No one likes leaving the beautiful playground that is Austin, but a change of pace and scenery can rejuvenate the soul. San Marcos, an easy jaunt south, tempts with adventures in and on the San Marcos River, charming craft breweries, tried and true eateries, and little to no traffic.
Here’s what I discovered during my San Marcos getaway.
Disclosure: Several of these hand-picked businesses offered a sponsored experience or meal for the purpose of this article. Opinions are heartfelt and completely my own.
Staying Cool in San Marcos
Swimming in Texas during the summer is essential, and San Marcos lacks nothing in this department. The San Marcos River, part of the Edwards Aquifer system, provides plenty of easy drop-in spots and cool water (74 degrees). There’s a gentle yet decent flow for swimming, tubing, paddle boarding, kayaking, or canoeing.
1/ Snorkel TX
The first rule of Summer Swim Club is to wake up early to avoid crowds on the road and in the water. Snorkel TX offers guided morning snorkeling tours of the San Marcos River that start at 8 a.m., seven days a week. The San Marcos River, fed by multiple springs, has some of the clearest water in the region and lots of wildlife to see. You might even see endangered species, like Texas wild rice or the San Marcos blind salamander.
Bonus: Snorkel TX team members practice what they preach about taking care of the river by picking up discarded trash along the route.
2/ Texas State Tubes
Texas State Tubes has walk-up tube rentals. But more importantly for Austinites, there’s also a party bus from downtown Austin.
This is a “Hey, let’s party, be responsible, and avoid littering” experience. Customers can rent tubes at the drop-in site, or bring their own and only pay for the shuttle. You can also rent a cooler tube for your float.
Texas State Tubes offers an approximately three-hour float, depending on how fast the river is flowing at the time. Tube rates vary, depending on whether you walk in or shuttle from Austin.
2024 N. Old Bastrop Hwy. — Website
3/ Lion’s Club Tube Rental/Sewell Park
This easy, no-frills tube rental is right in the heart of Sewell Park and includes a river shuttle. Located on campus with ample free parking and several spots to drop in, Sewell Park is pretty much a must. The Lion’s Club is the staple and has good rental rates.
601 University Dr. – Website
4/ The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment
Rekindle childlike wonder through a glass-bottom boat tour at The Meadows Center. Longtime Texans know it by its past life as Aquarena Springs, home of Ralph the Swimming Pig and underwater mermaid shows.
In 2001, The Meadows Center transformed into the home of world-class education, research, advocacy, and stewardship of our local waterways. Set on Spring Lake, the spring-filled headwaters of the San Marcos River, The Meadows Center still offers glass-bottom boat tours, a throwback to the Aquarena Springs days, and still the best way to see the wildlife there.
The glass-bottom boat fleet includes newer boats and revamped vessels from decades ago. The boats are covered and comfortable, and glimpsing the underwater world this way is uniquely appealing.
The guides are deeply invested in their roles as researchers, educators, and advocates for preserving the beauty and cleanliness of the San Marcos River, as well as the entire Edwards Aquifer system. Our guide, Ryan, shared that his favorite part of the job is watching children get excited about what they’re discovering and learning. One of The Meadows Center’s goals is to inspire future generations to be stewards of the environment.
The Meadows Center hosts field trips, takes volunteer divers out to clean up the lake, and has a small museum with tanks of local turtles, fish, blind salamanders, and other river flora and fauna. The organization is also partnering with REI for upcoming SUP events.
201 San Marcos Springs Dr. – Website
5/ SUP Glow Night With Paddle SMTX
If you’re looking for a sexier adventure, SUP Glow Night Tours is your place. My love of things that sparkle, shine, or glow is well documented on The Austinot, so going on this guided, nighttime tour was a no-brainer. I am delighted I did! The night starts, as most San Marcos river tours do, at Sewell Park and progresses a bit beyond Rio Vista Park.
Each SUP has two glowing strips on its bottom, with options for colors and even a disco-blinky program. Besides the sheer excitement and newness of being on the river at night, the added glow in the water highlights how beautiful and clear the river truly is.
From the safety and comfort of your board (either standing, kneeling, or sitting), you can see the plants and fish below in a whole new light (see what I did there?). This is a really cool experience.
