If you’re of a certain folk-artsy millennial ilk, then chances are you’ve heard of the magical desert wonderland that is Marfa—and maybe you’ve even driven through it. Marfa, Texas has earned its place as a West Texas Mecca, and rightly so. Beyoncé made it infamous when she posted photos of herself in front of a brightly covered trailer on the campgrounds of El Cosmico from her visit back in 2012, but New York artist Donald Judd is the one who turned it into a high art destination after moving there in the 1970s.
All that fancy stuff aside, I made my first trip out to Marfa on a yoga retreat back in 2016, and have been back 8 times (and counting!) since then. I’ve visited with friends, my kids, by myself, with my partner, and soon my dad. I adore West Texas to pieces and feel like I discover something new each time I go. It’s about a 5-7 hour drive to get there from San Antonio, depending on whether you take the scenic route or not—and how many stops you take along the way. Here’s my little travel guide chock-full of my top recommendations of all the things you should do, see, and enjoy while you’re visiting Marfa and the surrounding area. It might seem exhaustive, but trust me, there’s so much more you’ll discover on your own trip there. If you’re geared and ready to start planning your own West Texas trip, then be sure to check out my Pocket Road Trip Planning Guide.
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Things to Do in Marfa
Marfa Mystery Lights
When the sun sets, locals and travelers alike flock to the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing area to catch a glimpse of the mysterious glowing orbs on the horizon. The exact cause of the lights is unknown, but they’ve been spotted on the nighttime desert horizon long before Marfa became a modern art town. You can see the viewing area to the left as you travel from San Antonio on highway 90. I’ve seen the lights every time I’ve been out (about 4 in total), but I’ve definitely heard about visitors sitting out for an hour and not seeing anything. I’ve seen them appear as floating orbs that appear in a range of colors, even splitting and converging as they move across the horizon.
Pro Tip: Bring a comfy blanket to sit on the concrete wall, or a couple camping chairs, as seating can be hard to find on busy nights. There is a public bathroom at the viewing area, and this is a free activity to enjoy year round.
The Chinati Foundation
A contemporary art museum housed in old military barracks (and additional buildings in downtown Marfa), Chinati Foundation is the brainchild of renowned artist Donald Judd and originally opened to the public in 1986. It has grown tremendously ever since, and is the hub of the art scene in Marfa. Some of its most notable art installations include Judd’s giant concrete blocks, and Dan Flavin’s untitled fluorescent light installations. There are both guided and self-guided tours available, and reservations are required for both. Tours take 1.5 – 2.5 hours, and are definitely a recommended thing to do at least once when traveling to Marfa.
Presidio County Courthouse
Located just north of the main downtown street, exploring the Presidio County Courthouse is one of my favorite things to do. In pre-covid times (you may need to check with current access restrictions), you could go up to the top of the courthouse into one of the domed rooms with windows that overlook the entire town. It can be a bit stuffy up there in warm weather, but it’s worth the spectacular view. Another free activity to enjoy.
The Get Go
There are a couple of options for grocery stores in town, bu The Get Go is Marfa’s version of Whole Foods, only cuter and locally run. They have a great selection of groceries including fresh produce, pantry goods, and wine and beer. If you need to cook yourself a meal while you’re in Marfa (or pick up some snacks for an excursion out of town), this is the place to go.
Pro Tip: Bring your own bag, buy one of their totes as a souvenir, or ask for a box at checkout to carry your groceries, as they are a bagless store.
Another quintessential tourist destination, Prada Marfa is located about 30 minutes West of the town itself, just past the little town of Valentine, Texas. Although it’s referred to as the Prada store, it’s not actually a store store. Meaning there’s no going inside. It’s a permanent art installation created by two Scandinavian artists back in 2005, who dubbed it as a pop architectural land art project. There are indeed real Prada products inside, although there’s only one of each shoe displayed (perhaps to discourage anyone from breaking in). It’s commonplace to pull over to the side of the road here and get out to take photos. Be mindful that although it’s often a quiet highway, it’s still a highway—so be mindful when taking your roadside pics.
Pro Tip: The fence behind the store has become an art installation itself, with visitors bringing locks and other trinkets to leave behind as a remembrance, so bring along something of your own to leave your mark with!
