Texas is such a big state that one can live here for a lifetime and not even scratch the surface of things to do.
But there are some things that — as a resident or visitor — you just have to partake in when in the Lone Star State. Barbecue? Tex-Mex? Big Tex? Check, check and double-check.
So we decided to put together our own Texas Bucket List of activities. Some of these you may be able to check out over this long July 4 weekend. Others will have to be explored at other times of the year. But how many of these have you done?
Places to see
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Remember the Alamo, San Antonio: Arguably Texas’ best-known landmark is part of the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site and was where the famed Battle of the Alamo took place in 1836. Visitors should also visit the other San Antonio missions: Concepción, San Jose, San Juan and Espada. www.thealamo.org; missionsofsanantonio.org
Drive Route 66 in Amarillo: Although it’s a city of nearly 200,000, for most of us who don’t live there, Amarillo is a) a place to drive through on the way to New Mexico or Colorado) or b) a place to get a motel room on similar trips. But get off I-40 and take a short drive north to Sixth Street, where you’ll find Amarillo’s Deep Ellum-esque Route 66 district, a collection of funky stores, antique shops, tattoo parlors and restaurants. At the very least, you’ll find some road-trip food that isn’t from one of the chains that dot like I-40 like they do every freeway in every city.
Get somber at Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas: An ugly but unavoidable piece of North Texas’ past, the assassination of John F. Kennedy remains one of the state’s and the country’s darkest moments. Dealey Plaza, in downtown Dallas, is a sobering, haunting reminder of the presidential murder — just please don’t be like those tourists who dart out onto Elm Street and try to snap photos of the markings where Kennedy was shot — and the Sixth Floor Museum, just behind the grassy knoll, is a vivid portal into the past, putting Kennedy’s vibrant ascent and the fateful November day into context. www.jfk.org
Get learned at presidential libraries: Speaking of former presidents, Texas is home to three presidential libraries: the LBJ in Austin, the George H.W. Bush in College Station, and the George W. Bush in Dallas. lbjlibrary.org; bush41.org; georgewbushlibrary.smu-edu
Channel you inner cowboy at the Fort Worth Stockyards: If you’re not in Fort Worth in January for the Stock Show, visit the historic Stockyards for a blast of cowboy culture. There are rodeos every weekend as well as the daily walk of the Fort Worth Herd. www.fortworthstockyards.org; www.fortworth.com/the-herd/
Check up on your government at the State Capitol, Austin: Love it or hate it, this is where the legislative sausage is made. Whatever one thinks of the politics taking place inside of it, everyone can appreciate the Italian Renaissance Revival-style architecture of the building, modeled after the national capitol in D.C. www.tspb.state.tx.us
Explore Fair Park, Dallas: The largest collection of Art Deco exhibit buildings on the planet and the only unaltered pre-1950s Worlds Fair site left in the U.S., it’s also the home of several attractions including the African-American Museum, Texas Discovery Gardens, the Children’s Aquarium and the stunning Hall of State building. fairpark.org
Cruise the Riverwalk, San Antonio: Often referred to as the state’s leading tourist attraction, this shady, winding waterway plied by gondoliers and lined with restaurants, bars, shops and hotels is certainly one of the most unique. Earlier this year, it was named one of the 10 Parks That Changed America by PBS. www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com
Get up in the air at Reunion Tower, Dallas, and Tower of the Americas, San Antonio: The state’s two most iconic observation decks/revolving restaurants — Reunion is 560 feet tall, Tower of the Americas is 750 feet tall — may be the kind of thing that locals shun but that doesn’t make the views any less impressive. www.reuniontower.com; www.toweroftheamericas.com
Get historic at Freedman’s Cemetery, Dallas: Right in the middle of yuppie-centric Uptown and next to Central Expressway is an important piece of North Texas black history that many pass unaware. This is a memorial to the more than 1,000 former slaves buried here over the years. Along with nearby Griggs Park (named after a black educator), it’s a reminder that this used to be a vital African-American neighborhood called Freedman’s Town.
