America’s Friendliest Cities…#3 San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio

I mentioned in a previous blog post how much I enjoy visiting San Antonio. Despite its ranking as the second largest city in Texas (after Houston), the home of the Alamo manages to retain a warm, tourist-friendly—almost small-town—feel. The River Walk area provides a plethora of options for visitors—eating, shopping, lodging, entertainment, relaxation, or simply soaking in the sights. If history is your thing, San Antonio serves up a Texas-size helping of just that! Explore its native American heritage, learn more about the era of Spanish exploration, discover its many missions, relive the Battle of the Alamo, reflect on its involvement in the American Civil War, and experience shades of the Old West. Whether strolling along the River Walk, retracing the steps of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, or hopping aboard a trolley for a city tour, San Antonio is a remarkable destination that will call you back time and again. It’s always a good idea to stop by the Tourist Information Center across the street from the Alamo to pick up brochures or purchase tickets for some of the city’s attractions.

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Things to do:

  • The Alamo (The Shrine of Texas Liberty: Originally known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, this squat, unimposing, stone structure crouches amidst its taller neighbors—a far cry from its isolated location at dawn on that fateful day, March 6, 1836. Join two and half million visitors annually in touring this important landmark.  (Be sure to note the Rules of Reverence outlined on the linked web page.)
  • River Walk (Paseo del Rio): This pedestrian-only thoroughfare is situated one level down from  street (driving) level. Two parallel sidewalks—one on either side of the river—meander under bridges past restaurants and shops, connecting many of the most popular tourist attractions.
  • Rio San Antonio Cruises: See the River up close and personal by way of a boat tour, Rio taxi, or group charter (groups, corporate outings, dining). A boat tour is great if you are a first-time visitor. The informative 35-minute experience combines a leisurely river cruise, beautiful scenery, and interesting historical information (Do you know why Texas is the only state allowed to fly its flag on level with or higher than the American flag?).
  • Tower of the Americas: (750 feet tall) – Great view of the city from the observation deck; breakfast and coffee served at the Tower Café; Skies Over Texas 4D theater ride; fine dining at the Chart House Restaurant.
  • Alamo Trolley Tours: (Hop On, Hop Off) – Great way to see the city beyond the River Walk area—including several of the old Spanish missions; comprehensive view of San Antonio with less walking.
  • Rivercenter Mall: This attractive shopping complex at the end of the River Walk includes a number of major department stores as well as specialty and souvenir shops, an IMAX theater, various restaurants (some overlooking the River Walk), and an outdoor entertainment venue with live music. The glass-panel construction allows visitors to connect with nature—whether rain or shine!
  • Market Square – El Mercado: Drop by America’s largest Mexican market and enjoy local talent, peruse a variety of specialty shops, and chat with cultural artisans. This open market covers three city blocks and offers a “touristy” taste of Mexico.
  • Six Flags Fiesta Texas: A great amusement park for the adventurous thrill-seeker in you! There are rides for all ages, shows and entertainment, restaurants and souvenirs! I am super excited about the new Batman 4D wing-style roller coaster opening this summer!
  • Sea World San Antonio: Calling all ocean life lovers! Rides, shows, exhibits, animal tours…there is something for everyone at Sea World!

Where to eat:

  • Boudro’s Texas Bistro: Accessible from street level or the River Walk, this ranks as my top choice for eating in San Antonio. Whether you’re in the mood for Jumbo Shrimp and Gulf Crab Enchiladas, Blackened Prime Rib, or Mesquite Grilled Texas Quail, Boudro’s is the place to be! My personal favorite is Boudreaux’s Shrimp and Grits! (Consider reserving a table for barge dining if you want a real River Walk experience.)
  • Landry’s Seafood: For seafood, steak, and a waterfront view, Landry’s is the perfect choice. With its white linen tablecloths, tasteful decor, and attentive waitstaff, you would never guess that it is a chain restaurant. I have dined here on several occasions and it never disappoints.
  • Casa Ole: Situated about as close to the River Walk as you can get, this stellar Mexican restaurant is always bustling with activity. From the brightly colored table linens to the live mariachi band and Fiesta Salad to Chicken Acapulco, you are sure to enjoy a lively—and tasty—dining experience.

