There were a couple of slogans that I got very used to hearing when listening to the radio and television when I was a kid in San Antonio. The first, “Don’t Mess with Texas” is still pretty prevalent today, and was developed by the Texas Department of Transportation and discourages littering on Texas roads. Even if it’s your first time in Texas, you can’t miss it.
The other slogan that I quite often heard was, “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.” I think this slogan was developed by the Texas’ Office of the Governor, Economic Development & Tourism. I occasionally hear this slogan get thrown around today–and it’s no less true than it was in the mid-90’s.
And it’s true–there’s a lot more than just “one” Texas. Contrary to popular belief, Texas isn’t a big desert with rolling tumbleweeds, cactus everywhere, and a bunch of cowboys. Though–there’s a little bit of all of those things, depending upon where you visit.
The natural biomes of Texas are all vastly different, and so are the cities and the people. This is overwhelming to those who have not experienced Texas–so this article serves to provide a brief introduction to each of the main tourist destinations in Texas to make it a bit less overwhelming.
This top ten list describes the best 10 places to put on your bucket list for the great state of Texas, ranked in the order I’d generally recommend them (though these are all places worth seeing and visiting).
- Corpus Christi
- South Padre Island
- Big Bend
- Dallas/Fort Worth
- Houston & Galveston
- San Antonio
…and Texas Icons which aren’t specifically unique to one of the above destinations.
10 – Amarillo
Ahhh… the wonderfully weird, always awesome Amarillo. Strategically located atop the world’s largest natural supply of helium, to the outsider, Amarillo is effectively the middle of nowhere. (And don’t get me wrong–it is.)
When you first get to Amarillo, you really wonder why it is there–a little city, in the middle of nowhere. Back in the day, Amarillo was one of the cities that Route 66 went through, and you’ll see a lot of evidence of that. Today, it’s probably the beef capital of the world. Oh–and, weary visitors–if you find yourself wondering–a “sodpoodle” is cowboy slang for a prairie dog, which there are a lot of here.
Food: 3/5 stars. There aren’t as many great places to eat here as some of the other places on the list due to the fact that it’s a smaller town, but the steaks are really fresh (again, Amarillo is a rather important place for beef, and there’s a LOT of fresh beef to be had). Also, you’re close enough to New Mexico to benefit from some of the hatch chili recipes that come out of New Mexico, when they’re in season. From a tourist’s perspective, the Big Texan Steak Ranch is a must–it is one of the most parodied restaurants of all time, and the free 72 ounce steak* (along with Amarillo) was featured in the pilot episode of Man Vs. Food.
(* – The steak is free, if consumed in one hour, along with the drinks and ‘fixin’s’. If you think you’ll be able to pull that off, as we say down here, “Well, bless your heart.”).
Shopping: 2/5 stars. Outside of the campy Route 66 related souvenir shops (including the aforementioned Big Texan Steak Ranch, which feels sort of like a mini-Wall Drug), there’s not much shopping here.
Activities: 4/5 stars, especially considering the small size of Amarillo. From Wonderland (a small but very respectable amusement park with a surprising number of coasters) to the National Park properties to the North, to the legendary Route 66 stops (the helium monument, The Big Texan Steak Ranch, and (of course) Cadillac Ranch), you can easily fill a weekend here with some cool activities. If you’re in to classic roadside America, Amarillo is a must see.
Tips: For a fun scavenger hunt (or if you’re wondering what in the heck all of those odd street signs mean) check out the “Dynamite Museum.” Eat at the Big Texan, but go into it knowing that the food is pretty average, and you’re there for the experience. Don’t miss Palo Duro Canyon, just to the south of Amarillo–it’s 120 miles long and the second largest canyon in the United States after the Grand Canyon.
Map Link: Click Here.
9 – Austin
The number one place on many people’s list in Texas is Austin. (As you can tell, it’s #9 on mine. Haha.) Located “deep in the heart of Texas,” Austin is Texas’ capitol city and boasts a pretty cool musical history. Austin is in the hill country, which has some nice, natural beauty.
However, Austin is (personally) my least favorite place in Texas. I include it here (higher than Amarillo) as it should be definitely be visited by those who are interested in it. It is super liberal and otherwise feels like a generic, corporate sprawl to me. The music is good, though.
Food: 3/5 stars. The food in Austin isn’t bad–there’s just nothing super special here that I’ve got to have, with the possible exception of Casino El Camino on 6th street, which is just wonderfully macabre and zany at the same time. (I recommend the Amarillo burger.) There’s also some regional chains worth checking out, like P. Terry’s Burger Stand and Bill Miller BBQ (which is actually based in San Antonio–but I’m getting ahead of myself). Most of the notable restaurant chains that became popular in Austin have since been exported to other cities in Texas (and beyond, in some cases). These include Torchy’s Tacos, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Hat Creek Burger Company, and Tacodeli, to name a few.
