Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Best Road Trips from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin

As t-shirts and bumper stickers are quick to remind us, Texas is big

There’s an old saying that “everything is bigger in Texas” and what counts as a commute for a Texan may well qualify as a road trip in other states. From Conroe to Freeport, Katy to Baytown, the greater Houston area spans more than 100 miles north to south and over 50 miles east to west. The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis isn’t much smaller especially as suburban sprawl continues to spread and San Antonio has expanded significantly in recent years.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big cities mean wide highways and fast speed limits: The 41-mile stretch of Texas Highway 130, just east of Austin, boasts a speed limit of 85 miles per hour—the fastest legal limit in the country. Austin retains traces of its small-town vibe although locals whisper about a future where Austin and San Antonio could morph into one giant megacity. And Austin is notorious for its daily traffic jams.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking to ditch the hustle and bustle of big-city life? There’s so much to see in Texas beyond its major metropolitan areas. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin are strategically placed for road trips in Central Texas. Here are some of my favorite getaways for a day trip, a week, or longer.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive. Many state parks and public areas require passes beforehand or impose a strict limit on the number of guests allowed at any given time even during normal circumstances.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. While you could make it a daytrip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Tackle at least two of the Big Three on Day One: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course which also offers an on-site swimming pool, camping sites, and fishing hole.

What is next? Off to Luling for some more barbecue? How about a Shiner beer? A nap? Or both? You deserve it!

Luling Oil Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling

This little town is known for BIG flavors—and whether you prefer sweet or meat, both are delicious here. Gorge yourself on juicy watermelon or fill up on some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State—either way you’ll leave here full. And while you’re eating your way through town, you’ll also find some pretty epic nature spots.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dive into the history of “the toughest town in Texas” at the Luling Oil Museum where you’ll learn about the oil boom of Central Texas in the 1920s. Walk through a model town and see real tools from the oil boom days. Around this oil town, you’ll find tons of pump jacks decorated as everything from quarterbacks to killer whales. It’s the perfect mixture of art, history, and liquid gold!

Spoetzal Brewery, Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shiner

Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week where visitors can see how their popular brews get made. Tours and samples are free. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Blue Bell Creameries, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham

Blue Bell fans travel from all over to see the making of their favorite ice cream. At The Little Creamery in Brenham, visitors can watch the manufacturing process from an observation deck while attendants narrate and provide fun facts, and then check out the Visitors Center to read up on the company’s history and see artifacts. The self-guided tours conclude with $1 scoops from the parlor. In addition to regular favorites, the creamery also serves special flavors like Cookies ’n Cream and Pecan Pralines ’n Cream and the newest flavor to temp your taste buds, Fudge Brownie Decadence.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

In the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg maintains a small-town feel while having lots of things to see and do. With its unique German heritage, thriving wineries, and shopping, it’s the perfect getaway. The historic buildings along Main Street are home to over 100 shops. Influenced by the town’s heritage, German and German-inspired food options abound. Fredericksburg and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. This area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape.

Fayette County Court House, La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.” I’m sure Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton would agree as it was the events of La Grange’s famous “Chicken Ranch” that inspired the classic musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the brothel is no longer around there’s still plenty to do in this town.

Weikel’s Bakery kolaches, La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, “Czech” out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco

Blanco calls itself the “Lavender Capital of Texas” as home of Hill Country Lavender farm and the annual Lavender Festival in June, complete with tours of lavender crops, growing tips, and music. If swimming or fishing’s your thing, head to Blanco State Park. A river runs through this 104-acre green oasis making Blanco State Park a perfect destination for a relaxing afternoon of kayaking. Calm waters and an easily accessible watercraft launch site (complete with handrails) mean that even first-timers can easily rent a single or double kayak and take in the lush greenery that borders the mile-long stretch of the Blanco River. If desired, bring along your tackle box to enjoy some fishing as well. 

Bottom line

While the tiny towns of Texas may not be very large, everything else is generally bigger from the distances you’ll be driving to the sheer amount of open sky you’ll see on the road. This shortlist of destinations in Central Texas is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Historical Painted Churches of Central Texas

The Painted Churches tour is perfect for anyone interested in art, architecture, and small town Texas history

As German and Czech immigrants arrived in Central Texas seeking religious freedom and economic prosperity, they established a cluster of small communities that has one thing in common: their painted churches. As they settled into their new surroundings they built and decorated elaborate churches.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The churches look like plain white steeple buildings but step inside you and you’ll be in a jewel box of colors and detail. You will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 20 painted churches in Central Texas. Four of these churches in Fayette County near Schulenburg can be toured Monday through Saturday. The others are either an active parish which you can visit on Sunday or no longer active with prior arrangements required for a visit.

Guided tours can be scheduled through the Schulenburg Visitor Center for $10 a person. Reservations are required at least two weeks in advance to ensure availability.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, like us, you can do a self-guided tour of the churches. If you do choose to do a self-guided tour, keep in mind that all the churches are active places of worship, so be respectful of services and events taking place. The painted churches are open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The four we visited are: St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Dubina, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville, known as “The Pink One.”

United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our self-guided tour also included other rural communities near Schulenburg having historical sites: United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp and United Methodist Church in Freyburg.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unlike several other churches in the area, St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill has a brick exterior with a wooden interior. Church leadership encouraged communities to build churches out of brick or stone when so many were destroyed by storms and fires.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Mary was the first church in the area designed by architect Leo Dielmann. He designed it using Gothic Revival style and relied heavily on decorative painting to create the illusion of Gothic ceilings.

St. Mary Catholic Church in High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hollow, wooden pillars spaced throughout the interior of the church are in typical Gothic Revival style supporting the vaulted ceilings of the church. They were painted with turkey feathers to give them the appearance of being made of stone. There are statues of many saints mounted on the pillars with the male on the right of the center aisle and the females on the left. This is also the manner in which the congregation divided up when attending services for many years; women sat in the pews on the left and men sat on the right.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in Dubina, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church is probably the most elaborate of the four. Today’s Sts. Cyril & Methodius Catholic Church was built in 1911 in a groove of ancient oaks; in fact, Dubina translates to “oak grove”. The original church was built in 1877 and in 1890 the church was expanded to serve over 600 families. Unfortunately, a tropical storm completely destroyed the original church and it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. This is why the plaque on the front of the church reads 1911.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Dubina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The stunning architecture of Saints Cyril and Methodius is paired with beautiful interior paintings, stenciling, stained glass windows and statues.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Mary’s Catholic Church was dedicated under the name Assumption of the Blessed Mary and is located three miles east of Flatonia in Praha. St Mary’s Church in Praha is one of the oldest painted churches, built in 1895.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The plain stone facade does not prepare you for the ornate interior designed in the popular Gothic Revival style of the era. Almost every inch of the interior is adorned with stenciling, drawings, or paintings. The ceiling and walls were painted by fresco artist Gottfried Flurry, beautifully complementing the impressive hand-carved, white altar.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nicknamed the Pink Church, the current St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was built in 1917. This is the third church built on this site—the first two were destroyed by hurricane and fire, respectively. This structure, built with Gothic Revival-style architecture, is much simpler than the first two. Instead of embellishments and columns, a decorative painter was hired to give the interior its liveliness.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Latin inscription on the arch above the alter reads, “deliciae mease esse cum filiis hominum” and translates to “my delight is with the children of men” and comes from Proverbs 8:31. Inside the arch is a grapevine which is to remind attendees that He is the vine and the people are the branches. The altars at the front of the church are white and gold which is a Czech tradition.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Ammannsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to learn more about Central Texas’ rich history, enjoy the painted churches tour and see for yourself some of the most stunning art and architecture of the early 20th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

—Anita Desai

Czech Out La Grange

We headed to Central Texas to Czech out the town of La Grande and discovered a fanciful cache of history and culture

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery and the cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches” — quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors—are the surnames of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. The town began in 1826 as Moore’s Fort; it became the county seat of Fayette County in the Republic of Texas in 1837.

Fayette County Court House in La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its rich heritage, it’s no surprise that La Grange is the hub for celebrating the Czech culture in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Czech Moravian families that settled in Texas at some time lived in Fayette County before they spread out across the state. The Czech immigration to the Lone Star State began in 1853 and was largely over by 1912. The estimate is that there are roughly a million Texans who trace their roots back to Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Slovkia.

Texas Heroes Museum at Old Fayette County Jail in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, we Czeched out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center on Fairgrounds Road. Vitáme Vás is the Czech equivalent of “howdy”, and we certainly felt welcome. The Center serves both as a meeting place for organizations as well as a museum showcasing traditional wedding dresses, passenger lists, genealogies, and immigrants’ belongings. The Center gave us a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As wars were brewing in Europe, men were waging war in Texas — drawing us next to Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The park sits on a high sandstone bluff above the Colorado River. The expansive view from the bluff overlooks the town, dense forests, and the winding waters of the Colorado River. The two sites are connected by a scenic nature trail with each telling their own unique story.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our first stop was Monument Hill, towering memorial saluting the men who died in battles against Mexico in the 1840s. A tomb holds the remains of 52 Texas heroes who died in the Dawson Massacre and the Texan Santa Fe and Mier expeditions.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first of the battles took place in 1842, when Capt. Nicholas Dawson led 53 volunteers from La Grange against 500 Mexican troops in the fight for San Antonio; 36 Texans were killed. Their remains are entombed in a granite crypt with their names etched in stone.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the second incident, a year later, 176 Texans made a valiant escape during a prisoners’ march to Mexico City but were recaptured by Col. Domingo Huerta. As punishment, each drew a bean from an earthen jar; one out of every 10 was a black bean. Those unlucky enough to draw the condemning black frijoles were executed at dusk. Their remains are entombed in today’s monument.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short hike from the tomb led us to the ruins of the Kreische Brewery where German immigrant Heinrich Ludwig Kreische founded one of the first commercial breweries in Texas. The Kreische Brewery site consists of the Kreische house, outbuildings, which were built in 1855-1857, and the Kreische Brewery (which looks more like a medieval castle than a brewery), built in the 1860s.

Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Park in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kreische came to Texas in 1846 from Saxony, Germany, purchased 172 acres of land on the bluff in 1849 and began a successful career as a stonemason, brew master, and businessman. His was a story of early Texas family life, blue-collar work ethic, enterprising spirit, and business acumen that tells of German immigration into Texas. He built a three-story house and, in 1860, began building a brewery. By 1879, it was the third largest brewing operation in Texas.

Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a tour of the brewery ruins, we saw ample evidence of his ingenuity, including an aqueduct system he designed to channel water downhill from a spring to the brewing room. After the brewery tour, we admired the beautiful three-story stone house that Kreische built for his family—at a time when most settlers were still living in log cabins.

Historic La Grange © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of the mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck