14 Perfect Winter Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Houston

Boogie down in the Big Easy, soak up San Padre Island’s beachy vibes, or travel back in time with a trip to historic Galveston.

Honestly, Texas wouldn’t be Texas without boasting some outrageously warm temps during the winter. Even though we brought in the New Year slightly clutching on our coats due to some temporary breezes, overall, that warmth we know and love—well, it’s complicated—is here to stay. And with the Lone Star State giving way to a host of whimsical, underrated, and fascinating treasures in need of exploration, there’s no better time to plan out your next road trip, winter edition.

From vastly populated sibling cities like Dallas and Austin to tucked away towns showcasing delicious eats, indie boutiques, and adorable hotels, here are 14 destinations perfect for a wintertime escape from Houston.

Information listed here may be subject to change depending on the developing situation with COVID-19's Omicron variant. Please check for the latest updates available or contact each establishment directly for more info.
South Padre Island Tropical Travel
South Padre Island Tropical Travel

Distance from Houston: 375 miles; 5.75-hour drive
Keeping your phone handy to take stunning shots of rippling tides and wildlife in action is definitely part of the experience in this coastal paradise, with winter temperatures rising to a pleasant 70 degrees on average. Kick things off with a hearty breakfast crawl, loading up on Gulf Coast Grits from Yummies Bistros, Banana Bread and Cinnamon Roll French Toast platters from Grapevine Cafe, or a simple cup of well-brewed coffee from Cafe Karma. After you’ve had your fill, launch your water sports itinerary by dipping your toes (or surf boards) into those sparkling waters, walking that breakfast off along the white sand, or posting up on a lounge chair with a good read. And that’s not all for aquatic events—every stretch of the island offers some unforgettable ways to become one with those irresistible blue waves, such as fishing, dolphin-watching, guided boat tours, and more.

Visit New Orleans
Visit New Orleans

Distance from Houston: 350 miles; 5.5-hour drive
Visiting New Orleans is like sinking your teeth into a sweet slice of bourbon pecan pie or indulging in a powdery beignet. Actually, it’s a bit of both—at the same time. This historic Southern mecca dons stunning architecture, boisterous energy, and dishes so tasty that you’ll be snacking all day. Spend an afternoon (or three) chowing down on pipin’ hot gumbo and crispy-fried catfish combos from Barrow’s Catfish, and plump seared scallops from Gautreau’s cozy quarters, alongside overstuffed po-boys and the aforementioned pecan pie from pretty much anywhere in sight. As for fun activities to keep you entertained between bites, dabble in everything from trekking through artsy neighborhoods and scouring dusty record store shelves for choice jazz finds to touring mysterious and kitschy destinations like graveyards and haunted buildings. And if partying hard covered head-to-toe in plastic beads is your thing, you’re in luck—the Big Easy is set to throw yet another outrageous Mardi Gras bash on March 1, with weeks of festivities leading up to the event.

marfa
Flickr/Robert Hensley

Distance from Houston: 600 miles; 8.5-hour drive
Though admittedly a lengthier trip than we normally cover, this desert oasis is a perfect spot for those looking to escape Houston’s bustling borders, especially if you’re hoping to stock up on exquisite and thought-provoking art. At this diminutive West Texas town, culture aficionados can pop over to myriad creative arenas like Ballroom Mafia and Exhibitions 2D to bask in cutting edge pieces imbued with minimalistic flare, or sharpen up their knowledge of Marfa’s vibrant history with a tour of the Marfa & Presidio County Museum. Afterwards, satisfy that appetite with Tex-Mex treats a la Siempre Marfa, gorge on cheesy pies from Pizza Foundation, or raise a spritzy cocktail over mouth-watering dinner specials at Marfa Spirit Co.

Caddo Lake
Capt. Ron's Swamp Tours

Distance from Houston: 230 miles; 4-hour drive
Naturally formed Caddo Lake headlines any journey to the East Texas Piney Woods. Dripping in Spanish moss, sprawling cypress trees, lush bayous, and serene wetlands, the labyrinth-like waterway is a paddler’s dream year-round. Bust out your kayak or consider a spooky swamp tour aboard a 28-foot pontoon, then finish the day with a necessary dose of Catfish and Chicken Fried Steak at Shady Glade Cafe.

Visit Dallas
Visit Dallas

Distance from Houston: 240 miles; ~3.5-hour drive
From hot restaurants and snazzy cocktail dens to charmingly dusty dive bars and endless seasonal activities (some including man’s best friend), Dallas has all your vacation needs covered. Throw on your jacket and take a spin through the city’s impressive arts and culture scene, including marveling at lush maples and unique artifacts at the Crow Museum of Asian Art downtown, or hopping east to Deep Ellum to tour the striking 42 Murals Project. This massive metropolis also hosts some pretty excellent walking tours, so be sure to hop on festive crawls filled with street tacos and slushy margaritas or fascinating local landmarks along a Hop-On Hop-Off excursion.