Shopping: 4/5 stars. The shopping is great–particularly due to arguably the best-in-Texas outlet malls located just down I-35 in San Marcos, which is well above average for outlet shopping. (There’s two sides to the outlet mall–the Simon side, and the Tanger side.) Waterloo Records is a very notable record store. SoCo (South Congress Ave.) is also apparently a shopping destination for the hipsters of Austin, but again–not really my speed.
Activities: 3/5 stars. Of course, there’s the music scene, of which 6th street is the focal point (also home to the aforementioned Casino El Camino). Austin is also home to UT’s main campus, so there’s all the stuff that comes with the university, which includes the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (which is a much better facility than he was a president), as well as the Bullock Texas State History Museum, which is probably the most notable museum dedicated to telling the story of the great history of the Republic and eventual State of Texas.
Tips: The traffic in Austin–especially on I-35–is terrible. This has led to the strange “above and below” interstate of I-35. Always consider paying the toll and taking the bypass (State Highway 130) whenever it might be feasible.
Map Link: Click here.
8 – Waco
Waco’s a college town with a Magnolia problem. It’s not the most exciting place in the world, but there’s a good amount of stuff to do. I’ve included it here as much of the not-Magnolia stuff gets overlooked.
Food: 2.5/5 stars. The food in Waco isn’t that amazing–though there’s a couple of notable stops that I’d recommend. Specifically, George’s is a great comfort-food type place with really good onion rings. (For the best in Texas, I’m going to recommend you scroll down to #1 on this list…) To the north about 20 minutes (exit 353, in West, Texas–that’s the name of the town, not the direction), there’s the world famous “Little Czech Bakery,” or what us Texans know as the “Czech Stop.”
Shopping: 2/5 stars–at least to dudes like me. (Ladies might go nuts, though.) This is all Magnolia, Magnolia, Magnolia. Specifically the Magnolia Market, which you can’t miss–it’s under the silos. There’s other shops in the area as well.
Activities: 3/5 stars. Again, everyone knows about Magnolia, but there’s a lot of nifty little hidden gems here. First, there’s the Dr. Pepper Museum, as the original 23 flavor concoction that is Dr. Pepper was created right here in Waco. Also, there’s the Waco Mammoth National Monument (if you’re into National Park sites and getting your passports filled up), a pretty decent zoo, and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Outside of town a bit, you can still visit what’s left of the Branch Davidian compound. (Note: This is more of a drive-by attraction. You can go in, but I felt weird going in there…)
7 – Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg is a cool little German town. This is not unlike the nearby New Braunfels (which is an hour and a half from here, but I associate New Braunfels with the San Antonio area–so more on that under the San Antonio entry on this list.)
Food: 4/5 stars. Of course, there’s plenty of German options. During peak times of the year (i.e. – summer through fall), it may be challenging to get into some of the restaurants. There’s local breweries, and Fredericksburg is a well-known destination for wineries in Texas, though wine admittedly isn’t really my thing. The wineries make Fredericksburg a pretty popular destination for bachelorette parties in Texas.
Shopping: 3.5 / 5 stars. Just walk down Main Street. There’s a bunch of nifty little stores all along the road. The shops have a blend of souvenir shops, fudge shops, arts & crafts, Christmas shops, clothing shops, and more.
Activities: 4/5 stars, especially for a small town. In addition to the food and window shopping on Main Street (which are notable activities in and of themselves), Fredericksburg is the hometown of Admiral Chester Nimitz. This has made Fredericksburg home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, which is dedicated to the pacific war operations that took place during World War II. The museum is in two parts: the Nimitz hotel building (with exhibits focused on the Admiral) and the main museum. The main museum is where most of the exhibits are, and it is set back a bit from the main street. It is an easy walk from the museum to main street, though. There also is a notable Oktoberfest, though I have not yet been to it. Also, Luckenbach (famous for live music) is very nearby.
Tips: Park at the visitor center for free (302 E Austin St, Fredericksburg, TX 78624) and walk to the museum and downtown. Also, check the Fredericksburg websites (this one, and this one) to learn more about the area and special events going on in town prior to your visit. Also, lodging can be expensive and scarce in and around Fredericksburg’s immediate area, so if you don’t mind the drive, consider saving a good amount of money per night by staying in San Antonio (1 hour away) or Austin (1 and a half hours away) when visiting.
Map Link: Click here. (Included in my San Antonio map.)
6 – Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi is one of the three major destinations of “costal” Texas. Each of the destinations has it’s own vibe. I’d describe Corpus Christi as having more of a laid-back feel than Galveston (discussed under “Houston”) and South Padre Island. Corpus Christi feels to me like a more metropolitan Galveston–a decent sized small city, but is more modern than Galveston and less like a cruise ship port.
