Home of reformed “party school” Texas State University, San Marcos has attracted a reputation for its rowdy college parties and jam-packed river. But as the former home of Lyndon B. Johnson and the birthplace George Strait’s career, it’s clearly more than a college town.
With its unique blend of old-Austin charm and a fierce individual identity, this laid-back town located 30 minutes south of Austin serves as a great breath of fresh air for fast-paced city dwellers. (Just don’t go comparing it to Austin with the locals.)
From a San Marcos has-been, here’s a guide to all things “San Mo:"
The heartbeat of San Marcos is its river, which cuts right through the middle of town and dominates most summertime activities. When you hit the crystal-clear water, which remains a crisp 72 degrees year-round, you’ll understand why.
There are three schools of thought when it comes to river tubing in San Marcos:
- For a quieter ride: Although it’s the only route to cut through town, the hour-long route from Sewell Park to Rio Vista is the best for quieter family fun. Those with ties to Texas State University can grab tubes at Sewell Park for just $6 and head through several parks and pristine views (though you’ll have to trudge a mile back to return your tube). The Lions’ Club rental offers a similar option for $18 with an unlimited river shuttle. For both rides, beware of wild rice, which runs rampant due to its endangered species status, and the Rio Vista rapids—they aren’t for the faint of heart.
- For the full tubing experience: Located on the outskirts of town, Texas State Tubes combines a back-to-nature experience with a packed party feel. Visitors get a tube ride filled with rapids, lulls and rope swings before heading back on an old yellow school bus three hours later. The standard experience runs for $25, but driving-averse Austinites can also take a shuttle from downtown Austin for $69.
- For the “river rats"—Don’s Fish Camp is like Texas State Tubes’ slightly edgier twin. Like Texas State Tubes, Don’s Fish Camp runs for three hours, though it’s located further away from the city and has gained a slightly bigger reputation among tubing old-timers.
Each ride is different, but newcomers can get to tubing in no time with these general rules:
- Bring lots of sunscreen, plenty of beverages (don’t forget the water, too!) and a rope to tie tubes together. For the best experience, tie each tube together during slow stretches and untie before reaching any rapids.
- Cooler tubes are available for rent at both Texas State Tubes and Don’s Fish Camp. While you can bring alcohol to either with no issue, glass and styrofoam are not allowed. Bans against consuming alcohol are also lightly enforced at city parks.
- Make sure to pack for long hours in the sun—hats, sunglasses and shirts are all great for protection. For those committed to keeping their toenails, sandals and river shoes are also recommended.
- Unless you must, don’t bring your phone or other valuables—anything can get lost in the river.
- Arrive early wherever you go to avoid crowds, especially in summer.
- Anything you forget—from river shoes to cooler tubes—can be bought for cheap at HEB.
- When you’re about to hit a rapid, remember to lift your butt up and avoid the rocks!
More river fun
Tubing isn’t the end-all for river fun in San Marcos. Those interested in picnics or sunbathing can head to the famous Bikini Hill at Sewell Park, which also offers swimming, beach volleyball, basketball and paddleboard/kayak rentals.
Other swimming spots include Rio Vista, which hosts three rapids and has several restaurants nearby, and Stokes Park, which offers a more secluded swimming and trail experience. Five Mile Dam is another popular natural swimming destination, and famous swimming holes abound just twenty miles west in the little Hill Country town of Wimberley (though that might be a day trip of its own).
The crystal-clear origin of the San Marcos River (and possible origin of civilization) can also be explored via glass-bottomed boat at Spring Lake. The only home of the San Marcos salamander, the spring is also thought to be the oldest continually inhabited site in North America.
Once you’ve dried off, here are a few other things to try around town:
- Wonder World Cave & Adventure Park: This family-friendly attraction includes a natural cave system, a tower showcasing the highest views in the county and a train that runs through a wildlife park.
- Purgatory Creek Natural Area: Nature lovers, bird watchers and mountain bikers will all thrive in this natural area, which features dozens of miles of trails across creeks, limestone cliffs and more.
- The Square: While it’s packed with barhoppers at night, strolling through San Marcos’ downtown is also a great way to start your day. Visitors can stroll past downtown murals and the occasional live music show at Kissing Alley before stopping at restaurants, cafes and vintage shops downtown. The square also fills up for community events like the weekly farmers market, which runs every Saturday.
- San Marcos Outlets: The San Marcos Outlets are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Texas. Stretched over 1 million square feet, the mall hosts hundreds of stores and can temporarily triple the population of San Marcos in peak season. Make sure to arrive early and wear your best walking shoes.
Here’s a look at the best bites in town:
Best breakfast—A Tex-Mex treat off the beaten path, Chepo’s offers cheap homemade breakfast tacos and more before it closes at 2 p.m. each day.
Best brunch—Head to Blue Dahlia for a classic hangover cure: mimosas and an all-day breakfast menu (including the best waffles in town).
Best coffee—Jo’s Cafe is the epitome of San Marcos and offers coffee, breakfast tacos and more on a quiet street near downtown.
Best Tex-Mex—Since 1976, Herbert’s Taco Hut has been serving low-key Tex-Mex eats just steps away from Rio Vista Park. Honorable mention—Toma Taco.
Best date night—Palmers’ charming courtyard has earned plenty of Hays County awards and is perfect for a date night out.
Wine & dine—Patio Dolcetto is never too packed and always stocked with the best wines, wine-based cocktails and artisan appetizers in San Marcos.
For dessert—From goat cheese & raspberry to animal cracker, Rhea’s Ice Cream offers ice cream flavors that easily rival Amy’s. Just next door is Gil’s Broiler—home of LBJ’s favorite dessert, the Manske roll.
Zelick’s Icehouse- Perhaps the most San Martian activity known to man is grabbing a $6 beer & shot combo at Zelick’s after a long day of tubing. Built out of a 1930s gas station, the “Best Little Icehouse in Texas” offers live music, events and a queso-centric food truck in a laidback setting near the square.
Davenport Lounge—The former home of Buzzmill Coffee, this cozy indoor-outdoor venue features craft cocktails, great food and live music almost every night of the week.
Treff’s Tavern—Tired of big-city prices? For the first week of every month, this North LBJ neighborhood favorite offers $2 house drinks of your choice all night long.
Stonewall— San Marcos’ first and only LGBTQ+ bar brings in clientele of all types for its 18+ restrictions, drag shows and lively events.
Shade Rooftop Bar— One of several rooftop bars downtown, Shade offers a more laidback setting on the rowdy square.
Sean Patrick’s—San Marcos’ best Irish pub offers Irish eats, dozens of beers on tap and activities ranging from darts to watch parties.
Cheatham Street Warehouse—Originally a humble grocery warehouse, this unassuming venue was the site of George Strait’s first performances and has since hosted plenty of other honky-tonk greats.
The Marc—From its famous Latin Nights to Shaquille O’Neal, the biggest venue in San Marcos brings in famous attendees from all genres, especially EDM.
Open mic nights and more— Live music and weekly open mic nights can be found dotted across the San Marcos Square, with popular hotspots including Nephews and the Gray Horse Saloon. Further out, events are often held at the truly unique Studio San Martian as well as Roughhouse and Middleton Brewing.