the world that offers these conditions. We will often see people parked on the side of the road, lying in the bluebonnet fields taking pictures for their Christmas cards, etc. For our trip, we headed northwest of San Antonio along I-10 toward Fredericksburg, but if you’re looking for a beautiful drive with no particular destination in mind, head north on Blanco Rd outside of San Antonio, turn left on Hwy 46 for a few miles, then right on 3351 and follow the signs toward Comfort. Check out the winery in Sisterdale, and eat at one of the mom and pop restaurants. If you go that way, we also highly recommend stopping and at The Roundup Beer Garden & Food Park, which is a collection of some of the best food trucks in the area, an awesome beer garden and plenty of games to play with the kids. It’s an incredible experience, and it’s located smack in the middle of the Texas Hill Country.
Our Black Lab, Bailey, in his favorite field of Texas Blue Bonnets.
Back to our journey, we drove 30 minutes west on I-10 and exited into the small town of Comfort, Texas (exit 524).
Comfort is a small town known for its bed and breakfasts, wineries, and antique shops. Kristen wanted to pick up a few authentic Texas antiques for our new home, so we stopped and browsed through several of the antique shops along the main street. Not much of a shopper, I sat down at High’s Café & Store and had a cup of coffee while Kristen finished her antique shopping.
We could have spent the rest of the day in Comfort, but we knew that we needed to keep moving so that we could enjoy the full Hill Country experience. BTW, Boerne (pronounced ‘Bernie’) is another fun Hill Country town, and it’s located just a few minutes outside of San Antonio along I-10 (we passed through it on the way to Comfort). It’s always in high demand for those looking for great schools and homes on some land. Great area!
From Comfort, we drove another 7 miles to Center Point, Texas, a tiny Hill Country town named for its central location between Kerrville, Comfort, and Bandera, 3 popular Hill Country destinations. As we drove through Center Point, we crossed over the Guadalupe River and scoped out one of the most popular swimming holes, Brinks Crossing, located at the intersection of the Guadalupe River and Center Point river road. The swimming hole was very busy (people everywhere) as Texans from all around travel to Center Point to enjoy one of the best swimming holes on the Guadalupe River. Tubing is very popular in this area as well, and there are multiple places to rent tubes in Center Point. Although we won’t be staying in Center Point for dinner, if you’re in the area, be sure to visit Toucan Jim’s, a quirky restaurant that feels like you’re dining in the Caribbean with forests of exotic palms, banana trees, and tropical flowers. The owners of Toucan Jim’s travel to the Caribbean each year, and each time, they bring back a piece of the islands to add to their restaurant in little ‘ole Center Point, TX. Jimmy Buffett cover bands always play there on the weekends, so be sure to stop by and tell Jim we sent you!
This day trip fueled a love for the area, and who would have known a few years later we would be purchasing another property, this time with Kristen’s parents, in the tiny town of Center Point: www.vrbo.com/605066. Stoney Ranch, as we now call it, is a sprawling 55-acre ranch, nestled on the side of Stone Mountain, which offers some of the best views of the Texas Hill Country. Sitting on Stoney Ranch are two quaint cabins, with TONS of outdoor living space. The lower cabin offers a large living room, master suite, kitchen, fireplace, and hot tub overlooking the spectacular views. The upper cabin offers 2 bedrooms (with 4 bunk beds), a separate bathroom, and a laundry room. Stairs and a large deck join the two cabins. When we think of the word ‘cabin’, we imagine roughing it, but we updated these cabins to more of the luxury variety, sporting granite counter tops, a completely renovated ‘spa-like’ master bathroom, satellite TV, internet, and hot tub on the deck overlooking the hill country (just to name a few updates). Residing on-site as the manager of Stoney Ranch, is Thomas the cat. ;) Thomas came with the property and has amazingly watched over the place for 14 years. Thomas is only allowed in one room of the cabins (for his food and water), but if you rent Stoney Ranch and you’re allergic to cats, just know that he lives there too (we usually recommend using the other cabin if you’re allergic). Thomas keeps an eye on the place, and if you read the comment book, he’s one of the favorite parts of the stay for Stoney Ranch guests. He won’t show himself at first, but after you settle in, he’ll stop by to say hello.☺ As soon as you get to the ranch, you’ll realize that time has seemingly slowed down. One of our favorite things to do when we arrive is to sit on the front porch and take in the panoramic Hill Country views. There are also several hiking trails on Stoney Ranch, the most popular of which is ‘Summit Trail’, which winds its way to the top of Stone Mountain. If you attempt ‘Summit Trail’, be sure to take plenty of water (and we don’t recommend this hike for anyone in poor physical condition). If you’re staying at Stoney Ranch, we definitely recommend visiting the epicenter of Texas wine country, Fredericksburg. It’s just 30 minutes from the cabins, and happened to be our next destination on Day 4.
