As a professional chronicler of places, it’s my job to roam. And on this perpetual road trip of mine, I’ve noticed a couple of things: For all of the impressive hotels and cutting-edge restaurants and lauded cultural institutions that I run to check out in our state’s metropolises, there are just as many intriguing destinations along our far-less-beaten paths. And yet my small-town scouting reports are usually met with polite surprise: You mean to tell me that Coleman’s got one of the best pizzerias in the state and now a trailblazing winery too? There’s a French-inspired luncheonette with a meditation labyrinth in deep East Texas? Who knew you could buy stirring contemporary art at a gallery in little Saint Jo?
So while it’s easy to stick to the epicenters and the rote pleasures of strip-mall conveniences, it is a mistake to dismiss our less populous places as quaint backwaters that modern times have left behind. Sure, there are still plenty of old-school cafes and antiques emporiums (and more than a few desolate downtowns), but our minuscule municipalities are rife with some of the finest shops, restaurants, cocktail bars, boutique hotels, and other road trip–worthy ventures that Texas has to offer. And so, I’ve assembled this list of my favorite hidden gems, both old and new, that are worth the extra mileage to experience for yourself.
For list-taming purposes, I’ve focused only on destinations that are in towns with populations of 30,000 or less. (In fact, only 7 of the 54 towns represented here have more than 15,000 residents.) I was specifically looking for places whose proprietors have an unmistakable passion for what they’re doing, which manifests itself in exceptional attention to detail, a clear appreciation for good design, and/or a commitment to doing things well. I’m also drawn to places that, no matter how obscure or well-known they may be, are worlds unto their own, and spending time in them transports you, for a little while at least, into an entirely different orbit.
Hotels and b&bs
So stylish and fine you’ll forget you ever believed in valet parking.
BlissWood Bed and Breakfast Ranch
Cat Spring (pop. “no more than 25 full-timers,” according to a local)
At some B&Bs, you can feel squished together with other guests. Not here. A dozen cabins are spread out in a corner of a five-hundred-acre working ranch, so privacy is a given. Bass fishing, trap shooting, and picnics on an island in the lake can all be arranged.
Belle Oaks Inn
Gonzales (pop. 7,544)
This seven-room Southern charmer woos with its more-is-more sitting parlors, lush grounds, and secluded pool. The homemade cookie waiting under a glass cloche on my nightstand was a tasty late-night snack.
San Saba (pop. 3,030)
Exposed brick, industrial fixtures, and textured leather chairs lend a modern, masculine vibe to this six-room boutique hotel in a 1913 bank building downtown. There are more than a few nods to the town’s pecan legacy (oversized photographs of nut varieties, old “We crack pecans down the hill” signs), and a bistro, Oliver & Co., that serves breakfast and lunch.
Nearby: G&R Grocery, where you can buy Bill’s Season All, a local staple.
Magnolia (pop. 1,828)
Originally a private horse-breeding ranch, this regal Spanish Colonial–style estate now welcomes guests to its four-room boutique hotel and spa. After a steak dinner, I watched from the balcony as the Lusitanos were led back to the stable and the sun set over the pond. It all evoked the same rugged romanticism as the horses’ native Portugal.
Fredericksburg (pop. 11,094)
Soothing cream-colored rooms and lots of slipcovered furniture make this luxurious compound of historic German homesteads feel like a spa (they have one of those too). After a day of shopping on nearby Main Street, have the chicken Provençal or other chef-prepared meals delivered to your room.
Hotel El Capitan
Van Horn (pop. 1,928)
If you’ve stayed at the Hotel Paisano, the better-known sister property seventy miles southeast in Marfa, this lobby, with its nearly identical layout and tile-and-taxidermy decor, will trigger a welcome déjà vu. The most coveted rooms here open onto small balconies overlooking a courtyard fountain.
