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Travel: Where to Eat, Stay, and Play in Texas Hill Country

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Although it's barely 20 minutes from downtown Austin, Texas Hill Country feels like another state—or fictional land—altogether. In the plains and valleys between limestone and granite hills, towns like Dripping Springs, Johnson City, and Lockhart lay claim to local breweries, the “Texas White House,” tumbleweed towns with the wafting aroma of smoked brisket, and bright-blue waterways that look more Caribbean than Texan. This is also the geographic nexus where Southeast topography collides with that of the Southwest—the landscape is studded with prickly pear cacti, mesquite, pecan trees, and wildflowers in a kaleidoscope of colors. Suffice to say, Hill Country is a vibe all its own.

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To help you make the most of a long weekend in these parts—just the right amount of time, we think—we’ve outlined the best things to do, places to eat, plus where to stay in Texas Hill Country. Remember you'll need a car to get around these parts; if you're flying into Austin, rent one there then drive yourself out. Read on for the best of Hill Country.

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What to do in Hill Country

Despite the fact that Hill Country is more than 200 miles from the ocean, parts of it would have you believe otherwise. The San Marcos River is a pristine, tropical-blue waterway in the small city of San Marcos that folks flock to for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and paddle boarding—you can even hop on nighttime glow paddle boards with companies like Paddle SMTX.

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Thanks to the river, which inspired a long-defunct, mermaid-themed water park, San Marcos has become the hub for the Mermaid Society of San Marcos. (That's right.) This self-proclaimed “eco-driven community” of locals dedicated to celebrating arts, culture, and river guardianship hosts events that challenge even Austin's weirdness—like an annual Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest, every September, with parades, art balls, mermaid-themed cocktail competitions, and street fairs.

Even bluer than the San Marcos River, bluebonnets bring road-trippers on scenic drives through towns like Fredericksburg and Burnet in the months of April and May. For more of a guaranteed viewing experience, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on the south side of Austin, where garden tours and leisurely hiking trails ensure prime bluebonnet content this time of year.

The gardens at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center promise bluebonnet sightings come spring. © Bruce Leander The gardens at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center promise bluebonnet sightings come spring.

For something a little more rugged, Johnson City’s Pedernales Falls State Park is a 5,000-acre landscape of craggy hills, gnarly mesquite trees, and hiking and biking trails zigzagging along the Pedernales River. Great for a wildflower fix, the park is also popular for horseback riding, picnicking, and swimming, plus the dramatic Pedernales Falls.

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Get your history fix in Stonewall, Texas, which has its very own White House: The longtime abode for President Lyndon B. Johnson, LBJ Ranch. This pastoral patch of farmland where America’s 36th Commander-in-Chief spent much of his time in office is now the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, and typically offers self-guided driving tours past his childhood home and the Johnson family cemetery, plus exhibits next to the house. While the home is a wonder to behold from outside, it’s currently closed to tours due to structural concerns—but the ranger-guided tours around the house and property are still well worth pulling over for.

Lastly, you can’t talk about Texas without mentioning music, and especially in the proximity of Austin, country roots run deep in this region. The oldest dance hall in the state, Gruene Hall in New Braunfels is a hallowed honky-tonk spot with all the Lone Star Beers you can drink and an intimate wooden stage that’s hosted the likes of Willie Nelson and The Chicks.

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What to eat—and drink—in Hill Country

Unsurprisingly, much of Hill Country’s culinary economy can be attributed to barbecue. For a small town, that's seemingly sleepy and preserved in time, Lockhart has become a mecca for meat, known as the “Barbecue Capital of Texas.” Here, titanic family-run restaurants have stood the test of time through generations. In addition to other factory-sized Lockhart staples, like Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue, Kreuz Market has remained so true to its roots that, after opening in 1875 and moving to a new location, owners carted the original coals to keep the fire alive. Cooked in the style of traditional German meat markets (over coal-fired brick pits), brisket, pork chops, and sausages are rolled by pitmasters into butcher paper for customers to get down ’n’ dirty with, sans utensils. The Salt Lick in Driftwood is another can’t-miss institution—the sprawling complex of timeworn dining rooms and decks is anchored around a central wood-fired barbecue pit that’s been slow-cooking slabs of meat since 1967.

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Treaty Oak Distilling is known for its whiskey and gin, made with grains grown by Texas farmers. © Treaty Oak Distilling Treaty Oak Distilling is known for its whiskey and gin, made with grains grown by Texas farmers. Barbecue at Treaty Oak Distilling, which also offers picnic tables under an oak tree and live music © Treaty Oak Distilling Barbecue at Treaty Oak Distilling, which also offers picnic tables under an oak tree and live music

Beyond barbecue, Hill Country is also a place where bakers, brewers, and distillers maximize the region’s fertile terrain for seasonal offerings with a sense of place. Dripping Springs’ Abby Jane Bakeshop takes its local grain-sourcing so seriously, it’s located inside Barton Springs Mill. It doesn’t get any fresher than the heritage grains milled on-site for owner Abby Love to bake into pumpernickel loaves, carrot Danishes, apricot-coconut scones, and pecan bars. Right next door, Treaty Oak Distilling adheres to the same locally sourced diligence to make whiskey and gin. And 90 percent of the distillery’s grains are grown by Texas farmers, many of which pass through Barton Springs Mill. Visit the distillery to order a masterful Old Fashioned from the Rickhouse Bar, then sit on a picnic table under an oak tree and soak in the live music.

Another great place to start your day is Crêpe Crazy, a deaf-owned Dripping Springs cafe that employs an all hearing-impaired staff. With the feel of a homey living room, and a menu of sweet and savory crêpes like the lox-filled Norwegian or a caramelized apple version with vanilla cream, the restaurant seeks to empower and create opportunities for deaf Texans.

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Now, to the wine—what draws many Austinites to the area for the weekend. In towns like Fredericksburg, and at wine bars like 290 Vinery and Farmhouse Vineyards in Johnson City, Hill Country is wine country. Lost Draw Cellars of Fredericksburg is a standout tasting room with a stylish barn design, all Texan wines, and beautiful back patio under a canopy of oaks. But beer and spirits aren’t lagging behind in Hill Country, either: One example is Jester King Brewery, a 165-acre ranch with multiple bars, baby goats, a full kitchen, and a trail through the surrounding woods. Both the beer and food here are deeply connected to Texas terroir, using local grains, farmed produce, and native yeasts to create seasonal innovations, from a tangy grisette re-fermented with Texas blueberries to the Biere de Miel, a farmhouse ale made with Texas wildflower honey. The kitchen is known for its baked goods, like fluffy blue-corn bread and rye sourdough chocolate-chip cookies, as well as tender, char-kissed pizzas—try the spritzy Citron, topped with garlic oil, fresh mozzarella Calabrian chilies, sliced lemon, dill, and hot honey.

Where to stay in Hill Country

For those looking to stay in the city while still channeling a Hill Country vibe, Lone Star Court is the spot. About 30 minutes from Hill Country, with the closest towns being Dripping Springs and Driftwood, the ranch-style hotel has a pool designed to resemble all-natural Texas swimming holes (sadly, no mermaids on-property), crackling fire pits, rocking chairs outside every room, and a saloon-esque bar slinging margaritas and queso—there's also a gratis Lone Star beer given to every guest upon check-in.

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The Lucky Star Cabin at The Alexander at Creek Road, in Dripping Springs © The Alexander at Creek Road The Lucky Star Cabin at The Alexander at Creek Road, in Dripping Springs Inside a room at the Live Oak Lodge, another cottage at The Alexander at Creek Road © The Alexander at Creek Road Inside a room at the Live Oak Lodge, another cottage at The Alexander at Creek Road

Out in Dripping Springs, The Alexander at Creek Road is a peaceful Hill Country haven with cozy cottages, a 10-person country house, and four upscale treehouses, all spread across 40 acres of lush farmland.

For the best of both worlds, the Crossroads Inn in Johnson City is a stone’s throw from President Johnson’s boyhood home, and close to a bevy of wineries and wine bars. Yet it's still married to the outdoors, with a gorgeous oasis of herb gardens, porch swings, and ancient oak trees on a six-acre property with six boutique suites. With a glass of local wine in hand, let yourself sink into the solace of Hill Country.

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Jada has long been known to stay fit, with her slim figure and toned legs. So what does Jada eat to look this good at 50? Well, Jada recently made a few changes to her diet, including cutting out gluten. "Once I got rid of the gluten, I started to realize how happy I became," she told Red Table Talk. She also shared that she stopped eating eggs, chicken, and oatmeal.Jada feels better than ever after eliminating these foods: "Now I wake up in the morning ready to go, happy, let's get this done," she said in her Red Table Talk interview.

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