Stoney Ranch (www.vrbo.com/605066). Our FAVORITE Hill Country retreat!
Texas Wine Country is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the United States, as it offers more than 46 vineyards and wineries (http://texaswinetrail.com/). Texas has more extreme weather than places like California (hotter in the summers and cooler in the winters), so the heartier grapes (like cabernet sauvignon) grow better than the more sensitive grapes like the pinots. Wine Country spans from San Antonio to Austin, with Fredericksburg being the area with the largest concentration of vineyards and wineries. Fredericksburg is a well-known destination for shopping and antiquing in Central Texas. It’s like Comfort, Texas on steroids, but it’s still a quaint little town, with shops and restaurants lining the main street. We passed through Fredericksburg on our way to Becker Vineyards, known to many as home to the finest wine in Central Texas. Texas wines can be tough to master, as the grapes vary each year with the weather, but Becker Vineyards has been as consistent as any winery in Texas over the past 20 years.
They offer a variety of red and white wines, ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec to Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Their wines are on the affordable side of the price spectrum, but they sell out quickly, as they only offer limited selections of each wine. We visited for a tasting, which was $15 for a sampling of 6 different wines and included a commemorative Becker Vineyards wine glass. They are open from 10:00 AM-5:00 PM during the week, and 6:00 PM on weekends. The setting is incredible, as we felt like we stepped back into the Hill Country 100 years ago. The homestead cabin (built in 1890 and operated as a bed & breakfast until just a few years ago) greeted us as we made our way down Becker Farms Road through the vineyards, and eventually reached the Tasting room, Winery, and Lavender Haus. The Becker’s go to great lengths to maintain the ‘Old World’ feel at the winery, and they have spared no expense to do so. The people are so nice, as we visited with local Texans, and tourists visiting from across the country. All 6 wines were spectacular, but we both loved the Cabernet Sauvignon. One thing I’ve learned about Kristen throughout the years, she’s a sucker for joining wine clubs! Each time we visit a winery, she seems to join a new wine club, and today was no exception. We intended on visiting several vineyards that day, but we had such a good time at Becker, they had to kick us out when the vinery closed! With wine, and a wine club membership in-hand, we headed to dinner in Fredericksburg.
We were fairly tired after a long day, but that didn’t stop Kristen from spending an hour or so perusing the antique stores and other shops in downtown Fredericksburg. We both couldn’t resist stopping at Dog Krazy, a very ‘sophisticated’ pet store, to pick up some treats for our 2 boys back home. We didn’t have time that day, but if you visit Fredericksburg, you MUST visit Enchanted Rock, which is a state natural area located just north of town. Enchanted Rock is a granite mountain spanning 640 acres and is over 425 feet tall. It makes for a wonderful half-day hiking trip, and it’s also interesting to read about the theories behind the origins of Enchanted Rock. Back to our trip…after shopping for a while, we decided to have dinner at Pasta Bella Restaurant & Bakery, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with famously good Italian food. The prices are reasonable, and the service is very fast (and good). Kristen ordered the Sunburnt Ravioli, and I tried the Lasagna, along with a side salad. Kristen can never finish her meal, so I always enjoy the fringe benefit of trying both dishes….they were both spectacular! The staff was extremely friendly, and once again, we left feeling very full. Another great day in the books! We walked off some of our dinner by taking a stroll through town, then headed to retire for the evening.
The mysterious Enchanted Rock.
Day 5 – In the morning, we rolled out of bed and sipped our morning coffee on the porch, overlooking miles of Texas Hill Country. We didn’t feel like eating a large breakfast, so we snacked on cheese and crackers and wanted to save room for lunch. We decided to spend the morning driving through the Hill Country. Our first stop - Bandera.
Bandera is commonly known as ‘Cowboy Capital of the World’. Bandera is only 10 minutes from Stoney Ranch (www.vrbo.com/605066), and there is a ton to do there – horseback riding, hiking, golfing, antiquing, and seeing your stereotypical Texas cowboy! In all seriousness, they have several places you can go for rodeo training…they’ll teach you how to rope, ride, and everything in between. There are also lots of Cowboy bars and restaurants with a wide variety of food. The Medina River runs right through Bandera, and there are tons of parks and hiking trails to work off that Cowboy grub. After we left Bandera, we drove north through Kerrville, which is also a beautiful Hill Country town set alongside the Upper Guadalupe River. Kerrville is more commercialized than Bandera, but the Hill Country views are incredible. We could write about 5 perfect days in either of these places. There are lots of things to do in Kerrville, but it’s definitely worth your time to visit the Museum of Western Art, and of course James Avery, a famous jewelry store founded in Kerrville! After we finished our self-guided tour through Kerrville, we merged on I-10 and made the drive back to San Antonio. Along the way, we stopped at Leon Springs to have lunch at another one of our favorite places, Fralo’s. Fralo’s (located right across the street from The Grill at Leon Springs), and often frequented by George Strait and the Spurs, is known for one item: gourmet pizza! Although they serve other types of delicious Italian food, you simply cannot beat the pizza. The atmosphere is a lot of fun, as they have live music most evenings (both weekdays and weekends), unless the Spurs are playing of course…then they’ll have the Spurs on the big screen. 90% of the seating is outdoors, and when it’s chilly, they’ll have outdoor heaters ready to go. We split the sampler pizza, which allowed us to choose 4 different types of their specialty pizzas. We chose Lorfa’s Five, Grant’s Pear, Mediterranean, and Pozzi. When you have a moment, check out the menu on their website (link above) and read about the ingredients in these pizzas…amazing! Whew, another great meal! As we sipped on the wine that we had purchased in Fredericksburg, we realized we were nearing the end of our 5 perfect days! There was one more thing I wanted Kristen to experience before leaving San Antonio. The rodeo!
The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, one of the largest rodeos in the world, takes place in San Antonio for 3 weeks each February, so if you happen to visit during that time, it’s a MUST SEE! Tickets sell out far in advance, so be sure to reserve your tickets in October/November, as many of country music’s top performers are featured during the rodeo. We weren’t visiting in February, so we had to settle for a smaller, more local rodeo that takes place every weekend for the remainder of the year. We threw on our jeans and cowboy boots, and off we went to Tejas Rodeo Company! Tejas Rodeo Company is located due north of San Antonio, right off of Blanco Rd, 8 miles outside of loop 1604. Be sure to bring your appetite, because they have one of the best steakhouses (the Tejas Steakhouse & Saloon) in San Antonio (the restaurant and rodeo are open Thursday-Friday of each week). We had to wait a little while to be seated, but there was PLENTY to do while we waited.
