Highlights of San Antonio, Austin and the Texas Hill Country

Petra Shepherd takes a trip around the oil state

Texas is vast (the second largest state in America, just behind Alaska). It’s also pretty popular with cool cities, wide-open countryside, rolling hills, gun-toting Texas cowboys, breathtaking national parks, top notch Tex/Mex cuisine and a unique blend of history and fun. I spent a week there in May this year exploring just a fraction of the “Lone Star State” these are a few of my highlights. 

San Antonio – Home to the Alamo

San Antonio is Texas’s most beautiful city with the famous symbol of Texas liberty, the Alamo siting in a plaza in the heart of downtown. Steeped in history, The Alamo is one of the city’s five missions and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The San Antonio Missions National Park is home to the largest concentration of Spanish Colonial architecture in North America with The San Fernando Cathedral, being the oldest cathedral in the United States. Who said the US had no history! The cathedral has a free lightshow showcasing San Antonio’s colourful history on the facade of the cathedral and is not to be missed. Known as The Saga, it can be viewed on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

The city is easily walkable, especially along The San Antonio Riverwalk or Paseo del Rio, a world-renowned 15-mile urban waterway, tucked quietly below street level. It’s the place to take a river cruise (board a GO RIO river barge for a narrated 35 minute ride) or merely wander and enjoy some al fresco dining. With towering cypress trees offering shade and stone bridges arching over the gentle river, it’s all very scenic. San Antonio isn’t far from the Mexican border and Hispanic culture is evident in the very fabric of the city. I had lunch and shopped at Market Square, the largest Mexican Market outside of Mexico, enjoyed a performance from one of the many mariachi bands and indulged in some appetising Tex-Mex cuisine. When there’s a tex in front of your mex, those three extra letters mean extra ingredients, typically not found south of the Rio Grande: beef, yellow cheese, wheat flour and cumin.

A good time to visit the city and experience the Mexican vibe is April when Fiesta San Antonio takes place, one of the USA’s premier festivals and an 11-day celebration with more than 100 events. The 127-year-old festival has grown into a celebration of San Antonio’s rich and diverse cultures with parades, carnivals, balls, art fairs and concerts

Stroll through nearly 30 shops and galleries at La Villita Historic Arts Village and make time to also explore some of the city’s museums and galleries. The Witte Museum is devoted to science and natural history whilst The San Antonio Museum of Art housed in the historic Lone Star Brewery features 30,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of history from around the globe.

My favourite was The Briscoe Western Art Museum, capturing the spirit of the West. This three-story museum houses artifacts, paintings and sculptures telling the rich history of the American West (you can even see Roy Rogers’ silver mounted saddle).

Bandera – The Cowboy Capital of the World

Bandera was a staging area for the last great cattle drives in the 1800s and many National Rodeo Champions began their rodeo careers here, hence being known as The Cowboy Capital of the World. You’ll find several murals and historical markers around the town. Bandera (47 miles north west of downtown San Antonio) is the place to live like an old west cowboy and is known for its guest and dude ranches.

There is a “rootin’ tootin’ cowboy” in all of us and at Mayan Dude Ranch, I played at being a cowgirl, with an afternoon horse ride, got my picture taken with a real live longhorn, took a hayride to a cowboy breakfast and yes, there were a lot of beans but most fun was learning the Texan two step. I’ve seen many a Honky Tonk in the movies and was therefore delighted to practice my newly learned line dancing skills at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon (one of the oldest honky tonks in Texas) and the 11th Street Cowboy Bar.

At Rattlesnake Ridge (behind the visitor’s centre), the Bandera Cattle Company gunfighters perform a rather cheesy but nevertheless entertaining 1800 reenactment gun show and if you’re looking to buy any kind of Western gear from cowboy boots to hats, Bandera is the place to come. 