Channel J.R. at Southfork Ranch, Parker: The setting for the TV series Dallas is open for tours daily. www.southforkranch.com
Find your bliss in the Texas Hill Country: Get outside of Austin and San Antonio to explore the bucolic serenity and historic charm of such smaller cities as Bandera, Marble Falls and Fredericksburg. texashillcountry.com
Take a ride at Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington: Theme-park aficionados regard this Six Flags with some reverence as it was the first park in the chain. sixflags.com
Shoot for the moon at Space Center, Houston: Houston is not known as Space City for nothing. NASA is here (remember “Houston, we have a problem”?) and this facility — a Smithsonian-affiliated museum — offers a peek underneath the astronauts’ helmets. spacecenter.org
Go for a bar crawl along Sixth Street, Austin: Also known as “Dirty Sixth,” this is the stretch of Austin’s celebrated boulevard of bars and clubs with the highest ratio of partiers to teetotalers. It’s especially packed during South by Southwest and ACL. 6street.com
Cowboy up at King Ranch, Kingsville: One of the largest ranches in the world, it sprawls over six counties and more than 1,200 square miles. The cliche “everything’s bigger in Texas” applies here. There are daily tours, nature tours and a museum. www.king-ranch.com
Stay at Hotel Galvez, Galveston: One of Texas’ great historic hotels, it dates back to 1911, just 11 years after the town was bulldozed by a massive hurricane. The beachfront landmark is part of the Wyndham chain. www.hotelgalvez.com
Visit the Gage Hotel, Marathon: Opened in 1927, this hotel offers a slice of West Texas history. The movies Paris, Texas and Fandango filmed scenes in Marathon. gagehotel.com
Go behind bars at the Texas Prison Museum, Huntsville: In a state full of museums, this one may be the most eyebrow-raising. With its look at the history of the state’s prison system, including a capital-punishment exhibit and a display of art made by inmates, it’s very unique. www.txprisonmuseum.org
Stare up at the Sam Houston statue, Huntsville: This huge statue of Houston is said to be the world’s largest statue of an American hero, standing 67 feet tall. www.huntsvilletexas.com
Ready, set, shop at NorthPark Center, Dallas, and The Galleria, Houston: Go for the consumerism, stay for the art as NorthPark is as much gallery as mall. Developer/art collector Ray Nasher has used the corridors and walls to display works by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and many others. northparkcenter.com. Meanwhile, the Galleria is the largest mall in the state, and ninth largest in the U.S., with more than 300 stores. http://www.simon.com/mall/the-galleria
Things to do
See a Dallas Cowboys game, Arlington: Yes, America’s Team wasn’t at its best last season — actually, it’s been (gulp!) the better part of two decades since the ‘Boys brought home a Super Bowl trophy — but there are few thrills in sports like entering the truly awe-inspiring AT&T Stadium and feeling 100,000 fans roaring as Tony Romo leads the team down the field. Throw in a museum’s worth of modern art sprinkled throughout the grounds and an eye-popping video board that looks like a cruise ship hanging from the rafters, and what more do you need? (Apart from a winning season, we mean.) dallascowboys.com
Go to the State Fair of Texas, Dallas: Corny dogs, auto shows, live music and that merry midway full of games — the State Fair of Texas, situated in sprawling Fair Park just outside downtown Dallas, is a rite of passage for Texans of any age. Whether you go to gorge on the new and ever more outlandish fried-food delicacies or simply to stroll through the throngs and take it all in, the State Fair, Sept. 30-Oct. 23. this year, is a can’t miss destination for fun. And don’t forget to say Howdy to Big Tex. bigtex.com
Attend the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo: Unsurprisingly, Texas is home to three of the country’s Top 25 rodeos and this annual winter event is the oldest continuously running livestock show and rodeo. And, yes, it’s big. This year, there were 36 rodeo sessions and the top steer went for $210,000. The other two big rodeos in the state are the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. www.fwssr.com
Go totally Tejano: San Antonio is the center of Tejano musical culture. Spring brings the Tejano Fan Fair and Fiesta San Antonio, both of which attracts thousands, and then there are the Tejano Music Awards in the fall. tejanomusicawards.com; www.fiesta-sa.org
Get twangy at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic: This annual music fest in Austin not only features the legendary Texas troubadour himself but a who’s who of regional roots music. This year’s show also features Asleep at the Wheel, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Joe Shaver and many more. willienelson.com
Get in the swing at the Western Swing Music Festival, Wichita Falls, and the Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering & Western Swing Festival, Fort Worth: Western swing is a uniquely Texas and Oklahoma contribution to the musical world and it’s celebrated at this these multiday events with the biggest stars in the genre. wfmpec.com; redsteagallcowboygathering.com
