Texas is the second largest state in the U.S. and it takes this ranking seriously. You’ll find big cities, big portions, big hats, big houses, big everything when you visit. But just like in smaller states, the real heart of Texas can be found in the small towns and natural landscapes scattered throughout.
Whether you’re travelling along the Gulf of Mexico or through major cities like Dallas or Houston you won’t want to miss at least a few stopovers in some of these unique and charming small towns.
If you’re looking for the American old west and outlaw history, Granbury is a great place to start. Most believe that Jesse James, a famous outlaw of the late 19th century is buried in Missouri, but locals in Granbury are adamant that he’s actually buried there.
Be sure to check out the Granbury Opera house (established just after the Texas revolution) and the Revolver Brewing company while you’re at it. Go a little further back in time when you visit Dinosaur World, complete with life sized replicas of some of the creatures whose fossils have been found nearby.
2. Round Top
Between Houston and Austin is the well-loved town of Round Top. Texans know it for the antique show, incredible art scene, and mouth-watering pies that you can only get at Royers Café. The entire town is about 600 acres total and a whopping 100 inhabitants, but don’t count Round Top out.
Each summer you can attend performances at the Festival Hill music institute which attracts musicians from across the country and the Shakespeare at Windedale festival.
B&B-ers will love a visit to the Bed and Breakfast Capital of East Texas. Jefferson is located close to the Louisiana border and has a population of just over 2,000 people. Thanks to its proximity to Lake O’ the Pines and Caddo Lake, there are plenty of outdoor adventures to be had here. You can take a lake tour, steam paddleboat trip, and, of course, great fishing. Visiting Jefferson is a bit like stepping back in time to the mid-19th century.
The town offers horse-drawn carriage rides, ghost tours, and antiquing. When it was first founded, the town was a thriving river port and many of the tourist activities you can experience today are centred on this foundation.
Originally a Spanish settlement, Nacogdoches is the oldest city in Texas. Missionaries who hoped to convert American Indians settled in the area and the blending of cultures grew naturally into the town it is today. In addition to being difficult to spell and pronounce, Nacogdoches is an historical town.
Visitors enjoy the Stone Fort, Old Stone Fort Museum, Ruby Mize Azalea Garden, the Oak Grove Cemetery, hiking trails that were once trade routes, Camp Tonkawa, the Durst Taylor House, Sterne-Hoya House, Millard’s Crossing Village, the Old University Building, and the Hotel Fredonia.
But if you’re arriving for the first time, be sure to make the Historic Town Center and Visitor Center your first stop. Wander down the red brick streets and fall in love with southern hospitality. Bring a camera!
Founded as little more than a slaughterhouse in the late 19th century, Rockport has grown into a popular tourist attraction thanks to it the fantastic beach there. Local officials know that the beach is a big draw and so a lot of resources are put into maintenance and services. Making it a truly spectacular beach experience.
The Fulton Mansion and Education History Center is a 19th century building that was considered quite innovative for its time – including things like indoor plumbing and central air. The Texas Maritime Museum allows guests to explore the history of the area from the Spanish settlement to the process of searching for offshore oil.
Be sure to check out the Rockport Center for the Arts, Connie Hagar Wildlife Refuge, Oysterfest, the Windmill in the Tree, and the Wine Festival.
Just between El Paso and Dallas sits Pecos. Known throughout Texas for its wonderful heritage, its cantaloupes, and its most famous resident – American Folk Hero Pecos Bill.
But what Texans really know about the town is that it hosts the biggest and best rodeo in the country. In fact, history has it that the very first rodeo was held here in 1883.
Wimberly is small, but it is not quiet. Every Friday, locals turn out for the Bluegrass Jam. Held in a vacant parking lot – full of small town charm – the gathering is informal and everyone who loves music and can pick an instrument is welcome to join in. The part goes late into the night and defines the tiny town. If you’d like some dinner to go with you Jam, try sitting on the porch at Ino’z.
You’ll also love the Blue Hole – a lovely swimming spot at Jacob’s Well. There are great trees with ropes tied to them for swinging over and into the water. Other outdoor activities include hiking, horseback riding, camping, and fishing.
This is a tiny but gorgeous town sometimes referred to as the Best Art Town in Texas. With just about 2,000 people there, Salado has managed to retain its historical relevance.
