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Editor’s Pick: A Hotel With History and Hospitality

San Antonio has not always been recognized as a prime travel destination. But the city has really stepped up to the plate to compete with its very popular neighbor to the north, Austin. You may be surprised to learn that San Antonio was voted by Budget Travel as the second best travel destination in the world. Yes, you read that correctly. The first-place spot went to Iceland, certainly a worldly, and expensive, destination. But who would have thought San Antonio would follow this extravagant location. San Antonio is also one of only four U.S. cities on Budget Travel’s list of best travel destinations of 2016. I was surprised by both these designations; but upon visiting Hotel Emma, I started to see how much San Antonio has to offer.

hotelemma_exteriors_nf_0102Hotel Emma is full of history. Originally the well-known Pearl Brewery, the Pearl is now a local destination on its own. Whether you are looking for a delicious cup of coffee, authentic boutiques, an apartment to rent, a nationally recognized culinary institute or a place to stay for a night in the historic location, the Pearl has what you’re looking for.

The Pearl Brewery was originally named the City Brewery, founded in 1883. But it wasn’t until 1887 when the first bottles and kegs of the beer called Pearl were produced and sold in local taprooms. Over the years, ownership of the brewery changed hands, with Pabst Brewing Company ultimately taking ownership in 1985. After 16 years at the helm, Pabst closed the doors to the brewery. Silver Ventures bought the 22-acre location in 2001, and so began the work of reimagining the Pearl community.

At the heart of the diverse Pearl campus lies Hotel Emma. Rich in history, this hotel has quite a story to tell — starting with its name. Emma Koehler ran the brewery after the death of her husband, Pearl President Otto Koehler, in 1914 and is highly regarded as a strong force in keeping the company open during hard times, such as Prohibition. She switched over operations to auto repair and dry cleaning, and had the brewery making “near beer,” bottling soft drinks, and making ice cream to survive.

Walking into the hotel, you can see the history that has been preserved. As soon as you enter the building, you’ll observe original machinery preserved in the lobby. The walls and floors echo the originality and authenticity of the location. Everywhere you look in the common areas, you’ll find refurbished materials from the original brewhouse. The Sternewirth bar, for instance, hosts large brewing containers that have been repurposed and filled with comfy couches for an intimate gathering place. You’ll also find locally sourced items and antiques throughout the hotel. Indeed, this is not your cookie-cutter establishment.

A room I thoroughly enjoyed was the guest library. Not only is the architecture simply stunning, the selection is eclectic and far-reaching. My visit to Hotel Emma was supposed to be a staycation for my husband and me. But when my babysitter fell through at the last moment, an event every parent comes across from time to time, plans changed. I wanted to explore the hotel; but with a one-and-a-half-year-old, your options for entertainment are skewed, heavily. I figured the library would be a great place for us to spend some time. The sophisticated venue had something for everyone, including children’s stories. This small detail really made me, as a mother, feel like I was included in the planning of this hotel. The library’s collection was acquired as a whole from a single collector, Sherry Kafka Wagner, who often visits the library with pride because her hand-selected collection can now be enjoyed by so many.

As for the hotel room itself, I walked in and was instantly surprised. As a working adult, I’ve done my fair share of traveling. I’ve stayed in countless hotels, each with slight variations but overall having the same “hotel” look and feel. This room was completely different from any other I’ve ever stayed in. The high ceilings and concrete walls at first seemed cold and unfamiliar. But the more I was in the room, the more I realized this was the heart of the hotel’s theme: authenticity. The walls, the high ceilings, they’re both part of the history of the building. Changing them to fit into the “normal” hotel look would be a travesty. I’m thankful that the owners and designers kept the original influences, even in the very small details.

Ultimately, there is a Southern charm to Hotel Emma that really makes you love being here. I’ll start with the staff. Is it possible that every single employee loves their job? Because every staff member I saw was so happy to help guests and give testimony to the amazing architecture, art, amenities, location and every other imaginable detail. They truly seemed to love their job, and their feelings were infectious.

_13a8063-edit_photo-credit_-jason-risnerThe hospitality in the details added to the Southern charm. By “hospitality,” I don’t mean the industry. When you have visitors in your home, you show hospitality to them to make them feel more comfortable. This hotel is a home, and the staff showed us hospitality in a way I’ve never seen before. Upon arriving, I was given my room information and invited to visit the (amazing) library for complimentary margaritas. Cocktails on the house? Who has ever heard of such a thing? They were delicious, by the way. Apparently, the recipe was made by the hotel owner for his own ranch. Once I made it to my room, I was pleasantly surprised to find our ice bucket filled, complimentary artisan water and two of the most delicious macarons I’ve ever tasted (from Bakery Lorraine, also on the Pearl campus). This was truly a sweet touch.

There were so many details I loved but was not able to cover in such a short article. I guess you’ll just have to plan a stay at Hotel Emma to see why it is unlike any other accommodations in the area.

To learn more about the history, charm and what’s new at the Pearl, visit

Photo by Nicole Franzen
Photo by jason risner

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