Austin is brimming with charm, but sometimes, you just get the itch to explore. When it’s time to get outside the city limits, these are the best places to check out.
Austin is one of a kind, and there’s plenty to keep you busy for days in the Texan capital. However, the beauty of the surrounding Hill Country beckons. From enchanting small and world-class wineries to nearby state parks dripping with gorgeous natural scenery, there’s much to explore.
Though most folks are already familiar with the Alamo, that legendary symbol of Texan independence, San Antonio is home to a vibrant array of other historical landmarks, cultural attractions and a buzzworthy food scene that rivals that of Austin’s. You can take a leisurely stroll along the colorful River Walk and a ride on the river cruise or go for a hike or bike ride along the Mission Reach Trail, which connects the five Spanish colonial missions (including the Alamo). Also, make it a point to soak up San Antonio’s booming culinary and arts scene by paying a visit to the Pearl District, easily one of the city’s coolest neighborhoods.
Nature lovers will rejoice in Pedernales Falls State Park, located just 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of Austin. This state park is a gem, with its stunning falls created by cascading water that flows across layers of sun-bleached limestone. There are several ways to explore the glorious terrain here. You can hike along trails that wind through forests and along the river, climb atop the river’s rock formations or relax and bask in the beauty of the park’s namesake, Pedernales Falls, which is seen from the cliff overlook at the north end of the park.
Picture golden-lit fields of sunflowers, giant live oak trees shading an old farmhouse and as many barrel-aged local brews as your heart desires. Doesn’t sound too shabby, right? Jester King Brewery is easily one of the region’s most scenic, Instagrammable breweries, and in addition to a truly unique selection of wild and farmhouse ales, it has a stellar locally sourced menu. For the perfect Texas Hill Country day, combine an afternoon of eating and drinking at Jester King with a morning spent hiking at Pedernales Falls. If you want to explore the beer scene even further, then take a tour with a local guide to visit three Austin breweries where you’ll get exclusive behind-the-scenes access and the opportunity to taste a variety of refreshing beers along the way.
Head out of the city and into Driftwood, where you can visit a famous barbecue spot, sample locally produced sotol (a distilled spirit similar to mezcal and tequila) and enjoy picturesque Hill Country surroundings from one of the area’s wineries. The Salt Lick BBQ is your one-stop shop for traditional Texas meats (the scenery is mighty pretty, too), and at the sotol distillery Desert Door, take a tour and learn more about this popular local spirit made from wild-harvested sotol plants. End the day with tastings at Driftwood Estate Winery (which boasts excellent views) and Duchman Family Winery.
Guadalupe River State Park is one of the prettiest parks in the state, and it’s an easy day trip from Austin. And floating the Guadalupe – renting a tube and spending the day lazily floating down the river, preferably with a beer or can of rosé in hand – is a Texas bucket-list item. Though most people do come here to float, as well as swim and fish, there are 13 miles (21 kilometers) of hiking trails that feature lovely views of the lush valley and the pristine, rushing river, lined with giant cypress trees.
The historic and charming Gruene is as cute as an old-timey postcard and is home to the oldest continually running dance hall in Texas. Stroll around the town’s city center, and enjoy dinner at the famed Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar – with its pretty views of the Guadalupe River and cool location in the ruins of an 1878 cotton gin – before checking in at the Gruene Mansion Inn. Then, spend the evening two-stepping or enjoying a show at the historic Gruene Hall.
Did you know that Texas is home to a flourishing olive industry? It’s true – olive trees have grown and thrived in the Hill Country for well over a century. Learn more about the history of the industry, and pay a visit to an authentic, family-run olive orchard and mill, when you take part in a guided orchard tour in Dripping Springs. (And, of course, sample delectable varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar at the tasting bar.)
The Hill Country is known for its swimming holes, and Blue Hole in Wimberley is among the region’s best. There’s nothing quite like the sight of that spring-fed, sparkling blue water encircled by towering, old-growth cypress trees. When you’ve had your fill, explore the nearby town of Wimberley, a peaceful spot brimming with cute-as-pie places to eat and shop. And, if you’re in the mood for something sweet, indulge in kolaches and cinnamon rolls at the Sugar Shack Bakery.
In the mood for kitschy-cool shops, quaint small-town Texan charm and delicious German food? Fredericksburg, located less than two hours away from Austin, has all these things and more. Not only is the town itself adorable, this is also prime Hill Country wine territory. Stop in for a glass at Becker Vineyards for some of the best wines in the area, or even take a Fredericksburg Hill Country wine tour to visit four of the best vineyards in the city and delve deeper into the world of Texan wine. Also, be sure to check out nearby Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, where an otherworldly-looking giant pink granite dome juts out of the earth, drawing hikers from near and far. (Sunset from Enchanted Rock is a must – you can see for miles and miles.)