Tyler State Park - Texas Parks and Wildlife
Tyler State Park - Texas Parks and Wildlife

Distance from Houston: 200 miles; 3.5-hour drive
A 200-mile straight shot north of Houston awaits Tyler, Texas, where you’ll find the gorgeous Tyler State Park. Expect trees that soar 100 feet into the sky, a 64-acre spring-fed lake, and all sorts of outdoorsy opportunities like kayaking, fishing, hiking, and, most importantly, camping and s’more-ing. Equally as important? The nearby Piney Woods Wine Trail, where a cluster of scenic vineyards and wineries can’t wait to crack open a bottle for you and yours.

Visit Austin, Texas
Visit Austin, Texas

Distance from Houston: 165 miles; ~2.5-hour drive
Houston may have a love-hate relationship with little bro Austin, but we’re not too stubborn to admit that our state capital offers a little taste of everything, from badass food and food truck parks to beer bars, epic outdoorsy activities, and a live music scene that draws folks from all over the planet. Toss on a windbreaker and make your way to the Greenbelt, a winding 12-mile trail perfect for biking, hiking, and 'Graming. Later, pay a visit to Lady Bird Lake, where kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, hiking, and biking reign supreme, take in panoramic city views from atop Mount Bonnell, and, if the weather holds, pop by Barton Springs for a refreshing dip. Hungry? Set up a picnic at Zilker Park (home to the always-astounding Austin City Limits festival), or hit up a host of barbeque legends, from la Barbecue to LeRoy and Lewis.

Middleton Brewing
Middleton Brewing

Distance from Houston: 165 miles; 2.5-hour drive
While there are plenty of excellent small towns worth the trip from Houston, San Marcos is clearly the coolest of them all. The low-key college town has slowly but surely been making gains with its very own brand of quirkiness. You’ll want to check out the San Marcos River alongside all the natural beauty the area has to offer, including the 560-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area and Ringtail Ridge Greenspace, ideal for mountain bike shredding.

Before you leave town, make sure to snag some fuel at the Saturday morning farmers market downtown or grab a few smoked kolaches and cinnamon delights from Dos Gatos. Afterward, sample suds from local breweries like Middleton Brewing and AquaBrew. For a full meal, opt for Smoked Brisket from Hays Co. Bar-B-Que or Black’s BBQ, or mix things up at Blue Dahlia, a stylish bistro that transports its open-faced Tartines, buttery Croissants, and Drunken Mussels straight from its original Austin home. As for lodging, skip the tired old chain hotels and treat yourself to a room at nearby Kyle, Texas’ luxe Sage Hill Inn & Spa (15 minutes from San Marcos) or get off the grid at one of Getaway’s chicly appointed glamping cabins in Wimberly, about 20 minutes from the heart of downtown.

Altstadt Brewery
Altstadt Brewery

Distance from Houston: 235 miles; 4-hour drive
Smack dab in the middle of beautiful Texas Hill Country lies a charming, romantic little village where you can get some R&R at a B&B, aided by a healthy dose of C&C—Cabernet and cheese—because Fredericksburg is absolutely loaded with open-air wineries. Cruise down the wine road and you’ll find 19 operations within striking distance, including Narrow Path, Pedernales Cellars, Messina Hof, and Grape Creek Vineyards, AKA the “Tuscany of Texas.” For delicious eats, load up on sausages and German brews at The Auslander, get fancy with Duck Schnitzel and Flammkuchen at Otto’s German Bistro, and say “Prost!” with a few steins at Altstadt Brewery. When it comes time to sleep it all off, book a stay at the luxurious Hoffman Haus, Messina Hof Winery’s own Manor Haus retreat, or the off-the-radar Trois Estate, where suites and villas are carved right into the rocky landscape and offer dazzling views of another regional must, Enchanted Rock. The beautiful Fredericksburg Herb Farm (complete with a bistro, gift shop, and garden) makes a nice, quiet next-day activity before your journey back home.

Black's BBQ
Black's BBQ

Distance from Houston: 155 miles; ~2.25-hour drive
Know what’s always in season? Endlessly tender smoked meat—and this flavor-packed smoketown just happens to be one of the best places in the Lone Star to find it. Considering its proximity to Houston, this one’s a no-brainer, and you could even make it a day trip if you so please… just don’t forget to pack a cooler so you can bring a few platters of the good stuff back with you.

You need to tackle at least two of the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (open since 1948). At Black’s, third generation pitmaster Kent Black is slow smoking his barbecue with a simple rub and local Post Oak wood to put out showstoppers like the behemoth Beef Rib, a 9-inch-long bone cocooned by about 2 inches of fatty, marbled beef, and hand-stuffed and -tied sausages made from an 80-year-old recipe that has truly stood the test of time. Elsewhere, Kreuz rocks solid German-influenced barbecue (try the old world Smoked Wieners), and you can dive head-first into the holy Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage over at Smitty’s (throw in a Pork Chop or Shoulder Clod, while you’re at it). If you somehow have room for one more, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, opened by a Black’s alum in 1978, offers a drive-through peddling some of the region’s top barbecue sandwiches (feast and drive at your own risk).