You can stay in the Stagecoach Inn – the oldest hotel in town, visit the old college, which briefly opened its doors in the 1860’s, tour the George Washington Baines House – which is one of 20 Salado locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And the first entry on the Texas Natural Landmarks is Salado Creek – a big point of pride for locals. But the best part of Salado is the atmosphere. You’ll feel like you’re moving through the American Old West.
Small but internationally known in the art world, Marfa is tucked away in the desert of West Texas. It’s a bit out of the way to reach, but almost every list you find about Texas will tell you: do not miss it. Scattered about town are fantastic installations by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and more. Packed with galleries and fine dining, Marfa is a cultural event from dawn until dusk.
After dinner you get to judge for yourself whether the Marfa Lights are a natural phenomenon or the work of aliens – an ongoing community debate since the late 19th century! Have your fill of museums, wineries, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Part of the Texas Big Bend National Park is in Marfa. The park has documented over 60 species of cactus and is a great location for backpacking. Guided backpacking and birdwatching tours are available weekly.
Originally settled by Austrian and German pioneers, Schulenberg is home to the famous painted churches – buildings with stunning architecture, interesting history, ornate statuary, and unbelievably detailed design. It goes by any number of names, including “railroad town,” “musician town,” and “halfway to everywhere.” Travelers also have a lot of fun at the Von Minden Hotel and Theatre– it’s supposedly haunted.
If you really want to experience some fun, don’t miss the Texas Polk Music Museum. There is so much to see in Schulenburg that the local chamber of commerce provides docents who will join you in your bus or car in order to give you a personalized tour of the town.
In central-south Texas you’ll find a series of lovely limestone hills. In the middle of those, you’ll find Hunt. It’s the landscape that makes Hunt worthy of a visit. The north and south forks of the Guadalupe River meet here to create remarkable landscapes and great recreational areas at every turn. Stunning lakes, rivers, and hills combine to make this a nature lovers dream.
Many visitors choose to rent a home along the river or tuck in at a resort and stay for a while. Be sure to visit the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Crider’s Rodeo and Dance Hall where cowboys put on a show on summer nights, and the Stonehenge II – a replica of the original built on the north fork of the river. Roughly 60% as tall as the original, the site also has replicas of the mysterious statues found on Easter Island.
Canyon is named for its functionality. It serves as the primary gateway to the Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the U.S. Most Texan’s call it the Grand Canyon of Texas, and it is every bit as impressive as it sounds. Archaeological digs have found evidence that American Indians once inhabited the place – thus giving it recognition as a U.S. National Landmark.
The small panhandle town of Canyon is not only home to the state park where Palo Duro is, but also the Panhandle-Plains Historic Museum, Buffalo Lake Refuge, Texas Musical Drama, and great tours of the nearby ranches – including a working ranch that once belonged to one of the original founders of Canyon. Plan to stay awhile as there is a lot to absorb in this beautiful area.
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (two American country and western singers) put Luckenbach on the map with their song of the same name. This is a town that defines sleepy – with few residents and few shops.
In fact, their welcome sign hilariously reads, “Population: 3.” Luckenbach started out as a trading post and grew steadily over the years until the 1970’s when the ‘owners’ of the town tried to sell it. And believe it or not, they did. Three Texans bought the town and put in entertainment venues throughout town – creating the modern day music and entertainment destination. Come for a show, relax in a great B&B, and do as the locals do – just chill out.
14. Port Isabel
Close to the border with Mexico, Port Isabel is one of the oldest coastal towns in Texas. Port Isabel is simply one of the most beautiful spots in the state, and that alone draws crowds from year to year. Its two big attractions are the Port Isabel Lighthouse and the Texas International Fishing Tournament.
The lighthouse is located in the town square (the only town square in the U.S. with a lighthouse) and dates back to the mid-19th century and was instrumental in the Civil War battles in the area. Visitors love parasailing, kayaking, boating, sports fishing, and dolphin sighting. Don’t forget to check out the Lighthouse Keepers Cottage, the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, and the Historic Museum.
Founded in the 19th century by Prince Frederick of Prussia, Fredericksburg is incredibly popular in Texas. Strongly German in origin, the historic district there is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Most people think of boutique shopping, eclectic stores, antiquing, and charming museums like the Pioneer Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War, when they think of Fredericksburg. Enjoy a stroll through the historic district and after, head out to the Enchanted Rock – a pink granite rock formation that is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Be sure to listen out for “Texas German” while you’re there. Fredericksburg is one of the few places you can still hear it.