Published October 5, 2023
• 9 min read
With mountains in west Texas, beaches along its Gulf Coast, and the Hill Country at its heart, the Lone Star State covers such varied terrain that sometimes it feels like a country all its own. And it was, from 1836 until 1845. Today visitors flock to America’s second-largest state to learn about its fight for independence, spot neotropical birds, chow down on barbecue or Tex-Mex food, or hike mountains and deserts.
Here are the best ways to experience it.
Relive Texas history at the Alamo
San Antonio’s Alamo was built as a Spanish colonial mission in 1718. But it is best known as the site of an 1836 battle that saw the Mexican army defeat a band of mostly American upstarts shortly before Texas became an independent republic. Take a guided tour of the original stone church or visit the new 24,000-square-foot museum holding weapons linked to Davy Crockett and Mexican general Santa Ana, plus a diorama of the bloody conflict.
(Remember the Alamo? A battle brews in Texas over history versus lore.)
Hike in Big Bend National Park
Named for a large bend in the Rio Grande River, Big Bend spans 801,163 acres of desert and mountains in the wilds of West Texas. Two hundred miles of hiking trails crisscross its desert flats, sky islands, and riverside canyons. “It’s such a big vast space, the only real way to get into the corners, crooks, and crannies of it is to hike,” says wilderness guide and filmmaker Austin Alvarado. The iconic South Rim Trail is a 12.7-mile loop to the top of the Chisos Mountains, where the desert sprawls out below like miles of rumpled elephant hide.
Catch a rodeo
The cattle drives of the late 19th century made Texas cowboys famous, but the tradition dates back to the Spanish vaqueros who herded cattle in the region in the 1590s. Modern cowboys and cowgirls rope calves and cling to bucking bulls at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo each January, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February, or the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Rodeo Austin in March.
Small-town competitions have fans, too. “You interact with contestants, pet their horses, and get more of what rodeo is all about,” says Megan Bruinsma, co-producer of Crider’s Rodeo, held on summer Saturday nights in tiny Hunt (about 77 miles west of San Antonio). Afterward, there’s live music at the adjacent dance hall.
(See what cowboys looked like a century ago.)
Explore the space race
Revisit the 1960s and 1970s heyday of lunar landings and satellite launches via a tram tour around the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Highlights include vintage space suits, lunar modules, and Mission Control, with the consoles engineers used to monitor Apollo and space shuttle missions. Learn about more recent space travel at a new permanent exhibit about Artemis, the new U.S. space program.
(These places across the U.S. let you watch a space launch.)
Admire the birds
More than 500 species of birds pass through the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas each year, making it a bird-watching hotspot. Keep an eye out for green jays, buff-bellied hummingbirds, or rare white-collared seedeaters. “We’re in a semi-tropical zone with mountains to our west and the Gulf of Mexico to our east and two migratory flyways,” says Roy Rodriguez, lead interpreter at the World Birding Center, a group of nine parks across the region that includes thorn forests, riverside woodlands, and salt marshes. Birders can explore on their own or nerd out with like-minded enthusiasts at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival each November.
Go museum hopping in Fort Worth
Despite its “Cowtown” nickname, Fort Worth serves up some of the state’s best museums. In a mid-century columned stone building by architect Philip Johnson, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art showcases works from Frederic Remington’s 19th-century statues of Wild West life to Georgia O’Keefe abstractions. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is known for pieces by names like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, plus works by Texas artists such as edgy photographer Misty Keasler. The Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame holds artifacts including bejeweled rodeo clothing and sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s rifle.
Listen to live music in Austin
The capital of Texas is also a capital of live music, home to acts like Willie Nelson and Spoon as well as legendary concert venues. (You’ll probably even catch a band playing when you arrive at the airport.) Open since 1964 in a wooden building decorated with wagon wheels, the Broken Spoke hosts country and western bands and two-stepping dancers. Catch roots, rockabilly, rock, or country amid the dim lights at the Continental Club, which opened in 1955. Other top stops: the intimate Cactus Café on the University of Texas campus, where musicians play acoustic sets against a red velvet curtain backdrop, or Antone’s Nightclub, with its roster of blues acts.
Stay at a historic hotel
Recently renovated and painted pink, the Grand Galvez opened along Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard in 1911, not long after a hurricane devastated the island in 1900. “Galveston has always had a resiliency and the Galvez embodies that,” says Will Wright, chief creative officer for the Galveston Historical Foundation.
Other stays with a view of history include the Spanish mission-inspired Gage Hotel in tiny Marathon, open since 1927 about an hour’s drive from Big Bend National Park. The Driskill hotel, with its brick arches and Romanesque architecture, opened in 1886 a quarter mile from the state capitol in Austin. In 1934, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his future wife, Lady Bird, had their first date here in the hotel café.
(Learn why historic hotels are worth preserving—and staying in.)
Try the Tex-Mex food
Tex-Mex cuisine, a mash-up of South of the Border staples (corn tortillas, grilled meats) and American excess (yellow cheese, chili powder), rules many restaurants throughout Texas. “If you look at the history, it’s just a regional food that was used to survive,” says Jose Ralat, the taco editor at Texas Monthly magazine. “A cheese enchilada topped with chile con carne can be transcendental.”
Other staples include gorditas (pita-like corn rounds stuffed with beans or meat) and breakfast tacos (flour tortillas folded around eggs y mas). Sample it at Avila’s Mexican Food in El Paso, Los Barrios in San Antonio, or the original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston.
See ancient rock art
Pictographs, some created more than 4,000 years ago, are painted on the walls of rocky overhangs at more than 300 sites in Val Verde County (about a three-hour drive west of San Antonio). Colorful images of humans and animals can be spotted on ranger-led hikes at Seminole Canyon State Park. The most spectacular example, an elaborate, 26-foot-wide mural of a shaman, covers a rockface high above the Pecos River. You can only see it via tours offered by San Antonio’s Witte Museum from September through May.
(For more tips on what to do in Texas, see our Explorer’s Guide.)
Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based writer. Follow her on Instagram.
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