Where to stay:

There are many hotels to choose from in San Antonio, but I recommend that you reserve a room at one in the central River Walk area—preferably on an upper floor in a room with a balcony that overlooks the water!  Beware…every hotel that advertises its location as “on the River Walk” is not in the central area and, therefore, you may find yourself walking a fair distance to reach the action. (Personal experience!)

  • I have stayed in the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk (one of three Marriott hotels in the city) and would wholeheartedly recommend it. Within easy walking distance of everything, but remote enough to boast peace and quiet…with a nice view of the River Walk.
  • If you prefer more of a boutique experience and don’t mind venturing beyond the River Walk, the historic Crockett Hotel is a choice option. Mere steps from the Alamo and other attractions, it offers comfortable accommodations that combine tradition with luxury. The hotel offers a full-service spa, valet parking, and a variety of special packages.
  • La Cantera Hill Country Resort: If you prefer to get away from the action, be pampered in style, and maybe play a round or two of golf, this resort experience is the way to go.

Don’t miss my reflections on the other southern cities that ranked among the Top Ten of America’s Friendliest Cities: #8 Nashville, TN, #6 Fort Worth, TX, and #5 New Orleans, LA. Stay tuned for #4 Savannah, GA…

…and Happy Texas Independence Day, fellow wanderers!

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America’s Friendliest Cities…#5 New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans, Louisiana

 

New Orleans is known for many things—jazz music, beautiful architecture, its signature cuisine, and a flamboyant style that is unlike any other place you will ever visit. My favorite section of the city is the French Quarter (Vieux Carré), which is also the oldest area and—in my opinion—the loveliest. There are many “must see” sights and attractions, as well as several “must taste” eating experiences, so prepare to get up close and personal with the Big Easy.

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Things to see and do…

  • Jackson Square: Named for one of three statues of President Andrew Jackson located in the square, this large area in front of the St. Louis Cathedral is the perfect spot to begin your tour of New Orleans.  In addition to the cathedral, the Square is home to museums, shops, restaurants, artists and their artwork, street performers, carriage rides, and much more.
  • St. Louis Cathedral: This beautiful white church with its impressive triple spires provides an amazing focal point whether viewed from land or from the nearby Mississippi River. It is the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States and is open for tours at specified times.
  • Walking Tour: You may choose to join a guided walking tour, or—as I prefer to do—begin in Jackson Square and take a self-guided tour, winding your way through the French Quarter on foot.  Take time to admire the wrought-iron balconies and wide Southern porches that adorn many of the historic homes and buildings and soak in the “feel” of the city. Pop in and out of the many shops, galleries, and eateries at your leisure.
  • Carriage Tour:  Locate an available carriage and driver on the street in front of Jackson Square and prepare to be informed and entertained as you take in the sights.
  • Riverboat Cruise: Steam up and down the Mississippi River aboard the Natchez and view the New Orleans skyline and sights beyond. We took the lunch cruise and the buffet meal was actually very good.
  • French Market: Primarily aimed at enticing the tourist crowd, this open-air market covers a five-to-six-block area near Jackson Square and is said to be the oldest such market in the country. Browse the specialty shops, pick up some fresh produce, sample freshly-made pralines, and pause to appreciate local musical talent—all while strolling through the market.
  • National World War II Museum: Designated by Congress as America’s official World War II Museum, this huge complex is every history buff’s dream come true! In my opinion, the introductory movie alone is worth the cost of admission. Touring the museum was truly a moving experience.
  • Civil War Museum: Small, but worth a visit.  This museum contains a wealth of historical treasures dating back to the American Civil War.  Flags, weaponry, personal items, correspondence, and other carefully preserved artifacts are on display.  (Be sure to see the monument topped by Confederate General Robert E. Lee in nearby Lee Circle.)
  • Streetcar Ride: Three separate lines originate in downtown and go to different parts of the city.  You can buy a day pass or pay with exact change when you climb aboard.
  • Preservation Hall: No visit to the Birthplace of Jazz would be complete without hearing some authentic New Orleans jazz—and Preservation Hall offers the best!  With three shows a night, no climate control, and no bar, you will be surprised to find that the line forms early and gets long quickly.  Plan accordingly…if you want a seat!

