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The ultimate Texas road trip

29 essential sites, from Houston to El Paso

As you may have heard, Texas is a rather large state. Bigger than France, even. It’s home to three of the country’s 10 most populated cities (Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, with a booming Austin pulling up at No. 11) and has 10 climatic regions, 14 soil regions, and 11 distinct ecological regions—not to mention a diversity of cultures as varied as its geography.


It’s that variety—along with its rich history, relatively low gas prices, and ineffable “Texasness”—that makes it a prime place for a most excellent road trip. Planning that trip, on the other hand, can be intimidating. There’s simply no way to see it all in one lifetime. Luckily, no matter how much or how little time you have, there are great places to go and sights to see in every part of the state. To get you started, we’ve compiled this guide to 29 of the most essential in a variety of regions, along with a few suggested routes.

Let’s say you begin right in the heart of Texas, in Austin, where we have a foothold. From there, you have a few options: Stay in the area and bounce down to Lockhart, through the Hill Country, and into San Antonio. That route puts you in a prime position (namely, on I-10) to gas up and make your way out to West Texas and El Paso. Alternatively from Austin, you can head east to Houston and along the Gulf Coast, hitting Galveston and Corpus Christi as you meander along the marshes and beaches of the barrier islands. Or head north from Austin for the lights of Dallas, with stops in Waco and Forth Worth, and then on to the panhandle and Amarillo. Of course you can also embrace the cowboy spirit and choose your own adventure.

Austin

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Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake

Few places offer a better sense of Austin as a booming urban environment imbued with natural beauty than the 10-mile trail around the Colorado River, which runs through the center of town. It offers proximity to many of downtown’s landmarks, including the Seaholm District—a defunct art moderne electric plant transformed into a mixed-use complex with lots of community space—and the new Central Library, just opened on the former Green Water Treatment Plant site. Depending on how much of the trail you want to walk/run/bike, you can see Austin’s legendary bat colony take off from under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset, visit the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue and the Long Center (another great view), venture up South Congress Avenue, and view an Ai Weiwei installation on Waller Creek, another active reclamation project.

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The Contemporary—Laguna Gloria/Mayfield Park

There are many museums in Austin at which one can view fantastic collections and exciting new work. The Contemporary—Laguna Gloria provides those things as well as the quintessential indoor-outdoor, quirky Austin experience. Located in a lakeside villa built in 1916, the site now boasts the fantastic Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park and adjacent Mayfield Park, with its free-range peacocks and historic Mayfield-Gutsch cottage and nature preserve beyond. Bonus: Mount Bonnell, which offers one of the best views in Austin, is three minutes away; turn left onto Mount Bonnell Road as you exit the park.

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The Broken Spoke

If you’re going to see just one classic Texas honky-tonk, you could do much worse than the Broken Spoke. The longtime country music and two-stepping institution is a bona fide, internationally famous country dance hall where stars including Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Dolly Parton have performed. You can still get your two-step on to live music on a regular basis.

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The Driskill Hotel

The Driskill was built for a cattle baron in 1886. He seems to have lost it in a card game shortly thereafter, but its vintage grandiosity remains intact after numerous restorations. For many decades, it was the finest and best hotel in the city, the place where Lyndon and Lady Bird went on their first date, and where politicians, socialites, and other fancy or powerful people gathered—and to some extent, it still is. Check out its gorgeous lobby, have a drink at its famous bar, and absorb the historic vibe.

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The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Located on the eastern side of the University of Texas campus, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library has been decried for its monolithic scale and almost windowless travertine exterior. Nevertheless, its distinctive, late-modern design has worn well. Completed in 1971, it was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Its most dramatic feature (aside from the giant, bowl-like fountain outside, also spare in design) is a great hall featuring four stories of archives behind glass. Sadly, the animatronic LBJ robot that used to greet visitors from a stage-set “ranch” is now silent, although it’s still present and has had its country garb changed to a more presidential suit.

Lockhart

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Caldwell County Courthouse

Located about 30 miles southeast of Austin, the small town of Lockhart was a mecca for Texas barbecue long before the capital city had people lining up for hours for brisket. That’s just one reason to make a stop in town, though. The other is the county courthouse in the center of the town square. Texas is proud of its courthouses, and the state and county have taken care of this one; designed in a Second Empire style, the building has appeared in a variety of movies and television shows, including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Waiting for Guffman, and The Leftovers.

Hill Country

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Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Resort

It’s impossible to narrow down the many possibilities of the Texas Hill Country, a vaguely defined area just west of Austin, stretching north and south, where the terrain begins to change noticeably. But Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, a water park like no other, is a good place to start. The original section works completely off the natural terrain, including the Comal River and the natural shade provided by the large, surrounding trees—it’s the opposite of most sunbaked, concrete water-park facilities. It also celebrates the German-American heritage of Central Texas with its unique decorative motifs. While you’re in New Braunfels, it’s practically mandatory to check out Gruene Dance Hall, the oldest one in Texas, still featuring live music every night.

San Antonio

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The McNay

The first modern-art museum in Texas, the McNay opened in 1954 in the former home of oil heiress and collector Marion Koogler McNay. The original home, a 24-room Spanish colonial revival mansion, was designed by San Antonio architects Atlee and Robert Ayres; Atlee and his son designed numerous Spanish colonial revival buildings in San Antonio as well as courthouses and other public buildings throughout Texas. In 2008, the museum added a 45,000-square-foot extension, designed by French architect Jean-Paul Viguier, to the bucolic villa grounds, where you can now see works by modern masters including Diego Rivera, Edward Hopper, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock, as well as new major exhibitions.

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The Alamo + Menger Hotel

If you’ve never been there, the Alamo is definitely worth a visit. Visitors are usually surprised by both its diminutive size and the fact that it is now tucked among large buildings in a dense urban environment. In addition to checking out the unexpectedly lush courtyard and the numerous artifacts of Texas history, be sure to hop on one of the short tours given continuously by experts who explain the historic facts of the mission and battle in both accurate and compelling ways. When you’re done, check out the Menger Hotel, located next door, basically on the grounds of the Battle of the Alamo. It’s the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi and the most haunted hotel in Texas (ask anyone).

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San Antonio Missions National Park

This historic park features five former Spanish missions—including the Alamo—that are unique to their particular area of the country. While the park encompasses 948 acres, the missions can be reached via car (there is parking at each mission), a 15-mile hike-and-bike trail—San Antonio has B-cycle rentals in the area—or the VIVA Culture bus routes. The park also connects to the San Antonio Riverwalk, a festive promenade that is probably second only to the Alamo as the city’s most popular tourist destination.

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King William Historic District

Located south of downtown, the 25-block district preserves much of what was (and likely continues to be) the city’s high-society neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. It’s chock full of ornate Victorian, Greek revival, and Italianate homes and shady, tree-lined streets (handy if you’re touring on foot on an especially hot day). Most of the homes are private, but two historically significant ones—the 1859 Guenther House and the 1876 Steves Homestead—are open to the public for touring.

Far West Texas

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Marfa

This tiny high-desert town is an internationally known art mecca. Absolutely essential are all things Donald Judd—the artist who brought his lasting influence here in the late 1970s. His most famous local work is converted Army base and German P.O.W. camp Chinati Foundation, best experienced with a guided tour. To get a real sense of Judd’s effect, though, visit La Mansana de Chinati/the Block (his residence and studio) and four buildings known as the Studios (make reservations). Almost all of Marfa is walkable, so be sure to visit the Crowley Theater, classic converted motor court Thunderbird Motel, the Paisano Hotel and bar-restaurant, and the Presidio County Courthouse. A short drive away is El Cosmico, a complex of rentable, stylish vintage trailers, and tipis, as well as a performance space; old-school tourist attraction the Marfa Lights; and nearby Valentine, Texas, for the few people in the world who have never taken a selfie at Prada Marfa.

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Big Bend Area

Beyond the minimalist mecca of Marfa, the Big Bend Mountains region offers a rich variety of small-town destinations. These include Balmorhea State Park, with its refreshing, spring-fed pool and San Solomon Springs Courts motel—built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public-relief work program similar to the New Deal’s WPA; Alpine, home of UT’s Sul Ross University and a laid-back central supply source for much of the area; Fort Davis, home of the historic Hotel Limpia and the launching point for visiting the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains; tiny Marathon, a convivial, bohemian, often-overlooked railroad town in sight of the area’s spotlight mountains; and legend-shrouded Terlingua, adjacent to many mining-related ghost towns as well as the Texas-Mexico border and Big Bend National Park and home to a legendary annual chili cookoff.

El Paso

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Chamizal National Memorial and Museum

This national park and museum was established to honor the peaceful resolution of the Chamizal Dispute, which took place when the Rio Grande—the river that serves as the United States-Mexico border in Texas—naturally changed course almost a century ago. The nearly 56-acre memorial park serves primarily as a cultural center and contains art galleries, a theater, and an amphitheater. It also provides insight into the (literal) fluidity of the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Franklin Mountains State Park

First-time visitors to El Paso who expect nothing but flat desert are usually surprised to descend into a metropolitan area surrounded by mountains. This state park offers great hiking, biking, and rock-climbing for day visitors, as well as overnight camping. It’s also the largest urban park in the nation that lies completely within city limits, covering more than 24,000 acres.

Houston

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The Menil Collection/Rothko Chapel

The landmark museum, opened in 1987, spreads out philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil’s collection among four buildings located on 30 acres in a central residential neighborhood. Dominique de Menil wanted architect Renzo Piano to design a structure that was low-key but still as inventive as Piano’s work on Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou. That vision is carried out in the complex’s Cy Twombly Gallery, also by Piano; its permanent Dan Flavin installation in Richmond Hall, a 1930s grocery store with a mostly intact exterior; and the Rothko Chapel, designed by Philip Johnson (with amendments instigated by Rothko), which was the de Menils’ project but is now an independent, nonprofit institution.

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The Orange Show Monument

The Houston analog to Los Angeles’s Watts Towers, the Orange Show is the creation of postman Jeff McKissack, who wished to honor its namesake fruit and champion the notion that hard work and good nutrition lead to a long life. He worked by himself on the project from 1956 until his death in 1980, using common building materials and found objects to create a monumental, 30,000-square-foot architectural work with walkways, balconies, arenas, and exhibits featuring mosaics and brightly painted iron figures. Today, the nonprofit Orange Show Center for Visionary Art preserves and promotes local folk art.

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Project Row Houses

One of the most creative responses to gentrification in the country, Project Row Houses was founded in Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods, in 1993. The project was inspired by the work of artist John Biggers, who lived in the neighborhood and whose best-known work, Shotguns, reflects his ideas about the role of the house style in African-American life as well as his beliefs about the centrality of women in maintaining cultural continuity. PRH connects historic preservation, affordable housing, neighborhood revitalization, and supportive social environments. The site consists of several shotgun houses restored in the 1990s; eight are studios for visiting artists, while the row behind the art studio houses are homes for single mothers. In addition to attending PRH programs, visitors are also welcome to visit the artists’ studios and speak with the artists.

Galveston

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Hotel Galvez/Strand Historic District

Hotel Galvez, the only historic beachfront hotel on Texas’s Gulf Coast, is a testament to the city’s determination to rebuild after the 1900 hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history; it destroyed what had been a booming port and market center, the latter located primarily on the Strand. Rebuilding the city involved the installation of a 10-mile-long seawall, which the hotel faces, as well as raising the island’s elevation in several places. The Spanish Mission-style hotel, designed to mimic Southwestern railroad and resort hotels of the time, opened in 1911, when Galveston had been repositioned as a resort town. Renovations and modifications, as well as damage from Hurricane Ike, followed, but another renovation restored the hotel to its original style in 2011.

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Bishop’s Palace/East End Historic District

The 19,082-square-foot Bishop’s Palace was built in 1892 for prominent lawyer Colonel Walter Gresham and designed by Nicholas Clayton, Galveston's premier architect. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston purchased the building for use as a bishop’s residence in 1923; it is now managed by the Galveston Historical Foundation. Architectural historians have listed it as one of the most important Victorian residences in the country, and it’s an unusual one at that. Built of three kinds of stone in varying colors, the home’s three stories rise dramatically over the basement, with steep roofs and long chimneys. The intricate roof system, rare and expensive materials, and cast-iron galleries have led architectural historians to consider it Chateauesque (a derivative of the late 1800s French Revival), with Clayton pushing beyond even that style’s tropes. Also unusual for its time, the home takes up most of its small lot—which makes it a good anchor for the East End Historic district, a 50-block area that features some of the city’s most stunning Victorians, particularly along Broadway Avenue.

Corpus Christi

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The Art Museum of South Texas

Designed by Philip Johnson and opened in 1972, with a 2006 expansion by Ricardo Legorreta, this remarkable building takes full advantage of the South Texas light and its location on the Corpus Christi Bayfront. Constructed entirely out of white shellcrete and plaster, it offers visitors surprising glimpses of the sea through perfectly placed portal and side windows as they move throughout the glowing space. It also happens to have an excellent permanent collection—including the largest collection of works by overlooked modernist Texas painter Dorothy Hood—and regularly puts up major exhibits. After a thorough visit and full admiration of the view, walk down the seawall a bit and check out Mirador de la Flor (Lookout of the Flower), the moving monument to the late Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the game-changing Tejana singer whose statue still receives around 30,000 visitors a year.

Waco

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Magnolia Market

Fans of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, featuring couple Chip and Joanna Gaines making over what seems like half of Waco, will be pleased to know that their Magnolia Market at the Silos has blossomed into a full-blown retail destination and community space. The compound features a much larger version of Joanna’s original design store, a bunch of food trucks, a big lawn for kids and concerts, a garden, and Magnolia Seed and Supply. Next up: a renovation of the giant former grain silos into more retail space. Pro tip: Go early or late; the place is packed on Saturdays and around lunchtime.