602 N. Interstate 35 – Website
Culture and History
6/ The Witliff Collections
Bill and Sally Wittliff founded the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University in 1986 with the first of many gifts: papers from author, local legend, and folklorist, J. Frank Dobie. Situated on the 7th floor of the Albert A. Alkek Library at Texas State University, the Witliff houses impressive collections of Southwestern and Mexican photography.
Check out rotating exhibits like “Music in Harmony,” music photography (through July 22, 2018), or “Sunrise Sunset,” solargraphs by Bill Witliff (through July 30, 2018).
601 University Dr. – Website
7/ Wonder World Cave and Park
This throwback has functioned as a local amusement center since the 1950s. While many locals know of Wonder World, but have yet to go, I assure you it’s worth a visit. The tour through the Balcones Fault Line Cave, aka Wonder Cave, is one of the few dry-formed caves around and was created by an earthquake.
The guided cave tour provides a fair bit of history, geological information, and groan-worthy (but charming) dad jokes. We discovered that while the cave was first formed by an earthquake, people expanded its pathways twice with dynamite blasts, the first to expand the opening to facilitate further exploration, and more recently to create space for the Stratavator elevator inside the cave.
Tall folks like myself need to duck to avoid low overhangs throughout the tour, but the paths are well-lit and include railings at any steep spots.
Other attractions at Wonder World include the anti-gravity room, Tejas Observatory Tower, Texas Wildlife Petting Zoo, and Wonder World train. The zoo and train primarily appeal to younger visitors, while the cave and anti-gravity room are fun for all ages.
1000 Prospect St. – Website
Get in Mah Belly
8/ AquaBrew Restaurant and Brewery
San Marcos’s fairly new craft brewery and restaurant, AquaBrew, burst onto the scene with a perfectly realized vision of serving quality craft beer and an atypical food menu. Founder Carlos Russo, originally from Venezuela, comes from a business and engineering background, but wanted to do something more personally edifying.
Russo did his research, ordered high-quality brewing equipment, and set out to make beer and build a beautiful space to serve it in. As business grows, Russo continues to invest money back into the bar. In the past two years, he has added an outdoor beer garden and rooftop lounge. The menu is diverse and tasty, ranging from options like loaded fries with bacon jam and sriracha, to more unusual fare such as Thai chicken satay.
AquaBrew offers an incredible deal on crowlers Monday through Wednesday: half price when you buy three. That’s $10 per 32-ounce crowler! The brewery also offers river-friendly, insulated growlers and baby kegs with handles. All are brightly colored in case you drop them in the river, so you can easily retrieve them.
My favorite beer of the day when I visited was the Vienna Lager, similar to a red ale, but not as heavy. My colleague loved the Skyscraper Mosaic IPA, which AquaBrew is canning and marketing for retail sale. Soon you should be able to find this crisp, yummy IPA on retail shelves right here in Austin. This place is a must-visit when you go to San Marcos!
150 S. LBJ Dr. – Website
9/ Patio Dolcetto
This lovely wine bar oozes charm, with an ambience that gives patrons a quiet, grown-up spot to chill out and change things up after experiencing the river rat vibe. Patio Dolcetto’s walls are covered with local art; the design is modern yet warm; and the food complements the wine and craft beer menu nicely. Sit on the shady patio or at the bar, and nosh on tapas ranging from an excellent cheese plate to goat cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto and rolled in crushed pistachios.
Patio Dolcetto is laid-back, unpretentious, and an overall hit for those seeking to branch out from more collegiate spots. The servers are friendly and skilled at recommending wine and small plates. Patio Dolcetto has specials every day. On Sundays, choose from a selection of five wines, each of which comes with a generous and savory cheese board of cheese, crackers, nuts, and dried fruit.
The restaurant also has a killer molten lava cake with ice cream and chocolate truffles, for those wanting to pair wine with something sweet.
322 Cheatham St. – Website
10/ Grins Restaurant
Open since 1975, Grins is a long-time local hangout that’s airy and lively. Known for burgers and onion rings, this place is a great choice for post-river feasting. It also has insanely cheap happy hour margaritas and daily food specials. I recommend asking what’s made in-house, as those are the best menu items.