Fredericksburg – The Texas Hill Country

Most people are aware of the Texas oil industry, but you may be surprised to discover that the state has one of the USA’s biggest wine-growing regions too. Fredericksburg is Texas Wine Country, with more than 50 wineries and tasting rooms within a 30-minute drive and more than 100 within two hours. Fredericksburg’s unique mix of German heritage and Texas hospitality can be found throughout the town. Settled by immigrants in the mid-1800s I’d recommend a self-guided tour of The Pioneer Museum to get a glimpse into the daily lives of the German pioneers who founded the town. The 3.5-acre campus features historic homesteads in their original locations, an original stone barn and smokehouse, a bath house, a blacksmith shop, a Texas German log cabin, a one room schoolhouse and a Sunday House. Or visit The Vereins Kirche Museum, housed in a replica of a church used by the first German settlers.

For World War II history buffs The National Museum of the Pacific War has state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and is the place to learn about fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a local man who had an exceptional naval career. The museum is housed in a steamboat-shaped building that was once his grandfather’s hotel. For a one-of-a-kind place to stay The Hanger Hotel and Conference Centre is based on Fredericksburg’s early aviation and rich military past, the hotel being a recreation of an old WWII military hanger. It was certainly unique, a hotel with its own air field. 

Luckenbach – “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas”

Country music fans will be very familiar with the chorus from Waylon Jennings popular song “Back to the Basics of Love”:

“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas
With Waylon and Willie and the boys
This successful life we’re livin’ got us feudin’
Like the Hatfield and McCoys
Between Hank Williams’ pain songs and
Newbury’s train songs and “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain”
Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”

The historic town is located about eight miles southeast of Fredericksburg and is a popular destination for music fans, bikers and all those interested in discovering the tiny town in the tune heard by millions. With its store, dance hall and picnic tables, Luckenbach (a sign jokes “population 3”) is a destination in its own right. Daily jam sessions take place under the 400 + year old oak trees on the outside stage or in the dancehall, it’s a place to sit back, enjoy a beer while enjoying the musicians who provide tunes with a Texas flair. From 1995 to 1999 Willie Nelson held his Fourth of July picnic at Luckenbach. 

Enchanted Rock – Climb the ancient rock

The Hill Country is also home to Wildseed Farms, the USA’s largest wildflower farm. Spring turns Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country into a wildflower paradise, creating a roadside carpet of colour with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and a multitude of other varieties of wildflowers. You’ll see plenty of these and sweeping vistas of the entire region at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, an area popular with outdoor enthusiasts. With 11 miles of hiking trails including the iconic Summit Trail. 

The Enchanted Rock (think Central Texas’s answer to Uluru) itself towers 1,825 feet in elevation. I climbed the pink granite domes and boulders and stood in awe on its 360-degree-view summit. There’s more to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area than just the massive pink granite dome. The scenery, rock formations and legends are magical, too!

Austin – Live music capital of the world

Austin takes its title as the “Live Music Capital of the World” seriously with hundreds of venues hosting performances all around town. You’ll find the greatest concentration within the Sixth Street and Red River entertainment districts, but the entire city lives and breathes music. Ladybird Lake (a man-made lake runs through the centre of Austin) and is the place to admire the sunset and take a bat cruise. Watch as over one million Mexican free-tailed bats take flight under the Congress Avenue Bridge for their nightly feast. This is one of Austin’s top attractions and hundreds of people line the bridge nightly to catch a glimpse of this natural phenomenon.

Alternatively try walking or running along Lady Bird Lake’s “Hike and Bike Trail”. Located in the heart of the city, this 10-mile off-road trail is very popular with Austin locals. I love outdoor swimming and Austin is home to a beautiful natural swimming hole. Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre spring-fed water feature in Zilker Park has a steady temperature of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so comfortable for year-round swimming.

Austin is the state capital of Texas and the capital building itself is well worth a visit (the sixth tallest state capital and one of several taller than the United States Capital in Washington DC). Above all, Austin is quirky with a love of the surreal, something you’re constantly reminded of by the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ bumper stickers”

It has often been said, usually by Texans, that everything is bigger and better in Texas and I’ll have to agree with them!

Find out more

Go to Travel Texas for more information and call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 to get a quote and book your holiday in Texas


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Petra Shepherd

Editor of Silver Travel Book Club & Cook Club

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