8 Reasons to Drive to San Marcos

From Hill Country beers and live music to splashy Schlitterbahn fun.

Photo courtesy of City of San Marcos

Sitting just south of Austin’s burgeoning metropolis, San Marcos might have built its reputation on being a college town, but there’s a reason so many students choose to keep calling the city home long after graduation. From numerous nature-based draws to vivacious afterdark action, there’s no shortage of fun to be had in the appropriately dubbed San Marvelous. Here are eight reasons to hop in the car, leave those big city cares behind, and make the drive out to San Marcos.

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 flush with greenery. Rio Vista Park and William & Eleanor Crook Park, two riverside locations stationed right off I-35 South, and 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.

Circle the Square for a night on the town

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 alike 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, this is the place to go for catching a raucous drag show at Stonewall Warehouse, pairing cocktails with stunning panoramas at the Shade Rooftop Patio Bar, and finishing the night off with a life-giving slice from Maroni's Pizza Kitchen. Totally walkable and always bumping, it’s basically a one-stop-shop for a choose-your-own evening adventure.

Beat the heat 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—AKA 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 summertime stop for folks of all ages, with numerous rivers, slides, chutes, and rides to keep you and the rest of your sundrenched crew occupied for hours. And now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted throughout the Lone Star State, park-goers can make up for lost time by snagging a coveted reservation via Schlitterbahn’s website, with single day tickets or season passes both up for grabs.

Photo courtesy of City of San Marcos

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 goings-on under the water’s surface. Less than $10 gets you a 30-minute tour of the lake complete with priceless glimpses of its majestic plantlife, 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, and now, San Marcos has brought a slew of 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. Menu highlights include the Skyscraper Mosaic IPA, the Ape-ricot American Wheat Ale, and the Swine Dive IPA—the bitterer, the better.

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 is a more recent addition to the sudsy scene, but has quickly developed quite a buzz (pun intended) thanks to a tasty and inventive lineup made with locally sourced water, Texas-centric ingredients, and wood barrel fermentation.

Rock out to a local band or touring musician at a historic venue

Like most college towns, San Marcos maintains a spirited music and arts scene supported and powered by students and townies alike, so it's no wonder why more and more big names are opting to schedule a stop-off at one of the city’s excellent concert spots. Even after a year of pandemic-related closures and mandates, historic venues like The Marc and Cheatham Street Warehouse are bouncing back by booking national acts that span a spectrum of genres. Smaller, more niche spaces like Tantra Coffeehouse are also starting to get back to business, so keep San Marcos in mind when looking for live shows in central Texas.

Photo courtesy of City of San Marcos

Spelunk amid friendly goats at Wonder World

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, an anti-gravity house, a train ride, and a native wildlife petting zoo featuring an eclectic roster of goats, rabbits, emus, and colorful parrots.

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 Saint Laurent, to casualwear brands like H&M, PacSun, 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 your continued retail therapy.

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Polly Anna Rocha is a contributor for Thrillist.
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