Food: 4/5 stars. There’s a number of great seafood and steak places in Corpus, but I personally can’t get past Water Street Oyster Bar. All of the food I’ve had there is great, though I have to specifically recommend the Shrimp Picayune appetizer. It’s amazing.
Shopping: 1/5 stars. Aside from a pretty impressive gift shop on the USS Lexington, there’s not any places of note that I’ve been to in Corpus for shopping that deserves a mention here. You don’t really want to blow your time shopping here, though–instead, focus on the beach and the activities.
Activities: 4/5 stars, again, especially for the smaller size of the city when compared to others on this list. Aside from the obvious beach draw (there are many beaches in Corpus Christi proper, but there are many others in the area, including Padre Island National Seashore (35 minutes from the airport–national parks property), and the very popular Port Aransas (about 45 minutes away). The USS Lexington is one of the best navy museums I’ve been to. It’s a museum ship, but unlike ships like the USS Midway (in San Diego) and USS Intrepid (in New York City), the ship isn’t exclusively restored in a way that preserves the overall look and feel of the ship when it was in use. Instead, restored common areas also contain Navy-related exhibits on battles and other topics. Nearby, the Texas State Aquarium is a pretty nice aquarium as well. They also have the Selena museum (as Selena became famous in Corpus Christi and died here), which I’ve never been to.
Tips: For Whataburger fans: The chain started here. Make sure to check out the replica of the original Whataburger, or, better still, the unique, 2-story Whataburger By The Bay. Oh–and this is a jellyfish. If you see one, stay away from it.
Map Link: Click here.
5 – South Padre Island
At the very tip of Texas is a destination quite popular with the college crowd at Spring Break. South Padre is as close as you can get (geographically) to going to Mexico without actually going there. The beaches are very nice, and the area has the reputation for having a party atmosphere in the spring. (However, that’s the main time of year that I’d actually try to avoid it as a destination.)
South Padre Island feels more like a “Destin, Florida” of Texas, with numerous nice hotel developments on the beach. Maybe I feel this way because I’m beyond the “party” stage of my life, but there’s more to South Padre than the partying. It’s a great place for a “chill-out” style vacation.
Food: 3/5 stars. There’s nothing super special here, but there are (of course) good local restaurants and chains. Being on the Gulf also means that there is good access to fresh seafood, so seafood isn’t a bad bet when you’re in the area.
Shopping: 1/5 stars. There’s not really anything special here aside from the touristy surf shops you’d expect—and there honestly aren’t a ton of those.
Activities: 4/5 stars. There’s a lot of stuff to do on the island and in the area besides the beach, though South Padre arguably has the best beaches in Texas, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting South Padre if you didn’t want to spend at least some time on the beach. I recommend checking out Sea Turtle, Inc., which is a sea turtle rehabilitation facility. There is also an adjacent birding and nature facility which is fun also. It’s a lot of fun to see all of the turtles. Also consider taking a dolphin watch cruise. (I recommend The Original Dolphin Watch.)
Tips: Ideally, visit the island in September – February but specifically avoid the spring break party element, unless that’s what you’re going for. And if you are, expect to pay a premium for it. Note that it takes about an hour to drive from HRL airport to South Padre Island.
Map Link: Click here.
4 – Big Bend
Big Bend provides some pretty breathtaking desolation. Sure, it’s a desert, but it’s pretty varied desert. There are some pretty stunning vistas, rivers, and even some fossils. But yes–it’s rather desolate. This is the kind of Texas that I think most people who have never been to Texas think about–tumbleweeds, desert, droughts and floods, and being in the middle of nowhere.
How to get to this desolation, you may ask? You’re better off flying to an airport in the area and then renting a car. I’d argue it’s best to fly into Midland (MAF) to get to Big Bend–it’s a little closer–but El Paso (ELP) will work as well.
Food: 3/5 stars, though this is based completely on the Reata in Alpine, which by itself should be 5/5 stars. This is worth a detour, in my opinion. Outside of that, there’s “slim pickings.”
Shopping: 1/5 stars. If you’re looking for a destination with shopping, this one isn’t the one you’re looking for. You’ll have the occasional gift shop, but there’s nothing else.
Activities: 4/5 stars. Big Bend National Park is the highlight. The photography is great, and the hiking is amazing. Being outside at night in this kind of desolation and looking up into the starry sky is memorable to say the least. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path (though if you’re considering this trip, you couldn’t get more ‘off the beaten path’ to begin with). There’s also a couple of things you could do en route–you could see Fort Davis, the McDonald Observatory, the Marfa lights or visit the Monahans Sandhills. Of course, the more you “peel the onion,” the more you’ll find.
Tips: There’s a bunch. These are all very important. (These are generally good advice for visiting any of our National Parks):
- Bring some extra drinking water, sun protection (clothing AND sunscreen), and plenty of food.
