Whether you’re a Texan or a tourist, these quintessential landmarks, iconic places, and inimitable experiences should be on your Lone Star travel itinerary.
Texas is Big Bend’s marvelous night sky, Caprock Canyons’ awesome isolation, Gruene Hall’s joyous revelry in music. It’s the celluloid cowboys and Indians who characterized the state’s past and contemporary films’ oil men, down-and-out singers, and quirky criminals. It’s a comfortable pair of boots, a brain-freezing margarita, a steak so big it’s free if you can finish it, a lazy river float with a cooler full of cold ones. It’s Quanah Parker, Molly Ivins, Nolan Ryan, Kacey Musgraves, and Willie Nelson. It’s a place with a mythical past and the launchpad to the moon and beyond.
We covered these things and more in our July issue, but if you're looking for a place to start when it comes to Texas, try these 10 essential experiences first.
Picture Yourself in the Bluebonnets
Texas bluebonnets are so beloved and prized that it was illegal to pick them until 1973, and doing so in state parks is still prohibited. Instead, do what all Texans do every spring when these violet-blue flowers are in full bloom along the state’s highways: Pull over, get out your camera, and sit right down in the middle of them all — being careful, of course, not to crush them. The roadside proliferation of wildflowers, blue and otherwise, is at least partially courtesy of Texas native Lady Bird Johnson, who was dedicated to conservation and beautification. To find out more, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, where you can wander through its gardens and learn more about the state’s 2,700 native species of wildflowers. Then get back in your car and explore for yourself, region by wild, flowery region. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin, 512.232.0100
The bluebonnet has been the state flower of Texas since 1901.
Drink Margaritas Along San Antonio’s River Walk
As a solution to San Antonio’s flooding problem, Robert H.H. Hugman, then a 27-year-old architect, designed what would become the River Walk in 1929. He wanted to create an easily navigable river with wide sidewalks on each bank as a way to revitalize the city and reflect its Spanish history. More than 13 million annual visitors come to relax on boat cruises along the meandering waterway. They stroll along curves and turns of the river and shop in the Pearl district, once home to the city’s historic brewery. But perhaps what they really come here to do is nothing at all, with a margarita close at hand. Prickly pear margaritas at Boudro’s, beer margaritas at Bier Garten River Walk, and frozen ones at Casa Rio, established in 1946, the oldest business along the waterway. Take your pick — and ¡salud! Go Rio ticket booth and boarding locations, 849 E. River Walk and three other locations in San Antonio, 210.227.4746
Click for a slideshow of scenes from the San Antonio River Walk.
Remember the Alamo
It wasn’t a victorious battle, but it was a pivotal one in the Texas Revolution, the fight for independence from Mexico. The Battle of the Alamo demonstrated the resilience of its crew of volunteer soldiers — James Bowie, William B. Travis, and Tennessean Davy Crockett among them — who holed up inside the Spanish mission during the 13-day siege by the Mexican Army in 1836. To get the most of your visit, ask a staffer for a free Texas history talk, a short lesson that focuses on the importance of the Alamo, held several times daily. On your way out, remember to stop by the gift shop and pick up your very own Davy Crockett-style fake-coonskin cap. Don’t worry. One size fits all Texans. The Alamo, 300 Alamo Plaza, 210.225.1391
Spend Christmas in Jefferson
Steamboats loaded with bales of cotton and other goods made their way through Jefferson in East Texas during its heyday in the mid-19th century. Back then, it was the state’s second-largest port, second only to Galveston, and the city flourished. Fancy, New Orleans-inspired homes in the Greek Revival style popular in the Victorian Era dotted its streets. But the rise of railway commercial shipping and the 1873 diversion of the Red River led to Jefferson’s eventual decline. Now quiet and with far fewer inhabitants — around 2,000 — the city still boasts its pre-Civil War architecture. Many of these homes have been passed down for generations and have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts. Over the first two weekends in December, some of the city’s most well-preserved historic homes are on display for its annual holiday candlelight tour. Jefferson Candlelight Tour of Homes, 116 W. Austin St., Jefferson, 903.665.7064
2019 marks the 37th annual Jefferson Candlelight Tour of Homes.