Galveston Island
Galveston Island

Distance from Houston: 50 miles; 1-hour drive
Galveston’s off-season is a picture-perfect time to visit. Plan a pampering stay at spots like the nearly two-centuries-old Tremont House, ritzy and (sometimes ghastly) Hotel Galvez & Spa, or palatial San Luis Resort, or, alternatively, kick it old-school at throwback classics like Gaido's Seaside Inn and Beachcomber Inn. If it happens to be a beach day, do the beach. Otherwise, spend your time strolling the historic Strand District, a 70-block jewel teeming with gorgeous Victorian buildings housing museums, boutiques, theaters, shops, and La King’s Confectionery, a retro sweets shop stocked with ice cream, dipped chocolates, and taffy (don’t forget your mask, of course). Hop around the island and you’ll find local dining gems like Mosquito Cafe, Shrimp 'N Stuff, Porch Cafe, Rudy & Paco, and Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar. And before you leave, pick up a couple six-pack souvenirs from local suds outpost Galveston Island Brewing Company.

The San Antonio River Walk
The San Antonio River Walk

Distance from Houston: 200 miles; 3-hour drive
Are the River Walk, the Alamo, and the Pearl touristy? Yes. Are they still cool to see if you’ve never been? You bet. Settle into a hotel along the River Walk and start with some early morning French toast and Sweet Cream Pancakes at local institution Schilo’s, or check into the Pearl District’s swanky Hotel Emma and check out the area’s badass lineup of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Those looking for a little historical action should definitely stop by the legendary Alamo to re-learn its epic story, then spend the rest of your time roaming the grounds of the city’s gorgeous Spanish colonial missions. Or, get absolutely no culture at all and stick to raging at Six Flags Fiesta and SeaWorld—only open on weekends throughout the winter season—because thundering roller coasters, wacky whirlpools, and dolphin shows are still top-notch fun. Eat like a local at the best of the best before popping into one of the city’s coolest bars afterwards for good measure. On your way out of town, grab Blackberry Toast, Quiche, and Ham and Egg Muffins at Bakery Lorraine, or visit the Pearl’s weekend Farmers Market for artisan snacks and coffee for the road.

Stockyards Heritage
Photo courtesy of Stockyards Heritage

Distance from Houston: 260 miles; 4-hour drive
Sitting in the shadow of its flashier cousin, this moderately sized city is also known as Cowtown, a moniker it picked up when late 19th-century drovers led over 4 million heads of cattle through what was once considered a final stop for rest and supplies before crossing the Red River. See for yourself with a visit to the Historic Stockyards District, where you can get a feel for cowboy culture, boots, wide-brimmed hats, and all. Home to the Cowtown Coliseum, AKA the country’s first indoor rodeo, you can catch the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 pm while cattle drives go down daily at 11:30 am and 4 pm (weather permitting). Get down on real-deal smoked meats at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que and pair zesty Margaritas with Tex-Mex staples at nearby cantina Joe T Garcia’s. Beyond the Stockyards, fill up on fire-grilled oysters and paella, Chicken-fried Steak, and Tomahawk Prime Rib at Woodshed Smokehouse before winding down by catching a flick al fresco at the Coyote Drive-In.

Gruene Hall
Gruene Hall

Distance from Houston: 175 miles; ~2.5-hour drive
Live out your river rat dreams along either one of the two waterways running through this historic Hill Country destination. The Comal is the shorter of the two: a gorgeous, spring-fed river cascading along Landa Park and Downtown New Braunfels before merging with its bigger sibling, the Guadalupe. The Comal hovers around 70 to 72 degrees year-round, offering seasonal floating and whenever-you-want kayaking. Lined by bald cypress trees and with rugged flows originating out of Canyon Lake, the Guadalupe River is the epicenter for Texas tubing when it’s warm (and it so often is) and makes for a postcard-worthy hangout any time of year.

Gruene Hall, Texas’ oldest dance hall, is here to rock you all night long, while during the day, the historic district offers quaint antique and specialty shops peddling everything from cowboy hats and collectible books to sugary blocks of fudge, pickles, custom salt scrubs, and olive oils poured from the tap. Tack on an order of Sizzling Fajitas and Herald Zeitung-approved ‘ritas from Cantina del Rio, Spicy Chicken Sliders and Wagyu Meatloaf simmered in a fragrant demi-glace at The River House, whiskey and chips and guac galore at Mozie’s, or legendary Texas eats like Chicken-fried Steak, Bacon-wrapped Jalapeños, and the “best” Wurst the state has to offer at Gristmill Restaurant, and you have yourself a day. Once you’ve digested, check out a Texas-style African safari, peep murals at an outdoor art museum, or descend into the Natural Bridge Caverns, located about 25 miles west of town. And before you get back on the highway, snag some homemade jerky from New Braunfels Smokehouse and thank us later.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who is sure hoping she didn’t just put a jinx on 2022. Share your totally optimistic dreams for the new year with her @brookeviggiano on Twitter and @brookiefafa on IG.
Adrianne Reece is a contributor for Thrillist.