The size of Texas isn’t the only reason there is so much to see in the Lone Star State. Its connection to Mexico, Spanish Missionaries and its fight for independence puts it on a distinct level of US history. Its cultural mix has brought on a great diversity of culture, art and food. Add on some amazing mountains and a beautiful coastline and you can see why there’s so much to discover.
Many travelers will begin in the major cities like Houston, Dallas and the popular Austin. You’ll get a glimpse of the vibrant Texan culture. But if you’re curious, Texas Hill Country, remote parks and endearing small towns will call your name.
It’s there that you’ll appreciate all Texas has to offer. It can be overwhelming, so keep our guide handy.
Experience the Padre Island National Seashore
It’s feels impossible to stop the passage of time, the endless development and advancement of humanity. As buildings continue to pop up along Texas’ 350 miles of once-wild coastline, there’s one refuge that remains as it always has been.
The Padre Island National Seashore represents the long undeveloped barrier island on the face of the earth. It’s a rare bastion of tranquility, but in the same vein as relaxing in the hotel pool. The seashore boasts some of the most impressive beaches, not just in Texas, but in the United States. Without a building in sight, it’s 70 miles of wispy white sand is the place to check out from the world while admiring the beauty of Mother Nature.
Aside from sunbathing and taking a dip into the Gulf of Mexico, you’d do well to kayak along the seashore, admiring the coastal habitats and venturing into the Laguna Madre, which has some exceptional snorkeling. Back on dry land, venture inland to experience Padre Island’s rich bird life with up to 350 species on the island at any time.
From mid-June to August, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles hatch along the shore, marking an important moment for the critically endangered species and a stunning sight for visitors.
Hike Big Bend National Park
If you haven’t heard the saying “everything is bigger in Texas” then you must have been living under a rock. A rock about the same size as the one carved by the mighty Rio Grande to form one of the most iconic natural landmarks in the United States.
Big Bend National Park lives up to the Texas reputation. The 90-degree curve is, in fact, big. Some might even say, enormous. The famous attraction is the crown jewel in Texas’ most beloved national park, a swath of protected land that is bigger than Rhode Island.
After checking out the bend and admiring the breathtaking views, be sure to allocate time to exploring the rest of the fantastic national park. Thanks to the revered status of Big Bend, it’s easy to escape the crowds on any of the park’s 200 miles of hiking trails. These treks cover all levels of difficulty and distance, while helping you explore a variety of landscapes from the arid Chihuahuan Desert down to the river-soaked valleys and back up to craggy mountain summits. And yes, you can paddle down the Rio Grande through the park’s spectacular collection of canyons.
Have a Drink Along San Antonio’s River Walk
After protected seashores and mountains, you might be pining for some local Texan culture. You may be ready to jump straight to Austin, but there are plenty of reasons to settle in for some time in San Antonio. At the top of my list of reasons is the River Walk.
San Antonio is known as the Mission City thanks to the establishment of early Spanish Missions dating as far back as the 1710s. These were set along the San Antonio River that runs through the heart of downtown. This provides travelers with two exciting things to do. One: Enjoy a drink under the lights, besides the glistening river. Two: Experience the city’s history along the 15-mile waterway.
The river may continue on to the large Guadalupe River, but its main section beginning at East Hildebrand River guides you through the King William district and Museum Reach on its way to Mission Espada. It’s an elegant introduction into the story of San Antonio, while guiding you by beautiful architecture, and through a vibrant riverfront.
If you want to save your legs, then join this 40-minute river cruise. After departing the water, you’ll find yourself with rows of enticing restaurants and bars. As the suns goes down, soak in the atmosphere with a drink and some delicious local cuisine.
Enjoy a Beach Day in Galveston
Southerners may understand the beauty of Texan beaches, but I think the word has been slow to get out. Travelers will sooner find themselves in SoCal, Florida, and the Carolinas for a beach getaway before making plans to sunbathe in the Lone Star State. As Vince Vaughn would say, erroneous!
Texas is lined with some exceptional beaches, but the sandy shores of Galveston ticks the most boxes. It’s long a popular day trip from Houston and a hit among spring breakers, but its mix of family fun and a social atmosphere is why you should add it to your itinerary.
The year-round destination is more than just a place to lay down the beach towel and roast under the sun. It features the famous 61st Street Fishing Pier and the Pleasure Pier; the latter being Galveston’s iteration of the iconic Santa Monica Pier.
After spending your day swimming, fishing, and screaming on the thrilling roller coaster, head briefly inland to experience the Strand Historic District that’s lined with Victorian-era mansions. Stick around for some of the best nightlife in town from the Old Cellar Bar to Drunken Monkeyz.
