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Marfa, the Best Small Town in Texas. Period.

Marfa, the Best Small Town in Texas. Period.

Sorry Beyonce, but we did Prada Marfa first.

Marfa, Texas is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s a three-hour drive to the nearest airport, it’s not on the interstate, and though trains pass through the center of town multiple times a day, they never stop. Situated deep in the Chihuahuan desert, the city (and you can barely call it a city) has one main road and a population just over 2,000. Marfa was founded in the 1880s as a railroad water stop and today it continues to fulfill its original purpose … blink and you’ll miss it, but if you keep your eyes open you’ll find that this West Texan city is an oasis of art, food, and culture.

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Nothing beats a big, blue West Texas sky.

Marfa was once known only for its “mystery lights” (spooky flashing lights that can be seen in the distance at night) and for being the setting of James Dean’s last film, “Giant.” In 1971 minimalist artist Donald Judd changed everything. He sought refuge from the bustling streets of New York and settled on the open landscape of Marfa. The acclaimed artist went on land-buying sprees—eventually purchasing over 60,000 acres and using that land to create artist retreats and foundations. Marfa began to transform around him, as though he plucked the SoHo of the 1970s up into the sky and dropped it into the West Texas desert.

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Everyone in West Texas has a pickup truck and riding in the back is highly encouraged. We once saw a policeman in the back and were certain we would be pulled over—he just waved and smiled. 

Today, Marfa serves as sanctuary for the forlorn city dweller, in desperate need of space and open sky but also of culture and food and drink. Tourists are eagerly embraced by Marfans and after two or three days nearly all of the townspeople’s faces become familiar. Celebrities like Beyonce or Robert Pattinson are often seen out and about but the laid-back, frontier attitude of the town wipes away airs and puts everyone on equal footing.

The worst part about Marfa is leaving, It’s a long trip home and some decide that it’s just not worth it—you’ll find the city is littered with people who came for a visit but fell in love for a lifetime.

I first made the trek to Marfa in 2010 with my family and boyfriend in tow. My parents and sister had been the year prior and badly felt the need to share what they had found with me. I was expecting to be unimpressed and after about eight hours of travel was worn out and grumpy. But then I found myself sitting outside of an artisanal teepee with a Shiner Bock in hand watching the sun set behind the Guadalupe Mountains and felt all of my New York City-induced stress melt away. There’s something special in the air in Marfa. Maybe it’s just the lack of humidity (which my hair greatly appreciates), but when you’re there you feel weird in a good way. At ease and creative and inspired—part of a community. I’ve been going back each year since and my parents have become those people who decide to stay. They’ve shacked up and bought a piece of West Texan land to call their own.

If you’re going out to Marfa (and I highly suggest you do), here’s my guide to doing it right. 

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Posing with my boyfriend in front of a Dan Flavin at the Chinati art foundation.

Check out the Art: The Chinati Foundation is the main draw of Marfa—take the morning and the afternoon tour (you can split them over multiple days) to see the entire collection of work housed in 15 buildings (former army barracks) spread over 350 acres. Grand-scale projects by artists like Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin awe and inspire against the rocky, dry landscape. The Judd Foundation allows you to tour Donald Judd’s personal residences and dig deeper into his private collections—a must-see. Ballroom Marfa is a large gallery that exhibits young, up-and-coming artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Be sure to stop by for an hour or two. Prada Marfa is quite possibly the most famous work of art in West Texas. This is a Prada store in the middle of nowhere, an experiment to see what happens when luxury meets harsh desert (and you can’t go inside or take any merchandise, though vandals have tried). Stop by on your way in or out of town.

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The Food Shark is the hottest lunch spot in town— make sure to get the Marfalafal and hobnob with the locals. 

Grab a Bite: Food Shark is probably the most famous lunch spot in Marfa. The rehabbed 1974 food truck is located in the center of town, right off of the railroad trucks and features delicious “Marfalafal.” A friendly atmosphere surrounds the truck, making it the perfect place to mingle with locals and other visitors. The mustachioed, bespectacled owner, Adam Bork, is quirky and delightful—he also runs The Museum of Electronic Wonders and late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, which is open Friday and Saturday between 9:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. and serves up a mean toasty cheese sandwich. For dinner try Cochineal, run by two Michelin-starred chefs. This innovative and tasty restaurant brings avant-garde cuisine to the desert. Sit outside and watch the sunset while enjoying a prickly pear margarita and some pan-seared Barramundi. If you’re looking for something more traditionally Texan try Jett’s Grill, in The Paisano hotel, where you’ll find chicken-fried steak and more.

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The first time I was at Padres I was sitting next to Karen O. of the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Have a Drink: Padres offers beer and mixed drinks, games, a grill with delicious bar food and live music. The crowd is young and friendly and the music is always great. Be prepared for a long night of Shiner Bock, patron margaritas (Karen O.’s favorite), boot stomping, and friendly games of shuffleboard with other patrons. Planet Marfa is a beer garden open on the weekends, featuring an artfully crafted teepee to drink inside, cold brews, good food and darts. This watering hole is run by local character Jon Johnson; be sure to say hello to him at the bar.

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Retrofitted trailers bring a unique and kooky feel to El Cosmico.

Stay at a Cool Hotel: While renting a house is always an option, there are really only three places to stay in town. El Cosmico is camping like you’ve never seen it, with refurbished trailers from the 1950s, decked out yurts, and traditional camping spots for those traveling on a budget—it has the youngest and wackiest vibes in town. The Paisano is a grand old hotel with large Spanish-style rooms, an indoor pool, and a large fountained courtyard made for drink and conversation—the hotel played host to James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor while they filmed “Giant” and is intensely aware of its history. The Thunderbird is perhaps the most Judd-esque haunt in town, with poured concrete and a minimalist design. The roadside-style hotel adds some hipster flair by renting bikes, turntables, and typewriters to its guests.

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Marfa Public Radio general manager Tom Michaels. If you’re ever in town and have a good story to tell make sure to stop by, he might put you on the air. 

Get to Know the Locals: Marfa Book Company is a delightful place to while away an afternoon; owned by a former Chinati intern, the store has a wonderful art-book collection and features film screenings, readings and a gallery in the back. Marfa Public Radio is a local treasure. Make sure you tune in for music, news, and happenings about-town. If you have a story to tell, stop by and talk to owner Tom Michaels, who might just put you on the air.                 

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Tim Johnson came to Marfa as an intern and never left. He now owns one of the best bookshops in Texas.

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Word to the wise: don’t go horseback riding while wearing all white. 

Check Out the Great Outdoors: Big Bend National Park is a short drive away and a nature-lover’s dream. Snake along the Rio Grande for a few hours and you’ll find yourself surrounded by cacti, rivers, canyons, and limestone. Stay a few days and camp out, or just take an afternoon horse-ride through the park.            

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Being very all-American and eating pudding with ‘nilla waffers at Big Bend State Park—it’s not the most luxurious desert, but it’s cowboy living. In retrospect, I wish I had taken that spoon. 

When to visit: The autumn and spring months bring the best weather to this arid desert town. In summer, Marfa plays host to an indie film festival, which has featured Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Karen O., and the late Lou Reed. In the fall, there’s the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love featuring popular bands like Mumford and Sons and the “Marfa vs. Austin” annual baseball game.

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At Big Bend Park, wearing my Texas whites.

Nicole Goodkind normally writes finance stuff. You can find that here

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