Hunt for Ghosts in Galveston
Galveston’s Hotel Galvez is famous for its “Ghost Bride,” a woman who, legend has it, hanged herself there and whose apparition has been spotted in room 501, where she stayed before her suicide. Mayfield Manor, a prominent doctor’s home that was turned into a morgue for the nearly 8,000 people who were killed when the deadliest storm in U.S. history blew through Galveston in 1900, is said to be haunted to this day. Historical Galveston Ghost Tours leads visits to a collection of haunted houses including the Normandy Inn, Robert Durst’s house, and Sealy Mansion. Among them is Ashton Villa, built in 1859 and rumored to be haunted by the spirit of Miss Bettie Brown, who traveled and painted instead of getting married and settling down. She is said to still be hanging around with one of her suitors. There are many more stories like these, built upon the island’s rich history marked by epidemics, war, fire, and pirates, and the ghosts left behind. Ghost guides offer supernatural tours year-round through the city’s spooky haunted houses and cemeteries. Haunted Galveston calendar of events, ghost tours, and island attractions
Say Howdy to Big Tex
After you’ve taken a selfie with Big Tex, the tallest cowboy in the world, dreamed of owning one of the new cars at the Automobile Building, cheered for your favorite pig at the pig races, and shopped for everything from barbecue sauce to bug spray at the Go Texan Pavilion, stand in line for a crisp Fletcher’s Corny Dog pulled right out of the hot oil. You wore stretch pants, didn’t you? Like Christmas, the State Fair of Texas, the largest in the country, comes only once a year. Now go check out the butter sculpture at the Creative Arts Building. You know you want to — and no, you can’t eat it. State Fair of Texas, September 27 – October 20, 3921 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas, 214.565.9931
Big Texas welcomes visitors to the State Fair of Texas.
See the Sea Turtles on Padre Island
Once the spring breakers are gone, Padre Island becomes a place of calm. The longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world, its 70 miles of protected coastline is a natural habitat for several threatened and endangered species, including the world’s smallest and most critically endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley. From mid-June through August, you can see the hatchlings crawl out into the water, 15,000 to 20,000 released each year. (The sea turtles’ release dates vary slightly each year and are available at the Hatcling Hotline or online.) Bird watchers also love to gather here — the area is part of an important migratory route and a haven to nearly 400 types of birds, nearly half of all of the species found in North America. Bring your binoculars — and your sunscreen. The beach is pretty great, too. Hatchling Hotline, 361.949.7163
Cowboy Up for the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering & Western Swing Festival
An annual celebration of all things cowboy, with fiddle contests and chuck wagon competitions, where biscuits are cooked in Dutch ovens set in hot coals, this three-day event aims to re-create life as it was for Texas’ working cowboys more than a century ago. Red Steagall, the official cowboy poet of the state of Texas, is the event’s host. He leads his band, the Boys in the Bunkhouse, at Friday and Saturday nights’ Western swing dances and oversees the rodeo and poetry recitations by cowboys and cowgirls of all ages. It’s held in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. Starched Wranglers and boots suggested but not required. Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering & Western Swing Festival, October 25 – 27, 1.888.269.8696
Red Steagall at his Cowboy Gathering & Swing Festival
Go See Texas, the Outdoor Musical
Now in its 54th season, the fictionalized history of the Texas Panhandle still draws crowds of vacationing families every summer. Performed at a 1,600-seat outdoor amphitheater set in a natural basin at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the nation’s second-largest canyon, the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation-produced show covers the turn-of-the-century struggles of the cattlemen versus the farmers and the railroad cutting through it all. With more than 60 singers, dancers, and actors, Texas is a spectacle from start to its fireworks finish, two to three hours of tensions and triumphs with a romance to boot. The show is still performed mostly as originally written by playwright Paul Green, who penned the story back in the 1960s. Today, history lives on in its truest form: The great-great-great-grandson of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, Benny Tahmahkera Jr., portrays Parker onstage. Texas Outdoor Musical, 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, June 1 – August 17. Pioneer Amphitheater, 11450 State Highway Park Road 5, Canyon, 806.655.2181
Swim, Float, Canoe. Repeat.
When it’s super-hot in Texas, the best way to cool off is to hit the water. Luckily there are plenty of swimming holes, rivers, and lakes to make the sweltering summer days a little easier to bear. The 3-acre Barton Springs Pool in Austin is one of the most famous of the natural springs in Texas and has 68-degree water year-round. About an hour south, you can rent an inner tube and float along either the Comal or Guadalupe river near New Braunfels — and get one for your cooler and one for your dog, too. For a quieter time, head to Caddo Lake in East Texas and rent a canoe or a kayak and make your way around its murky waters, with 400-year-old Spanish moss-covered cypress trees still standing.
Photography (From top): Daniel Schwen/Wikicommons, Jeffrey Pang/Wikicommons, (all slideshow images with the exception of the first photo courtesy the San Antonio River Walk) facebook.com/CasaRioSA, Tim Smith/TheSanAntonioriverWalk.com, facebook.com/JeffersonCandlelight, Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas, courtesy Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering.
From the July 2019 issue.