Texas is as varied as it is huge. From historic sites commemorating events which changed the course of American history, to natural wonders, esteemed museums and family-friendly theme parks, the Lone Star State has no shortage of things to do.
It can be a lot to take in, so here’s a quick and definitive guide to the top 20 tourist attractions in Texas, for those who dare to make the 16-hour drive (12 if you drive like a Texan) across the state in search of them.
SeaWorld San Antonio
An oasis in the middle of Central Texas, SeaWorld San Antonio is one of the world’s largest marine-life theme parks. It covers 416 acres (168 hectares) and features nautical rollercoasters, a water park and a vast menagerie of sea creatures, including five of the last generation of performing killer whales; the park is moving towards a plan to replace the show with more naturalistic orca encounters in the coming years.
Located well off the beaten path – about 26 miles (42 kilometers) northwest of the city of Marfa – is Prada Marfa, a permanent art installation by artists Elmgreen and Dragset designed to resemble one of the luxury fashion house’s boutiques. Drawing inspiration from pop art, the installation was unveiled in 2005, intended to gradually degrade into the landscape over time and make a statement about materialism. The installation has become a must-visit for both well-heeled travelers paying homage to the brand and everyday wanderers, with its beauty, cultural significance and prolific coverage in the media making it a popular pilgrimage.
Six Flags Over Texas is a point of pride for Texans. Located just a stone’s throw from Dallas, in Arlington, Six Flags is one of the top kids’ attractions in the state, but it also draws droves of “big kids” up for the thrill of a rollercoaster or just some family fun. Home to the New Texas Giant, the aptly named Texas SkyScreamer (the second-tallest attraction of its kind in the world at 400 feet (122 meters) of pure terror) and multiple Looney-Tune-themed rides, the park has something for everyone.
The Alamo, the historic Spanish mission in the heart of San Antonio, was the site of one of the state’s most historic battles. In 1836, Mexico’s president and military captain Antonio López de Santa Anna (known as the Napoleon of the West) defeated a contingent of Texian troops here following a 13-day siege. Today, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-see for anyone interested in the rich cultural history of Texas, both before and after it became part of the Unites States.
For those looking to get away and commune with nature, there is no better place to be than Texas’s Big Bend National Park. The desert paradise, separated from neighboring Mexico by the Rio Grande, is blooming with over 1,200 plant species and encompasses the peaks of the Chisos Mountains. Known for its hiking and backpacking trails, the park attracts more than 350,000 visitors annually – many of whom are avid birdwatchers, drawn by the park’s 450 resident species. Certified as an International Dark Sky Park, Big Bend reportedly has the darkest skies in the continental US, making it an ideal place to stargaze.
The San Antonio Zoo is an essential experience for anyone who loves animals. Kids who like the outdoors will particularly enjoy Kronkosky’s Tiny Tot Nature Spot – the nation’s first zoo exhibit designed for younger children – while curious under-fives can get up close and personal with nature in the 1.5 acres of the park designed just for them. With bug safaris, a sandy “beach,” activities such as making treats for the zoo’s monkeys and plenty of opportunities to come face-to-face with various wild things, there’s a good chance the next Irwin (Steve, Bindi or Robert) will have more of a Texas twang than an Aussie accent.
Visitors might be surprised to find that Texas boasts excellent beaches and bays, but for those wanting the real “boardwalk experience” (or nostalgic former East Coasters yearning for Coney Island), the Kemah Boardwalk is the only place to be. Only 20 minutes south of downtown Houston, the 65ft Ferris wheel and 35 acres of midway games, rides and food overlooking Galveston Bay make this a perfect excursion for families and fun-loving adults who’ve conquered the best the city has to offer and are ready for something a little different.
With the highest posted speed limit in the country, Texas is a perfect place for a raceway, and Austin is an ideal spot to host the first track in the United States specifically built for Formula One. Since opening in 2012, Circuit of the Americas (COTA) has quickly become one of the city’s top attractions, expanding beyond its initial mission as a destination for world championship racing into a full-on entertainment center hosting other events such ESPN’s X Games. Its amphitheater is the largest in Central Texas, and its stage has seen some of the biggest concerts in the Live Music Capital of the World. With a soccer stadium currently being built on its grounds for Austin’s professional soccer team, Austin Bold FC, COTA’s drawing power is sure to increase in the coming years.
Most folks have never heard of Operation Texas, in which Lyndon B Johnson allegedly masterminded an undercover operation to spirit Jews away from Nazi persecution and relocate them to the Lone Star State. Fortunately, Holocaust Museum Houston keeps this and other stories of the Holocaust alive and accessible to a new generation.
