Like a Local: Things to See and Do in San Marcos, Texas

Photo credit: Heather Martin


Come along with a genuine “San Martian” to discover the thriving community that exists beyond the IH-10 frontage road! There’s more to see and do in San Marcos than you might imagine, as Heather Martin explains.

Forget everything you’ve ever heard, everything you think you know about San Marcos. From arts to food to natural wonders, San Marcos is an under-appreciated pearl of the Texas Hill Country.

Cultural Highlights

The heart of this small but rapidly growing community is Texas State University, now the fourth largest university in Texas. It’s no longer the  “party school” you might have heard about in the 1980s, either. While the Center for Archeaological Studies generates a lot of media buzz, today the campus is an important hub of scholarship in multiple fields. (It’s also the alma mater of two famous Texans: George Strait and President Lyndon B. Johnson.)

The Texas State campus isn’t just for the Bobcats to enjoy, however. Visitors can find everything from jazz concerts to fine art shows  to history exhibitions on the 491-acre campus. Most admission fees range from free to $10. One especially interesting space to visit at Texas State is The Wittliff Collections, housed in the Alkek Library at the center of the campus. The Wittliff maintains historical artifacts and documents like the wide-ranging Texas Music Showcase and the production archives of the epic Lonesome Dove miniseries, for which founder Bill Wittliff was the screenwriter. The Wittliff also hosts regular lectures, readings, and temporary showings from prominent writers and artists.


Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos, Texas. Photo credit: Heather Martin


Shop & Restaurants

Now, what would a great Texas town be without a proper city center? 

Our main square, crowned by the old Classical Revival-style Hays County Courthouse, is home to numerous shops and restaurants that have revitalized the downtown scene. Pick up a souvenir San Martian t-shirt or a “Keep San Marcos Shady” bumper sticker at one of the shops nearby. My personal favorite is the Heartworks Co. Paper Bear gift shop, an institution on North LBJ Drive for 40 years.

If you’re peckish, head across the street for an amazing array of coffees and teas at the groovy Stellar Cafe or go for something more substantial, like pesto pasta or a Brewhouse Burger, at The Root Cellar Cafe.

Natural Wonders

Where San Marcos truly shines is in its natural resources.

Driving in from I-35 or Ranch Road 12, you’ll find Purgatory Creek Natural Area on the south end of town near where the two roads meet. The nature trails are a unique mix of meadows, seasonal creek beds, wetlands, and oak savannas, all within yards of each other.  San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance  routinely leads regular hikes and bird- or bug-watching walks at Purgatory Creek and other local nature areas.

Nearer to the center of town is the San Marcos River. Spring-fed and holding a constant 72 degrees year-round, the river is a vital touchstone for the community. For visitors, it’s an easy two-block walk from the square to the city’s riverside trail. Along the way you’ll see cypress tree knees, herons, and kayakers sharing the space. There are a few spots where riparian restoration projects temporarily limit access, but you can still go swimming, fire up barbecue grills, and watch the water flow from the banks at Sewell and Rio Vista Parks. If you’re extremely lucky, you may spot a San Marcos salamander in the clearest part of the river.

(But please don’t touch as these tiny cuties are endangered.)



Mermaids and Other Fun Creatures

Serious nature lovers of all ages will want to visit the nearby The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, where you can view those same salamanders in the aquarium exhibits and take a glass-bottomed boat ride. The staff will educate you on the aquifer systems unique to the Hill Country, provide updates on their important water quality and conservation research, and tell about the glory days of the old Aquarena Springs mermaid show.

Perhaps nothing attests to the spirits of San Marcos–past and present–better than The Mermaid Society, which will host its third-annual Mermaid Parade and Aqua Faire in the fall of 2018. Live music, local artists, and dogs in mermaid costumes will abound. With its trident mission of fostering arts, entrepreneurship, and conservation, this burgeoning community organization hopes to ensure the area maintains its authentic local flavor as it moves into the future.

Just like San Martians themselves.

Heather Martin is a registered dietitian, homeschooler, and blogger–and a member of Team Wildflower. You can find her at Mom of No Rank or on Twitter: @momofnorank.


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For more information on visiting San Marcos, see