Big Spring (pop. 28,862)
First opened in 1930 on the heels of a West Texas oil boom, the fifteen-story hotel was resurrected in late 2012 by a native son during the last liquid-gold uptick. The art deco design and the building’s neon topper are a striking sight at the edge of the Staked Plains. The third-floor Heritage rooms are small, so spring for a bigger, more opulent Tower room on a higher floor for bird’s-eye views.
The Inn at Chachalaca Bend
Los Fresnos (pop. 6,582)
The six-room retreat is well named: it sits on a curve of a resaca (a former channel of the Rio Grande) and is home to a small flock of chickenlike chachalacas. I got a kick out of rolling grapes to the loud birds at breakfast and spotting green jays and other tropical species along the maze of a hiking trail.
Nearby: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, an unspoiled, nearly 100,000-acre haven that’s one of the best birding sites in the RGV.
Round Top (pop. 93)
An Austin couple has reconfigured their private retreat into this riotously imaginative deluxe country commune (yes, complete with tepee). It’s pricey but plush: there’s a heated saltwater wading pool and a treehouse for the kids.
Nearby: The Vintage Round Top, a single-home rental, and Armando’s Round Top Houses are equally well-heeled alternatives.
Archer City (pop. 1,754)
The solitude of Thalia (the fictional stand-in for Archer City) was a bad feeling for Sonny in The Last Picture Show, but the silence at the Spur holds a special allure for overstretched urbanites. The amenities are spartan—you won’t find phones or TVs or often even a night clerk. But little is needed for curling up with an old book newly procured just down the street from Larry McMurtry’s Booked Up. A quiet room of your own will set you back only $80.
Eats and treats
Sweet, hearty, fresh, and from scratch.
Calvert (pop. 1,151)
The English expat chef who opened this chocolate boutique in 2008 swears that his truffles, made on-site in Calvert’s old bank building and shipped worldwide, rival any in Europe. You shouldn’t argue when your mouth is full, so just nod in agreement.
Palace Coffee Company
Canyon (pop. 14,887)
This burgeoning Panhandle coffee empire now has locations in Amarillo, but it’s worth the trek to its original spot, in Canyon. The 1905 Smith building, on the square, exudes the same know-no-stranger geniality as the general stores of yore—and has legit craft coffee too.
Nearby: Down Home, a cluttered antiques shop whose owner happens to have a jaw-dropping collection of more than a thousand spurs.
Athens (pop. 12,788)
Opened to counteract the area’s “sea of neon franchises,” as the proprietors put it, this smartly styled East Texas cafe has an anti–fast food menu: black-eyed-pea hummus, grilled shrimp on buckwheat noodles, braised-greens soup. The one downside is it’s open only for lunch and closed on weekends.
The Garden Co. Marketplace & Cafe
Schulenberg (pop. 2,925)
This sunny white farmhouse looks plucked from a Nancy Meyers rom-com. You half expect to spot Meryl Streep and her pals sharing baked Brie and bubbles on the patio or picking out planters filled with succulents in the nursery out back.
Nearby: Fayette County’s four famed painted churches, whose opulent interiors must be seen to be believed (and then Instagrammed).
Lola’s Mexican Food Cafe
Buffalo Gap (pop. 470)
The first house rule sets the tone at this one-woman kitchen: “1. We do not specialize in service . . . wait on yourself!” With that settled, you can dig into your cheesy enchiladas (green or red) or chiles rellenos. Not an official rule, but it’d be in your best interest not to decline a piece of Navajo fry bread when it’s offered.
Palestine (pop. 18,288)
After being badly damaged by floodwaters last spring, this mom-and-son-run bakery is back in business with its beloved pies. You’ll want to get the strawberry. But also the coconut meringue. And the lemon icebox. Before you go, peruse the treasures at Old Town Vintage & More, in the adjacent room.
Rockport (pop. 10,490)
The fresh Gulf fare served at this refurbished boathouse comes dusted with Frandolig sea salt that the chef forages herself from the waters of Key Allegro Isle. Best bet is the $19 prix fixe with brandy-and-cream Rockport chowder and Mom’s shrimp, but the real payoff is the front porch view of Little Bay.