- Download some offline maps on your iPhone from Google Maps or your favorite mapping software.
- Respect the local wildlife–and specifically in this instance, I mean understand the real dangers of mountain lions and how to best deal with them.
- Prior to leaving, check the National Park Service website for information about closures around the park.
- Check the weather to make sure you’re dressing appropriately. (Note: Contrary to popular belief, deserts aren’t always hot.) Wear comfortable shoes that are appropriate for the hiking trails that appeal to you.
- When they say “last chance” for gas, they aren’t kidding. It’s best to plan your gas stops prior to leaving for your trip.
Map Link: Click here.
3 – The Dallas / Fort Worth Metroplex
Fort Worthians proudly claim that their city is “Where the West Begins.” They also claim that Dallas is “Where the East Begins.”
That’s an anti-Dallasite joke for sure (you may have to visit Dallas to fully appreciate the joke, and yes, Dallasite is a word, though we typically don’t say it), but I’ll be the first “Dallasite” to admit–it isn’t wrong. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (AKA the “DFW” area) is huge. We’ve got multiple skylines all over the place. We have a little bit of everything, here, and something for everyone.
Food: 4/5 Stars. The food in Dallas-Fort Worth is fantastic. More unique to DFW are places like the Blue Goose Cantina (Tex-Mex–specifically, mesquite grilled fajitas), Uncle Julio’s (originally in Dallas, but they’ve expanded to many other states), all of the Marino’s restaurants (home of the 1st frozen margarita, but a great Tex-Mex place as well), Snuffers (amazing burgers and legendary cheese fries), Javier’s (Mex-Mex food–like actual Mexico City Mexican–and a cigar bar if that’s your thing), The Reata (Southwest cuisine–though the “original” location is in Alpine out West), Bob’s Steak and Chophouse (a famous steakhouse, make sure to eat your carrot), Kuby’s Sausage House (German), Babe’s / Bubba’s (the best fried chicken I’ve ever had), Neighborhood Services (American-New), Kenny’s Wood Fired Grill (“old-school” Chicago-style steakhouse, though any of Kenny Bower’s concepts in Dallas are fantastic), Desperado’s (Tex-Mex – I recommend the Desperado Tacos), the Hard 8 (BBQ–remember, your eyes are bigger than your stomach), and many, many more. I actually made a list on my “Dine at Joe’s” blog here, complete with a map. Most of the places on the map still exist, despite making the site about 10 years ago.
Shopping: 4/5 stars. The people in Dallas are ALL about their retail. Perhaps no place embodies this better than Northpark Center, which is half modern art museum, half high-end mall. Also notable is Highland Park Village, which is the first self-contained shopping center in America. I don’t spend a lot of time there, as it’s more ultra high luxury stores and boutique-type stores that don’t interest me. The other major mall in Dallas is the Galleria (which is more of a standard mall).
There’s a lot of other notable shopping locations in Dallas, though: One is the original Half Price Books location, which was built in an old service merchandise location. (Yup–it’s that big. And the corporate offices are still on the floor above the store in the same building.) Aside from just being a huge Half Price Books location, parts of the store resemble a museum where you can buy the exhibits. (My favorite find that I saw at Half Price Books in Dallas was a 1st edition of “We Seven,” signed by all seven of the original Mercury astronauts.)
If you’re after outlet shopping, there’s four major outlet malls. The Grand Prairie Premium Outlets, Tanger Outlets Fort Worth, Grapevine Mills, and the Allen Premium Outlets–the lattermost of these three being the superior option.
Activities: 4.5/5 stars. There’s a bunch of stuff to do in Dallas-Fort Worth, despite DFW not being generally regarded as a “tourist destination.” Probably the most obvious is all of the JFK stuff in downtown Dallas, including the Sixth Floor Museum and adjacent Dealey Plaza. (The “official story” is in the museum and the more likely stories are available by listening to the “conspiracy theorists” in the plaza.) But there’s a lot more beyond that. The art museums are pretty outstanding (The DMA is the biggest, but Fort Worth has the Amon Carter Museum, which probably has more “cowboy art” in their collection than anywhere else in the world, and the Kimbell Art Museum is one of the finest collections of art–per capita–in the world). If you’re into history, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is on the SMU campus. Also, the Texas Civil War Museum boasts an impressive collection of artifacts, including the coat that U.S. Grant probably wore when accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. One other strange but cool “history” museum is the National Videogame Museum in Frisco.
Beyond that, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is the original Six Flags. (Six Flags flew over Texas during the history of our state, and the park used to have 6 themed lands–one for each flag–thus the name “Six Flags.”) The New Texas Giant was the first Rocky Mountain Coaster conversion ever, though there’s a lot of notable roller coasters here–definitely a “don’t miss” for coaster nerds like me.
Over in Fort Worth, the Stockyards and the nearby Sundance Square areas are worth a mention. Sundance Square is a super nice part of the beautiful downtown that Fort Worth has, and it helps that there’s a lot of history (like Hell’s Half Acre) nearby. Just to the North are the Fort Worth Stockyards, which also boast tons of history–there may not be a better way to take a step back into the old west than to go to the Fort Worth Stockyards. Of course, Billy Bob’s (the world’s largest Honky Tonk) is right there and totally worth checking out.
Seasonally, it’s worth checking out the State Fair of Texas in September-October every year in Fair Park, as well as Scarborough Renaissance Festival in April-May, located down in Waxahachie. Dallas also offers teams for every spectator sport–from the Cowboys to the Mavericks to the Stars to the Rangers.
Tips: For assassination nuts, you may want to swing by Campisi’s Egyptian Room on Mockingbird. Local lore dictates that the Campisi brothers (known mafia) were involved with the Kennedy assassination, and the brothers met with Jack Ruby here (in the corner booth) before Kennedy was assassinated. Note that this is most likely the location where the plan to take out Oswald after the Kennedy assassination was communicated to Ruby.
If you go to the DMA, don’t miss the “Reeves” collection, all of which is displayed in a re-creation of the French villa that once belonged to Coco Chanel.
If you go to Cowboy’s Stadium to see a game, do research in advance for best parking spots. I suspect that the stadium was intentionally put in a location far from the city in order to control all of the parking at the stadium, which has given the Cowboys license to charge (for the best lots) literally $100 per car to park a car. It’s a rip off.
I-35 from Regal Row to Downtown Dallas is the deadliest road in Texas. The second most deadly road is I-35 (the “Marvin D. Love freeway”) south of downtown. Be really careful on our roads.
Map Link: Click here.
2 – Houston & Galveston
Houston is the biggest city in Texas, though the second largest metropolitan area (after DFW). It’s a huge urban sprawl. While I’m not a fan of the urban sprawl aspect of the city, it’s one of the best places to visit in Texas, and it should be no surprise that it’s actually the most visited city in Texas (that is–ever so slightly over DFW).
Food: 5/5 stars. The food in Houston is phenomenal, and overall, the best on this list. I’d rank Houston as the 3rd best city to eat in within the United States. (San Francisco is #1, and New Orleans is #2, unless you like cheese.) Due to Houston’s easy access to the gulf, seafood is arguably easier to come by here than anywhere else in the state, and this has led to a number of restaurants being developed here. For example, the original Carabba’s is on Upper Kirby, and still maintains it’s original menu which was more seafood focused–like a seafood-Italian restaurant. Texas isn’t exactly known for their Italian food, but Carabba’s is an exception. (This novelty probably led to it getting franchised in the first place.)
But that’s not the only incredible restaurant chain that started here. All of the Pappa’s restaurants started here (described in further detail below in the “Texas Icons” section, as well as Gringo’s / Jimmy Changas restaurants (which are finally starting to expand out of the Houston area. (Please, Gringos–come to Dallas!). There’s also some other restaurants that are local and special to Houston–my favorite of which being Niko Niko’s (with the closing of Yia Yia Mary’s during COVID, Niko Niko’s has the best gyros in Texas, hands down–not that the bar is set very high). Overall, though, it’s hard to get a bad meal in the Houston area.
Shopping: 4/5 stars. The shopping in Houston is pretty great. Of course, there’s the giant Galleria shopping mall. With 2.4 million square feet of shopping, the Galleria is the biggest shopping mall in Texas and the 9th largest in the United States. Also in the area are some pretty great outlet malls (specifically the Houston Premium Outlets and the Tanger Outlets, and to a somewhat lesser degree Katy Mills). Also, I’m a fan of cruise ports, so walking around The Strand in Galveston is a lot of fun for me as it has a similar feel to a cruise port (though there aren’t any “duty free” stores–just more local shopping).
Activities: 4.5/5 stars. There’s a LOT of stuff in Houston. Everyone immediately thinks of NASA, as Space Center Houston (which includes historic and modern mission control), which is definitely worth a visit. There is also the Houston Museum District, which is home to a ton of great museums including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, The Children’s Museum of Houston, The Health Museum, The Menil Collection, and dozens of others. There’s also a number of Landry’s owned attractions that are notable, including the Downtown Aquarium, the Kemah Boardwalk, and the Historic Pleasure Pier in Galveston. (Pack your Landry’s Select Card if you have one–it’ll come in handy–and I recommend buying one if you don’t.)
While we’re on the topic of Galveston again, there’s a bunch of stuff to do on the island. Of course, there’s the beach along the Seawall (I like the beach right next to the Pleasure Pier), and I mentioned the Strand earlier, but there’s also Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn, The Bryan Museum, the Galveston Railroad Museum, and the Galveston Naval Museum at SeaWolf park.