Grins sells its award-winning salsa, housemade ranch, and southwest vinaigrette dressing by the jar. (I enjoyed all three.) I ordered the daily special, a chicken-fried steak, which was as hearty and naughty as any I recall having. Of course, I also had to try the onion rings. They were extra large with a light batter, yet still crispy. Grins’ service was really friendly. I love supporting old school spots, and Grins is a classic.
802 N. LBJ – Website
11/ Wake the Dead Coffee
Wake the Dead celebrates 10 years in business in 2018. This lively, quirky coffee shop reigns as a hub for all things creative in San Marcos. Besides potent coffee drinks, Wake the Dead serves wine, beer, sandwiches, and pastries from nearby Lauren’s Wildflour Bakery and Sugar Shack Bakery.
The coffee shop also hosts live music, monthly artisan markets, and community gatherings such as “Just Show Up and Write and Draw.” Wake the Dead is killing it after all these years (go ahead and groan)!
1432 Old Ranch Road 12 – Website
12/ Loli’s Cafe (formerly Lolita’s)
Talk tacos to nearly anyone who has spent time in San Marcos, and the common denominator is Loli’s. Best known for solid breakfast tacos, Loli’s offers lunch tacos, too. The service here is strictly drive-through. Drive up to this humble house and marvel at the efficient, time-proven skill shown, while adeptly taking orders and cranking out yummy tacos.
1501 Aquarena Springs Dr. – Facebook
13/The Root Cellar Cafe and Brewery
While our packed schedule did not allow for time to visit The Root Cellar, so many people recommended it that I feel it warrants a mention. This brewery and restaurant offers fun dishes such as housemade beer bread with honey butter (made from the same grains as the beer brewed in-house), along with burgers and Root Cellar’s own craft beer.
215 N. LBJ – Website
14/ Cheatham Street Warehouse
As a writer, I’m wary of misusing powerful words like “legend.” However, Cheatham Street Warehouse, first opened in 1974, is an absolute Hill Country legend. This honky tonk boasts a colorful past painted with performances from Texas household names and true legends like Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marcia Ball, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Original owner, Kent Finlay, brought that Luckenbach feel to San Marcos, revealing an extraordinary knack for sniffing out up-and-coming acts. Through his devotion to offering a platform for a burgeoning outlaw country movement, he earned Cheatham Street Warehouse an indelible place in the stratosphere of Hill Country honky tonks now and forever, amen. To prove this is no mere hyperbole, none less than George Strait and his Ace in the Hole band played their first official gig at Cheatham, back in 1975.
This place reeks of Texas history and showcases musicians weekly. Current owner, longtime regular, and musician Randy Rogers bought the place in 2016 and runs it now in honor of Finlay’s memory and the bar’s roots, with a killer lineup of music.
Seriously, this place alone is worth the trip to San Marcos. Thinking about its glory days hits me right in the feels.
119 Cheatham St. – Website
Extend Your Stay
15/ Pecan Park Riverside RV Park
If you plan on checking out all these hot spots in San Marcos, then you’ll need more than one day. You may choose to stay overnight or make a weekend out of it. Rental houses and cabins abound in San Marcos, but make sure to book ahead of time, especially during summer, as places fill up quickly.
For the more adventurous among you, here’s a groovy, family-friendly alternative. Pecan Park Riverside RV Park has camping spots with RV hookups and private river access.
Pecan Park used to have rental cabins, but they were destroyed during the 2015 floods. Rumor has it the team is working on a new lodging option for those who don’t own an RV, so keep an eye out.
50 Squirrel Run – Website
Disclosure: The owners of The Austinot work with Pecan Park in a professional capacity, apart from The Austinot.
Keep It Clean
Taking care of our waterways is so important. If you have a designated driver and choose to drink on the river, then always bring a mesh trash bag for trash. Please don’t litter, and remember that glass containers and Styrofoam coolers are never allowed on the river. Let’s keep this jewel of ours clean and healthy for future generations of Texans to enjoy, too.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What’s your favorite San Marcos spot?
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