Hye (pop. 105)
En route to the wineries along U.S. 290 west of Austin, stock up on local sundries and made-to-order sandwiches or sit a spell and play beer-cap checkers on the porch. Next door is the post office where LBJ is said to have mailed his first letter as a kid.
Nearby: Garrison Brothers, the first (legal) whiskey distillery in Texas.
Larry Bruce Gardens
Kennard (pop. 323)
At this farm-to-fork restaurant off a country road, the farm’s just outside and your fork will be making quick work of fresh salads, grilled chicken, and carrot cake. The long dining room bustles during the Sunday buffet, which follows a fellowship service led by farmer-preacher Larry.
Nearby: Wildflours, a rustic down-home cafe in Ratcliff that specializes in burgers and Southern-fried fare.
Slaton (pop. 6,072)
To stare into a bag of frosted two-bite thumbprints, just plucked from the case at this South Plains institution, is to feel grateful for your good fortune. Also pause to peruse the bakery’s 94-year history in the mini museum of photos and antique kitchen implements, and always buy one more one-pound bag of vanilla wafers than you think you’ll need.
Jacksonville (pop. 14,884)
Open since late December, this French-inspired luncheonette downtown aims to “revive your soul” with its from-scratch fare—deviled eggs with truffle oil, butternut squash soup with local fig and pecan compote, rose lattes—as well as its holistic apothecary and wellness center. (Yes, this is in deep East Texas.) When yoga classes aren’t in session, anyone can walk the seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth painted on the floor upstairs. (Full disclosure: the proprietor is a former TEXAS MONTHLY staffer.)
Steve’s Market & Deli
Brownwood (pop. 19,031)
I might have missed this jewel-box-size sandwich shop halfway down one of Brownwood’s sleepy downtown streets if not for the colorful glass bottles and bumper stickers adorning its red-brick facade. There are many more options on the menu (daily soups, lovingly layered sandwiches) than there are tables, so go early (and bring cash or check).
Fort Stockton (pop. 8,649)
This Mexican restaurant just off of Interstate 10 has become my go-to pit stop on long drives to and from far West Texas. The brisket tacos and smothered burritos are a welcome respite from gas station snacks, and the service is friendly. There’s a drive-through if you’re in a hurry.
Drinks and Dance Halls
Cold brews and craft cocktails to enliven your soul—and your feet.
Albert Ice House and Dance Hall
6 miles southeast of Stonewall (pop. 445)
Luckenbach gets all the love (and the tourists), but this tucked-away joint provides just as much opportunity to get back to the basics of life: the beer’s cold, the live oaks shading the patio are ancient, and lovers twirl the night away on the wooden dance floor. Plus, there’s the Pig Pen, the on-site food truck.
11th Street Cowboy Bar
Bandera (pop. 877)
My first visit to the Cowboy Capital of the World coincided with the town’s social event of the week—Grill Your Own Steak Night—at this (mostly) outdoor venue. I threw down my ribeye on one of the enormous grills and two-stepped with locals to live music the rest of the evening.
Nearby: Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon, a quintessential sawdust-on-the-floor gem.
Rancho Loma Vineyards
Coleman (pop. 4,393)
About an hour south of Abilene, the small farming and ranching community of Coleman now has a sleek winery that matches Rancho Pizzeria, its sister restaurant across the street, in both discernment and derring-do. The tasting room, where you can sample five wines for $15, is merely the latest from Laurie and Robert Williamson, the visionary town boosters who’ve planted their vineyard down the road at Rancho Loma Restaurant + Rest, the B&B in Talpa that has a cult following.
Nearby: Owl Drug Store, where you can take a stool at the counter and enjoy a burger or a slice of pie.
Railean Distillery & Buccaneer Bar
San Leon (pop. 5,299)
If Jean Lafitte were still around, the Gulf’s infamous swashbuckler would surely be spotted swilling all four Railean rums and washing them down with El Perico, the blue-agave spirit also made on-site. Drink one in his honor during the distillery tours or order a grog at the appropriately kitschy Buccaneer Bar.