Explore Texas Hill Country
Texas is a huge state. In fact, it’s the second largest in the country behind only Alaska. It may feature wide open plains and vast deserts, but such a sheer mass of land is bound to bring a wonderful variety of landscapes. Aside from its beautiful coastline, the Texas Hill Country is the best example of Texas’ scenery.
The Texas Hill Country is a delightful mix of small charming towns, rolling grasslands and stately wineries. A drive through this part of the state will guide you to pleasant vistas where rivers course through meadows that are filled with bluebonnet and buttercup wildflowers and fields interrupted only by the welcoming sight of vineyards and the promise of a delicious red.
The best way to see the Texas Hill Country is to start just northeast of San Antonio and making your way to Austin. It’s not just amazing scenery and good wine that makes this part of the state so memorable. The towns provide a different look at life in Texas, none more so than Frederiksburg.
The historic down was founded in the 1840s by German settlers. It has remained close to its roots with German restaurants, architecture and, of course, an annual Oktoberfest.
Stop by wineries, the famed LBJ Ranch, and Frederiksburg on this tour departing from Austin or San Antonio
Fall in Love With in Austin
After driving through the magical Texas Hill Country, you’ll arrive in Austin. For travelers, Austin is often at the top of the list of best things to do in Texas, and for good reason. It may feature some wonderful parks, hot springs, museums and the Colorado River, but the main reason to visit Austin is what happens after dark.
It all begins with bats. Yep, that’s right. Austin is home to the largest bat colony in the United States. From March until fall,1.5 million bats fly from under the Congress Avenue Bridge and into the sky. It’s a spellbinding sight that takes up to 45 minutes. You can watch the event from the water on this sunset kayak experience.
After a oneof-a-kind sunset, you’ll be amped to experience Austin’s famed nightlife. There are three popular choices, one: the Dirty Sixth. Two: South Congress and three: the historic Rainey Street. Austin’s live music scene is on display at all three. The Dirty Sixth features Pete’s Duelling Piano Bar and the White Horse. South Congress is home to famous Continental Club plus Sagebrush, while the more laid back Rainey Street has Icenhauer’s and Half Step set among old Spanish adobes.
Check Out Space Center Houston
When it comes to tourist attractions, there’s no doubt that the Space Center Houston is one of the best things to do in Texas. Just a brief drive from downtown Houston, the Space Center holds such a revered status in American life, and a fascination for those traveling from around the world.
As you wander into the vast complex, the words Houston, we have a problem will float through your mind. Begin at the Visitor Center, where you can learn all about the country’s history with space travel and, most importantly, the famed moon landing. Visitors will be able to see a captivating collection of artifacts from space, such as a real rock from the moon along with replicas of international space stations.
One of the highlights of the experience is the chance to step inside a recreation of the Independence shuttle before listening to historic mission updates from the Briefing Center. Afterwards, explore the complex on the Tram Tour which takes you behind-the-scenes of the NASA Johnson Space Center that remains in operation.
Last up, head to Rocket Park that harbors real rockets used to send humans to outer space, including the Saturn V rockets.
Combine your Space Center experience with a tour of Houston, with this 2-for-1 pass.
Visit the Alamo
The Space Center may hold a special place in modern day history, but the Alamo remains the most historic destination in Texas. The structure was built in 1718 and was originally the chapel for Mission San Antonio de Valero. Since that day, what we now know as the Alamo has been occupied by five nations.
The site’s most famous event took place in 1836. The Battle of the Alamo was a key part of the Texas Revolution, with the words “remember the Alamo” becoming the cornerstone of Texas’ rise to independence.
Now, almost two centuries later, the Alamo remains at the forefront of the national conscience. It’s open for visitors who can explore by themselves or join a guided tour. The buildings have been restored to their 19th century glory and within the fort you’ll find an insightful museum taking you through the events, before, during and after the famed battle. There are also period weaponry and artifacts from the battle on display.
To round out your experience, explore the remaining missions within the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. The Mission Trail connects them all and is a fantastic bike ride, showcasing the city’s rich history along with San Antonio’s beautiful desert scenery.
Trek the Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Much of Texas is plains and plateaus, but the rolling hills that turn into mountains harbor some of the most fascinating landscapes in the country. Over 250 million years ago, Texas was underneath a vast turquoise sea. It’s a fact that’s hard to wrap your head around, but as the sea dispersed, it left the Guadalupe Mountains with some spectacular fossilized reefs.
What we now know to be the Guadalupe Mountains National Park was once a major section on a lengthy coral reef. Those that explore the park will get more than just leg-burning hikes to epic views. They’ll be able to see one of the top examples of ancient reefs on earth.
You can see these reefs along McKittrick Canyon, a moderate three-mile hike through a beautiful canyon flanked by riparian trees. Continue on to the Grotto for a riverside grove, a veritable desert oasis the features a wall of reef fossils.
