9 Reasons to Drive to San Marcos
From Hill Country beers and live music to splashy Schlitterbahn fun.
Sitting conveniently between Austin and San Antonio, San Marcos is the perfect mini-road trip for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, what it’s famous for—outlet shopping. But more than that, San Marcos is a playground for kids and adults alike. There are plenty of good times to be had in H20, whether that’s tubing down the San Marcos River, floating on a glass-bottom boat, or having a splash at a water park. On land, there are a slew of bars, restaurants, live music venues and hangouts, boasting excellent prices due to the fact that this also happens to be a college town (it’s the best place to escape inflation, kinda). And for culture vultures, there are museums and historic venues that are sure to satisfy. You’ll get more than you bargain for when you come shopping in San Marcos—here are nine reasons why.
Wander San Marcos’s museums for a dose of history
Did you know that San Marcos is considered the longest continuously inhabited site in North America? And that was way before the outlet malls brought joy (i.e. cheap deals) to the masses. You can find out more starting at museums like the Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos and Calaboose African American Museum, journeying through time right up to the Commemorative Air Force Exhibit (which displays the actual planes used in the 1970 movie Tora, Tora, Tora) and the LBJ Museum of San Marcos, dedicated to U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson's years as a student at what is now Texas State University. Finally, end your grand tour at San Marcos Residential Historic Districts and the heritage sites at Veramendi Plaza.
Dive into the Marcos River
When it comes to outdoor swimming holes, San Marcos is where it’s at. The San Marcos River runs through the middle of the city, complete with a handful of easy-to-find access points flushed with greenery. Rio Vista Park and William & Eleanor Crook Park, two riverside locations stationed right off I-35 South, are perfect for a casual day of swimming, some light hiking, and maybe even a little tubing if you’re so inclined (BYO-Floatie, of course). Farther north and slightly off the beaten path, Sewell Park is an ideal location for wading into crystal clear waters and sunbathing amid tranquil views.
Turn it up on the Square
By day, San Marcos Downtown Square is a bustling shopping destination but by night, it transforms into a giant roving party, teeming with college students and locals as soon as the sun sets. The Square generally translates to four central blocks of unique storefronts, bars, and restaurants (though, depending on who you ask, it can also refer more broadly to adjacent streets with similar offerings). Regardless of geographical definitions, you absolutely can’t miss a raucous drag show at Stonewall Warehouse, or cocktails with stunning panoramas at the Shade Rooftop Patio Bar. Meanwhile, Crafthouse Kitchen and Tap is the best place to do craft beers downtown, alongside juicy wings and tacos. Totally walkable and always bumping, it’s basically a one-stop-shop for a choose-your-own evening adventure.
Make a splash at a record-breaking waterpark
While Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Resort is technically in New Braunfels, it’s only a hop, skip, and a splash away from San Marcos—25 minutes by car, give or take an obligatory stop at Buc-ee's. Since it first opened in 1979, the game-changing amusement complex has been a quintessential Texan summertime stop for people of all ages, with numerous rivers, slides, chutes, and rides to keep you and the rest of your sundrenched crew occupied for hours. So many, in fact, that you can opt for a day or two-day pass on the website (or season pass if you really don’t want the fun to end).
Explore the watery depths from a glass-bottom boat
San Marcos is all about the great outdoors, and Texas State University has a hand in maintaining a few of the city’s many open-air stretches for the public to enjoy. Spring Lake Natural Area, managed by the University’s Meadows Center, is known for its rich aquatic ecosystem and, most importantly, glass-bottom boats providing attendees with a closer look at the fascinating world under the water’s surface. For less than $10, you get a 30-minute tour of the lake complete with priceless glimpses of its majestic plant life, fish, and other rare native creatures like the Texas Blind Salamander, which has been an endangered species since the 1960s.
Sample locally crafted beers in the scenic hill country
Over the last few decades, the craft beer revolution has swept through major Texas cities like Austin and Houston. Now, San Marcos has brought its own microbreweries to the table. Established in 2016, AquaBrew is one of the city’s most prominent sites for locally brewed creations, offering a wide selection of house beverages on tap or in cans. Charmingly rustic Roughhouse Brewing might be a tad out of the way, but its idyllic farmhouse locale and extensive drink menu make it well worth the trip. The family-owned and -operated establishment has become a real crowd-pleaser, thanks to an inventive lineup made with locally sourced water, Texas-centric ingredients, and wood barrel fermentation.
Rock out to a local band or touring musician in a historic venue
Like most college towns, San Marcos maintains a spirited music and arts scene supported and powered by students and townies, so it's no wonder more and more national names (like Coheed and Cambria, Vampire Weekend, and Chance the Rapper) are opting to schedule a stop-off at one of the city’s excellent concert spots. Historic venues like The Marc and Cheatham Street Warehouse remain draws to touring acts that span a spectrum of genres. Meanwhile, smaller venues like Riley’s Tavern (est. 1933) and Gray Horse Saloon are about as Texan as they get.
Feed goats (and much more) at Wonder World Cave
First established as a tourist attraction in 1903, the Balcones Fault Line Cave has long enticed Wonder World Cave & Adventure Park visitors from all over the state. Kick things off by marveling at fossilized prehistoric life forms and remnants of long-gone geological eras on a thrilling (not to mention educational) cave tour. After taking a stroll underground, mix it up with a ride on the Stratavator, an elevator shaft soaring 190 feet in the air to reach the park’s observation tower overlooking the Texas Hill country. Wonder World also offers a number of other above-ground attractions, including an arcade, anti-gravity house, train ride, and native wildlife petting zoo featuring an eclectic roster of goats, deers, pigs, and emus.
Shop ‘til you drop at the San Marcos outlets
Every major shopping holiday, the Tanger Outlets and San Marcos Premium Outlets are inundated with bargain-hunters in search of good deals, but these two outdoor malls see heavy foot traffic every day of the week. The neighboring complexes carry an assortment of stores from high-end designers like Gucci, Valentino, and Prada, to casualwear brands like H&M, Reebok, and Forever 21. Whether you’re in the market for a new pair of Levi’s or hoping to score upscale kitchenware from Williams-Sonoma, these outlets have you covered. And if you get a little peckish, a host of food stands and restaurants are on hand to fuel the retail therapy.