Second homes: San Antonio's urban 'oasis' in the heart of Texas

Everyone remembers the Alamo, but most people forget that San Antonio is the nation's seventh-largest city. Maybe that's because it still feels like a small town, with good weather, rural surroundings and an intimate downtown but with all the sophisticated offerings of a metropolis — plus low real estate prices.

"The expression here is that San Antonio is everybody's second home," says Phil Hardberger, the city's longtime mayor. "It is one of the oldest cities in the Unites States, very historic, and also an oasis of sort. Texas by and large is quite barren, but not in San Antonio, where a river runs through it."

That means River Walk, the city's No. 1 attraction, and to many its biggest selling point. It's scarcely 50 feet across, but its banks are lined with stores, restaurants and nightclubs. A 1939 WPA project, the River Walk — developed at a time when riverbanks were avoided rather than embraced — became the precursor to urban entertainment zones such as Boston's Faneuil Hall and Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A second 2-mile section has just opened, which brings the total River Walk to 4 miles.

The development has become the best-selling area for second homes, says Judy Dalrymple, a real estate agent with Phyllis Browning Co.: "We've had a huge explosion of activity there." New condos downtown begin at less than $200,000.

Hardberger notes that San Antonio draws many wealthy Mexican nationals seeking vacation homes. "Our buyers from Mexico worry about security and tend to want gated communities" in country club neighborhoods surrounding the city, Dalrymple says.

Though many owners of second homes are refugees from cold-weather climates, San Antonio is also a popular refuge from much hotter South Texas. Numerous resorts and golf communities in the edges of Hill Country, the city's other popular second-home locale, are within easy access of downtown.

A look at three San Antonio neighborhoods

•Downtown: San Antonio's small downtown is full of hotels, restaurants and bars, and it surrounds the River Walk. Though many of the apartments are new inside, many buildings have historic exteriors. "Sales have been steady," says real estate agent Judy Dalrymple. "Because the condos are all new, they have good amenities, and there is everything from $150,000 to millions."

•Dominion: The largest and one of the most exclusive of the country club developments northwest of downtown, Dominion is a town and gated community with multiple neighborhoods and a golf course. "It is very popular with foreign buyers and celebrities," says Dalrymple, who notes that country music legend George Strait and former San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson live there. "Garden homes begin around $350,000 and go way up, to the $3 million to $5 million range."

•Northern suburbs: Hill Country and the outskirts of San Antonio begin just 15 minutes north of downtown, and the extensive highway system makes getting around easy. One gated golf course development here, Sonterra, is especially popular with vacation-home owners, Dalrymple says. "There are a lot of townhomes. You can get into one for under $180,000. The freestanding homes go up to about a million."