Dallas

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Klyde Warren Park/Arts District

Not only is Klyde Warren Park a successful example of freeway removal—it’s a 5.2-acre park designed by the Office of James Burnett and built over the recessed Woodall Rodgers Freeway—it also provides a centering community space for the iconic architecture of the surrounding arts district. In what CityLab termed the “densest design district in the country,” you’ll find the following Pritzker Prize winners: Meyerson Symphony Center (1989, I.M. Pei), Wyly Theatre (2009, Joshua Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas), Nasher Sculpture Center (2003, Renzo Piano), Winspear Opera House (2009, Norman Foster), Thanks-Giving Square (1976, Philip Johnson), and Perot Museum of Nature and Science (2012, Morphosis/Thom Mayne). Also nearby is the Dallas Museum of Art, designed in 1984 by Edward Larrabee, the 2007 winner of the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal.

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Dallas City Hall/Calatrava bridges

Architecture fans should check out I.M. Pei’s iconic and often maligned city hall: an inverted pyramid of sorts, with a Henry Moore sculpture commissioned by Pei on its endless-seeming front plaza (also the suitably totalitarian-looking backdrop for the Robocop movies). Doubtless the building would have been more elegant and dramatic without the addition of the front columns, which don’t actually support the top of the building and were integrated at the insistence of then-Dallas Mayor Erik Jonsson. Nevertheless, we think history will be on the side of Pei on this one. A short drive through Dealey Plaza and past Reunion Tower leads to a neat contrast with Pei’s imposing concrete design: The ethereal Margaret Hunt Hill and Margaret McDermott bridges, two of the three planned Trinity River bridges by world-renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

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Fair Park

Unless you visit during the Texas State Fair (a wholly different and worthwhile experience), the fairgrounds are a 277-acre playground of Art Deco architecture and ornamentation, most of it designed, built, or commissioned for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition through the WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps, or other Great Depression-era work programs. The mass-scaled building complex is home to such structures as the Automobile Building, the Food and Fiber Pavilion, and the Women’s Building—many now used for nonprofit offices and performance spaces—as well as flying-saucer-shaped pendant lamps, bas-relief friezes, and a variety of statues, all in Art Deco style. For obvious reasons, themes lean heavily toward celebrating the state’s history and economy, and the many intricate murals and mosaics that do so are pastiches of people, agriculture, history, myth, religion, and industry, beautiful and sometimes strange. The park offers two self-guided walking tours.

Fort Worth

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Cultural District

Fort Worth’s cultural district is a locus of world-class architecture and art. Cowtown, as it’s still often called, has been an under-the-radar arts center for decades, and its museums include the Kimbell Art Museum (Louis Kahn, 1972), with its 2013 addition by Renzo Piano; the Modern (Tadao Ando, 2002), evolved from the first art museum in Texas, chartered in 1892; and the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art (Philip Johnson, 1961). A long as you’re in the area, check out the Will Rogers Memorial Center, another art moderne playground on the National Register of Historic Places that features WPA mosaics and still hosts livestock shows, and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame & Museum—a well-executed look at women’s roles in Western U.S. history. Then drive up historic, brick-paved Camp Bowie Boulevard and grab a burger at the legendary Kincaid’s.

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Stockyards National Historic District

While the stockyards are a go-to stop on most tours of Fort Worth, they maintain the vaguely desperate, roughshod atmosphere that made them an essential part of the Chisholm Trail—which, in turn, made the former military outpost a viable city center after the need for its kind of fort slowly vanished. The original stockyards are still there, as are many of the raised wooden sidewalks, and somehow a mix of locals and tourists still frequent the spot, where you can find plenty of bar fights and real ranchers.

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Water Gardens

We sometimes shorthand this downtown installation—perhaps you remember it as a set of the 1975 movie Logan’s Run—as “wet brutalism by Philip Johnson and John Burgee,” but the often-overlooked structure is both that and not-that. It consists of three tiers of concrete supporting a cascade of waterfalls that culminate in a central pool. The sound and intensity increase as one descends toward the center, and consideration of Texas’s more or less perpetual state of drought is never far away, though we’re guessing that’s not something the architects gave a lot of thought to.

Amarillo

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Palo Duro Canyon

The second-largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro rivals the only one grander for its scenic beauty and wild topography. It’s located in the Texas Panhandle, about 30 miles southeast of Amarillo, part of a large mesa called the Llano Estacado, so the contrast with its surroundings is especially dramatic. The canyon is accessible by car, foot, or horse, and features some adorable rock cabins made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. For indoor kids who find themselves near Amarillo, there’s the NAT, an enormous marketplace of antiques and collectibles in a historic 1922 building and Texas landmark in nearby Shamrock.

Additional research by Mercedes Kraus.