Article by Brent Salter, founder and Chief Amigo at Amigo Walking Tours.
Except for a year when the world came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic, life is so often defined by busy schedules, social commitments, and the rat race of trying to make it to the next day. Vacations are a great remedy for this – to step away, take a deep breath, and reset – but even going on holiday can have its challenges: Where’s my Uber? Will there still be room for my carry-on in the overhead bin? Will I make my connecting flight? What do you mean Starbucks is closed today due to a “store emergency”? Is that crying child really boarding my flight?
But there’s something about a laissez faire road trip that is restorative, even if just a day trip or overnight. Comfy clothes. Sunglasses. Coffee. Music. The open road. No reservations or check-in cutoffs or prayers that the middle seat will stay empty.
If you happen to be spending time in Texas, particularly in Austin or San Antonio (the top two destinations for tourism in the state), then you’re in luck if a road trip sounds like a good idea. There are great options for explorers traveling between these two cities, which are separated by just 80 miles (129 km) with two primary routes.
Ih-35 provides a straight 90-minute connection between the two cities, albeit prone to traffic during peak times as well as a monotonous scene of concrete, business parks, and urban sprawl that has filled the corridor. While this may sound unappealing initially, there are some wonderful detours along the way, with at least four exits worth considering. Some of these detours take a few minutes and others several hours.
Exit 200: The city of San Marcos is noteworthy for several reasons, but people primarily stop here to shop at the San Marcos Premium Outlet Malls. While plenty of Americans can be found hunting for (sometimes elusive) deals on designer clothing and name brand items, there’s a large number of international visitors shopping before returning to their home countries where prices for the same items are much higher. If you don’t need a new pair of Nikes or any additional Le Creuset cookware, then probably keep driving!
Exit 191: A whole different shopping experience is found at Buc-ee’s, a legendary convenience store and gas station. While there are several other locations in Texas, this one was proclaimed the largest convenience store in the world in 2019. It is 68,000 sq. ft. (6,317 sq. m.) and offers 120 gas pumps, 83 bathroom stalls, and 1,000 parking spots. The iconic Buc-ee’s Beaver on the sign has become an unofficial mascot of Texas, and there are thousands of items to be purchased inside the store featuring the beaver and other elements of Texas pride. While first-time visitors can be found gawking at the gargantuan size of the store, local Texans buzz around picking up freshly prepared BBQ sandwiches, various types of jerky, decorative pillows for the couch, an “I love Texas” onesie for a friend’s baby, and choosing between 20 varieties of creamer to add to their coffee cup before checking out and getting back on the road. It really doesn’t matter if you need anything; this place is worth the stop.
Exit 191: At the same exit but in the opposite direction is the town of Gruene, which provides another unique opportunity for shopping and relaxation. Nestled along the Guadalupe River, it’s common to park your car and walk the streets lined by quaint shops and an old-time General Store. The Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar is a favorite of locals, where the ruinous atmosphere and large outdoor areas are as enjoyable as the food itself. Immediately next door, Gruene Hall is a famous gathering place for those who love to dance and those who love to people watch. There are many stories of Willie Nelson showing up to this dancehall, allegedly climbing through a window to get past the crowds. Gruene is the type place you go when you need to unwind for a bit and is the complete antithesis of Buc-ee’s. Nevertheless, there’s still tremendous pride of those who know and love the town.
Exit 188: Just a couple miles from Gruene is New Braunfels, a historical German town boasting Texas’ oldest bakery (Naegelin’s) and America’s No. 1 water park (Schlitterbahn). German families founded the city in the mid-1800s, and their heritage is seen in the architecture, culture, and even people walking the streets who are descendants. Landa Park is a shady grove of oak trees, where families gather for picnics and children spend summers swimming in the pools of spring water. (It also makes a good spot to eat some baked goods from Naegelin’s!)
This 120-minute connection winds through the Texas Hill Country. Although less direct (and requiring taking Hwy 290 or FM 2766 west to connect to Hwy 281), this scenic route can prove faster on occasions when there’s significant traffic on Route #1.
The Texas Hill Country is renowned for wildlife (think birds, cows, and deer; not lions, tigers, and bears) and springtime wildflowers, which the legendary Lady Bird Johnson (wife of US President Lyndon B. Johnson) helped establish as a state treasure. With its hills, fields, bridges over rivers, and little towns, this route is a very different experience from Ih-35. Along the way, there are several worthwhile places to consider stopping.
Pedernales Falls State Park: Imagine a loaf of sliced bread that has been pushed over, where the slices of bread overlap each other. Now imagine those slices are giant slabs of limestone, and there’s a river flowering over the top of them, creating waterfalls, small caves, and pools of cool water. This is Pedernales Falls, a staple of life for those growing up in the area. It is not a place where you pull off the road to take a picture and keep going; it requires time and some hiking, but it’s a great opportunity to experience Texas in its natural glory.
Johnson City: The Johnsons were a longtime ranching family in the Hill Country and became the namesakes of this city. Likely no one suspected that the boy who grew up running around outside and attending the little school house alongside all the other children from ranching families would one day be known as US President Lyndon Baines Johnson. This city is his birthplace and family homestead, where visitors today can be guests of the former president’s home (called “The Texas White House”) and see where heads of state and dignitaries from around the world were welcomed. The family home is closed for renovations, which are likely to finish sometime in 2022.
Blanco: Drawing closer to San Antonio, one comes across the small town of Blanco. There’s a temptation to say, “Let’s just keep driving. Doesn’t look like there’s much here.” …for the tourist wanting a Hop On Hop Off bus and stores selling t-shirts and tchotchkes, that may be true. But for the explorer wanting to see Texas life from a different angle, Blanco is a gem. It’s a blend of history, entrepreneurship, and the life stories of people who may have been in the town for generations. There are several wineries and breweries in the area (including the prominent Real Ale Brewing Company), but there are also opportunities for going on horseback trail rides (Travis P Trail Rides) or learning about lavender and walking the aromatic fields (Hill Country Lavender Farm). It’s a beautiful opportunity to explore local life in the Hill Country. …or you can keep driving!
Even if you only get to make one of the above stops while traveling from Austin to San Antonio, it will add richness to your visit and understanding of local life outside the urban areas. It will also speak volumes to locals when they ask what all you’ve done while in Texas. Of course, if you need suggestions for what to do while in San Antonio, then check out these money saving hacks for seeing the best of the Alamo City. And if you’re in need of advice for travels anywhere else in the world, then check out all the great options the Free Tour Community makes available to travelers who want the greatest experiences from their journeys!
Thank you for reading the article. For more travel tips from our local guides around the world, check the blog section of our website! We release unique travel recommendations every week. If you like this article or have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below!