Austin, Texas, has been getting a lot of good buzz lately, especially since the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) music and film interactive festival has become such a hit with hipsters, music lovers, film lovers and travellers from all over the US. But it's the Hill Country that the locals rave about, a region popular with visitors and Texans alike. Here's our guide to help you discover the best of Texas Hill Country retreats, from ranch holidays to vineyard stays and waterway escapes.
What and where is the Texas Hill Country?
If you've always thought that Texas was flat, ugly and full of rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds, you’ve obviously never been to the Hill Country. Texas’ most scenic area, (a 25-county region in Central and South Texas), is part of the Edwards Plateau, edged by the Balcones Fault line with part of its eastern edges dipping into San Antonio and Austin. Often called the Gateway to the Hill Country, Austin begins to show some Hill Country splendor as you head west and north along the Highland Lake Country with its five big lakes and the rushing Colorado River running through it. Leaving Austin, you’d have to drive some 200 miles before you’re out of the Hill Country.
So how to get there? Head west on Highway 290 out of Austin, and you’ll know it when you see it. If you’re in San Marcos, Texas, head up Ranch Road 12 toward FM 32, the twisty Hill Country stretch of road they call the Devils’ Backbone. Drop into the Devil’s Backbone Tavern for a quick beer and a game of shuffleboard and ask the locals where to go next before heading to the hills. You’ll hit Blanco, with its famous little brewery, and soon you ‘ll know why everyone loves the Hill Country. If you’re in San Antonio, head northwest on Interstate 10.
What you’ll find along the way: Wine, Wildflowers and More
If you’re heading west out of Austin, the first little Hill Country towns you’ll want to see are Johnson City, followed by Stonewall where sweet tiny Texas peaches are sold on the side of the road each summer. Vineyard and wineries dot the map along the way as you take Hwy 290 into Fredericksburg, Texas. Popular stops en route include the vineyards and tasting rooms of Texas wineries, such as Becker Vineyards, situated near Stonewall, where wine tours, tasting rooms, light shopping and fine dining draw guests from across the globe. Other popular wineries include Grape Creek Vineyards, the Messina Hof Hill Country Winery and the Torre di Pietra Winery, all of which are near Fredericksburg.
As your eyes scan the vistas along Hwy 290, you may think you’ve magically landed in Provence because Texas Hill Country soil is well suited for growing fields of lavender. That’s why so many lavender farms have sprung up along the highway, and nowadays Hill Country lavender tours are as popular as winery tours in the area. Visit Becker Vineyards, Hill Country Lavender and Hummingbird Farms.
My Bluebonnet Heaven – The Willow City Loop
For a few short weeks each spring, the Hill Country is also the most beautiful place to see seas of Bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, along with fields of red Indian Paintbrush and other wildflowers. Where is best to look you might ask? Drive the Willow City Loop starting in Johnson City and follow the map until you see what looks like blue lakes in the verdant fields.
When most people speak about going to the Hill Country, the destination they have in mind is Fredericksburg. A small town with only about 10,000 residents, this is the place with the largest concentration of hotels, inns, B&B “Sunday Haus” cottages, restaurants, art galleries, shops, bakeries, music venues, wine and cigar bars, museums and more.
Stay in a German Sunday Haus and visit Luckenbach
Want to find the best bed and breakfast inns where you can get a key and a map in an office downtown and find the place all on your own? Go to Gästehaus Schmidt reservation service on W. Main Street, and they’ll give you hundreds of options for fabulous stays in all price ranges and styles. The German settlers in this area called the kind of cottage where you’ll stay a “Sunday Haus,” and they’re still called that today. Settlers Crossing, with its Pennsylvania Dutch-style cottages scattered across acres of rolling farmland, offers one of the best places for Hill Country lodgings. There you can have your own little house or luxury cabin and complete privacy. Many of the cottages have fireplaces, outdoor seating areas and barbecue grills. Best of all, it is close to Luckenbach, Texas, the popular little “ghost town” made famous by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings back in the 1970s. They say “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach,” and you’ll find it just may be the best place in Texas to go have a cold beer, hear some great music, and shop a bit in the old general store. You can play horseshoes and pitch washers out back and pick and grin awhile inside with the guitar players who sit around an old wood stove in the bar.
Hang out at the Hanger Hotel
Another favourite stay with an entirely different style is the Hanger Hotel near the Gillespie County Fairgrounds in Fredericksburg. This little sleek retro-meets-Restoration-Hardware-style hotel is a gleamingly clean and slightly masculine place, with a quiet bar and a darling old-fashioned soda fountain diner.
Want a honeymoon-worthy cabin, or just the perfect place to pamper yourself over a girlfriend getaway weekend? Stay at the Austin Street Retreat, just a block off Main Street. There, Annie’s Cabin and El Jefe are two favourites of all the little houses on the property; both have magnificent spa-like bathtubs, too.
Pop on over to Enchanted Rock
Want to get out of town and get some exercise? Stay at the Trois Estate at Enchanted Rock and be sure to visit the nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area to climb Texas’ largest batholith - a natural granite outcropping that stands like a stone mountain overlooking the Hill Country. Climb the rock and explore the park, then head to the Trois Estate for a glass of wine on a rooftop patio overlooking the Rock. The Trois Estate has a Santa Fe stucco aesthetic and is a little village-like compound and bed and breakfast spot with a charming Cap Gun museum on the property.
Tip your hat to LBJ
Other things to see along Hwy 290 include the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site, where you can tour the home and ranch of the famous former Texas Governor and US President and his wife “Lady Bird.” You can also visit LBJ’s boyhood home and the place his grandparents first settled in the 1860s. After that, don’t forget to stop in Blanco, Texas, to taste a cold brew from Real Ale Brewing Company. Call ahead and arrange for a tour and tasting visit.
Shop Texas Style
Fredericksburg isn’t the only great Hill Country town, though it does have more shops than any other. Still, the little town of Boerne pronounced “Bernie” (not far from San Antonio up Interstate 10) is also a draw for shoppers and those who like antiques.
Comfort is a sweet little town that has good shops too. Kerrville has wonderful art galleries and the popular Kerrville Museum of Western Art, while Wimberley has the lovely Pioneertown and 7A Resort with campgrounds along the Blanco River and well-attended outdoor Market Days featuring artisans’ booths, jewellery makers, food, music and more. Closer to I-35 on the edge of the Hill Country is the popular little town of Gruene, pronounced Green, home to the oldest Dancehall in Texas, Gruene Hall. It also has restaurants, shopping, and a busy little General Store. Gruene and the adjacent German-settlement town of New Braunfels are popular places for water-lovers. People flock from all over the state to go “tubing” on the Guadalupe and the Comal Rivers in big inner-tubes. They also come for Schlitterbahn, a monster-sized water park in New Braunfels. Water lovers will also like the gorgeous Canyon Lake area not far from there.
Back in the Saddle
There are many other charming Hill Country cities, like Burnet, Llano, and even a little place called Welfare, with its famous little restaurant, The Welfare Café and the lovely Joshua Creek Ranch resort. There are state parks like Pedernales State Park, and high-end spa destination resorts like Travassa and the Lake Austin Spa & Resort.
The Hill Country is brimming with exciting things to do and see. Drive out there yourself next time you’re in Austin or San Antonio and take in the best of Texas Hill Country.
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Have you explored the best of Texas Hill Country? Share your favourite places with us in the comments section below.
Written by Janis Turk
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About the author: JanisJanis Turk
Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer and the author of the popular travel guide book, Frommer’s San Antonio & Austin Day by Day. Turk’s travel writing and photography have appeared in magazines such as Hemispheres (United Airlines), Spirit (Southwest Airlines), Pontiac Performance, Chile Pepper, New York City Resident, AAA Texas Journey, and more, as well as popular newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle and others. She also scribes online pieces for popular travel sites such as Frommer’s and GoNOMAD. Turk divides her time between New Orleans, Louisiana, and her home in Seguin, Texas.