Nearby: Gilhooley’s, a divey, no-cash-or-kids shack known for its garlicky, buttery, Parm-topped roasted Oysters Gilhooley.
Barrow Brewing Co.
Salado (pop. 2,134)
Bell County’s first micro-brewery has been in business for nearly a year since its owners successfully led the charge to change a long-standing beer sales law. The taproom has grown into a community hangout with rotating food trucks, and the marks of other local makers abound: the Village Idiot, a ginger rye strong ale, is served in a snifter made by neighboring Salado Glassworks.
La Grange (pop. 4,712)
Fermentation geeks will love the Blissful Folly Farm, which turns the sweet bounty of its apiary into a dozen flavors of Texas honey wine, a.k.a. mead, the ancient quaff that kicked off the original home-brewing craze. Those too young to drink will get a kick out of all the chickens, donkeys, and mini Nubian dairy goats.
Hill Country Distillers
Comfort (pop. 3,091)
You won’t find any corn or grain in the small-batch “moonshine” here. Instead, it’s Texas-grown jalapeños and prickly pear pads that get fermented and distilled into spirits. Sample a shot or have the bartender fix you up a marg. Or try the brandies made with Fredericksburg peaches and Medina apples.
The Stone Cellar
Round Top (pop. 93)
“Must wear boots inside hall at all times,” reads one sign. “Not responsible for accidents,” reads another. And yes, the boot-scooting can get so lively at this century-old dance hall that proper toe protection is for the best.
Nearby: Prost Wine Bar, in a historic stone building on the town’s main drag.
Marfa (pop. 1,733)
A Hollywood set designer looked to the surrounding landscape to create the cement-and-cacti cool of this remote, jewel-toned lounge and restaurant in West Texas’s hyper-stylish outpost. As did the chef: he’s known for tasting every native plant he comes across. That’s why you’re drinking prickly pear wine with your shrimp chicharrones and contemplating a permanent move to the desert.
Eola School Restaurant and Brewery
Eola (pop. 218-ish)
You may not have gotten away with it as a kid, but drinking is encouraged in this old schoolhouse on the outskirts of San Angelo. Originally built in the twenties, the building has been restored by a craft-beer enthusiast who single handedly runs both the kitchen and the brewery. The unfiltered Farm Ale and the cucumbery Pepino Saison are as refreshing as they are unexpected.
Alpine (pop. 5,952)
If all the cow skulls out front didn’t tip you off, maybe the defaced dollar bills and tchotchkes tacked to the plywood ceiling or the quorum of cowboy hat–wearing regulars will: this is the kind of beer-and-wine dive bar where strangers are destined to become friends and bluegrass jams break out spontaneously.
Nearby: Big Bend Brewing Co., the most remote brewery in the country.
Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards
Pittsburg (pop. 4,602)
Expand your Texas wine horizons beyond the Hill Country at this winery and restaurant tucked away in the Piney Woods. Sample either the sweet or dry flights on the outdoor deck, which overlooks the vineyards and is enlivened by jazz on the weekends. A discerning sommelier tells me the Ranch Texican, a light red, is ideal for front-porch sipping.
shops and stops
No tchotchkes here.
Davis & Blevins Gallery
Saint Jo (pop. 1,113)
Artist and Red River Valley native Donna Howell-Sickles, known for her chirpy paintings of cowgirls, also has quite the eye as a gallerist. She and her husband have renovated adjacent storefronts on the square of this tiny Chisholm Trail town: on the left is a gallery hung with impressive works by dozens of her peers; on the right is a gift shop brimming with perfect-for-anyone gifts.
Nearby: Panache, a family-run purveyor of furniture, clothing, and home decor that Joanna Gaines would make a beeline for.
Front Street Books
Alpine (pop. 5,952)
Never pass up an indie bookstore, especially one with as much heart as this West Texas institution. I love it for the no-cell-phones sign on the front door, the precise categories (“frontier women,” “evolution”) stocked with old and new titles, the fifty-cent cups of coffee, and the wide drawers of topographical maps.