One last thing: If you’re in to Texas history, check out the San Jacinto Monument. It’s better (and taller) than the Washington Monument in DC. Make sure to include time to look at the exhibits at the base of the monument–they’re pretty impressive.
Tips: Houston and area is generally a lot more humid than other parts of Texas, pack accordingly. Again, the city is set up without reasonable zoning, so keep that in mind. Also, a classic Roadside America tourist destination in the United States is The Orange Show, which is worth a stop for tourist trap geeks like myself. (And if you do go, don’t miss Smither Park next door, either.)
Map Link: Click here.
1 – San Antonio
I’ll admit–I am somewhat biased with San Antonio, and that may be why it is at the top of this list. One of the first posts on this blog after I created it was dedicated to San Antonio. (This part of this topic is a summary of that full blog post.)
There’s a lot of good, objective, non-biased reasons for San Antonio being my #1 destination in Texas. It’s in the hill country, it’s within striking distance of other places on this list (Austin, Fredericksburg, and other area attractions), and there’s a LOT of stuff to do in San Antonio.
Food: 5/5 Stars. The food in San Antonio is arguably the best or second best in the state (rivaling Houston. Houston may have a slight edge due to their ready access of fresh seafood from the Gulf). On top of excellent Tex Mex everywhere, San Antonio is famous for “puffy tacos,” which are unlike anything else you can get elsewhere. (Sure, other places have things on the menu called “puffy tacos,” but they’re very different than what you get in San Antonio.) For puffy tacos, I’m a fan of Ray’s Drive Inn south of downtown, The Alamo Cafe (either location will provide great puffy tacos–and their queso is incredible also), and La Fiesta Patio Cafe in Universal City (on the Northeast side of San Antonio). I’d previously mentioned Bill Miller BBQ towards the top of this article, and that is a great regional chain based here. (Don’t miss the lemon meringue pie.)
Oh–and about those onion rings. I mentioned the “Best onion rings in Texas” under the Waco entry. I’d argue that they can be found at Clear Springs Cafe, in teeny-tiny Clear Springs, Texas–a short drive from New Braunfels towards Seguin. Again, there’s a lot more about Clear Springs Cafe in my post dedicated to San Antonio.
Shopping: 4/5 Stars. There’s a bunch of great shopping. Unlike most other places, though, part of the draw here isn’t exclusively great prices and selection but rather the area in which you are shopping. Specifically, the Riverwalk is a neat area for shopping (as well as food and entertainment). In addition to all of the stuff along the river spread throughout downtown San Antonio next to the river, there’s The Shops at Rivercenter, which is a sizable mall along the riverwalk. (Note that I feel the Riverwalk overall is a bit overrated.) There’s some other cool shopping areas that are worth a trip, namely La Cantera (built in an old quarry Northwest of San Antonio) and the Alamo Quarry Market (built in the gutted ruins of the old Alamo Cement Company, and flanked by the beautiful neighborhoods of Olmos Park and Alamo Heights), and San Antonio Market Square. Shopping at Market Square is like shopping at a Mexican cruise port without having to get on a ship or travel to Mexico. (Note: Just like shopping at cruise ports in Mexico, haggling is a good idea at Market Square.)
Activities: 5/5 Stars. San Antonio is the most popular “tourist destination” in Texas, and for good reason. In addition to the aforementioned Riverwalk in downtown, San Antonio is home to one of the three SeaWorld locations in the world, Six Flags Fiesta Texas, and, of course, The Alamo–probably the most hallowed ground in Texas and the focal point for anyone interested in Texas history and Texas’ War for Independence. There’s other things that are easy to miss, due to how many other things there are in the city–things like the McNay Art Museum (which has an impressive preforming arts art collection, including many cool sets and props from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas–though these aren’t commonly on display), the San Antonio Zoo, the Witte, and the Buckhorn. And that’s just a few things. There’s so much more.
Tips: Downtown can get gridlocked. If you want to spend a weekend at the Alamo and Riverwalk, consider Uber-ing from the airport, as it’s so expensive to park a car and things are generally walkable. Fiesta in mid-to late April (and sometimes early May) is San Antonio’s most popular festival–plan accordingly. Have more than one puffy taco–they’re all a little different. For a chill day of history and cool photo opportunities, consider visiting all of the Missions.
Map Link: Click here.
