It’s no wonder that the largest of the contiguous states has a long list of vacation options including both big city cultural attractions and charming small town getaways. However, you just might be surprised by the huge variety of travel options in the Lone Star State. From sun, sand and surf to crisp deserts to soaring mountains, Texas has something for every vacationer. Here’s a look at a dozen top Texas getaways:
Dallas Arts District. Culture vultures, set your sights on the Big D and a Texas-sized attraction: the Dallas Arts District, among the nation’s largest and most significant urban arts districts. The well-known Dallas Museum of Art, founded in 1903, is home to an expansive collection of ancient American, African, Indonesian and contemporary art ranging from Renoir and Van Gogh to O’Keefe and Wyeth and serves as the anchor of the Dallas Arts District. Near the Dallas Museum of Art, stroll to the Nasher Sculpture Center, the world’s first museum focusing on modern and contemporary sculpture or the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, which serves as the permanent home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. There are even docent-led tours of the district available. (800) 232-5527; www.dallascvb.com.
Houston Museum District. This museum mecca has something for everyone, with 15 facilities ranging from the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Holocaust Museum Houston to the Museum of Health and Medical Science (where you can do a virtual walk-through of the body) and the hands-on Children’s Museum of Houston, which includes a free-flying butterfly center. The district’s Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of the country’s most visited science museums, home to one of the world’s top gem and mineral collections, an extensive energy exhibit, IMAX theater, planetarium and more. When it’s time to catch some fresh air, you’ll find the city’s largest park – Hermann Park – adjacent to the Museum District. Have a picnic, take a walk or visit the park’s Houston Zoological Gardens. (800) 4-HOUSTON;www.visithoustontexas.com.
San Antonio River Walk. Will Rogers called San Antonio “one of America’s four unique cities.” Wake up in the Alamo City with the aroma of huevos rancheros in the air, the sound of mariachis filling the streets and the sight of barges winding down the San Antonio River and you know you’re someplace special. The heart of San Antonio is the Paseo del Rio or River Walk. Nestled below beautifully landscaped embankments, away from street noise, the River Walk is home to high-rise hotels, shops and European-style al fresco cafés. The best way to get an overview of the River Walk is aboard a river cruise. Yanaguana Cruises offers narrated river tours; a ride on these open-air barges is a must for any first-time visitor. After a tour, stop for lunch at one of the sidewalk restaurants; Tex-Mex and margaritas are top offerings. From the River Walk, it’s a short stroll over to Texas’s best-known landmark: the Alamo. (800) 447-3372;www.SanAntonioVisit.com.
Big Bend National Park. Looking for a peek at the way Texas used to be? Then head off to Big Bend, one of the most rugged areas of the state. Formed by a southerly dip in the Rio Grande, this region is often referred to as the Lone Star State’s “last frontier.” Here, the land stretches unbroken by highways or highline wires all the way to the horizon. It’s a region of stark canyons and desert blooms, where sunsets explode nightly across the Technicolor sky. Big Bend is truly a park of Texas-sized proportions, spanning over 800,000 acres. Four visitors’ centers provide information about the rich archaeological history of the region as well as ecotourism activities. Hiking is definitely the No. 1 activity with over 150 miles of trails throughout the park. Several outfitters located just outside the park offer Rio Grande float trips through the rugged canyons. (432) 477-2251;www.nps.gov/bibe.
Palo Duro Canyon. You can hardly find more dramatic backdrop than Palo Duro Canyon, a natural chasm that stretches 120 miles and includes a state park with over 14,000 acres. Located near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, the second largest canyon in the nation was carved by a branch of the Red River. Here you can enjoy hiking, horseback riding (including many guided rides with cowboy breakfasts), swimming and camping. The park is also home to Texas Legacies, performed in an amphitheater against the backdrop of the canyon. Now in its fifth summer, the country’s best-attended outdoor musical drama still brings to life the struggles of the area’s pioneers and native residents. While you’re in the area, save some time for Amarillo fun including shopping along old Route 66 or challenging yourself with the famous 72-ounce steak dinner with all the trimmings at the Big Texan Steak House, Opry & Horse Hotel. (800) 692-1338;www.visitamarillotx.com.
Galveston. Galveston is a marriage of the best of both worlds: city culture and seaside resort. This island paradise joins together the fine dining, historical attractions and cultural events normally found in the big city, with the swimming and sunbathing of a beachside playground. The city itself, located on the eastern end of the island, is home to The Strand, a 36-block historic district filled with restaurants, shops and the Elissa, a restored 1877 ship open for self-guided tours. Galveston is especially known for its beaches, including miles that were included in Texas’s first beach nourishment program that added as much as 150 feet of sand to the width of nearly four miles of beachfront. The beach is just part of the attraction at the new indoor/outdoor Schlitterbahn® Galveston Island Waterpark that, unlike the park’s locations in New Braunfels and South Padre Island, is open year-round. Next door stands Moody Gardens, where glass pyramids showcase rainforest exhibits, space displays and aquarium life. (888) 425-4753;www.galveston.com.