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Where to eat…

  • Mr. B’s Bistro: New Orleans’ original Creole bistro, Mr. B’s boasts an extensive menu with a wide selection of mouth-watering regional favorites. I have never had anything there that was less than excellent.  Really…you’re going to love it!
  • Cafe du Monde: Never, ever visit New Orleans without dropping by Cafe du Monde (the original French market coffee stand) for beignets and coffee! It is typically crowded with a long line, but that is because it is worth it! If you just can’t bring yourself to wait for an available table, at least order a few beignets to go.  You won’t regret it!
  • The Court of Two Sisters: This charming restaurant serves a fabulous jazz brunch (buffet) served in an outdoor courtyard complete with linen-draped wrought iron tables, white-coated wait staff, and a brightly colored wishing well. I would go back for the grits and chilled shrimp, if for no other reason.
  • Café Maspero: Housed in the Old Slave Exchange building, Maspero’s is where you go for traditional New Orleans muffulettas, seafood, and Cajun and Creole classics—as well as the best pecan pie you have ever put in your mouth!
  • Luke: This spiffy little restaurant is located inside the Hilton Hotel on St. Charles. You may be wondering why I am recommending hotel fare, but Luke has received rave reviews from the likes of Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Times-Picayune.  The hearty Southern breakfast—bacon, eggs, grits, and the works—is delicious. Give it a whirl!
  • Jeri Nims Soda Shop (inside the National WWII Museum): Eating here is a fun throwback to the “good ole days.”  Though located inside the museum (but with a street entrance as well), this is an ideal place to grab a quick bite for lunch.

Where to stay…

  • Hilton New Orleans St. Charles: This self-described “Newly Renovated but Historically Unique” hotel is the perfect place to stay.  Close enough to the action (within walking distance of all attractions named above) yet far enough from the craziness to be safe and quiet. We arranged for transportation to and from the airport through the hotel concierge, ate breakfast daily in the hotel restaurant, and found our room to be clean, comfortable, and satisfactory in every way.  (This is the only hotel I have ever stayed at in New Orleans, so will not comment on any others.)

Be sure to catch America’s Friendliest Cities: #8 Nashville, Tennessee and #6 Fort Worth Texas

America’s Friendliest Cities, Part 1

As a native Southerner and passionate devotee of the American South, I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that eight of the Top Ten Friendliest Cities in America (according to a recent survey by Conde Nast Traveler) are located—you guessed it—in the South! I have visited all eight cities and each has unique and interesting qualities that make it a judicious travel choice. I have decided to elaborate on my “Top 6” this week…just couldn’t narrow it down to five! I will reflect on my time spent in each city; share my personal impressions and insights; and make a few recommendations regarding what to do and see, where to eat and stay, and why each city is a wise destination choice. Here is a list of my six favorites and their rankings, by number, on the CNT survey list…

  • #8 – Nashville, Tennessee…

Nashville, Tennessee

 

  • #6 – Fort Worth, Texas…

Fort Worth, Texas

 

  • #5 – New Orleans, Louisiana…

New Orleans, Louisiana

 

  • #3 – San Antonio, Texas…

San Antonio, Texas

 

  • #2 – Savannah, Georgia…

Savannah, Georgia

 

  • #1 (and my personal favorite) – Charleston, South Carolina…

Charleston, South Carolina

 

The remaining Southern cities that made the Top Ten are Key West, Florida (tied for #8) and Asheville, North Carolina (#10).

