Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin are all awesome cities to explore, but if you're looking for a taste of the real Texas, you'll have to head down a backroad, through a field of bluebonnets, and past a cattle ranch or two. The tiny settlements that dot the vast countryside of the Lone Star State are where you'll find authenticity. The best Southern cookin', the rowdiest dance halls, the coldest beer, the most charming main streets, and the friendliest locals are found in the small towns off the beaten path. Take this adventure through some of the most perfect tiny Texas towns and you'll see exactly what we mean.
Antique shops and historic homes line the streets of Gonzalez, but the main attractions are the Old Jail Museum and the Courthouse, with its cursed clocktower.
As the story goes, in 1921, a man named Albert Howard was arrested and incarcerated in the nearby jail. He was later convicted of his crime, a capital offense, and was sentenced to death. As he waited on death row, he became obsessed with the clocktower, and he vowed that if he were put to death, the clock would forever indicate his innocence. On his way to the gallows, he reportedly "shook his fists at the towering timepiece, vowing that it would never again count down the remainder of another's life." Since his execution--the last in the county-- the clock has been out of sync, struck by lightning, and rarely reports an accurate time. Despite several repairs, the clock still acts strangely. When you stop by, check and see if the clock is working properly, or if Albert's curse still lingers.
Luckenbach is the very definition of a small Texas town. The whole town, which had been established in 1886, was purchased to preserve its Western vibe, and it's now a popular destination for those looking for a down-home good time, or an escape from the grind of everyday life. Grab a beer (cash only!), then explore the blacksmith shop, post office/general store, dance hall and cotton gin. There's usually live music going on (fitting, since the town was made famous by a Waylon Jennings song) as well. Sure, it's a bit touristy in a way, but the people are so friendly and real, it's impossible to not have a good time here.
Keep the country music vibe going with a stop in Gruene, near New Braunfels. This part of Texas was settled by German immigrants, and you can still sense that heritage today. It's home to Gruene Hall, Texas's oldest dance hall. The classic honky tonk was built in 1878, and still attracts tourists and locals alike for cold beer and line dancing. The rest of the town's Gruene Historic District oozes that small-town, back-in-time atmosphere that's so special to Texas.
Not everything is bigger in Texas! The World's Littlest Skyscraper is a cute little building in Wichita Falls. It's 40 feet tall, 18 feet deep and 10 feet wide, and stairs take up 25% of the tower's interior space. The story of how it got built is actually an interesting one: It was the result of a clever scam.
In the early 1900s, Wichita Falls was a booming town, thanks to a nearby oilfield. A man named J.D. McMahon proposed to build a skyscraper to help fill the city's desperate need for office space, and raised the modern-day equivalent of $2.8 million to make it a reality. He cleverly tricked his investors into thinking that his building would be 480 feet tall... but the building that he raised was actually 480 inches tall. McMahon was smart enough that he was found innocent in a lawsuit over the case, and left town right after.
The skyscraper found fame after it was featured in Robert Ripley's “Ripley's Believe It or Not!” syndicated column as "the world's littlest skyscraper" in the 1920s. It's housed a few businesses, boutiques and studio spaces, in addition to being a kitschy tourist attraction.
If you've ever seen the Academy Award-winning movie, "The Last Picture Show," (or read the book!) then you'll likely recognize the town of Archer City. That's because it was the filming location for the movie's fictional setting of Anarene, and the town's Royal Theater is the spot where the characters watched the titular last picture show in the coming-of-age classic. The Royal Theater, which sat abandoned for many years, is having a bit of a renaissance. Whether you catch a play, a show from their Texasville Opry lineup, a supper club performance, or just take a picture out front, it's an institution in Archer City. The distinctive architecture and sense of community make the theater extra special. The town itself is pretty neat too... they used to have an 18-year-old mayor, and there's a cool rare bookstore called Booked Up that's owned by Larry McMurty, who wrote "The Last Picture Show.”
The little town of Seymour is home to the world-class Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Right near town is a bed of fossils from the Permian era, and many of them are on display here. Learn about the Dimetrodon, who ruled Texas before the T-Rex even existed, the Edaphosaur, the Eryops, and more. Plus, the museum has a working fossil prep lab where you can see paleontologists in action, and it features exhibits about modern-day Texas wildlife as well. Afterwards, grab a bite to eat at Smokey Bros BBQ and Grill for a real Texas treat.
Next, make your way to Mineral Wells, a Texas town rich in fascinating history. It's famous for the Baker Hotel, a former luxury resort that's now abandoned and rumored haunted, and for its past as a spring training spot for baseball teams like the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox during the 1910s and 1920s.
The town got its name from the mineral springs in the area, which were a popular tourist attraction, especially back in the early 20th century. In fact, you can still enjoy the (alleged) health benefits of mineral water. Check out the town's "Crazy Water Well.” As the story goes, back in the 1880s, a resident with dementia sat by the well day in and day out, drinking the water, making people think she was truly crazy... but as the weeks passed, locals noticed that she was actually getting better. Soon, people were coming from all over to try the Mineral Wells Crazy Water. People still drink it today; it's bottled by Famous Water Company. The water is offered in various "strengths," depending on your tolerance for the mineral taste, so you can try it yourself.
The town of Dublin has its own soda bottling joint, appropriately named Dublin Bottling Works. It was the first-ever Dr. Pepper bottling facility, and today they make their own line of pure sugar cane sodas in classic flavors like root beer, cola, and vanilla cream. You can tour their historic bottling operation and visit their W.P. Kloster Museum, which features one of the world's largest collections of vintage soda memorabilia. While in Dublin, you can also take advantage of the many awesome antique stores, or visit the Dublin Rodeo Heritage Museum and the old grist mill at Wright Historical Park.
Even if you aren't a big fan of country music, you need to stop by the Heart of Texas Country Music Association Museum. It's a small, locally-run operation that pays tribute to classic Texas country stars, and features a collection of stage costumes. You'll learn about legends like Ernest Tubb, Jim Reeves, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline, and more as you look at photos, hear their music, and check out artifacts from their lives and tours. It's free to visit and open every weekend, so there's no excuse not to stop by.
Take a quick break from small town charm to appreciate the incredible natural beauty of Texas at Colorado Bend State Park. With camping, hiking, and swimming in the Colorado River, it's got plenty to occupy at least a day, if not a weekend. You definitely want to make sure to take a dip in the park's lush Spicewood Springs, and visit the magical, 70-foot-tall travertine Gorman Falls, if possible. The park offers cave tours of the nearly 400 caverns below ground, and fishing for Guadalupe bass. The park's campground is the perfect spot to spend the night, especially if you're rolling in a next-level RV from one of Thor Industries' great manufacturers. The campground doesn't have hookups or a dump station, but there are sites right near the river, and bathrooms with an open-air shower.
Small towns often have the most authentic and delicious diners, and Marble Falls is no exception, with the Blue Bonnet Cafe. It checks off all of the things you want from an old-school diner: amazing meatloaf, homemade mashed potatoes, friendly and efficient service, a killer all-day breakfast, and out-of-this-world pie. In fact, it has a daily Pie Happy Hour, where you can get a slice of home-baked pie and a drink for $4 between 3 and 5 PM. There are tons of flavors, like German chocolate, lemon meringue, peanut butter, apple, coconut, banana, and, of course, pecan. Is your mouth watering for a slice yet?
As you explore these small towns, appreciate the fun along the way. You'll get to experience a lot of interesting and awesome things that people who stick to the well-worn path will never get to, making your journey extra special. Enjoy the ride, take it slow, and savor every last minute of your tiny town tour!