Fredericksburg. If you love B&Bs, you’ll love Fredericksburg, the capital of the Texas bed-and-breakfast industry. Over 300 of these properties fill the county, some located in historic “Sunday houses” once used by German farmers on their weekly trips to town. Other historic buildings throughout downtown are now filled with unique shops and restaurants with offerings that range from German to gourmet. Here you’ll also find a growing wine industry that includes numerous wineries such as Becker Vineyards, with 46 acres of French Vinifera vines and Texas’s largest underground wine cellar. Becker Vineyards and other locations in town bloom throughout the summer with colorful fields of lavender, available selected weekends for cutting. The town is also home to The National Museum of the Pacific War – the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to remembering the Pacific Theater battles of World War II. East of town, you can visit the famous community of Luckenbach, made a Texas institution by Waylon Jennings’ popular country song. The town consists of a shop or two and a small general store that since 1849 has served as a gathering place and post office. Just steps from the general store, you’ll find the Luckenbach Dancehall, the most popular place in the area for a little boot scootin’. (888) 997-3600;www.fredericksburg-texas.com.
Coastal Bend. Spanning a stretch that includes Corpus Christi as well as small beach communities such as Rockport and Port Aransas, the Coastal Bend is a year-round destination thanks to its sand, surf and sensational birding opportunities. The American Birding Association has twice named Corpus Christi “America’s birdiest city,” thanks to its whole host of birding venues that feature both migrating and native species. Further north, Rockport is home to the late summer Hummer/Bird Celebration, celebrating the migration of tiny hummingbirds through the area, while winter brings the statuesque whooping cranes to the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Deep-sea fishing is a top activity in nearby Port Aransas and Aransas Pass, nicknamed “Saltwater Heaven.” (800) 766-BEACH;www.corpuschristi-tx-cvb.org.
South Padre Island. Whether it’s summertime or not, the livin’ is always easy on South Padre Island in the far southern reaches of Texas. This 34-mile-long barrier island hugs the Texas coastline; at its widest point, the island is just a half-mile across, providing every hotel room with an unbeatable view. Activity options vary by your activity level – from an afternoon of lazy sandcastle building to a horseback ride on the beach, a round of golf or some watersports. Kiteboarding is the hottest new sport in the area while windsurfing remains popular as does splashing around at Schlitterbahn® Beach Waterpark. The island makes a good home base for day trips in the region, too. These include Brownsville, Texas’s southernmost city and a gateway to Matamoros, Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, home to top birding sites like the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which has recorded more species than any other wildlife refuge in the nation. (800) SOPADRE;www.sopadre.com.
Del Rio. Nicknamed “The Best of the Border,” Del Rio is an oasis on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert thanks to its San Felipe Springs – artesian wells that gush over 90 million gallons of water through the town daily. Whether you define a nature getaway as a weekend of camping, birding, houseboating, fishing, waterskiing or exploring, Del Rio has it. Lake Amistad, a joint project between Mexico and the U.S., boasts 1,000 miles of shoreline, topped with anglers and houseboaters. At Seminole Canyon, limestone canyon walls are covered with delicate pictographs created by ancient American Indians that date to 8,500 years ago. In Langtry, more recent history is the focal point of the Judge Roy Bean Visitors Center where the historic Jersey Lilly, the saloon and courtroom used by Judge Roy Bean in the 1880s, recalls the famous lawman. At the visitors’ center, pick up brochures from the Texas Department of Transportation to plan your excursions throughout the state. (800) 889-8149;www.drchamber.com.
Bandera. Known as “The Cowboy Capital of the World,” this town is noted for its plentiful dude ranches, country-western music and western atmosphere. Rodeos are scheduled from late May to early September and during those warm weather months you can also enjoy Cowboys on Main, a special event every Saturday afternoon featuring horseback riding cowboys, storytellers, trick ropers, musicians and a lot more on Main Street. Year around, local dance halls are filled with two-steppers clad in western jeans and cowboy hats. It’s easy to discover your inner cowboy thanks to the many dude ranches surrounding the town; rates typically include meals as well as family-style entertainment and supervised children’s programs. Horseback riding is often part of the package. (800) 364-3833;www.banderacowboycapital.com.
Fort Worth Stockyards. Big cities and the Wild West aren’t mutually exclusive terms when it comes to Fort Worth, the city that calls itself “the place where the West begins.” Today the flavor of the West lives on in historic hotels, western shopping, and the city’s top country-western nightlife in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards. Do some western shopping, belly up to the bar at the White Elephant Saloon (dating back to 1884,) do some boot scootin’ at Billy Bob’s Texas and maybe even catch a rodeo at the Cowtown Coliseum, which holds the title as the world’s first indoor rodeo. Twice a day, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., you can experience the Fort Worth Herd, the world’s only daily cattle drive. (800) 433-5747;www.fortworth.com.
Paris Permenter and John Bigley are Texas-based travel writers. The authors of 29 guidebooks, many on the Lone Star State, the husband-wife team also edits the on-line TexasTripper.com Travel Guide.