Stay tuned…

 

From Train Station to Impressionist Art Gallery…Musée d’Orsay

Musée d'Orsay - The Great Hall

Musée d’Orsay – The Great Hall

I would be hard pressed to definitively decide which is more impressive—the magnificent structure that is the Musée d’Orsay, or the impressive collection of artwork that is housed within. Truly, this mammoth architectural masterpiece is one of the most amazing and beautiful buildings in Paris! Originally constructed around 1900 as a railway station, the sprawling museum has an awe-inspiring glass-pane, barrel-vault roof that arches over the Great Hall and—on sunny days—sets the main floor alight. The exterior is impressive as well with its nearly symmetrical design, lengthy mid-level terrace, and twin opaque clock windows keeping watch along the Seine. The building narrowly escaped being demolished in the 1960s—which, had that happened, would have been nothing short of a tragedy! We allowed ourselves only a couple of hours to tour the Orsay so, once again, had to prioritize our activities. We popped into the Café Campana for a quick lunch—relatively speaking, in that we did not have to wait long to be seated and the service was prompt and efficient.  The food was decent (I had some sort of fish soup) and the decor was appealing (large, gold, bell-shaped light fixtures and one of the enormous clock windows). The tables are situated fairly close together and we ended up sitting next to fellow Americans with whom we chatted during our meal.  Afterward, we exited onto the roof-level terrace for a bird’s-eye view of the Seine and a look across at the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre complex on the right bank. After shooting a few photos, we re-entered the building and proceeded to the Impressionist Gallery for a look at the work of Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, and others. (I still can’t believe that I was mere inches from original masterpieces which I have admired all of my life!) We walked along multi-level glass walkways running adjacent to the Great Hall and snapped photos through peepholes positioned at intervals along the wall. (Notice the outlines of people doing exactly that in the photo of the Great Hall above.) We wrapped up our visit with a walk-through of the main floor where we observed sculpture, architectural art, and the intricately-designed, majestic clock which holds court high above the exhibit area. We picked up a few items at the museum gift shop as we were leaving.  Again, our Paris Museum Pass allowed us immediate entry to the gallery…no waiting in a long line for us! Loved this museum and hope to return someday to see the rest of it!

Musée Rodin…My Favorite Paris “Stumble-Upon”

We spent the morning touring Les Invalides and strolling along the Seine, after which we set out on foot to the Musée d’Orsay. We had settled on that gallery for two reasons: 1) it was Tuesday and the Louvre was closed, and 2) Impressionist art is my favorite. Somewhere between Eglise du Dome and the Orsay we got off track and ended up near Musée Rodin. Since we were in the neighborhood, it seemed only right to stop in for a quick peek at Le Penseur—better known in American circles as The Thinker. This happenstance visit resulted in a most delightful experience! Rodin’s artwork and sculptures are on display in the Hôtel Biron (which he used as his workshop from 1908 until his death in 1917), as well as inside a converted chapel on the property and throughout the seven-and-a-half acre garden. Our Paris Museum Pass came in handy once again, allowing us to skip the queue and go right in. Since our time was limited, we glanced into the chapel museum then went directly to the gardens. Our first stop was The Thinker—which you may not realize originated as the central figure of Rodin’s rendition of Dante’s Gates of Hell (which can also be seen in the garden). After a couple of cheesy “thinker” snapshots, we made the rounds of the gardens—smelling the roses, observing sculptures which Rodin placed in the gardens himself, viewing the Marble Gallery, admiring the perfectly manicured lawn, and drinking in the gorgeous landscape! We made a pass through the gift shop as we were leaving. (There is also a cafe on the property.) Musée Rodin is definitely worthy of a visit, whether extended or brief. So glad we veered slightly off-course…

The Eiffel Tower Experience: A Photo Essay

As long as I can remember I have associated Paris with the Eiffel Tower, and the Eiffel Tower with Paris.  Visiting this iconic landmark was the highlight of my trip to France’s capital city…and undoubtedly the most photographed of my experiences abroad!  Click on individual photos below for larger views.

My first unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro

My first unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro

Completely Random Paris…Part 3

A few more random photos from around Paris…

Blue Door…

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Drawing a Crowd…

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Marble Beauty…

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Perusing les Bouquinistes…

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Hieroglyphics…

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Ground Level of the Eiffel Tower…

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Pont Alexandre III…

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This is the life…

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Elaborate Door Hardware…

 

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And…a shopping cart in the Seine…

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Did you miss Completely Random Paris Part 1 or Part 2?