The Lone Star State has an almost mythical reputation — much of it self-created, I have no problem admitting as a native Texan. The old slogan “Everything is bigger in Texas” applies to our tall tales and grandiose swagger as well.
But there is some real truth to the mythology and some absolutely epic things to see and adventures to be had in Texas. Along with its massive size, the largest state in the Continental U.S., there is also a deep wealth of diversity — geographically and culturally.
As a lifelong Texan who lives squarely in the middle of the state — the capital city of Austin — and a constant traveler, I’ve put together this Texas road trip with my top suggestions for an epic adventure. If you’re up for a grand adventure, hit the road and take it all on at once. But don’t worry, it’s also easy enough to just choose one or two destinations at a time to suit your style.
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Let’s start the adventure in the state’s largest city. It’s a major airport hub and easy to fly into from most domestic and international departure points. With a population of more than two million (and much larger than you could the surrounding metropolitan area), Houston is cosmopolitan, multinational, and the most diverse city in Texas.
Getting your culture fix
Houston is absolutely ripe with museums, performing arts, and other cultural activities. There are five distinct cultural districts here, more than in any other Texas city: East End Cultural District, Midtown Cultural Arts & Entertainment District, Theater District Houston, Washington Avenue Arts District, and Houston Museum District.
I would recommend a visit to any and all of these, but the Museum District is a must if you want to scope out world-class art, while the Theater District is home to the renowned Houston Grand Opera. If architecture or history is your thing, it’s also a great area to take in some gorgeous 19th-century homes. And even though Houstonians love their cars (let’s face it, it’s not easy to get around much of Texas without wheels), the Arts District is immensely walkable. At its heart is Sawyer Yards, a 55-acre creative campus developed out of abandoned warehouses. Around this, you’ll find tons of galleries, public art installations, working studios, dining, and shopping.
Culture vultures will also love the Montrose neighborhood, an offbeat area with a quirky vibe. Montrose is home to vintage shops, stylish boutiques, indie art galleries, and an eclectic mix of eateries. For serious retail therapy, head to the huge Galleria shopping district.
Sports fans are in the right place and can check out a basketball game at the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets (which also hosts a lot of music concerts), Minute Maid Park where the Astros play baseball, or NRG Stadium for the Houston Texans NFL football. Many visitors to Texas are also keen to check out some rodeos, and if you’ve never seen one, it’s an event not to miss at Rodeo Houston. If the Livestock Show and Rodeo are on, you’re in for a treat — the whole thing becomes a huge party, with carnival rides, interactive attractions, shows, and some surprisingly great eating. There’s even a wine garden!
Johnson Space Center
One absolute must-do for any first-time visitor to Houston is the Johnson Space Center, NASA’s center for human spaceflight. This is where the command center for America’s space flights takes place (who can ever forget those words, “Houston, we have a problem?”). Visiting the Space Center is a fun adventure for the entire family, where you can attempt to land a space shuttle in a simulator, learn about the country’s magnificent space explorations, and tour the entire facility.
From NASA, which is on the far south side of Houston, it’s easy to keep heading south another 45 minutes until you reach the coast. While the Texas coastline stretches from Port Arthur near Louisiana to Brownsville at the Mexico border, the city of Galveston is a really unique beach town — not just in Texas, but anywhere in the country. The historic Victorian downtown, called The Strand, is filled with gorgeous 19th-century architecture that houses colorful art galleries, boutiques, hotels, museums, and restaurants. Strolling the 70-block National Historic Landmark district, you might think you had just stepped into an Edith Wharton novel.
Alongside this charming town are some of the Gulf of Mexico’s best beaches and resort-area attractions, such as Moody Gardens and Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark, home to the world’s tallest watercoaster ride. There’s also a fantastic Children’s Museum and the new Bryan Museum, which showcases the world’s largest private collection of Southwestern historical artifacts.
Just half an hour away you’ll find the Kemah Boardwalk, which is sort of like the Coney Island of Texas. Kemah has evolved from a waterfront dining destination to a large, multi-use amusement park and experience. There’s lots of family fun, of course, with the rides and arcade games; but the Boardwalk also keeps a constant event calendar of things like music concerts, fireworks shows, and wine and craft beer festivals.
This vibrant city with deep cultural traditions and rich history (it’s where the Alamo is, after all) is not only one of the most popular holiday destinations in Texas but in the entire country. San Antonio draws more than 34 million visitors a year and is one of the top convention spots in the U.S.
For many people, the miles-long River Walk along the San Antonio River is the main attraction, and it is beautiful (though pretty touristy in most places). But strolling along it is one of the best things to do in San Antonio, and there are plenty of places you’ll want to walk up to the street level to take in sights like The Alamo, an 18th-century Spanish mission now preserved as a museum, that marks the infamous 1836 battle for Texan independence from Mexico. Other must-see spots just above the River Walk include HemisFair Park and its 750-ft. Tower of the Americas that overlooks the city, El Mercado and La Villita historic shopping/dining areas, and the San Antonio Museum of Art.
But there’s so much of the River Walk as well. San Antonio has a vibrant Latin heritage along with a lively arts scene. Check out the cool Pearl Brewery, where you’ll find dozens of cool shops, restaurants and gathering spots built in the old remaining structures of an abandoned brewery. If art’s your thing, head to the Blue Star Contemporary complex, the San Antonio Artists Collective, Artpace or the McNay Museum, which is housed in a beautiful colonial mansion and was the first modern art museum in Texas.
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From San Antonio, it’s just a short hour and fifteen-minute drive north to the capital of Texas (and my hometown). The “live music capital of the world” is continually rated as one of the best places to visit and live. Austin is a cosmopolitan city that offers everything without losing its college-town feel or unconventional vibe.
