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USA travel

Texas city breaks – an urban adventure through Houston, San Antonio and Austin

Away from the plains and ranchlands, Shelley Rubenstein visits three very different Texan cities and finds that the Lone Star State has plenty to offer in its urban enclaves

Wednesday 08 May 2024 12:32 BST
Get out of the saddle for an urban slice of the USA’s most populous state
Get out of the saddle for an urban slice of the USA’s most populous state (Getty Images)

Most travellers will associate Texas with cowboys, ranches, sprawling plains and the flavours of Tex-Mex. And although the Lone Star State certainly excels in all these areas, there are now plenty of cityscapes vying for attention.

It may not be the obvious choice for a city break, but Texas, venerated for its rugged outdoors, artsy boutiques and barbecue, has mastered urban cool around its upscale high rises.

State capital Austin dances to live music, San Antonio buzzes with bars on the river bank and Houston rides the rodeo and space travel. These three cities offer a very different taste of urban Texas and can be visited individually for a long weekend, but work particularly well as an extended city-hopping break – Austin and San Antonio are around one hour 30 minutes from each other by road, and the drive from either to Houston is around two to three hours.

With perennial sunshine and boutique bed and breakfasts as hospitable as the locals, it’s not hard to while away a weekend or longer in the USA’s most populous state. So polish your cowboy boots, brush up on your Beyoncé and roll up your sleeves for finger-sullying smoked brisket, on charming city breaks to these Texan metropolises.

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San Antonio

Spanish-influenced San Antonio is a foodie favourite (Getty Images)

As Texas’s leading tourist hotspot and the USA’s seventh largest city, San Antonio is a firm favourite among travellers. Best known for its Spanish mission, The Alamo, the Spanish influence on local architecture is widespread, as exemplified by San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest standing church building in Texas, founded in 1731 by a group from the Canary Islands.

What to do

There’s a perceptible stillness in the air and a haunting beauty that hits on entering The Alamo’s hallowed grounds. Echoes of the bloody battle that took place here nearly two centuries ago in 1836 resonate throughout.

The main draw at the Alamo Collections Center is the antiquities generously bequeathed by Genesis singer, Phil Collins. The collection comes from a near lifelong obsession borne when Collins saw Disney’s “Davy Crockett: King of the World Frontier” at five years old.

Former brewery turned culture hub, Pearl, has injected life north of downtown, with its shops, restaurants and award-winning farmer’s market. Swing by Hotel Emma to admire the masterful conversion into Texas’s only five-diamond hotel. Original features have been artfully incorporated throughout.

Book an early morning, pre-sweltering heat tour with Mission Adventure which provides an illuminating guide to the city’s history. It’s especially enjoyable while strolling along the eight-mile River Walk that links to the five missions.

The arts are prevalent in this vibrant city and there are some excellent museums, most notably the San Antonio Museum of Art, which showcases the most comprehensive ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art collection in the southern USA. The Smithsonian-affiliated Witte Museum features science, nature and cultural exhibits dating back as far as the Cretaceous era.

Where to eat

As one of three US locations for the Culinary Institute of America and a Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy, San Antonio has plenty to offer in terms of food and drink.

Ocho’s kitchen is helmed by lauded chef, and winner of the cooking show “Chopped”, Jesse Kuykendall. Jesse advises breakfasting at Nichas, sampling classics like Huevos Rancheros, Barbacoa and Chilaquiles.

Carriqui’s South Texan cuisine is infused with an authentic BBQ flavour, courtesy of regional woods, oak, pecan and mesquite. We recommend ordering the Ranch Water – tequila, fresh lime juice and sparkling mineral water. It’s refreshing and lethal. The drink has become so popular that April 11 has been declared National Ranch Water Day.

Ladino has been a roaring success since opening owing to the rarity of high-quality Mediterranean-influenced cuisine in the region. Maria’s Cafe is a local institution, renowned for its breakfast tacos and tortillas, and Ray’s makes puffy crispy tacos around the clock to keep up with demand for their signature dish. Kitsch café and bakery Mi Tierra is the place for celebrations.

Alex Serna AKA San Antonio Munchies provides an insight into where San Antonians frequent: indulge in fluffy cupcakes at Bird Bakery; try pots of corn enhanced with Cheetos and other ground-up flavourings at Elotitos’s; and dive into Stixs and Stone, where chef Leo Davila creates culinary gold by fusing Chinese and Mexican influences, reflective of his upbringing.

Where to stay

Menger Hotel

Located next to the Alamo, this 19th-century treasure steeped in history is celebrating 165 years since its opening. The Menger is thought to be one of the most haunted hotels in the country and the atmospheric grand Victorian lobby transports visitors back to the days when Teddy Roosevelt frequented the bar. Service is exemplary and the reception is always friendly and helpful.

Hotel Havana

A hotel that blends old-world charm with a touch of Cuban modernity. Indulge in a nightcap at Hotel Havana’s cosy subterranean speakeasy.


Fine art, space travel and the world’s largest rodeo live in Houston (Getty Images)

The state’s largest city is also the fourth-largest city in the US, with it’s size illustrated by the presence of over 150 museums, 366 parks and around 6,200 miles of road.But while the city used to be best known by tourists as a place to transit through, nowadays travellers will find a truly eclectic range of things to see and do. From a tour of a Nasa Space Center to vast collections of 20th-century art and a Holocaust Museum, this is a city that has preserved vital history while carefully cultivating its own spin on Texas’s laid-back culture.