Take a Bonnie and Clyde Tour: One of America’s most famous criminal couples came from West Dallas even though their crime spree from 1932 to 1934 spanned well beyond the region. You can tour some of the spots where they grew up, hung out and see where they are buried through DFW Historical Tours. dfwhistoricaltours.com
Look up at a star party at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis: Located in the remote Davis Mountains in West Texas, the observatory is close enough to towns like Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa for a quick trip. But it’s far from big-city lights, and during star parties you can look through a variety of telescopes (but not the observatory’s research telescopes). The parties also include constellation “tours.” Attendance is limited, and reservations are required. https://mcdonaldobservatory.org
Rock out at a music festival, Austin: Austin boasts that it is the “live music capital of the world” and that certainly seems the case during one of its many gargantuan annual festivals like South by Southwest (in the spring) and Austin City Limits (in the fall). Radiohead, Willie Nelson and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the big names at this year’s ACL, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Oct. 7-9. sxsw.com; aclfestival.com
Ride the Uptown trolley, Dallas: Few confuse Dallas with San Francisco but they share one thing: a trolley system. In Dallas, this quirky, unique-in-Texas mode of transportation makes a loop between downtown and Uptown, taking you from the museums of the Arts District and Klyde Warren Park to the bars, eateries and shops along McKinney Avenue and in the West Village. Best of all, it’s free. www.mata.org
What to eat
Watch someone eat the 72-ounce steak at Big Texan Steak Ranch, Amarillo: On the east side of Amarillo there’s this kitsch palace, famous for its 72-ounce steak challenge: Eat the monster plus all the sides in an hour, without getting sick, and it’s free. The record holder is Molly Schuyler, a 125-pound competitive eater who downed two of the dinners in an hour — then came back and topped that by eating three. We’d dare you to try that, but we’re concerned about liability issues. bigtexan.com
Queue up for great Texas barbecue: Arguments over who has the best ’cue and in which city will never be settled. Suffice to say, your appetite can be satisfied at many places including Heim Barbecue (Fort Worth), BBQ on the Brazos (Cresson), Billy’s Oak Acres (Fort Worth), Lockhart Smokehouse (Dallas), Pecan Lodge (Dallas), Franklin Barbecue (Austin), the Salt Lick (Driftwood) and Gatlin’s BBQ (Houston).
Chow down on Tex-Mex: There are so many from which to choose, but there’s the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston (where fajitas were allegedly created), Mi Tierra in San Antonio, Avila’s, Mia’s and El Ranchito in Dallas, Benito’s and El Asadero in Fort Worth. Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth is renowned for its patio.
Experience Friday Night Lights at Chico’s Tacos in El Paso: You will find people, including comedian Gabriel Iglesias and El Paso-bred celebrity chef Aron Sanchez, who will swear by Chico’s, but we’ve gotta be honest: Don’t expect gourmet food. Chico’s specialty is the “double,” two rolled tacos served in a paper “boat,” smothered with shredded cheese and drowning in sauce that most diners drink after the tacos are gone. But Chico’s is an El Paso rite of passage, and its locations are cannily located near high schools, making for quite the Friday-night scene.
Check in at Czech Stop and the Little Czech Bakery, West: Central Texas is known for its influx of Central European immigrants and that means you can get some of the best kolaches on this side of the planet here. Of course, Czech Stop isn’t the only place to get them but it’s the most iconic — and it’s right off I-35. www.czechstop.net
Check out Chuy’s — in Van Horn: Not the Austin-based Tex-Mex behemoth, but a more traditional Mexican restaurant founded in 1959 — and made famous by football legend/sportscaster John Madden, who does not like flying and traveled from gig to gig in a customized bus. According to the restaurant’s website, Madden first stopped in 1987, simply looking for a place to watch a game. But he liked the food enough that he made return visits, eventually naming the restaurant to his All-Madden Hall of Fame. www.chuys1959.com
Expand your horizons with puffy tacos, San Antonio and breakfast tacos, Austin: The capital city and the Alamo city were recently in a war of words over which place invented the breakfast taco though S.A. seems to have no challengers to its claim to be the place where the puffy taco was invented at Henry’s Puffy Tacos. www.henryspuffytacos.com
See a band at Billy Bob’s Texas, Fort Worth: Step inside the World’s Largest Honky-Tonk, and it’s a concert experience like nowhere else in the state (or the world, for that matter). Country and rock legends, as well as rising stars, get the best of both worlds in the Billy Bob’s showroom — its capacity is enormous (more than 6,000 folks can squeeze in for shows), but its vibe is one of down-home intimacy, making the big concerts feel smaller than they are. Everyone who’s anyone eventually plays Billy Bob’s — its walls are lined with some of music’s most iconic names — and the boots-’n-beers aesthetic is as Texas as you can get.
