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With a vast area that’s bigger in square miles than some of the world’s countries, Texas has a great range of culture and geography, as well as a unique identity and sense of pride, that makes it one of America’s most diverse and interesting states. Although it’s famous for cowboys and barbecue — and you can find plenty of both here — the state has more than a few surprises in store for those wanting to experience a Texas beyond the cliches. And, yes, quite a few of these can be found in its charming, intriguing small towns. Read on for eight of the Lone Star State’s best small towns.
You might associate Texas with bluebonnets, but another colorful crop tends to spring up here — lavender, which means you don’t need to go all the way to France to see these purple blooms. Head to Blanco instead, which is 45 miles north of San Antonio and 45 miles west of Austin. Known as the “Lavender Capital of Texas,” there are a few farms to explore and tour, as well as a great town square with antiques and pottery stores. Those who love to hike will enjoy the nearby eponymous state park, while those looking for some true Texas booze will find a pint or two to try at the Real Ale Brewing Company in town — or a measure at Andalusia Whiskey Distillery.
People who are into historic homes and sights will be in heaven in Jefferson, population 2,043. Located in East Texas, the small town is home to more than 70 historic landmarks. Tour the sights, which include homes and plenty of museums, before heading on a cruise up the Big Cypress Bayou that will have you thinking you’re in neighboring Louisiana (riverboat rides are another fun way to experience the water). With no shortage of independent lodging — the town is known as the “Bed and Breakfast Capital of East Texas” — there are plenty of charming options to choose from (or, you can view them from the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage tour). Those into fishing shouldn’t miss out on the potential for a great catch at Caddo Lake, either. And for visitors with a bent for the supernatural? Head out on a ghost walk or check out The Grove, a Greek Revival historic residence that’s been featured on more than few shows about haunted homes.
An increasingly well-known desert destination among the artsy, hipster, and New Age crowds, this little town is a paradise for those with an eye for art — or toward the sky. Home of both the famous Marfa Prada sculpture as well as the still-unexplained Marfa Lights, which have been seen almost every night since the late 19th century, the tiny town, population 1,747, also boasts more than a proportional share of galleries and museums, as well as the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Donald Judd’s untitled concrete works. Those more keen on the outdoors, however, won’t be disappointed: Texas’ Big Bend National Park, one of the largest in the lower U.S., stretches across the area.
4. Port Isabel
Sure, there’s South Padre Island, but for a lot of charm without quite so many tourists, there’s Port Isabel. Established after the Mexican War of Independence, but first charted in 1519 by a Spanish explorer, it’s one of the oldest cities in Texas and the only one with a lighthouse in its town square (as you do). There’s plenty here to make a family vacation to Port Isabel a full stay, despite a population of just 5,019: Parasailing, dolphin-watching, kayaking, sailing, and simply hanging out on the beach all make for great days in this little town. If it happens to rain, three museums can keep the kids entertained.
If you just catch a building or two out of the corner of your eye on the drive in, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve left America entirely. This little town, population 3,018, was settled by a 19th-century entrepreneur named Henri Castro, who employed his enterprise with immigrants from Europe’s Alsatian region. And that’s the reason for the unique architecture, which looks exactly like towns you might spot in Germany and Switzerland. Of course, the whole town doesn’t quite look like a tiny Alpine village, but it’s enough to make it worth a trip — especially when the European influence extends all the way to the town’s foodie culture.
Located west of Austin and north of San Antonio, this little town was, once again, a settling point for Germans who immigrated here during the 19th century. It’s pretty clear why: This part of the state is gorgeous, and you can catch some of the best outlooks from the Enchanted Rock Natural Area’s pink granite dome about 20 miles north of town. Although it still has an annual Oktoberfest, small town America is big here, too, though — and Fredricksburg has all the markers of it, including a charming historic Main Street and a nationally registered historic district, plus wineries on the town’s outskirts. But it’s not all rustic. The town is also a great place for fine dining and makes for a great gateway to the Hill Country region’s wineries, nearby wildflower farm, and peach picking in the area’s many orchards.
Foodie — and barbecue-lovers, in particular — practically have no choice but to stop over in Lockhart on a trip to Texas, especially if they’re heading to nearby Austin. Why? Before that hipster city took off, the town was known as the place to devour delicious barbecue and smoked meats in the state, with three-and-counting smokehouses as fighting families established their own joints. It’s also the backdrop for a dozens of movies and TV shows, including “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “The Leftovers,” “Secondhand Lions,” and “Stop-Loss.” Even more charming? Its great main square and bounty of historic homes.
It’s known as the “Cowboy Capital of Texas,” so you can probably guess what you’ll find here. Less than an hour from San Antonio and once part of the Great Western Cattle Trail, Bandera, population 857, boasts an immersive dude ranch, trail rides on horseback, rodeo reenactments, chuck wagon meals, and, yep, plenty of honky tonks that locals frequent to perform and dance at — all part of its mission to keep the American cowboy tradition alive. You can learn about ranching at the Frontier Times Museum, which has a 40,000-piece collection of artifacts dating back decades, or there are great opportunities to check out the great outdoors at surrounding natural areas, which boast more than 200 different species of birds. Other museums include the Lone Star Motorcycle Museum (motorcycles are big here), a miniatures museum, and a national history museum.
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