You’ll definitely want to experience some of that live music we’re so famous for — perhaps at one of the venerable institutions such as Antone’s, the Continental Club, or the Broken Spoke if you want a good, old-fashioned Texas dance hall experience. But with around 100 live music acts around town on any night of the week, you can catch some tunes just about anywhere — even the grocery stores! Austin is a true creative hub, embracing all kinds of artistic expression beyond music, as well. There are many museums, like the Blanton or Contemporary, and galleries, but one of the best places to get a real sense of the city’s creative culture is through the street art murals that can be found throughout neighborhoods from downtown to nearby South Congress and East Austin.
Texas Capital Building
Austin is also the place to visit the Texas State Capitol building, which offers free tours and is a good starting point to explore Congress Avenue and downtown. At dusk, don’t miss the Bat Flight, as more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge in a site that draws hundreds of spectators nightly.
The capital city has also become a huge foodie destination in recent years, with celebrity chefs like Kristen Kish, Tyson Cole and Bryce Gilmore opening restaurants. Just like the cultural offerings, you can imbibe in the great dining scene everywhere from high-end restaurants to one of the many food trucks that can be found throughout the city.
If you are more interested in outdoor activities, there are a number of hikes near Austin at 15 great parks.
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Marfa and Big Bend National Park
This area is a bit far out (geographically and culturally), so it may or may not make your road trip itinerary. But if you have time for the six to seven-hour drive out West, the quirky town of Marfa is well worth a visit. Once a sleepy ranching town hundreds of miles from anywhere, that all changed with New York artist Donald Judd made a home in Marfa for himself and his art foundation.
Today, Marfa is an odd little town (in a good way!) that’s still really tiny — there’s only one four-way stop traffic light in town — and still has its West Texas farming and Tejano roots, but is also a flourishing mecca for artists, filmmakers, writers, and other creatives. An annual film festival and music festival draws thousands, but on an everyday basis, there are plenty of art galleries and working studios, performance centers, yoga studios, and more to occupy your time here.
Don’t miss driving a little outside town to see the Giant movie display (the 1956 classic film starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed here) and the fake Prada store in the middle of nowhere that’s actually an art installation — though it’s complete with shoes and handbags inside.
Big Bend National Park
Marfa is also a great home base for exploring the magnificent Big Bend National Park, which straddles the Rio Grande River at the Mexico border. Big Bend is not nearly as explored or trafficked as other parks in Texas, so chances are you’ll have a hiking trail or overlook view all to yourself. During your drive, don’t miss a stop in the Terlingua Ghost Town; it’s a funky piece of history with a graveyard, remains of century-old buildings, and an interesting community.
It’s time to head up to the gateway to where the West begins! Sometimes affectionately called Cowtown, you won’t see many cows in today’s sophisticated Fort Worth — but the Stockyards district on the north side of downtown is still a great place to get an authentic taste of the old Wild West history here. The 98-acre area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with walking tours, music, shopping, restaurants, and nightlife — you’ll find the famed Billy Bob’s Texas from the Urban Cowboy movie here. But a real highlight is the cattle drive on the Stockyard streets twice daily, at 11:30 am and 4 pm.
Two other areas of Fort Worth are well worth exploring for both history and fun. Sundance Square downtown is an entertainment district anchored by the gorgeous Bass Performance Hall. Around 35 square blocks, you’ll find a wealth of shopping, dining, and fun — this is definitely the place to be at night!
A little to the west down Camp Bowie Boulevard, you enter the Fort Worth Cultural District, home to numerous major museums, including the architecturally striking Modern Art Museum and the world-renowned Kimbell Art Museum. The nearby Will Rogers Memorial Center hosts rodeos, livestock shows, and other events.
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From Fort Worth, head east to the “Big D.” I would start downtown, where you can take in the West End Historic District. There are many eateries, shopping, and other attractions here but the main draw is the John F. Kennedy memorial plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, commemorating the site of President Kennedy’s assassination and his legacy. You can also experience the moving Dallas Holocaust Museum in the West End.
A few blocks away is the Arts District, known for striking architectural masterpieces like the angular Meyerson Symphony Center, the lavish Winspear Opera House, and the Dallas Museum of Art. If art is really your thing, you won’t want to miss the Crow Collection of Asian Art or the sleek Nasher Sculpture Center.
For a completely different cultural experience, head to the Bishop Arts District in the historic Oak Cliff neighborhood south of downtown. This diverse, eclectic neighborhood is where you find accessible street art, funky shops, and a wide range of dining options, from traditional Texas barbecue to Vietnamese pho and craft brewpubs. Take in a film at the Texas Theatre (where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested) or a music concert at the art deco Kessler Theater.
If you’re really into the whole Texas mythology thing, or you’re a big fan of the hit 80s TV show Dallas, head north to Southfork Ranch. The world’s most famous ranch is not actually in Dallas but in a suburb, Plano, and on a visit there you can tour the ranch, saddle up for a horseback trail ride, or enjoy one of the many regular special events held there.
If you’re looking to experience Dallas nightlife, you won’t want to miss the Deep Ellum neighborhood, to the east of downtown. This area was originally a warehouse district, and many lofts and nightclubs make their home in former factories. Deep Ellum got its start in the early part of the 20th century as a destination for blues and jazz and experienced a revival in the 1980s and 90s as an epicenter for new wave, punk, and alternative rock. This is the place to find great vintage treasures, get a tattoo, sip on some amazing handcrafted cocktails and enjoy live music.
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No matter which area of Texas you plan a road trip to — or if you decide to grab the bull by the horns and take on the whole Lone Star State — it’s sure to be an epic ride. Hopefully, I have added some places to your Texas bucket list.