Get cultured in the Cultural District, Fort Worth: With the world-renowned Kimbell Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame all next to each other, this represents one of the best cultural experiences in the state. fwculture.com
Spend an afternoon at the Nasher Sculpture Center: Set in a facility designed by Renzo Piano, this unique museum in the Dallas Arts District features sculptures from the vast collection of Ray and Patsy Nasher. nashersculpturecenter.org
Discover blues history, Dallas and Fort Worth: There’s not a lot left of North Texas’ illustrious blues legacy in the Deep Ellum entertainment district where much of it was based — and such artists as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, Bessie Smith and Lightnin’ Hopkins performed — but still standing not far away is the 508 Park facility, where the legendary Robert Johnson recorded in the ’30s. The building, where such pioneers as Gene Autry and Bob Wills also worked, is undergoing renovation and is due to open as a cultural center/museum, Encore Park, next year. A sculpture wall featuring images of some of the region’s most notable musicians has been completed. For live blues, check out RL’s Blues Palace in South Dallas or Keys Lounge in Fort Worth. www.508park.org
Get literate at Booked Up, Archer City: The literary bookstore operated by one of this state’s most famous authors, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show), continues even if it has scaled back in recent years. www.bookedupac.com
Spend some quiet time at Rothko Chapel and the Menil Collection, Houston: Among H-town’s many sterling arts attractions, these two stand out. Rothko Chapel, a meditative space inspired by the work of artist Mark Rothko, is one of the most serene places in the state. The Menil Collection has an impressive array of around 17,000 paintings, sculptures and other artworks. It’s known for its large, one-of-a-kind Surrealist collection. www.rothkochapel.org; www.menil.org
Go off-the-beaten path at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa: In a state filled with unusual art museums, Chinati Foundation may be the most unusual: 15 buildings of contemporary-art exhibits, including works by founder Donald Judd, spread across 340 acres in a mountain-desert town not directly accessible by interstate. There are more reasons to visit Marfa, including its historic ties with the movie Giant, but the Chinati is a must for art-lovers.
Rock out at the Buddy Holly Center, Lubbock: 1950s rock-’n’-roller Holly is famously from Lubbock, but it took the city more than 20 years after his 1959 plane-crash death to honor him with a statue (a nearby walk of fame honors other Lubbock musicians), and this center honoring his musical legacy didn’t open till the ’90s. The curators have gathered a wealth of Holly memorabilia: report cards, notes from school, 45s, vinyl album covers, recording contracts, instruments, clothing, tour itineraries — including one for the Winter Dance Party, during which the plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson occurred. Buy a guitar pick at the gift shop and place it on Holly’s grave at the City of Lubbock Cemetery, off of 31st Street. www.mylubbock.us
Keep rockin’ at the Roy Orbison Museum, Wink: “Museum” might be a generous word for this strip-mall-store-size collection of memorabilia in tiny Wink, a town of less than 1,000 a little northeast of Pecos and northwest of Monahans. Wink is also classic crooner Orbison’s boyhood home, and the museum honors him with a collection of Orbison memorabilia. Plan accordingly: When we dropped in on a Sunday afternoon once, the museum was closed, but there were four phone numbers on the door to call for a visit. The first three didn’t answer. The fourth did, was in the middle of dinner, and asked if we’d called the first three. That’s part of the charm.
Get off the highway for Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo: A group of artists, calling themselves The Ant Farm, created this famous piece of public art showcasing the rear ends of 10 vintage Cadillacs sticking out of the earth. It’s now a must-stop along the famed Route 66.
