The Texas Hill Country, a swath of the state’s southwest and central regions where limestone cliffs jut out over sparkling lakes and spring fields replete with wildflowers, offers as many cultural and historical treasures as picturesque landscapes.
Settlers in this region of Texas included a large contingent of Germans who moved here starting in the 1830s, and you can still witness their influence throughout towns such as New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, where a plate of warm schnitzel is served in the traditional style, and those original settlers’ “Sunday haus” cabins have been converted into bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
The Hill Country provides a more relaxed, subdued counterpoint to San Antonio’s vibrant Tex-Mex explosion, and a visit here is a great way to round out your Texas itinerary.
Explore history and arts in Fredericksburg
Begin your Hill Country day trip in Fredericksburg, one of the most well-known towns in the region. A stroll down Main Street includes antique shops, wine-tasting rooms and art galleries. If you’re there on the first Friday of the month, check out the First Friday Art Walk, when galleries stay open late and visitors can meet local artists and enjoy locally made treats and wines from area vineyards.
A Fredericksburg itinerary should include the National Museum of the Pacific War dedicated to the 2 million men and women who served in World War II alongside the Fredericksburg native son Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who led them to victory in the Pacific theater. The country’s only museum dedicated to the Pacific theater offers immersive exhibits that put visitors in the middle of the action, including a spine-tingling multimedia re-creation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Ten miles southeast of Fredericksburg, you’ll see a location whose reputation is larger than its actual size: Luckenbach. Immortalized by the 1977 Waylon Jennings song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” which features another Texas music legend, Willie Nelson, Luckenbach is home to a post office and a historic old-timey dance hall (one of several in the Hill Country). A sign says “Population: 3,” but it’s said that 13 folks reside within the hamlet. Stop in at the dance hall any weekend, request a song from local cowboys, and see if Willie, Waylon and the boys were right that “ain’t nobody feeling no pain.”
Take a drive through Johnson country
Drive 16 miles east of Fredericksburg, winding alongside the Pedernales River, to walk in the bootsteps of another Central Texas legend, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson was born into relatively poor conditions in the rural town of Stonewall, not far from Johnson City (historical trivia: that town was actually named for LBJ’s second cousin, James Polk Johnson).
The former (also known as the LBJ Ranch) is where longhorn cattle descendants of the former president’s original herd still roam, and where visitors can tour Johnson’s Texas White House, the base of operations for LBJ, Lady Bird and their staff following President Kennedy’s assassination. You can take a free self-guided tour of most of the property, but you’ll need to take a ranger-guided tour to see the Texas White House.
Here you can marvel at Johnson’s extensive car collection, which includes his famous amphibious Amphicar, and learn about the challenges LBJ faced through exhibits on the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
The Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, located next to the LBJ estate, showcases what rural Texas life was like for the future president and his neighbors in 1918. At this interpretive state park, costumed employees care for livestock and make everything from scratch without electricity or refrigeration, including bars of soap and a daily meal on a wood-burning stove.
Ease into the cowboy way of life
Another easy Hill Country side trip is to the town of Bandera — about an hour’s drive northwest of San Antonio — which bills itself as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”
Other towns may claim more cowboys per capita than this sprawling, hilly ranchland, but there’s no denying the charm of hitching your saddle up at one of the many dude ranches, including the Dixie Dude, Rancho Cortez, Flying L, Mayan Dude and Silver Spur. Most sit adjacent to the gorgeous, protected Hill Country State Natural Area, where visitors go on escorted horseback rides. In Bandera you’ll find authentic cowboys who put in long hours caring for their horses and cattle, and occasionally compete on the rodeo circuit.
Most dude ranches welcome guests for the day or night, offering trail rides (scheduled daily — call ahead to inquire about availability for non-overnight guests), home-cooked chuck wagon–style meals and tall tales told over roasted marshmallows late into the night. It’s a great way to cap off your trip with a heapin’ helpin’ of Texas hospitality. Each December Bandera hosts the Cowboy Capital Christmas Parade, a big ol’ trail ride that even visitors can join.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2018. It's been updated to reflect new information.