We tend to associate Texas with things that are big: the US's second biggest state is full of big cars, big deserts, big BBQs and big festivities. But in fact, one of the most interesting ways to travel in Texas is to hop between its small towns. The state's sprawling cities are relatively new creations, and its turbulent frontier history is obscured by all the skyscrapers and high-rise flats. But in its smaller settlements, the dangerous days of the Old West, the outlaw hideouts and the brutal scrapping between Mexico and Texan colonists, remain closer to the surface. From Fredericksburg's 30,000 inhabitants to the tiny hamlet of Luckenbach, whose handful of buildings are covered by the canopies of a pair of grand Texan oaks, these are the ten best small towns in Texas.
Photo by Molly258/Flickr.
Wimberley is less a small than a tiny town, home to only 2,000 residents. Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, it makes a peaceful and characterful base for explorations of the region's beautiful parks, oak-studded hills, and eventful history. Sample this landscape by taking a wild dip in the crystal waters of nearby Blue Hole, or simply drink in the views on the Devil's Backbone Scenic Drive. Wimberley itself has a host of specialty shops and eccentric attractions, such as Jack Glover's Cowboy Museum, run by the eponymous cowboy who claims to be a nonagenarian and is a fascinating museum in his own right. And despite its small size, there's no shortage of decent places to relax with a beer at the end of a day's exploration.
Rockport perches on Texas's east coast, and has a pretty and uncluttered seafront with great beaches and superb saltwater fishing. The secluded Goose Island State Park lies across one of the area's many bays, a great birdwatching spot renowned for its whooping cranes and hummingbirds. Beyond birds, the much bigger Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is an hour's drive north of town. As well as nature, Rockport is known for its artifice, and has become something of a mecca for regional artists, who visit its waterfront Art Center and Art Gallery. For those with a penchant for the open sea, the town hosts an excellent Maritime Museum and a small aquarium.
Photo by SLTompkins/Flickr.
Salado still carries traces of its history as a frontier village in the early days of Texas. European settlers first attempted to seize the site in 1834, but were driven out by Native Americans in combination with the Mexican Army. The settlers returned a decade later, when Texas was an independent Republic. A pretty creek winds through the center of town, which served as a stopping point for stagecoaches and Chisholm Trail cattle caravans. These days people are more likely to stop in to visit the artisan shops and food stalls lining main street, to drop into the art galleries operated by the town's large population of resident artists, and to stay in its quaint bed and breakfasts, such as the wonderful Inn on the Creek.
Luckenbach is a tiny hamlet in the heart of the Hill Country where time seems to have paused, and an old America allowed to drowse on in the heat of the Texas sun. It's little more than a bend in the road, where oaks spread their broad canopy above a post office, a general store, a saloon, and - if you're lucky - a old man strumming a guitar on one of the benches out back of the buildings. There's also a dance hall with local bands playing western country music, drawing folks from around the area to drink, talk and dance through the long weekend evenings. Other traditional events scattered around the calendar include armadillo races, bluebonnet balls and all-woman chili cook-offs. The town was thrown to momentary fame by a Willie Nelson song, "Luckenbach, Texas", in the 1970s, before relaxing back into its timeless haze.
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Nacogdoches is the oldest town on this list, the site of a Caddo Indian village since 1300. In 1716, the Spanish established a Mission on the site, which grew into the most important town in East Texas, a bustling hub of Spanish culture. Subsequently it became a focal point of the war between the Mexican government and Texan colonists, then a flagship city in the short-lived Republic of Texas. All these cultural stages are blended into the town today, creating a unique and vibrant atmosphere that attracts lots of visitors. Fascinating historic sites capturing the town's quixotic past include an old Spanish Fort, built in 1779; the Sterne-Hoya House Museum, where key meetings took place in the run-up to the Texas Revolution; and Millard's Crossing Historic Village, a detailed reconstruction of a 19th century village.
Set between the Laguna Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island is a popular beach resort on the southeastern tip of Texas. Those desirous of peace and quiet may wish to avoid Spring Break, but the rest of the year it’s a very family friendly destination. The main attraction is of course the beach, replete with opportunities for surfing, kiteboarding, diving and boating. But a perhaps less expected highlight, considering the level of development, is the island’s wildlife, which is abundant in the water, on the land and in the air.
Photo by TexasExplorer98/Flickr.
Jefferson is an East Texan town with an eventful history and streets that are dotted with sites of historical interest. It was built on frontier territory ceded from Caddo Indians and, fed by the Red River, grew to become one of the state's most important ports. But after an ancient log dam was destroyed, the river became too shallow for steamboats to traverse; river traffic consequently dwindled, the railroad took over, and Jefferson sank into economic decline. It was resurrected as a tourist town a century later, appealing to visitors with its range of attractions telling the town's idiosyncratic history, such as the Sterne Fountain and Jay Gould Railroad car. Other unimpeachable reasons to visit include the peaceful atmosphere, great bed and breakfasts, and idyllic string of bayous on the outskirts of town.
Photo by TexasExplorer98/Flickr.
Granbury is a town steeped in Texas history. Its central square is ringed with listed historic buildings, such as the 1886 Granbury Opera House, which continues to host Broadway productions today. The wife of the legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett, a Texan hero due to his death at the Battle of Alamo, settled nearby after that fateful event, and their son is buried in the town's graveyard. Supposedly buried in the soil near him is the great Old West outlaw Jesse James. Visitors can also drop into the Hood County Jail and Museum, an old western jail that is the kind of place a character like James may have met his end - it showcases an original cell block, hanging tower, exhibits and artifacts. Culturally, as well as the opera house, there's a popular local theater company, a great drive-in cinema, and plenty of perfectly decent places to eat out.
Photo by ladybugbkt/Flickr.
Fredericksburg is another small town nestled in the folds of Texas Hill Country, but with its own very distinctive feel. It was settled by German immigrants in 1846, and its origins shine through in the architecture of its older buildings, especially on its Hauptstrasse (Main Street), which is lined with several fabulous German bakeries. Many of the residents still celebrate German-style festivals such as Oktoberfest, Weihnachten and Kinderfest. Fragrant peach orchards cloak the town's outskirts, marking the frontier before the expansive countryside beyond.
Just getting to Marfa is an adventure in itself: situated in the outlaw territory of south-west Texas, it is reached via an atmospheric stretch of Highway 90, cutting through the Chihuahua Desert and passing a string of ghost towns. Once there, Marfa has two main attractions alongside its atmospherically remote location. The first is as a center of minimalist art, which can be seen at the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum founded by the pioneering minimalist Donald Judd. The second are the fabled Marfa Lights, dancing colored orbs visible apparently at random most nights of the week, which have drawn many paranormal investigators and spawned a plethora of theories but whose source remains an utter mystery... So long as you don't do too much research.