Discover the best cities in Texas

22 October 2019

“I blame all those cowboy movies, people think we drink whiskey from the bottle in Texas,” the employee pouring me wine in one of Texas’ most popular wineries probably spends most of his day convincing surprised visitors like me that Texas does produce wine. But then, I bet you never knew Texas was the fourth-biggest producer of wine in the country – and that this region – Hill Country (an hour northwest of San Antonio) – is actually the second-most visited wine area in the USA (behind only the Napa Valley)? But as I’m finding out on a road trip across Texas, there’s sure a lot about this state that’s got me scratching my head. If you’re anything like me; you probably pictured Texas as a desert state, its highlights separated by long, arduous car journeys across wastelands (think skulls of dead cattle by the side of the road).

The reality couldn’t be more different: less than nine per cent of Texas is desert, and the longest you’ll drive between its major cities is barely 3.5 hours. I love the diversity of this state. An hour south from here in Fredericksburg –where I’m staying in the heart of Texas wine country – I’d spent three nights in   the official Cowboy Capital Of The World. For those who reckon Australia does cowboy towns, you’ve obviously never   been to Bandera (an hour northwest of San Antonio). This town is the very definition of cowboy: locals ride their horses into town, occasionally they’ll drive longhorn cattle down the main street, there’s a rodeo on every weekend through summer and there’s more dude ranches than actual dudes just outside the town limits. I rode a mule into a bar here – and ordered myself a whiskey (neat, no ice). It was dry and dusty like you’d imagine the cowboy capital of the world to be, but here in Hill Country, it’s as green as Switzerland, with spring-fed streams and rivers flowing through it; watering the wildflowers. 

The Texas capital, Austin

It’s 80 minutes from here to Austin, Texas’ capital. I began my road trip here and I’m blown away by its cultural offerings – for this is the Live Music Capital Of The World; every night there’s live acts playing everything from country (of course) to hip-hop. I’d strolled its streets thinking I was in ‘hipster-ville’, there’s more than 1,700 food trucks, and as many vegan restaurants as steakhouses, and more than 300 parks and 100km of urban trails where the whole city exercises every Sunday morning. Austin’s long established a reputation for its alternative vibe, but there’s as much indie hipness in San Antonio – barely an hour’s drive southwest. Most famous as the site of The Alamo, there’s a whole lot more to San Antonio these days. It’s one of the US’s most multicultural cities. I wander its districts for two days wondering where all the rednecks are – instead there’s arty types sipping lattes and local chardonnay at chic bars in the trendy Pearl District, and on the River Walk, where residents dine and drink alfresco along the San Antonio River. I’m a stone’s throw from Mexico here; and this is the best place to sample Tex-Mex cuisine (Americans put their stamp on Mexican staples, think cheesy tacos, fajitas, nachos and tostadas). I’m sampling all the major Texan cities on this road trip as each city offers an entirely different experience. Houston’s only 2.5 hours’ drive east of Austin. We all know it for its oil industry, and as the centre of NASA’s space program. But these days, as many visitors are coming for its art.

Live music at the state's oldest, dance hall - Gruene Hall in New Braunfels near San Antonio

Bandera was dry and dusty like you’d imagine the cowboy capital of the world to be, but in Hill Country, it’s as green as Switzerland... Houston is one of the great art cities of the US – the Space City has become one of the world’s great modern art epicentres. There’s attractions such as Sawyer Yards, a former industrial park where more than 400 art studios are nestled together in one of the largest creative playgrounds in the country. Murals cover entire street blocks, while in Houston’s Theater District and Historic District you’ll find arguably the best restaurant and entertainment scene in Texas (and no matter how fancy the bar or eatery, jeans will do just fine).

The New York Times named Houston in its annual 52 Places to Go list twice in six years. With all this modern art going on around town, it’s not surprising to discover Houston is one of the youngest cities in the US, with more millennials in residence than baby boomers. Heading 3.5 hours northwest, the twin cities of Dallas and Fort Worth also manage to combine cowboy culture with one of the hippest art scenes on Earth. While my Uber driver (I ditch the car to sample the twin city’s frenetic bar scene) has to work the clutch in the biggest pair of cowboy boots I’ve ever seen – some of the best nightlife happens where cowboys are on horseback in Fort Worth Stockyards district, and you’ll find the US’s biggest country music honky-tonk bar (Billy Bob’s Texas) – Dallas also boasts America’s largest arts district – 19 blocks of museums, restaurants, theatres and opera houses.

Dallas' entertainment district Deep Ellum is known for its street art

Navigation’s dead easy round here, too – from six-lane freeways linking mega-cities, to winding country roads through green rolling hills – and if you get yourself lost, there’s no friendlier souls keen on conversation to get you back on track. The twin cities of Dallas and Fort Worth also manage to combine cowboy culture with one of the hippest art scenes on Earth.

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