The rodeo features a collection of local Cowboys competing in a variety of events: bull-riding (a must-see), roping, barrel racing, bronco-riding, and several others. It’s a very festive atmosphere. You can talk to the cowboys, get to know them, and learn a lot about their sport. There is always live music on the weekends, and it’s a great family environment. We saw kids dancing, all of the way up to folks in their 80’s and 90’s. Everyone was having a great time! When we were finally seated, we couldn’t help but order their signature dish, which is the KC pan seared steak. The dish is served with 2 premium cuts of Akaushi Beef from the Beeman family ranch (right here in Texas), then it’s generously seasoned with their famous Texas rub, and seared to perfection. Texas Monthly named this dish ‘the best steak in Texas’, which is saying a lot! We didn’t disagree, and as our last few bites of steak came to an end, we reluctantly accepted that our five perfect days were also sadly coming to an end. We danced the night away (taking a stab at some line dancing), and eventually made our way home to sleep for a few hours before catching our flight in the morning.
Our 5-Day Adventure!
Another great adventure came to an end, but the exciting thing about this adventure was that it catapulted a whole new chapter of our lives. Now, 7 years later, we have invested in many properties in San Antonio, and we work with investors around the country and around the world. Because we knew the market so well through buying and selling homes with our own money, soon people began to ask us to assist them in purchasing investment properties of various shapes and sizes. We started a real estate and property management business, which consists of buying and selling single family homes, long & short-term rentals, the occasional flip project, and investment properties.
There is such a HUGE opportunity for investors in San Antonio. Like I said before, I’ve never seen a better market with guaranteed return. Investing in real estate is all about the numbers. Generating the most $$/SF, and obtaining the most value per SF is obviously the name of the game. Purchasing a home to live in can be different from purchasing an investment property, but many of the fundamentals are the same. Obviously, a home to live in contains certain features and qualities unique to each individual, but at the end of the day, most of the time a home is a family’s greatest asset, so it needs to be a financially stable investment as well as a great place to live. The wonderful thing about the San Antonio real estate market is that it is a steadily appreciating market, so the investment potential is tremendous, but at the same time, it’s still very affordable to purchase a home (unlike Austin, Houston, and Dallas, which have higher median prices). The market in Austin took off 4 years ago and started a dramatic growth cycle that hasn’t stopped. The same ‘perfect storm’ that happened in Austin 4 years ago is now beginning to happen in San Antonio (less than 60 days of inventory, rising prices, more demand than supply, etc), which means that it’s a great time to buy here. From an investor’s standpoint, it’s hard to beat San Antonio, because rental income is at an all-time high due to the strong demand, but real estate is still relatively affordable. You always hear about the 1-2% rule to use when evaluating a possible rental property to purchase. For example, if you purchase a property for $100,000, an ideal monthly rent would be between $1,000-$2,000, or 1-2% of the purchase price. San Antonio is one of the few cities in the United States where it’s realistic to find 1.5-2% monthly rents, and they are very common. We help many families buy and sell homes for themselves, but we also work with many investors around the country, who are looking to diversity their investments. Again, San Antonio is an ideal city to invest in right now…we’re not sure how long that will last, so we’re doing our best to strike while the iron’s hot!
If you have ANY questions about San Antonio, things to see and do, or the real estate market, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. So many factors drew us to this area - the thriving economy, the world-renowned tourist attractions, the amazing climate, and the friendly, hard-working people to name a few. We are proud to call this wonderful city home, and we’re even prouder to share it with all of you!
About the Author
Jeff Wells, an Army Veteran, has had the opportunity to travel to many places in the world (some better than others). Now a Texas resident, Jeff and his wife Kristen, own and manage Wells Property Group, a real estate firm that assists investors, home buyers, and sellers in finding the property of their dreams. Jeff grew up investing in real estate with his family, and has been doing it ever since.
If you enjoyed this blog, you can find the full edition on Amazon HERE
You may also be interested in other travel books that we have written:
7 Perfect Days in the Virgin Islands
From the Tundra to the Tropics, by Kristen Wells
3 Perfect Days in Islamorada, Florida Keys
Plus a Visit to the Hit TV Show, Bloodline, by Jeff Wells
Finally, we would love for you to join our blog at www.roadwellstraveled.com. We won't send you a bunch of spam, we promise! You will receive approximately one email per month about our latest crazy travel adventures. :)