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:"
(Don's Fish Camp/Facebook)
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.
- 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
(Texas State University/Twitter)
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' lone gay 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.
Matias Segura swept his hand across a whiteboard in his office at AISD headquarters, describing how an entrance vestibule works. It might remind you of a sally port at a prison. The vestibule is designed to protect our children from the active shooters who have plagued our nation since Columbine in 1999.
“You start with the signage,” he said. “You know exactly where the entrance is, and that’s for first responders too. We really want to make sure we keep up with visitor patterns. If they come in, they go through a system. Driver’s license, background check, which takes about a minute. We have a software system.”
AISD Director of Operations Matias Segura explains the overall school construction and what the entry vestibule looks like. (Rich Oppel)
The vestibule has two sets of locked doors. The exterior set has an audio-visual intercom, operated by a desk officer who has a view of visitor parking, the building approach and the vestibule. If allowed in, a visitor is buzzed through and then faces questioning and clearance by the desk officer. The visitor is given a card-reader pass. If a second person attempts to “trail in” behind another visitor, he is trapped in the vestibule until his status is determined. The second set of doors, into the main school building, remains locked and shut. It is open when students arrive in the morning.
Thus, the days of walking into the school, maybe waving at the principal’s executive assistant and strolling off to the cafeteria for lunch with your daughter are gone, a relic of a more bucolic time when “active shooters” were never imagined. But one must ask, what do we give up for greater safety?
Austinites remembered the Uvalde shooting victims in a vigil at the Texas Capitol in May. (Tony Fuentes)
Some critics argue that we are at risk of losing traditional values in the redesign of schools, courthouses, hospitals, churches and shopping centers. Writing in The Washington Post, architecture critic Philip Kennicott said the nation’s gun culture “threatens an essential precondition for democracy: its public space… Ideals of openness, flow, transparency and access will no longer be sustainable.”
Segura contemplates the question. At 41, he has held his job as AISD director of operations for four and a half years. Prior to that he was a consultant who led the team to build Austin’s new courthouse. His Austin and Texas roots are deep. He was born here, graduated from Bowie High, and went off to Lubbock to earn a degree in civil engineering from Texas Tech. He returned to secure an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife Joy Burson-Segura have two daughters who attend AISD schools. Segura said he and his operations team love AISD, care deeply about their work, and want citizens “to see us as partners.”
Back to what we lose in hardening the schools.
Segura says, “We think about students’ health. Having daylight, bringing light into a hardened facility, being able to access outdoor learning areas, (which is) hypercritical, especially in what we have learned in the pandemic.” Segura doesn’t like the idea of moats around schools (exotic, expensive) nor of classroom bomb shelters (what would teachers and students think about their looming presence?), efforts that are being tried elsewhere.
Healthcare workers receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the AISD Performing Arts Center in Mueller in 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
AISD must juggle school security with the historic use of our schools for other purposes, such as voting, PTA-PTO meetings, community fairs, and, more recently, COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and food distribution. AISD does not want to end those uses, so the challenge is to design schools with separate rooms or places for those uses.
Clearly, Segura has thought about balancing conflicting equities. For him, it’s not all locked doors and blank brick or concrete walls. He stresses the importance of building a culture that includes shared responsibility of all school employees where, for example, a custodian could ask a stranger whether they have a visitor’s badge. All staffers should be well-trained in security measures, knowledgeable about new technology, and committed to working as a team to protect students, teachers and others. “We are working very, very hard on the culture,” he says. “Also, we need (financial) investment if we are going to move the needle.”
Kennicott, the Washington Post critic, quotes the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist and New York Democrat, who said, “Architecture is inescapably a political art, and it reports faithfully for ages to come what the political values of a particular era were. Surely, ours must be openness and fearlessness in the face of those who hide in darkness.”
But that was in 2001. What messages will Austin’s new public schools convey to future generations about our 2021 political values?
“First and foremost, these are education spaces that belong to our community. Our objective is to create incredible learning experiences for our students and at the same time ensure that the students and staff are safe.” He said he wants people to view schools as “inspired,” places where they would want to send their children. “Great things are happening in that space,” and that teachers see a place where they want to work and where they feel safe.
Voters in AISD will decide Nov. 8 on a $2.44 billion bond package to provide “funding for improvements to enhance safety, centers on equity, benefits every campus, and addresses affordability,” according to AISD officials.
Ever had sushi delivered to you on a conveyor belt or tried Ukrainian borsch?
If you're looking for a restaurant that shakes up your dinner, try one of these newly-opened options.
Conveyor belt sushi
For a fun, interactive twist on your typical sushi dinner, head to Kura Revolving Sushi Bar. Upon sitting down, you’ll have a conveyor belt to one side, where you can pluck whichever plate piques your interest, or a screen that allows you to order plates a la carte. You’ll pay by the plate, which tends to be less than a few dollars each, and win prizes if you hit the right milestones.
Korean Egg Toast
Serving all things egg, Egg Bomb opened earlier this month at 808 North Lamar Blvd., taking over the former Ola Poke location. Egg Bomb specializes in Korean egg drop sandwiches, with toppings like cheese, caramelized onions, avocado, salmon and condiments; “Egg Tots,” or fries with eggs and toppings, as well as coffee and sides. You can also find egg toast and squid ink hotdogs at Oh K-Dog.
Tortas at La Plancha
With a desire to fill the torta-shaped whole they saw in Austin’s fare, co-owning couple Mariha Hinojosa and Julian Richmond opened La Plancha, 1701 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, on July 1. The Mexican sandwiches are served on a bolillo bun with toppings including avocado, barbacoa, queso fresco, refried beans, cheese, pickles and salsa. There are other options: Think papas fritas, street corn and mini-churros.
Ukrainian cuisine to-go
You can take your chicken Kyiv to-to at new takeout-only restaurant U-Cuisine, 5610 N. I-35, which opened in mid-June. Ukrainian chefs and owners Alla Shelest and Mariana Shelestiuk said they are trying to bring a taste of their home country amidst a difficult time in history. Try the chicken Kyiv, a dill and parsley-stuffed chicken breast rolled in breadcrumbs; borsch, a burgundy beetroot soup; Holubtsi, beef and pork cabbage rolls; and lviv syrnyk, a chocolatey raisin cheesecake.
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