You know the reefs at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park must be good since we haven’t even mentioned the park features the tallest summit in Texas. After checking out the reefs, tackle the strenuous trek to the top of Guadalupe Peak that stands at 8,749 (2,666m). From the summit, you’ll have unbeatable views of the surrounded dunes, forests and the wider Chihuahuan Desert.
Go Big at the State Fair of Texas
It’s true, we like to take the mickey out of Texans. Their personality is often larger than life and that flows into the state’s culture. But when you’re in Texas, you can’t help but to join the dark side and embrace the Texas way of life. You can certainly do that at the State Fair of Texas, which is a celebration of all things good.
Since it’s in Texas, you already know it’s the largest state fair in the country. It’s at first overwhelming. But with your cowboy boots on, you’ll be able to take it all in stride.
There’s an endless list of entertainment that will thrill the young folks and have us oldies turning back the clock. Everything comes with a distinct Texan theme and since it’s a celebration of state heritage, you’ll find petting zoos and agriculture events among the magic shows and concerts.
Like any good fair, there’s an abundance of adrenalin-stoking rides. Of the 70 on offer, such as the thrilling AirMax and the Flipper. Plus, there’s the iconic Ferris Wheel and carousel.
Explore the Fort Worth Stockyards
After visiting the State Fair of Texas (held in Dallas), you’ll be about 30 minutes away from neighboring Fort Worth. It’s here that you can lean into your dreams of being a cowgirl or cowboy and experience a slice of the Old West.
The Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District was once known as Cowtown thanks to the millions of cattle that made their way to Fort Worth during the mid-19th century. Fort Worth was seen as the last stop before the Wild West began and the Livestock Exchange was the beating heart of Texas’ cattle auction industry.
Today, the Livestock Exchange is a wonderful museum exploring this era in Texas life. But just like the buildings, not much has changed in Fort Worth since the 19th century. Their are twice-daily cattle drives and the only year-round rodeo in the world.
After exploring the storied streets during the day, take in the city’s wonderful nightlife once the sun goes down. Once you’ve loaded up on pulled pork at Riscky’s BBQ, head to Billy Bob’s Texas for 127,000-square feet of pure honky tonk joy.
Experience the Texas Railroads
The railroads transformed Texas. Cattle runs were replaced by overland shipping and cities like Dallas began their ascension to modern day metropolises. A great way to experience this movement, while enjoying great food and beautiful scenery, is to take a ride down the Texas State Railroad.
It’s one of America’s great train journeys, taking you through East Texas’ Piney Woods. The trip begins in Palestine and takes you to Rusk, 25 miles away. As you sit on your cozy seat within a vintage steam or diesel locomotive, you’ll be able to envision the journey many took for leisure, business or to move their families to the Lone Star State.
But it’s the scenery that will most catch your eye. In the spring, the Dogwoods bloom and in the fall the red Sumac leaves drop to the grass, creating eye-catching colors to admire as the train rolls on by. Then there are the 24 old-time bridges that take you over the valleys to the next section of rolling hills.
At either ends, you’ll be able to explore two historic train depots, while Rusk has an old-fashioned movie theater and offers overnight camping.
Sunbathe on Port Aransas Beach
Set along 18 miles (29km) of golden sands on Mustang Island, Port Aransas Beach is worth the trip. The scenic barrier island has but one town, the colorful and endearing Port Aransas. Beyond that, it’s nothing but sun, sand and nature.
Although it’s popular among Texans, especially the southwest section of the state, the lengthy shoreline provides ample room to spread out. You’ll often find people building impressive sandcastles, having been inspired by the scene at the annual Texas Sandfest.
After attempting to recreate your favorite Disney castle, you won’t have to venture far to enjoy the local dining scene. Port Aransas is renowned not just for its fresh seafood but its delicious Tex-Mex. Try them both at Irie’s Island Food.
Away from the beach, you’ll find some amazing birding opportunities. Mustang Island is along the Central Flyway, a vital migratory route with thousands of bird species traveling through each year. The best spots to go are Paradise Pond and Port Aransas Wetlands Park.
Catch a Game
We could write a whole separate article for the sporting events and stadiums that are strewn around Texas. Dallas and Houston have multiple pro sports teams, while San Antonio is the home of the Spurs (NBA). Add in college sports and the state’s obsession with high school football and you’ll never find yourself far from a live game.
When it comes to watching the NFL, you can’t pass up a trip to AT&T Stadium just out of Dallas. The stadium is the home of the Dallas Cowboys and can hold up to 80,000 fans. Add on their jaw-dropping jumbotron and you can see why visiting the stadium is a pilgrimage for football fans.
College and high school football are also huge in Texas. Austin may be home to Austin FC (MLS) but the hottest ticket in town is the Longhorns from the University of Texas. Playing out of Texas Memorial Stadium, the arena sees crowds in excess of 100,000 people. Then there’s Eagle Stadium in Allen, the most expensive high school stadium in the United States.
Explore the Natural Bridge Cavern
In 1960, a group of college students stumbled upon a jaw-dropping subterranean maze just out of San Antonio. Fast forward to the 21st century and this random occurrence has led to one of the top attractions in Texas.
Visitors will be able to explore as far as 180 feet beneath the surface, deep into one of the largest natural labyrinths in Texas. Along the way, you’ll spot some of the 10,000-plus stalactites and stalagmites rising from the surface and dangling from the ceiling like dusty icicles.
There are several landmarks that stand out more than most. One of those is found right at the entrance. The caverns received their name Natural Bridge because of the limestone bridge that reaches across the entrance. It spans 60 feet (18m) and sets the scene for the majestic sights to come.
The other major highlight is the King’s Throne. This stands at 40-feet (12m) high and features a sprawling wall of stalactites set within the aptly named Castle of the White Giants.
Visitors will be able to explore alongside an expert guide. There are other on-site adventures, including ziplines and tree-climbing.
Visit the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site
A couple of hours’ drive southeast of Dallas will bring you to the eye-opening Caddo Mounds State Historic Site. The mounds were developed by Caddo Native Americans and have been dated beyond 1,200 years. The Caddos lived in the region up until the 19th century when they were forced to relocate first to the Bravos River and then to what is now the Caddo Nation Headquarters in Oklahoma.
The mounds are impressive structures, with three of them still in existence today. It’s one of the earliest examples of human life in Texas and you can explore them on either a guided or self-guided tour. Visitors will have the option to walking the site’s two trails that offer great insight into mounds and Caddo culture.
These two trails are just a small part of a longer 2,500-mile path that connects Texas to Louisiana, known as the El Camino Real de los Tejas. The trail further explores Native American life, the efforts of the Spanish to missionize communities and the western movement that brought railroads and ranching to Texas.
Finish up at the Visitor Center and adjacent museum to round out your experience at the Caddo Mounds.
Check Out the Small Town of Jefferson
Much has been written about Texas’ big cities, like Dallas, Houston and Austin. But we love to spread the love around. You may visit Frederiksburg as you venture through Texas Hill Country, but another small town to add to your itinerary is Jefferson.
In East Texas, Jefferson is a trip back in time. Founded before the Civil War, Jefferson has seen a lot in its day and is now home to just shy of a 100 historic landmarks.
As you wander around town sipping on old school root beer floats and tasting the homemade candies from the Jefferson General Store, you’ll see this history splashed on many buildings. These include the Carnegie Library and the Excelsior House Hotel.
You can explore the town’s past in more detail by stepping into Jefferson’s former post office and federal courthouse, which now houses the Historical Society Museum. In front of the building is a magnolia tree planted by Lady Bird Johnson. The seed planted originated from a magnolia planted when Andrew Jackson was president.
Chow Down on BBQ
Tex-Mex is one of my favorite cuisines, yet I can’t help but try as many BBQ joints as I can whenever I step foot in the Lone Star State. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll want to know some of the best to try as you make your way around.
In Dallas, head over to the vibrant neighborhood of Deep Ellum. Not only is it one of the coolest spots in town, it’s home to Pecan Lodge. Here, you’ll begin to understand the truth behind the statement, the best things in life are smoked in a pit. Pecan Lodge’s pit runs 24/7 with all their delicious eats made from scratch.
When in Austin, brave the lines and experience Franklin Barbecue. With a distinct Austin vibe, complemented by eclectic decor, it’s a deliciously unique barbecue experience.
Last up is perhaps the best BBQ in Texas, Ray’s BBQ Shack. Found in Houston, you’ll find a long list of smoked meats with a delightful Cajun influence. Pick your favorite and enjoy alongside a hush puppy.
Wrap it All Up at the Bullock Texas State History Museum
Your time in Texas is wrapping up and while it would be illogical to do our list of the best things to do in Texas in order, for the sake of the article, indulge me. You’ve learned a bunch about Texan history, its varied landscapes, beautiful beaches and boisterous personality, but you can wrap it up in a nice bow with a visit to the Bullock Texas State Museum.
After dining at Franklin’s Barbecue, head to Austin’s University of Texas. Here, you’ll find a museum that explores the state’s rich story. This includes going beyond ranching and westward migration to include thousands of years of Native American habitation. There’s also a look at the state’s independence from Mexico, its many missionaries and the change brought by the railroads and oil. All presented in an interactive fashion.