Of course, “everything’s bigger in Texas.” But, in addition to that idea, there are a number of “can’t miss” Texas-specific icons that don’t necessarily fit into (or don’t exclusively fit into) the locations described above. Make sure not to miss these things when you visit Texas:
- Food, Drink, Restaurants, and Chains
- Blue Bell Ice Cream – Made at the legendary Blue Bell Creamery in Brenham, TX, this ice cream is still my overall favorite brand. While “Homemade Vanilla” is probably the most “classic” flavor, “Cookies ‘n Cream” was my favorite as a child, and “Pecan Pralines ‘n Cream” is my favorite as an adult. Which brings me to…
- Pecan Pralines – Pecans are the state nuts of Texas, and Texas is a major grower of Pecans. (The ‘world’s largest pecan’ is on the square in Seguin, TX, and San Saba is the “pecan capitol of the world.”) The tradition of pralines were actually brought into Texas via Louisiana, but pecans make the candies distinctively Texan. Pecan Pralines are a candy sold commonly at the cash register of various restaurants (especially ones that have been around forever, like the DFW-based Tex-Mex chain “El Fenix”), these candies are made from creamy fudge and pecans and generally wrapped in saran wrap or shrink wrap. They’re inexpensive and delicious.
- Dr. Pepper – Of course, the Dr. Pepper museum was discussed in the Waco entry, but Dr. Pepper in Texas is pretty ubiquitous. Not discussed earlier is Dublin, Texas, home to the small, regional soda manufacturer who maintained the original Dr. Pepper recipe (using cane sugar) when the rest of the bottling plants moved to using HFCS as its sweetener. Dr. Pepper made using cane sugar today is still known by those in the know as “Dublin Dr. Pepper,” despite legal actions taken by the modern Dr. Pepper Snapple company to try and quash the term.
- Chicken Fried Chicken – The dish so nice, they named it twice… Chicken Fried Chicken derives it’s name from another Texas dish–Chicken Fried Steak, which is prepared in a similar way to other types of schnitzel. Chicken Fried Chicken’s roots are debated, but it was probably invented (and definitely popularized) at the original Black Eyed Pea location on Cedar Springs in uptown Dallas. (The Black Eyed Pea may be a thing of the past, but today the old owners of the original Black Eyed Pea opened another concept in the same original location called “Street’s Fine Chicken” which you can still visit.)
- Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs – Also up for debate are the origin of corn dogs. Fletcher’s at the Texas State Fair claims that they invented the corn dog sometime between 1938 and 1942. I can’t speak to their argument about them being the first, but I can confirm that they are the best. Note: I can forgive putting ketchup on a corn dog a lot faster than I can forgive putting ketchup on a Chicago hot dog, but most purists can’t and insist on only adding mustard.
- Weird Fried Foods – Fried Oreos? Fried ice cream? Fried beer? Fried Coke? Fried butter? Sure, why the heck not. These are all things that have been available at the Texas State Fair. There are competitions at the fair every year to determine what the best new crazy fried food is. This is included here as crazy fried foods are just a Texas tradition.
- Texas Sheet Cake – This is a chocolate cake with chocolate icing made in a jelly roll pan. Texas Sheet Cake is sort of similar to a fancy brownie but has a less of a thick consistency when compared to a brownie. Typically, it has powered sugar on top and commonly contain pecans. They’re delicious.
- Texas BBQ – In general, Texas BBQ is not focused on sauce–it is focused on the flavor of the wood (usually mesquite) that it is smoked with. Ribs in Texas are “gnaw off the bone” and not “fall off the bone” (like they would be in St. Louis or in other parts of the country). Note that it is kind of a faux pas to dump BBQ sauce on Texas BBQ meat before tasting the meat without sauce.
- Shiner Bock – Brewed in Shiner, Texas, Shiner Bock is my favorite beer brewed in the Lone Star State. You can get Shiner in some of the other states of the union, but no where is Shiner more ubiquitous than in the great state of Texas.
- Whataburger – Whataburger started in Corpus Christi and grew to the very recognizable bright orange and white striped famous chain that it is today. It’s just a darn good fast food restaurant.
- Taco Cabana – Taco Cabana is the legacy “patio” tex-mex chain. (There are other regional taco chains down here that are worth trying as well–like Taco Bueno, Taco Villa, and Taco Casa, depending on what part of Texas you’re in) but Taco Cabana is the original.
- The Pappas Restaurants – Also mentioned above in Houston, the Pappas brothers bought a restaurant in Houston in 1976 and ultimately pioneered the concept of “let’s own everything in our restaurants,” rather than leasing common fixtures. This allowed them to focus on quality and consistency of their food. They then conservatively developed concepts for different types of food (“Dot” for a greasy spoon / comfort food type restaurant, “Pappasitos” for tex-mex, “Pappadeaux” for cajun seafood, etc.) You can now get Pappas restaurants in 100 different locations and in 7 different states. There’s nothing quite like their concepts–though I’d argue Uncle Julios comes close on Pappasito’s, and so does Gringo’s / Jimmy Changa’s in other ways. Other than that, they’re pretty much unrivaled, and that’s why I list them here, and you can try them in most major cities in Texas–sometimes without leaving the airport.
- Tex Mex Food – It’s not properly Mexican food (we call that “Mex-Mex,” here in Texas–and it’s pretty rare around these parts), but Tex-Mex is a fusion of American and Mexican cuisine. There’s a few staples here that I’m a big fan of: Chili con Queso as an appetizer, Margaritas (frozen or not–your call), and fajitas (chicken, beef, or both) are darn hard to beat for a great Tex-Mex feast.
- Buc-ee’s – Pictured above this section, Buc-ee’s started as a small gas station store south of Houston in 1982. Since then, they’ve developed Texas-sized, gigantic travel centers for drivers–no 18 wheelers allowed. Their restrooms are FANTASTIC–usually spotless, and offer great privacy; Men–this includes at their urinals. The products they sell in their store are high quality and their stores are always a lot of fun to poke around in. (My go-to snack at Buc-ee’s is the pepperjack kolache and a large unsweetened iced tea, though many swear by the beaver nuggets. Your mileage may vary.). Buc-ee’s is expanding into other states right now (including Tennessee and Florida), but Buc-ee’s is undeniably rooted strongly in Texas–and it shows.
- Shipley’s Do-Nuts – All over Texas and even in other states, Shipley’s was one of my family’s go-to donut shops in San Antonio when I was a kid. Shipley’s started in Houston in 1936 and has grown to be a somewhat more subtle Texas icon. They’re better than Krispy Kreme, though similar in that Shipley’s uses a similar glaze on essentially all of their donuts than Krispy Kreme. (The donuts are Shipley’s are much more substantial when compared with a Krispy Kreme donut, though.) Again, everything’s bigger in Texas…
- H-E-B Grocery Stores – H-E-B is a great grocery store chain with reasonable prices and excellent quality groceries. H-E-B is all over the place in southern Texas, but is now growing more into Northern Texas. They also own “Central Market,” which is a really fancy and premium version of H-E-B and H-E-B Marketplace.
- Music & Performance
- Texas Country – Part country, part rock–Texas country is all Texas. To get the sound, I’ll list some of my favorites here: Pat Green – Wave on Wave; Cross Canadian Ragweed – Fightin’ For; George Strait – Amarillo by Morning; Old 97’s – State of Texas (not a bad summary of this article). You get the idea. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention–this isn’t a country song–but the song Bowling For Soup – Ohio is loaded with quintessential Texas references, especially the bridge of the song. Of course, Bowling for Soup is from Denton.)
- The Rodeo – You can’t really say you’re from Texas if you haven’t been to a rodeo–if for no other reason than to say that you went to see the clowns or the music act playing at the rodeo. Pretty much all major cities in Texas have a notable rodeo–Fort Worth’s is the oldest, Houston’s is the biggest. You can also see bull riding in some…
- Honky Tonks & Dance Halls – The largest in the world is Billy Bob’s in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Honky tonks are big bars with live music and other attractions as well… including bull riding. Regarding dance halls (no bull riding in these–only line dancing and music), earlier in this article I mentioned Luckenbach, and I also mentioned Gruene, home of Gruene Hall. There’s a LOT more than those classic destinations, though.
- Cowboy Boots – Get a decent set of boots from a decent western store to get a feel for them. You don’t have to go full-fancy Cowboy with your first pair, but at least get a good-fitting, comfy pair of Justin Ropers or Ariats. For a starter pair of cowboy boots, you probably want to stick with a crepe (i.e. – rubber) sole. The serious pairs of cowboy boots are generally leather and can be resoled as needed, but they are more expensive. Crepe soled boots aren’t necessarily able to be re-soled–but your mileage will vary. If you really want to get serious, consider a pair of Lucchese boots. (I recommend their outlet locations if you can get to one.) They cost more for a reason.
- Cowboy Hats – If you’re interested in getting a cowboy hat, again, go to an actual western store and talk to employees to learn more about getting a hat. Don’t get one too big or too small–they’ll help you pick a good fit. And make sure to get a good quality hat.
- Bluebonnets & Wildflowers – I’ll wrap up this article where it began, considering the “featured picture” I selected for this article. Bluebonnets are the state flower of Texas and have become one of the most iconic symbols of the state. Sadly, bluebonnets and Texas wildflowers aren’t always something that you can see, but they pop up along Texas highways once a year, somewhere around spring break time–usually late March to early April. Perhaps the best way to see the flowers is to drive around the state and enjoy them as you pass them on the side of the road. For picture opportunities, there are some fields of flowers that are better than others. To find the best places to see bluebonnets (provided you aren’t in the deserts of West Texas), it is best to ask locals where you might find fields of them to see and take pictures in. (In Dallas, there’s some good fields up in Richardson, one small one south of the George W. Bush Presidential Library (no admission necessary, thankfully), but nearby Ennis has some of the best fields.
No matter where you go, enjoy your time. Let me know in the comments if there’s anything you think I missed–and don’t forget, while in Texas, “Drive friendly–the Texas way!”