Round Top (pop. 93)
My pocketbook always gets lighter at this artful mini emporium, owned by a talented husband-and-wife team. He’s a maker of stunning sculptural jewelry; she’s a collector and merchandiser with impeccable taste. From Studiopatró tea towels and vintage barware to indie magazines and Element shrubs, there are endless opportunities to part ways with your disposable income.
Nearby: Junk Gypsy World Headquarters, the riotous mecca of cool old junk and cheeky slogan tees (and cups and koozies and hats) built by DIY darlings Amie and Jolie Sikes.
Hemphill (pop. 1,218)
The twentysomething proprietor of this East Texas home goods and menswear shop is a natural-born picker with a soft spot for made-in-the-USA wares. As you peruse the Uncle Charlie’s wallets repurposed from baseball mitts, the Hunker Bag Co. hand-waxed leather duffles, and the minimalist Thro Studio mugs from the potter down the street, get him to tell you the origin stories of the primo vintage furnishings and textiles he’s hauled back from across the country.
Stidham Outfitters Supply & Custom Leather
Johnson City (pop. 1,959)
While Seth Stidham carves, tools, and sews custom belts, wallets, purses, catchalls, and other works of leather art in his workshop, his other half, Jasmin Arpin, stocks the retail side of their enterprise with apparel, jewelry, and home goods from like-minded indie brands. (Meanwhile, Pearl, the sweet shop dog, dutifully poses for social-media snaps.)
Nearby: Echo, for original art and mid-century antiques, and Pieces of the Past, for better-with-age architectural salvage.
Style Station Vintage
West (pop. 2,883)
Since you’re likely already pulling off of Interstate 35 for kolaches nearby, add another stop to riffle through high-quality vintage threads at this charmingly funky roadside shack. Yes, that’s it half hidden behind all the cacti and succulents. And yes, there’s a strong chance your fellow shoppers are musicians en route to their next gig, so grab that mint Open Road Stetson quick.
Llano (pop. 3,313)
The Hill Country shop formerly known as a Rosy Outlook skews a bit more masculine these days—think camo wallets and canvas flasks in addition to hand-poured candles and beaded Navajo barrettes. But it’s still propelled by the same “wild at heart” credo. As both a wanderer and a Texan, I wanted one of nearly all the original-design graphic tees.
Ro Shaw Clay Studio
Salado (pop. 2,134)
Inside a corrugated tin shed down unpaved Peddler’s Alley, clay thrower Ro Shaw, a Rockwall native often outfitted in overalls, will gladly give you a demo at his potter’s wheel and teach you all about raku, a super-old-school Japanese quick-firing method. His talents extend to wood, so you might come away with a stoneware mug and/or a custom order for a new table.
Lost Pines Art Bazaar
Bastrop (pop. 8,231)
When a place telegraphs good taste, you pay heed—and, at this showroom run by a father and his two daughters, good money too. The merchandise runs the gamut, so you may dash away with a candle, a dog bed, a cookbook, and/or a $3,350 Bavarian serving cabinet from the late nineteenth century. If you’re serious about rugs (the Iranian-born owner’s mother was a weaver), the stacks of glorious hand-knotted Persians here will bowl you over.
Kerrville (pop. 23,136)
Like the service-first department stores of yesteryear, this expansive shopper’s paradise goes out of its way to match you to your next favorite piece of clothing (perhaps a pair of Mother jeans or a gauzy Haute Hippie maxi dress) or a bauble you’ll wear everyday (you’re likely eyeing Claudia Lobao’s crystal-studded cuffs). American-made vintage pieces are in rotation too, and sister shop SG Home is just around the corner.
points of interest
Where you’ll find beauty, artistic and natural alike.
Beeville Art Museum
Beeville (pop. 13,277)
This 1910 Victorian-style house, with its two-story wraparound porches, is the kind of dignified manse you’d be itching to peek inside of anyway. So, it’s a double treat that it’s been reworked into a museum with a rotation of shows. The annual Texas artists’ exhibit, held each August, is a particular draw, as is the Family Art Day.
Citadelle Art Foundation
Canadian (pop. 3,013)
Formerly the First Baptist Church and later a private residence, this museum was opened to the public by the Abrahams, a prominent Panhandle family, in 2009. The collecting criteria favors works that were “clearly inspired,” and each of the pieces (from Norman Rockwell portraits to modern photography) have a rousing back story, many of which are told by the collectors themselves in the audio tour.
City Beach Park
Granbury (pop. 9,386)
For all the shopping laps I’ve done around Granbury’s lively square, I’d never stopped to put my toes in the sand at this nearby park until recently. That’s right, Lake Granbury has a “beach,” complete with thatched-roof pavilions, kayak rentals (in the summer), and a boardwalk. And that sand? It’s imported from South Padre Island.
Bertram (pop. 1,390)
After a six-year dusting-off, this long-abandoned 1935 art deco theater revved back to life in 2015—projectors, popcorn machine, and all (even the original sign was salvaged from a local goat farm). Classic movies and dances fill out the monthly calendar along with concerts.
Old Hidalgo Pumphouse
Hidalgo (pop. 13,709)
This steam-driven pumphouse revolutionized farming along the lower Rio Grande when it was built in 1909. Now it’s one of the nine official World Birding Center locations. Look for tropical kingfishers along the channel, kiskadees on the banks of the Old Swimming Hole, and butterflies as you walk toward the museum.
Nearby: Mi CasA Hidalgo, a photo studio, art incubator, and shop that’s a stone’s throw from the pumphouse.
Old Jail Art Center
Albany (pop. 2,014)
Since 1980, Shackelford County’s nineteenth-century limestone jail has housed an encyclopedic museum of art. With about two thousand pieces in the collection, a slice of which is on view at any given time, that’s roughly one masterpiece per Albany resident.
Marathon (pop. 430)
It’s a mistake to blow through Marathon on your way elsewhere. Even if you’re not stopping at the magnificent Gage Hotel, take this undersung detour: head south on Avenue D/Post Road for five miles to this small county park on the site of a former military post. Then, marvel at the spring-fed pond and the many birds that make a stopover here. Plan to return for one of the alfresco dances held throughout the year.
Nearby: V6 Coffee Bar, the Gage’s casual coffee spot, where you can grab a cajeta latte and a brioche donut for the road.
Presidio County Courthouse Cupola
Marfa (pop. 1,733)
The payoff for climbing five flights of stairs to get to the cupola atop the peachy-pink courthouse is a sensational 360-degree view. Peering out of the windows at the town and surrounding mountains is not overrated in the slightest.
Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center
Orange (pop. 19,347)
There’s a 252-acre Eden hidden in southeast Texas along Adams Bayou. Wind your way through its formal gardens, heronry blind, and greenhouses before taking a pontoon tour of the cypress-tupelo swamps, including the 1,200-year-old Survivor Tree.
Trail de Paris
Paris (pop. 24,782)
Billed as “one heck of a trek,” the 130-mile Northeast Texas Trail links unused rail corridors from Farmersville to New Boston. Smack-dab in the middle is this well maintained, fully paved, 5.9-mile stretch. Enjoy your walk past a butterfly-and-hummingbird garden and over the “hobo” bridge spanning Big Sandy Creek.
Nearby: Paris Bakery, for imaginative sandwiches and Saturday night pizza.
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center
Round Mountain (pop. 181)
An hour drive from downtown Austin will deposit you in this otherworldly 75-acre preserve. Traipse through the savanna on your own (keep an eye out for the early-1900s cabin just off the path) or join the guided weekend tour for a mile-long meander into the jungle-green canyon to see the forty-foot waterfall.
Nearby: Reimers Ranch Park, beloved by rock climbers, mountain bikers, and anglers.