The Texas Hill Country is a geographic region located west of Austin and north of San Antonio. Although there’s no official border, many websites set boundaries of what counts and what doesn’t.
We’ve been visiting the area for almost 20 years and while our first trips were focused on a few attractions, we’ve had time to explore and find out how much this part of Texas has to offer.
Here’s a list of things to do and places to visit in and around the Texas Hill Country.
Texas is famous for its barbecue and there’s no shortage of places to find it around Hill Country. If you’re in the Austin area, you can brave the line at Franklin Barbecue (when the dining room reopens on September 1st.) If you’re looking for a little more atmosphere, you can make the drive to Driftwood, TX and eat at The Salt Lick BBQ.
If you’re looking for the ultimate Texas BBQ experience, then you need to head to Lockhart, The Barbecue Capital of Texas. It’s not a far drive from either Austin or San Antonio, located about 20 miles east of San Marcos. When you get there, you’ll find four barbecue places located within blocks of one another; each one saying they’re the best. So why not try them all and make your own decision. Just be prepared for the meat sweats on the drive back to the hotel.
The unique topography of Hill Country is favorable for the formation of caves and there are several large ones in the area. Natural Bridge Caverns is one of the more popular ones with plenty of activities on-site besides the cave. Back when we were younger and more daring, we did the Adventure Tour. You get to explore the cave’s undeveloped area, which for us included descending into the cave through a hole in the roof, crawling through caverns on your hands and knees and finally climbing up a rock face. Look at those young faces 🙂
There are other caves in the area as well. We’ve taken the drive west on I-10 to visit the Caverns of Sonora. While most people visit while driving through Texas, we made it an overnight trip from San Antonio. Warning, there’s not much in the way of luxury accommodations in the area. We stayed at a Quality Inn (the highest-rated hotel in town), and ate at the Mexican restaurant with plenty of cars in the parking lot.
I’m a firm believer that just because you can grow grapes somewhere, it doesn’t mean you should make wine. We’ve been to plenty of wineries over the year with a beautiful tasting room and horrible wines. When we first visited Dry Comal Creek Vineyards near New Braunfels they were growing grapes but they were mainly for show. The wine they were making was from grapes imported from California.
Not anymore. As more and more people have discovered that Texas wines can be darn tasty, the Hill Country has become Texas’ Wine Country. Even Wine Spectator sees a bright future for Texas wines. There are three distinct AVA’s and to be called a Texas wine, 75% of the grapes have to come from the state. There’s a push to make that 100% and further distinguish the unique characteristics that the land brings to the wine.
To get a sense of what’s out there, there are Texas wine trails that take you to several wineries. It’s a popular weekend activity from the spring through fall for those living in Austin, San Antonio and the rapidly expanding area along the I-35 corridor. The views from some of the tasting rooms aren’t that bad either.
Gruene Hall / Gruene, TX
Gruene Hall, built in 1878, is Texas’ oldest continually operating and most famous dance hall. When we first started visiting New Braunfels, it was one of the only reasons to come to Gruene (pronounced Green, like the color.)
Featuring live music nightly, not much has changed about the hall since its opening. For a rather unassuming structure, it has a stellar pedigree of past performers. When your list contains names such as George Strait, Garth Brooks, Bo Diddley and Lyle Lovett, you’re doing something right. They have a longer list here. I was in town the night Hootie and the Blowfish played a charity event at Gruene Hall. That was one strange night and a funny story which I might tell one day.
Over the years, the Gruene Historic District has developed into a destination. The small main street is now full of antique shops, boutiques, an old-fashioned drug store, beer and cocktail bars, a wine shop featuring the abovementioned Texas wines and plenty of places to eat, including The Gristmill, which is located in the ruins of an 1878 cotton gin. Their large back deck has a view of the Guadalupe River below.
Speaking of rivers, there are plenty of them in the area between Austin and San Antonio. A popular pastime in Texas is to grab a tube and float on the river. There several companies that are willing to help you accomplish your float along the Comal or Guadalupe rivers.
There are some rules about what you can bring with you while floating along with the current on the river. Most importantly, you can no longer bring any disposable containers, otherwise known as the “New Braunfels Can Ban.”
Take some of each of the above categories, throw in some German roots and a historic US President, mix them together and you’ll end up with Fredricksburg.
Fredricksburg is often called the capital of Texas Hill Country. Located basically in the center of the region, it has a bit of everything the area has to offer. Highways 290 and 87 go through the center of town, which is a time capsule of Americana. There are plenty of antique stores, boutiques and specialty stores along with some fantastic places to eat. Fredericksburg has a strong German influence which you can explore at the Pioneer Museum featuring settlers’ homes and artifacts. This also means you can find plenty of German restaurants in the area.
Finally, Fredericksburg is the home of the Lyndon B. Johnson Historical Park. The National Park Service runs the park, including LBJ Ranch, Texas White House, LBJ birthplace, Johnson family cemetery, old Junction School, LBJ’s grandparents’ home, and the LBJ ranch showbarn.
The Biggest Buc-ee’s In The World!
This is Sharon interrupting Joe’s post. I can’t believe that he didn’t include Buc-ee’s. Especially the FLAGSHIP location! How rude! Here’s more about it and no, I’m not obsessed.
No post from us would be complete without mentioning what brought us to visit the Texas Hill Country in the first place. The main reason we traveled to Texas was to experience Schlitterbahn. We’ve had a long-term love affair with this water park ever since.
How To Get There
I’ve mentioned it above but the two major airports in the area are Austin and San Antonio. The latter used to be the more popular airport but since Austin has become a major technology hub, flights to the area have increased and the airport just went through a major expansion adding several gates and a Delta SkyClub.
Where To Stay
You could always stay in either of the big cities and visit the Hill Country as a day trip. But why visit a region and not stay there.
One of the most popular hotels in the area for points aficionados is the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa. As a Hyatt category 4 hotel, you’re able to use your free nights from the World of Hyatt co-brand card. Located west of San Antonio, it’s in Hill County, 20 minutes from the Riverwalk and has its own waterpark and lazy river. However, it might be a bit of a drive to take in any other things that Hill Country has to offer.
Another chain hotel that captures the Hill Country is the Courtyard New Braunfels River Village. It’s a category 5 Marriott Bonvoy property, which puts it in the range for using a free night certificate if you’re not looking for a peak night (which are most weekends in the summer.) While you might not think a Courtyard is a worthy use of your free night, rooms here often go for over $200 a night. It’s located on the banks of the Guadalupe River and features a toobing company on-site.
This hotel is located closer to Schlitterbahn, Texas wine country, Lockhart and Gruene than either San Antonio or Austin.
If there’s one lesson that we learned from the COVID pandemic, it’s that you don’t have to fly halfway around the world to find interesting places to visit. Oftentimes there are great places to go that are right in your own backyard.
Besides New York City, there isn’t a place that we’ve missed visiting more than the Texas Hill Country. Now that we’re vaccinated, willing to fly and places are open, we can’t get back to explore some of our favorite spots.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary