Located just 30 miles south of Austin, San Marcos is both a college town and a water recreation mecca. It takes more than a weekend trip, though, to fully appreciate its charms.
Day 1 - Wingate by Wyndham and Root Cellar Cafe
Check in at the Wingate by Wyndham (108 North Interstate 35, 512-754-6621) to begin your San Marcos getaway. The hotel is conveniently located near Stokes Park (600 Cape Road). The six-acre park is generally not very crowded, and it’s an excellent spot to stretch your legs after a car ride. In addition to nature trails, there’s a swimming hole and a place to launch kayaks.
If you arrive early in the day and want to brush up on your kayaking skills, the hotel is also near the Olympic Outdoor Center (602 N Interstate 35, 512-203-0093). Led by former Olympian Ben Kvanli, the center teaches everything from the basics of kayaking to a day-long course. I took the all-day course a couple of years ago, and I probably should’ve started with the beginner’s class (see my story on the adventure).
To wind down for the evening, take a stroll around downtown San Marcos. The downtown square is located at the intersection of East Hopkins Street and South Guadalupe Street. Several locally owned vintage shops, antique stores, and art galleries are situated on and around the town square.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, stop in at the Root Cellar Cafe (215 North LBJ Drive, 512-392-5158). Popular entrees include the Bourbon Pecan Chicken and the Cellar Carbonara linguine dish. For dessert, why not get a mango smoothie to go? The adjoining bakery also has a wide variety of freshly made brownies, scones, and danishes.
Day 2 - Meadows Center and Wonder World
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment (201 San Marcos Springs Drive, 512-245-9200) operates the glass-bottomed boat tours once offered at the now-defunct Aquarena Springs. The relaxing 30- and 45-minute tours provide an amazingly clear view of the fish, turtles, and plants below the surface. It’s also an excellent opportunity to learn about the important work of the Meadows Center. In addition to studying the pristine springs on-site, the organization supports research on water policy throughout Texas.
The center also trains citizen scientist volunteers who scuba-dive in Spring Lake and assist with research. The course is only open to highly experienced divers, but it’s an amazing opportunity for those willing to make a serious commitment to conserving the springs.
For a delicious casual lunch, take a short drive down the road to Pie Society (700 North LBJ Drive, 512-805-8900). We’re talking pizza pie here, not the sweet kind. You can get a standard pizza via the build-your-own options, but at least consider some of the unusual creations, such as the Balance of Power pizza with spinach, spicy sausage and a touch of honey. For a lighter meal, the restaurant also offers meal-sized salads such as the Caprese with spinach, grape tomatoes and basil.
After such a large meal, you may want to just take a nap back at the hotel. But if you still have even a little energy, that’s all you need to visit Wonder World (1000 Prospect Street, 512-392-3760). You can tour the small cave on the property that was formed by an ancient earthquake or enjoy a mellow train ride through a petting zoo.
Evening 2 - Louie’s Beer Garden and Oyster House
Depending on the night of the week and nearby sporting events at Texas State University, the atmosphere at Louie’s (119 East Hutchison Street, 512-878-8862) can range from laid-back to raucous. As long as you’re not planning a quiet date, Louie’s is a fun place for a casual night out. A live band often plays on weekends. The bar has a huge selection of draft beers, and the food menu includes a wide variety of oysters, plus frog legs, alligator, and crawfish. The sprawling outdoor patio makes Louie’s an excellent choice during mild weather.
Day 3 - Lions Club Tube Rental
Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Lions Club Tube Rental and Shuttle Service (170 Charles Austin Drive, 512-396-5466) is one of the most convenient and reliable tubing outfitters in San Marcos. You’ll float for about an hour to Rio Vista Park and then take the shuttle back to City Park. The park is also an excellent spot for a lunchtime picnic.
Evening 3 - Cheatham Street Warehouse
Fans of folk and country music will enjoy an evening at the Cheatham Street Warehouse (119 Cheatham Street, 512-353-3777). Offering a stage for local songwriters since 1974, Cheatham Street usually presents live music every night of the week. It’s a great place to see up-and-coming acts, and you never know who might stop in for a jam session. The building itself may look a little rough around the edges, but the people are always friendly.
Day 4 - Outlet Shopping
On the southern outskirts of San Marcos, San Marcos Premium Outlets (3939 IH-35 South, 512-396-2200) and Tanger Outlets (4015 IH-35 South, 512-396-7446) together form a massive shopping complex. The Premium Outlets include high-end brands such as Ralph Lauren and Kate Spade, while Tanger has outlets for stores such as Haggar and Cavender’s Boot City. Make a shopping plan before you go, or you’ll quickly find yourself dazed and confused due to the abundance of options.
Day 4 - Dick’s Classic Garage and Mexican-American Cultural Center
After outlet shopping, take a side trip to Dick’s Classic Garage (120 Stagecoach Trail, 512-878-2406). The museum features more than 80 vehicles, including models from the early 1900s through the 1950s. In addition to displaying beautifully restored cars, the museum tells the story of how the automobile industry changed American culture through the years. Some of the cars are even available for rent, but Dick’s handles the driving.
Learn about Latino culture at Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos. The center includes a library, art gallery and museum. Located in the heart of one of San Marcos’ first Mexican-American barrios, the center both influences and is influenced by the surrounding community. The building was once known as the Mexican School, when San Marcos was segregated by race. By making a cultural center out of the old school, Latino leaders saw it as a way of reclaiming and celebrating the area’s Mexican-American history and heritage. In addition to showcasing Latino art and culture, the center holds a number of community events, such as Ballet Folklorico classes, children’s art classes, piano classes and after-school tutoring.
Evening 4 - Palmer’s Restaurant
After all that bargain shopping, you’ve earned the right to splurge a little on dinner. Palmer’s Restaurant (218 Moore Street, 512-353-3500) is in a lovely old home originally built in the 1920s. The pecan-crusted chicken and chicken-fried steak always earn rave reviews. If you’re looking for a little spice, try the smoked chicken chile relleno.
Day 5 - Wimberley Glassworks
Whether you’re in the market for an unusual gift or just enjoy looking at beautiful glass items, Wimberley Glassworks (6469 Ranch Road 12, 512-213-4148) should be a part of your itinerary. The collections include fairly simple pieces, such as bowls, as well as complex creations, such as chandeliers and jewelry. Also, glassblowing demonstrations are held daily.
Day 5 - Merriman Cabin
To get a better sense of the history of this quaint town, check out the Merriman Cabin at Veramendi Plaza (400 East Hopkins Street). Tours of the cabin are only available on the first Friday and Saturday of the month between noon and 2 p.m., but you can peek in the windows and read the informative plaques any time.
The surrounding park is also a nice place for a relaxing stroll before departing for home.
Come Back Soon!
When planning your next trip to San Marcos, keep the seasons in mind as well as the schedule at Texas State University. Tubing locations can be swamped at the height of the summer, but they're generally more laid-back in the spring. When the school is in session, the downtown bars will get a little crowded on weekends. However, football fans may want to visit in fall to catch a Bobcat football game. Though it's a mid-sized university, it has wildly enthusiastic fans, and the games are always entertaining.