With more than 268,000 square miles, Texas offers lots of room to roam. Seven different regions mean diverse topography abound, including rolling hills, grasslands, and natural springs in beloved Hill Country; vast canyons and desert mountains in the Big Bend area; hundreds of miles of coastline, as well as estuaries and barrier islands on the Gulf Coast; and towering pine forests that mingle with swamps in the Piney Woods.
Throughout the state, small-town life still largely exists between buzzing metropolises. And though compact, these picture-perfect small towns pack in big-time appeal, with festivals, great hiking, wineries, art installations, historic edifices, and stunning beauty everywhere you turn. Here are eight of the best small towns in Texas.
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In far West Texas, between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend, lies Marfa. Known as the filming location for "Giant" and the mysterious Marfa Lights, this small town offers plenty to see and explore. Sure, check out the tiny Prada Marfa sculpture outside of town for that iconic Instagram photo, but don't miss things like The Chinati Foundation, an internationally known contemporary art museum created by minimalist artist Donald Judd. The Ayn Foundation includes works from Andy Warhol, and numerous other galleries in town create an art paradise. Learn about Jewish history during WWII at the Holocaust and Historic Model Ship Museum, grab a Texas-sized burrito at Marfa Burrito, or shop for local, artisan goods at boutiques like Cobra Rock and Skóra Marfa. Meanwhile, thrill seekers can take to the sky with Marfa Gliders for a flight over the Marfa Plateau.
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Between Austin and San Antonio, you'll find Wimberley, a nature lover's Eden. Take a dip at Jacob's Well Natural Area, a swimming hole created from an artesian spring and underground cave system. Blue Hole Regional Park is another natural swimming hole loved by locals and visitors alike, and it includes trails, picnic spots, an amphitheater, and more. Road warriors enjoy driving the Devil's Backbone, a scenic highway that runs through Wimberley and the surrounding towns. For a panoramic view above Wimberley, climb 218 steps to the top of Old Baldy (Prayer Mountain) for spectacular Hill Country views. Looking for some culture? Head to town for boutique shopping, restaurants, art galleries, and live music.
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For history and charm, this pre-Civil War town in East Texas is just the ticket. Jefferson has almost 100 historical landmarks, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local walking tours show off the historic homes, churches, and buildings throughout town, including The Excelsior House Hotel and the Jefferson Carnegie Library, the latter of which was funded by American industrialist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Stop by the Jefferson General Store, built in the 1860s, for old-fashioned candy and root beer floats, or the Jefferson Historical Society Museum, housed in the former federal courthouse and post office. Here, you'll see a magnolia tree that was planted as a seedling by former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. The seedling originated from a tree on the White House lawn that was planted when former President Andrew Jackson was in office. For outdoor pursuits, paddle through bayous at Caddo Lake State Park, a 20-minute drive east.
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Known as the Cowboy Capital of the World, Bandera was a staging area for some of the last cattle drives of the late 1800s. Home to multiple dude ranches, Bandera is the perfect place to learn how to be a cowboy. At Dixie Dude Ranch, learn how to horseback ride, enjoy a campfire sing-along, or hunt for fossils and arrowheads after a cowboy breakfast on the range. Visitors can also take a trail ride and dance lesson at Mayan Dude Ranch, or hang out with ranch animals and stargaze at Silver Spur Ranch. There are more than 5,000 acres of plateaus and canyons to explore at Hill Country State Natural Area, or you can even spend the day kayaking the Medina River. History buffs will enjoy learning about the area and seeing odd curiosities at the Frontier Times Museum, while those seeking a foot-stompin' good time will find just that at "the biggest little bar in Texas," 11th Street Cowboy Bar.
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Just 25 miles outside of Austin, Dripping Springs is a mecca for those who love spirit tastings, as the town is full of distilleries. Stop in at Dripping Springs Vodka for a tasting of their small-batch vodka and gin, or check out Treaty Oak Distilling to sample their whiskey. Deep Eddy Vodka also has a tasting room here, and Frog Pond Distillery offers gin and vodka cocktails on the porch overlooking Hill Country. Wineries also dot the area, and the Texas Hill Country Olive Co. has orchard walking tours, olive mill tours, and olive oil tastings. For a bit of nature, check out the Hamilton Pool Preserve, formed by thousands of years of water erosion, which created the collapsed grotto, canyons, and 50-foot waterfall. Guided hikes are available, where you can spot golden-cheeked warblers and other bird species. Looking for something a bit less strenuous? Boutique shopping, live music, and dining are plentiful.
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Between Austin and Houston, you'll find the tiny town of Round Top, known for its epic antiques show that occurs biannually. In the historic district, Henkel Square Market has various shops housed in historic buildings that date back to the mid-1800s. Visitors will find fine art, jewelry, clothing, and beautiful artwork here. Don't miss Royers Pie Haven, serving some of the best pies in the state. (The Texas Trash pie is sinful.) Rummel Square, meanwhile, offers galleries, shopping, and dining, and the Round Top Area Historical Society tells the history of the town. Theater fans will love Shakespeare at Winedale, which holds performances of Shakespeare's plays in the spring and summer. Snap a pic at the world's smallest Catholic Church, and head out to explore the area's numerous wineries.
With 18 miles of beaches, Port Aransas, located on Mustang Island on the Gulf Coast, is a haven for anglers and beachgoers. Fishermen can cast a line from the surf, a public fishing pier, or take an off-shore excursion for various fish species. If you visit in the summer, you're bound to see a fishing tournament, or you can try surfing, kayaking, or kiteboarding with a local guide. Visit Farley Boat Works to partake in building a boat, or head out on a bird-watching expedition — Port Aransas has six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, with hundreds of bird species frequenting the area. The arts community here is also thriving, with numerous studios, galleries, the Port Aransas Art Center, and the Port Aransas Community Theatre. Nightlife is also popular, with numerous bars and restaurants regularly hosting artists.
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Known as the home of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, Johnson City is a Hill Country escape full of beauty and history. Visit the former president's boyhood home, furnished in the 1920s period to depict rural life in Texas back then. At the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, visit the LBJ Ranch, which includes the Texas White House, where Johnson spent time during his presidency. Just up the road at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, meander down nature trails while passing bison and longhorn, tour historic cabins built by a German immigrant, and visit the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, where park rangers in period costumes show what life on the farm was like in the 1800s. Wine enthusiasts can head down State Highway 290 for numerous wineries showcasing Texas wines.