Catch a movie at the Texas Theatre, Dallas: Opened in 1931, it was once the third-largest theater in Dallas and was part of a chain co-owned by Howard Hughes. Its biggest notoriety came on Nov. 22, 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested there. It’s an art house cinema. www.thetexastheatre.com
Start your engines at the Art Car Parade, Houston: In a city so car-dependent, it’s fitting that it’s here where automobiles are transformed into works of rolling art in this annual, three-day celebration featuring more than 250 cars and a quarter million spectators. www.thehoustonartcarparade.com
Wondrous places to go
Explore Big Bend National Park: One of the most beautiful corners of the state, Big Bend National Park, which spans more than 800,000 acres, is filled with natural wonders, from rivers and canyons (try rafting through Santa Elena Canyon) to mountains and wildlife. It’s a harsh but gorgeous landscape, and one that feels about as far away from the metropolitan buzz of Dallas or Houston as is possible. It’s a trek to reach the relatively remote corner of Texas, but one which feels deeply connected to the Lone Star State’s wild, rough-and-tumble past. www.nps.gov
Get deep at Palo Duro Canyon: Part of a state park in the Panhandle, the second largest canyon in the U.S. runs 120 miles long and 20 miles wide, and has a depth of 800 feet. That may be puny when compared to the Grand Canyon, but it’s still impressive. www.palodurocanyon.com
Splash around Barton Springs, Austin: This three-acre pool, fed from an underground spring, is the place to cool off on those humid Central Texas days. It’s inside Zilker Park, which itself is worth exploring. austintexas.gov/department/barton-springs-pool
Hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak: There are several recommended day hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but if you want to get to the highest point in Texas, the Guadalupe Peak Trail is the way to go. It’s an 8 1/2 -mile hike that starts in desert and goes through forest, rising 3,000 feet to spectacular views. You’ll need at least 6 hours (and probably more like 8), water, food, sunscreen and protective clothing. If you’re not up to a hike or don’t have time to enter the park, the views of 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak and 8,085-foot El Capitan are pretty impressive from the scenic overlook on U.S. 62/180 outside the park. www.nps.gov
Take a dive at Possum Kingdom Lake: When you think of cliffs, you don’t think of North Texas but this gorgeous spot — part of a state park and home of the yearly Red Bull Cliff Diving competitions — upends the stereotypes about Texas being flat and featureless. tpwd.texas.gove/state-parks/possum-kingdom
Visit El Paso’s Scenic Drive overlook at night: El Paso is the only large city in Texas with mountains, and although the Franklin Mountains aren’t going to make any Colorado peak worry about its height, they are high enough for good views. Any time of day is good for visiting this overlook on the east side of the mountains, but at night you can see the blanket of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez’s nights stretching to the horizon and fully appreciate the size of these border cities. The eastern views are good at sunrise, too.
Drive El Camino del Rio between Lajitas and Presidio: This road is one of Texas’ hidden gems, hugging the Rio Grande just west of Big Bend National Park, connecting border towns Lajitas, Terlingua and Presidio. It’s nearly 50 miles of rising, falling, curvy road with desert and river views, a place where you need to pay attention to the highway but also where you’ll find plenty to look at in our pick for Texas’ most scenic drive. It can be hellishly hot, even by Texas standards, in this part of Texas during the summer, so try to visit in spring or fall. Or just make sure your car’s air conditioner is in good shape.
Smell the flowers at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin: This 279-acre botanical garden is devoted to the plants of Central Texas as well as being a major research and educational facility. If you want to see Texas wildflowers, this is the place to do it. www.wildflower.org
Get wet at Texas beaches: Locals and tourists alike often jokingly compare Lone Star beaches to those in Florida, California or Mexico and ours are often the butt of the joke. But from Galveston’s Seawall to Surfside Beach in Brazoria County through Port Aransas (where you can fish from Horace Caldwell Pier), Mustang Island and down to the Port Isabel Lighthouse and South Padre Island, Texas beaches often offer a pleasant and off-the-beaten-path rebuke to the put-downs. And, yes, you can even surf here. surfingintexas.com
Start paddling at Caddo Lake State Park: There’s only one natural lake in Texas, and this is it. The lake is full of aquatic plants and cypress trees, lending it the feel of being lost in a thicket. It’s perfect for paddling and the park offers canoe rentals. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caddo-lake.
Go tubing in the Guadalupe: The Guadalupe River is not the only spot for tubing in Texas but it’s the most well-known, becoming a big party scene in the process. Other Central Texas areas popular with tubing enthusiasts include San Marcos and Comal. www.tubetexas.com
Explore Enchanted Rock: It may not rival Australia’s Uluru (aka Ayer’s Rock) but the large pink granite dome rising out of the Hill Country has its own allure. The Enchanted Rock State Natural Area has become a magnet for hikers, campers, climbers and birdwatchers. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock