The second largest state in the US, Texas – aka the “Lone Star State” – features a wealth of natural assets and cultural attractions. Geographically, its south central location offers a diversity of landscapes, from desert regions and cave systems to mountains, canyons, and the splendid coastal scenery along the Gulf of Mexico. Its world-class cities are also a big draw and are packed with tourist attractions. Highlights include San Antonio’s superb River Walk (not to mention the famous Alamo); the galleries and museums of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston; the State Capitol in Austin; and the Space Center in Houston. Texas is also one of the most multicultural states, and Spanish influences in particular are still evident thanks to its status as a former colony of Spain.
On the eastern outskirts of San Antonio, the Alamo is one of the most important historic sites in America. Part of a mission station established in 1718, the Alamo was built by Franciscans in 1744 and by 1836, had been converted into a fort. It became famous during the Texan War of Independence after a small force barricaded themselves in against an overwhelmingly superior Mexican army some 3,000 strong. While the defeat saw all 187 defenders killed – including such famous names as Davy Crockett – the cry of “Remember the Alamo!” rallied the state to eventually overcome the Mexicans. Today, more than two-and-a-half million people visit this landmark annually to see its restored mission buildings and the cenotaph commemorating the fallen Texans.
It was from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas that the fatal shot that took President John F. Kennedy’s life was fired. Now home to the Sixth Floor Museum, this tall red brick building offers a detailed account of the assassination, as well as Kennedy’s legacy. Highlights include accounts of his presidential campaign and term as president, all supported by historic footage, photos, and artifacts. Also worth a visit is the nearby John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial, a huge monument dedicated to President Kennedy unveiled in 1970.
Just 30 minutes’ drive from the heart of Houston, the Space Center is not only one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions, it’s home to NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Mission Control, the monitoring center for the agency’s manned space flights. It’s a fascinating insight into the operations of the world’s largest space program, with many exhibits, film shows, models, astronaut-related artifacts, and samples of moon rock on display in the Visitor Center. Other highlights include objects collected during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs, as well as a chance to dress up as an astronaut, experience a space simulator, and see real rockets.
One of the most popular wilderness areas in Texas, Big Bend National Park is in the southwestern part of the state on the frontier with Mexico around the great bend in the Rio Grande from which it takes its name. Lying at altitudes of between 1,870 feet and 7,875 feet, it’s made up of three different zones: the valley of the Rio Grande, the desolate landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Chisos Mountains. It’s thanks to this diversity that the park is home to more than 400 species of birds, including golden eagles and roadrunners, along with more than 1,100 species of plants. The park boasts 240 miles of hiking trails, ranging from the five-mile-long Lost Mine Trail with its beautiful views to the 17-mile-long Window Trail through the Chisos Mountains (longer hikes are available, but should be done with an experienced guide). The other great attractions are the three canyons on the Rio Grande – the Mariscal, Boquillas, and Santa Elena Canyons – with their rock faces rising up to 1,650 feet above the river; and the Chisos Mountains with the 7,835-foot-tall Emory Peak and its wild gorges, precipitous rock faces, and gentle valleys. Hot Tip: A great way to experience the park is by boat, and a variety of river trips can be booked through the Panther Junction Park Headquarters.
Stretching for several miles along the San Antonio River, the excellent River Walk cuts right through the heart of San Antonio, passing the city’s best shopping areas, restaurants, hotels, and attractions. Built below street level, this long pedestrian walkway hugs the river as it winds and weaves through the city, and is as popular among locals as it is for tourists, day and night. One of the best ways to tackle the attraction is to take a river cruise upstream, and walk back to your starting point, stopping for a bite to eat or a museum visit along the way. Hot Tip: Plan your visit to coincide with one of the area’s many festivals or popular arts and craft shows.
If you’re looking to see some of the very best desert scenery in the US, be sure to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In the northwestern corner of the state, approximately 100 miles east of El Paso, the park is home to an abundance of wildlife, including golden eagles. The landscape itself is stunning, especially around the towering El Capitan, as well as the Guadalupe Peak, the highest elevation in Texas. It’s also tremendously popular with hikers thanks to its more than 80 miles of trails through spectacular woodland canyons and lush springs. Hot Tip: Be sure to stop in at the Visitor Center in Pine Springs for information on the park, including details of hiking and biking trails.
The world’s longest undeveloped barrier island, Padre Island is just a short drive south of Corpus Christi and stretches 70 miles from end-to-end. One of the most important conservation areas in Texas, Padre Island consists of more than 130,000 acres of beach, dunes, and grassland habitats and is home to rare sea turtles and countless migratory birds, making it a birder’s paradise (all told, 350 different species visit this stopover on the Central Flyway migratory route). The Malaquite Visitor Center is the best place to begin your visit of this beautiful coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico. It provides plenty of information, as well as assistance for those with mobility issues, including providing specially adapted beach wheelchairs.
The Texas State Capitol, built in 1888, is considered one of the finest state legislatures in the US. In Austin’s downtown core and now a National Historic Landmark, it certainly impresses with its dimensions, standing 308 feet tall. Highlights of its 22-acre park include monuments to the defenders of the Alamo and to veterans of the Vietnam War. Guided tours of the building’s interior are available and start from the visitor center with its many displays. At dusk, head across to the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge for a chance to witness the spectacle of a million or so Mexican free-tailed bats coming and going from their perches under the bridge.
The Stockyards National Historic District remains Fort Worth’s biggest draw. Founded in 1866, the area took its name from the cattle industry, as it was here that millions of cattle were rested, sorted, or shipped out to other points across the state. The last surviving facility of its kind in the US, these historic stockyards have been transformed into a splendid attraction consisting of all sorts of fun things to see, including rodeos, concerts, theatrical performances, and western-themed shopping. Highlights include cattle driving demonstrations and a chance to saddle up for some trail riding. Be sure to check out the Stockyards Visitor Center and the Stockyards Museum, both of which provide information regarding current events as well as the history of this fun area of Fort Worth.
Moored off the shore just a few minutes’ stroll from the center of Corpus Christi, the mighty USS Lexington is one of the largest surviving vessels to have served in WWII. This important aircraft carrier was launched in 1943 and now serves as a naval museum. Highlights include a large collection of vintage aircraft, as well as a chance to visit the bridge and crew quarters. Also fun are the simulators and games, as well as a 3D movie that puts you in the pilot’s seat. Hot Tip: Opt for the four-hour Hard Hat Tour that takes you into the very heart of the ship.
Texas boasts numerous excellent art galleries covering everything from the great Masters of Europe to modern artists from the US, as well as contemporary works from the Lone Star State itself. One of the most impressive collections is that of the Dallas Museum of Art, established in 1903 and featuring more than 24,000 works including art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; European art from the 16th to 19th centuries; and contemporary artists like Jackson Pollock. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is home to a large collection of works from North America, Europe, Africa, and the Far East, including works of the Italian Renaissance and the French Impressionist movements. In Fort Worth, top picks include the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The state also boasts numerous smaller art facilities, including the Menil Collection in Houston, a group of four museums housing more than 17,000 important paintings and sculptures, prints, drawings, old books, and photos, as well as the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, home to the only intact Byzantine frescoes in the western world.
One of Galveston’s most important attractions is Moody Gardens. Famous for its three spectacular glass pyramids, the most popular being the superb Aquarium Pyramid, one of the largest in Texas and home to marine life from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean. Also of interest is the Rainforest Pyramid, home to flora and fauna from the tropics including free-roaming monkeys and sloths, along with an abundance of birds, while the Discovery Pyramid is home to numerous fascinating hands-on science exhibits. Moody Gardens is also worth visiting for its water park, Palm Beach, with pleasant lagoons, slides, and a lazy river.
As one of the most important ports on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston is heavily involved in the oil and gas industries. A fascinating attraction just a few minutes’ walk from the downtown core is the Ocean Star Offshore Oil Rig and Museum. Built in 1969, the huge Ocean Star offers a great deal of entertainment value, as well as educational fun. Highlights include a close-up look at the equipment used to drill the 200 wells the rig was responsible for, in addition to numerous interactive displays explaining the extraction process, as well as the oil industry in general. Guided tours are available.
Just a short drive from San Antonio, the spectacular Natural Bridge Caverns are part of a vast underground network consisting of more than 10,000 different stalactite formations. The largest such cave network in the US accessible to the public, Natural Bridge Caverns includes highlights such as the 40-foot-high King’s Throne, a massive wall of stalactites found in one of the largest caverns, the Castle of the White Giants. Taking its name from the huge 60-foot limestone bridge spanning its entrance, Natural Bridge Caverns also offers a number of other fun activities, including themed tours (try the excellent lantern tour for a real thrill), as well as a treetop climbing adventure across a sprawling network of ropeways, platforms, and zip lines.