Planning a trip to Texas can be overwhelming.

And while Hollywood cliches may conjure up images of weathered cowboys and dusty saloons, there is a wide variety of museums, architecture, outdoor adventures and, of course, delicious food you won’t want to miss. There's so much to do, you'll probably need a car to get around.

We’ve rounded up some of the best experiences across the Lone Star State, from the desert mountains of West Texas to the river-bound cities of Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. 

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1. Wave to Big Tex at the Dallas State Fair

Perhaps the most famous cowboy in Texas, Big Tex resides in Dallas at the historic Fair Park, home to the annual State Fair of Texas. Big Tex has been the event’s mascot since 1952 (though he almost burned down in 2012 due to an electrical fire). He stands at the heart of the fair, which also features a full auto show, live performances and the famous ferris wheel. America’s largest since it debuted in 1985, the views across Dallas and down at the fairgoers below are unforgettable. But most memorable of all, of course, are the endless booths of fried foods on display. From fried Oreos to fried bubblegum and cotton candy tacos, vendors introduce crazy new experiments every year.

Planning tip: In 2023, the fair runs September 29 through October 22.

Two people walk on the grass in front of a historic religious building
Mission San Jose is part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a designated Unesco World Heritage Site © John Coletti / Getty Images

2. Explore the best of historic and modern San Antonio

San Antonio, with some of the state’s oldest architecture and the Missions – the only Unesco World Heritage Site in Texas – is a top choice for places to visit. Don’t miss some of the exciting modern architecture as well. Wander around the Hemisfair area for dinner, ice cream and park activities. This is the original site of the 1968 World’s Fair, currently undergoing the first phase of an extensive restoration to create a new city neighborhood.

Planning tip: The sky deck of the nearby Tower of the Americas may be a bit of a tourist trap, but the view from the top is well worth it. Skip an overpriced meal in the revolving restaurant and enjoy a late-night snack at Dough Pizzeria Napoletana or ice cream from Paleteria.

3. Take a dip in a Hill Country swimming hole

While there are several natural springs to choose from in the sprawling Texas Hill Country, the quaint tree-lined town of Wimberley boasts two of the best. Just a short drive from the town’s main street, Jacob’s Well is one of the state’s largest fully submerged caverns.

Water from the Trinity Aquifer flows from an extensive underground cave system, maintaining a temperature of 68°F — the perfect way to beat that scorching Texas sun. Nearby, Blue Hole Regional Park offers an equally scenic swim, shaded by towering cypress trees.

Planning tip: Be sure to make advance reservations for both highly sought-after swimming destinations.

A worker with firewood for the never-ending barbecue fire at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, Texas
The barbecue fire at Smitty's Market in Lockhart is neverending © Kris Davidson / Lonely Planet

4. Eat barbecue brisket in Lockhart

While legendary barbecue pitmasters hold court across the Lone Star State, some of the longest-lasting legacies still call Lockhart home. Kreuz Market, Black’s Barbecue and Smitty’s Market are some of the best, but the mouth-watering brisket and smoked sausage are not the only reason to head to Lockhart.

Be sure to admire the Caldwell County Courthouse and wander the historic downtown square, grabbing a refreshing drink at Old Pal Bar or a root beer float from Commerce Cafe. Add it to your itinerary for one of the most fun road trips in Texas.

5. Explore WWII naval history aboard the USS Lexington

Docked in the bay at Corpus Christi, the USS Lexington is an Essex-class carrier that fought in WWII and was the oldest working carrier in the US Navy before it was decommissioned in 1991. Nicknamed the “Blue Ghost,” the ship arrived in its permanent home in Corpus Christi in 1992, where it now hosts a number of gripping exhibits. The flight deck is among the most popular, featuring twenty different aircraft from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Right next door, the Texas State Aquarium is the state’s largest aquarium and features a dazzling array of marine wildlife from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Note that dolphins are kept in captivity here, which may concern some visitors. Animal-welfare groups argue that keeping such complex animals in enclosed tanks is harmful to them.

People biking along a waterfront boardwalk on a summer's day
Bike or hike your way around Lady Bird Lake in Austin © Trong Nguyen / Shutterstock

6. Spend time around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake

Creating a 10-mile loop along the Colorado River in the heart of downtown Austin, the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a top thing to do for everyone in Austin. Nearby Zilker Park is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic with a view of the city’s growing skyline or venture downtown for brunch at one of Austin’s best restaurants.

La Condesa is an upscale pit stop not far from the north shore of the river, while a further detour to Better Half Bar and neighboring Hold Out Brewing is a good place to while away an afternoon. In the evening, make a reservation at P6, the scenic rooftop patio of the Line Hotel for fantastic sunset views over Lady Bird Lake.

Planning tip: If you want to explore the best of the outdoors, April and September are ideal times to visit Texas.  

7. Learn how Texas became Texas at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park

About halfway between Houston and Austin, a humble little state park is known as the place “Where Texas became Texas.” Here, in a wooden schoolhouse at Washington-on-the-Brazos, delegates from across Texas gathered to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. A digital copy of it is on display at the Visitors Center, which features an exhibit on the events that led to that declaration, as well as Texas’ subsequent fight for independence from Mexico.

Planning tip: The park is always worth a stop, but it really is the place to be on the first weekend in March for live reenactments of the 1836 Texas Army Camp.

Cattle on the street of Forth Worth Stockyards
The daily Texas longhorn cattle drive through the Stockyard streets © typhoonski / Getty Images

8. Step back in time at the Fort Worth Stockyards

If you want to step back in time, look no further than the historic stockyards of Fort Worth. This is the destination for anyone wanting a front-row seat for an immersive experience of the history of cattle drives in Texas. A genuine herd of longhorns parades East Exchange Avenue twice a day, or you can see them up close and personal at the Livestock Exchange Building on weekends through the summer.

9. See the stars at McDonald Observatory

You probably know that the “stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas,” and there’s no better place to see that than the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. A research unit of the University of Texas at Austin, the observatory offers interactive educational exhibits and regular evening programs for stargazing. Book in advance to go to a Star Party, which features night sky constellation tours and access to state-of-the-art telescopes in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park.

Planning tip: Stay at the Indian Lodge at the Davis Mountains State Park, and don’t miss the 75-mile scenic loop through the Fort Davis Mountains while you are in the area. Winding through Limpia Canyon and past Mount Livermore, the drive is the highest public highway in Texas — and one of the most unforgettable experiences in the Lone Star State.

This article was first published September 2021 and updated August 2023

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