More and more people these days—New Yorkers no less!—talk about vacationing in Texas, a trend I never would have anticipated ten years ago. So where do you begin with the second largest state in the USA? That’s a difficult question even for me, and I grew up between Austin and Marble Falls. You could ask five Texans what they think of the state and get five unique answers, but still, here’s a little regional perspective to help you get started:
Central Texas is also known as the Hill Country, and this is perhaps the most accessible part of the state for first timers. I say “accessible” because Austin (the state capital) is loved far and wide, even by the toughest of Northern skeptics. Austin is a very friendly place to start your trip with mesquite barbecue and a longstanding musical tradition, including Austin City Limits and the now-massive South by Southwest festival. Austin does have plenty of hip, Brooklyn-ish qualities, and while it no longer resembles the movie Slacker, it’s still an awesome city and they’re still keepin’ it weird. If you want to see more of the rolling Hill Country, there are smaller towns like Fredericksburg and Wimberley nearby, and look out for fields of bluebonnets (the state flower) in spring.
East Texas introduces you to the landscape of Louisiana. It’s flat, muggy, and eventually you’ll realize you’re approaching the bayou. Big Thicket National Preserve is a perfect place to explore that terrain. Unless you have a specific reason to go to Houston, like the top-notch museums, I often recommend that short-term visitors avoid its sprawling traffic-mess, which makes it feel like the Lone Star Los Angeles. If you want to see a big city, consider heading up to Fort Worth for the Stock Show & Rodeo, and Dallas next door has big personality too. There are also many old, tucked-away towns like Navasota to stumble upon.
The Gulf Coast, like South Florida, has its own relaxed vibe and slow tempo. Corpus Christi and smaller Port Aransas are reliable waterfront getaways, or you could venture out to South Padre Island. Yes, this is the same South Padre of Girls Gone Wild fame, but if you avoid spring break by a generous margin, it’s a perfectly nice, very long strip of barrier island beach. Head to North Padre Island if you’re more interested in camping on a protected National Seashore.
South Texas is easily explored from San Antonio: home to vibrant Mexican culture, the gorgeous River Walk, and the Alamo, a mission that fell to Mexico in 1836 after the Republic of Texas declared its independence. (Yes, we ask you to “remember the Alamo,” but no, it was not a victory.) Naturally, the further south you go, the more scalding hot it will get, so think carefully before you take a road trip down to Laredo in August. If you want to cross the Río Grande and go shopping in Nuevo Laredo, be extra safe, and remember to bring your passport; the days of flashing a driver’s license are over.
The Panhandle is a relatively small area at the top of the state, sitting to the west of Oklahoma. There aren’t many big-name attractions out this way—to be honest, usually when someone tells me they visited Texas once and hated it, they took a desolate drive through the panhandle. But there’s something to be said for exploring a low-key, untouched corner of Texas. It’s flat and dry like the nearby Plains States, and believe it or not, it snows there. Amarillo is one of the bigger cities in which to stop and refuel, and you can have a 72-ounce steak dinner at The Big Texan. Is that steak dinner free if you finish in under an hour? It sure is.
West Texas occupies a special place in my heart, the same place that swoons for Lonesome Dove. The Chihuahuan desert scenery is dramatic, the sky is forever big, and you feel like you could just keep driving off into the sunset, or at least to New Mexico. Big Bend National Park is incredible with its prickly cacti and deep canyons, and out this direction you’ll also find the Guadalupe Mountains. New Mexicans may slight us for not having “real mountains,” but they’re real, and they’re spectacular.
Which part of Texas do you want to explore?