What to do

Art meets tranquillity at Rothko Chapel’s spiritually uplifting non-denominational sanctuary. Mark Rothko created 14 bespoke murals for this space, curating every design detail. Sit, acquiesce and be at peace.

The Cy Twombly Gallery and a thrilling selection of René Magritte and Max Ernst’s work are just a few reasons to head to the Montrose District’s Menil Collection. Architect Renzo Piano has created an equally impressive building to showcase these important works. Meanwhile, the Museum of Fine Arts boasts a collection of more than 70, 000 pieces, ranging from ancient times to contemporary. 

Space Center Houston brings alive the history of space travel, curating over 400 artefacts, gems from the first moon landing and the mammoth Saturn V. Be sure to tour the astronaut training facilities and Mission Control, swotting up on the 2025 Artemis programme, which sees man returning to the moon for the first time since 1972.

Former drinking water reservoir The Cistern hosts candlelit concerts, meditations and exhibitions. The acoustics are magnificent, so if you’re only there for a tour, there’s much entertainment to be found calling out into the ether as the choral echoes resound.

Where to eat

At Jūn, chefs Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu expertly fuse the cuisines of their heritage, creating a palate-enticing ‘new Asian American’ menu.

Navy Blue’s airy space provides chef Aaron Bludorn with the ideal platform for his accomplished American seafood concept to shine.

Urbe Food Hall specialises in excellent and affordable Mexican street food.

Mid-century decor meets contemporary French fare at Eau Tour, a playful bar and restaurant, located above the artisan Local Foods Market, owned by the same team.

Repurposing a former post office, Post has created an impressive space housing shops, a concert venue, a rooftop lawn and over 20 food and drink outlets representing worldwide cuisines.

Where to stay

Hotel Granduca

This all-suite oasis is inspired by the 16th-century palazzo of the Granduca of Monfallito. Mosaics, hand-painted murals and antique pieces create a homely yet luxurious setting at Hotel Granduca, transporting guests to the heart of Italy.

Thompson Houston

Stylish Thompson Houston is located in Buffalo Bayou Park and provides an excellent base to explore the city, boasting a spacious rooftop pool, ideal for sightseeing while reclining.


The ‘Live Music Capital’ has all the ingredients for a musical city break (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The state capital has carved a reputation as a tech and music hub in recent years, leading to a glut of new hotel, restaurant and shop openings, and a burgeoning food scene. The city’s self-proclaimed title as ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ encompasses the breadth of music, while surrounding nature areas – including those around Lake Austin and Lake Travis – provide green spaces to get away from it all on a sunny afternoon (of which there are plenty).

The Austin City Limits festival, which began in 1990, shows no signs of winding down, nor does the headline-grabbing annual arts festival SXSW. The city’s commitment to live music is so fervent that bona fide marquee name bands such as Asleep at the Wheel rock up to Austin-Bergstrom Airport to perform free gigs for travellers.

What to do

The Real Austin Tour is a good introduction to various neighbourhoods. The well-informed guides also have intel on the plethora of speakeasies, including passwords to get into secret bars.

Head to Lady Bird Lake for a sunset bat cruise – the chorus of squeaking from above heralds the hordes of bats emerging from under Congress Avenue Bridge.

The impressive Texas Capitol, the USA’s largest capitol building, offers free 30-minute tours Monday to Friday. Out front, take time to fully appreciate the attention to detail in the Texas African American History Memorial. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth (June 19th) a public holiday and the memorial depicts the abolishmenet of slavery in 1865.

There’s much to be learnt of the German influence in Texas on a day trip to Fredericksburg. Head via Texas’s leading vineyard, Becker for an excellent winery tour, with the opportunity to sample several impressive vintages.

At Fredericksburg explore the Pioneer Museum, where you’ll learn about the adjustment of the German settlers to life in Texas in 1846. You’ll find plenty of shops on Main Street, from gourmet Texan foods to cowboy boots and knick-knacks.

Austin has the most music venues per capita than any other city in the world. We wouldn’t usually extol the virtues of an arena, but the partly Matthew McConaughey-owned Moody Center is a masterful accomplishment, with crisp sound, quality nibbles and murals created by local artists.

Where to eat

Este excels in fresh seafood and Mexican cuisine. The delightful kitchen garden is shared with sister restaurant Suerte.

You’ll be entranced by magnificent city views while dining at rooftop restaurant Nido at Austin’s latest luxury accommodation, The Loren Hotel at Lady Bird Lake, where a relaxed discreet elegance pervades.

Pile up small plates of tasty Mediterranean flavours at the buzzy Aba.

Where to stay

Hotel San Jose

San Jose Hotel is located in the happening South Congress neighbourhood. This boutique hotel exudes boho chic in a bungalow-style setting.

The Driskill

The allegedly haunted Driskill is downtown’s grand dame, oozing class and history. The bar is a local institution and breakfast at 1886 coffee shop is a great way to start the day.

How to get there

British Airways flies daily from London Heathrow to Austin and Houston, with two flights to Houston on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during summer and winter seasons. Flight time is around 10 hours 15 minutes.

Virgin Atlantic and Delta fly daily from London Heathrow and Manchester to Austin via Atlanta.

Shelley was in Texas as a guest of Travel Texas.

Read more: Want to be a Ghostbuster? Here’s how to explore New York City like one

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