Along the legendary Route 66, just west of Amarillo, sits a monument to American ingenuity, Detroit steel and Texas tenacity. The Cadillac Ranch – one of the country’s most celebrated roadside attractions – was created by a trio of San Francisco-based artists known as the Ant Farm, with funding provided by Stanley Marsh 3. Built in 1974, it consists of 10 Cadillacs buried halfway, nose down, in the dirt to match the angle of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The installation has appeared in movies and television shows, but perhaps the biggest tribute to its longevity and the artists’ vision is that people still make their way to the fields of West Texas to stare at their husks and add paint.
If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut or wondered what it would take to be one, the Space Center Houston (SCH), the official visitor center of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, should certainly be on your bucket list. SCH is a museum, but also a monument to the courage and ingenuity of the men and women who overcame enormous odds to discover more about the universe. With over 400 space artefacts, including mission-flown spacecraft and a restored Saturn V rocket, SCH gives its visitors a rare inside look at the country’s space program throughout history and what it is working on for the future.
The 200-acre Fort Worth Stockyards hark back to days spent on the range, when good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats and justice was as swift as the gunslinger dishing it out. Opening for business in 1890, the stockyards became the Texan center for buying and selling cattle. Today, visitors can watch the daily cattle drive, see the rodeo, explore the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and then top it off with an evening of watching bull riding at Billy Bob’s with the family.
More than 50 years have passed since a group of St Mary’s University students from nearby San Antonio braved a narrow 60ft (18m) passage down into the darkness to discover the vast caves and underground formations of the Natural Bridge Caverns. Eleven years later, in 1971, it became a National Natural Landmark and, since then, millions have come to see its unique mineral formations and explore newly uncovered passages. There’s also plenty of aboveground entertainment, including zip lines, panning for gems and a 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter) maze.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, also known as RodeoHouston, is among the largest livestock exhibitions and rodeos in the world. It combines the best of the Old West with charity, one of the richest rodeo prize purses in the United States – with winnings in excess of $2 million – and record-breaking concerts of all genres. As Houston’s signature event, it is a cultural melting pot in one of the country’s most diverse cities. Characterized by Southern hospitality and Texas lore, RodeoHouston has something for everyone, from connoisseurs of Cardi B to those who prefer boots, beer and barbecue.
About 100 miles (161km) east of El Paso, Guadalupe Peak rises 8,749ft (2,667m) from its base in the Guadalupe Mountains at the national park of the same name. It’s the highest point in Texas and a spot that attracts highpointers – those who ascend to the highest summit within a given area – from around the country. The trip to the top takes roughly six to eight hours, but the incredible views from the top are well worth the effort. For those looking to explore more, there are 80 miles (129km) of trails catering to varying levels of ability.
As synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, Spurs and salsa, the San Antonio River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is the heartbeat of the city, and the arteries that extend from it connect visitors to a vibrant network of food and entertainment options. Whether you lounge on its shores, dine at the many restaurants that line its banks or explore its waters on a riverboat cruise, the River Walk is guaranteed to be a highlight of your visit If you really want to see it shine, visit during the annual Fiesta San Antonio and marvel at the procession of floral floats that take over during the parade.
When you want to get away from city life in Central Texas, the San Antonio Botanical Garden provides 38 acres of total tranquility. The Lucile Halsell Conservatory houses five climate-specific greenhouses surrounding a central courtyard, while other highlights include Kumamoto En – a Japanese garden reflecting styles and techniques from Kumamoto’s 300-year-old Suizenji Park and Katsura Detached Palace garden in Kyoto – and the Family Adventure Garden, which offers kid-friendly fun for the whole family. Pack a picnic, explore and relax the day away from the concrete jungle.
The Dallas-based Perot Museum of Nature and Science – named after acclaimed businessman Ross Perot, who made billions as the founder of Electronic Data Systems – is one of the finest museums in the state, offering an array of exhibits and learning opportunities for kids and adults alike. Visitors can build robots, experience Texan ecosystems through interactive dioramas, and even see the world’s third-largest gold nugget.
Padre Island National Seashore on North Padre Island is the longest underdeveloped barrier island in the world, protecting 70mi (112km) of shoreline. Instead of oiled-up coeds, overpacked hotels and beer bongs, visitors will find calm campsites, pristine beaches (beach camping is allowed) and dunes. Sea turtles and other wildlife make their presence known, including over 380 species of birds. Activity-wise, canoeing and kayaking make for excellent adventures. There are also opportunities to attend a Junior Ranger Program, learn about the island’s unique history or watch the release of sea turtle hatchlings.
Splashtown is a perfect destination for those looking to escape the intense San Antonio summer heat. Featuring a half-million-gallon wave pool, a lazy river, 40 water slides and tube rides, an activity pool with lily pads, and balance logs for the kids, Splashtown will keep everyone cool.