John Cerney’s Giant Highway Art
On your drive out to Prada Marfa you can’t miss the colorful billboard art featuring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson from scenes in the classic West Texas film, Giant. These were a delightful surprise during a girl’s road trip with friends. John Cerney has tons of roadside art installations across the U.S., and this is one of the only ones I’m aware of in Texas.
Speaking of the movie Giant, if you’re a fan of the film, you’ll want to make a stop at the Hotel Paisano. Several cast members stayed there during the filming in 1955, and you can find photos and memorabilia in the hotel lobby.
Check out the Art
In addition to the Chinati Foundation, there’s an abundance of art galleries in Marfa, with new ones popping up all the time. Be sure to check out some of the mainstays including Judd Foundation and Ballroom Marfa. Also check out the Marfa Gallery Guide for the latest info on the local art scene.
Enjoy the Shops in Marfa
There is some lovely shopping to be done in the main strip of downtown Marfa. My favorites include Communitie Marfa (where I bought my favorite straw hat), and Ranch Candy Marfa & Spare Parts (and candy store and boutique). There’s also a collection of shops inside of the Hotel Paisano. The entire town is sprinkled with local shops, though. Be sure to check out Raba Marfa, Moonlight Gemstones, The Wrong Store, and The Marfa Store as well.
Marfa Museum Thrift Store
I’m an avid thrift store lover so when I first discovered the Marfa Museum Thrift Store, I swooned. I came across it before it was open, but I could see a wood and leather children’s chair through the front glass door that was calling my name.
This was my first time out to Marfa, and I was still getting used to all the different times and days things were and weren’t open. In my eager preparations before my trip, I had discovered via Instagram that Kevin Bacon had been out there mere days before we arrived to film a television series. I went back by probably about 30 minutes after the store opened and the chair I’d had my eye on was gone. Not only that, but the woman at the front desk described how the tv crew had just recently dropped off a bunch of stuff at the thrift store after filming wrapped up. My soul was crushed at the thought of missing out on having this gorgeous wooden chair that Kevin Bacon had obviously touched. Forget that my 6 degrees had nearly dwindled to nothing.
But I diverge. Since the pandemic, the thrift store has moved to a new location in town. Now housed in the Marfa Activity Center, you can shop your heart out on gently used West Texas goods Tuesday – Saturday 1-5pm.
Get a Pool Pass
If you’re looking for a place to cool down from the desert heat, then a pool pass to Hotel St. George’s lovely adults only pool (with poolside bar) is a must. Guests of the hotel can access the pool for free, or day passes can be purchased for $30/person. It is a bit pricey for a day at the pool, but well worth it for a place to lounge by the water in town for a day.
Festivals in Marfa
There are a number of festivals that take place in Marfa. These are notoriously busy times to visit, so be sure to book your accommodations in advance, and be ready for longer than usual wait times at local restaurants. Here’s a breakdown of annual events and festivals worth checking out:
April | Marfa Invitational
May | CineMarfa film festival
June | Agave Festival
July | Viva Big Bend
August | Marfa Lights Festival
September | Trans-Pecos Festival
October | Marfa 100 (for all they cyclists out there)
October | Chinati Weekend
The Best Places to Eat in Marfa
If you’re on the hunt for a delicious lunch option, Food Shark is my go-to. This Mediterranean food truck is a must on my list whenever I’m in town. You won’t regret giving their lamb kabob plate a try. Latest online info says they’re only open on Saturday & Sunday from 12-3pm. Double check and plan accordingly!
Marfa’s Cochineal is my favorite place to enjoy dinner on special occasions. A casual fine dining experience with a chef who was named a James Beard Award semifinalist in the middle of the desert? Yes please! They currently have a Prix Fixe Dinner Series and reservations are required—and well worth it!
Dubbed as a Marfa restaurant that serves coffee, cocktails, and news, The Sentinel is a must visit while you’re in town. The decor is gorgeous, and I’ve never had a bite or sip I didn’t love. There’s both indoor and outdoor seating, and it’s the perfect place a breakfast burrito or a nightcap. Be sure to check current hours (during my latest visit they were only open until 3pm).
Siempre is a recent addition to the Marfa food scene, and an absolutely lovely one at that. Catty Corner from The Lost Horse Saloon and run by the same folks who recently opened Para Llevar, Siempre has a fresh outdoor covered patio that’s perfect for watching passersby and catching a breeze. The walk up bar and order counter serves fresh cocktails along with a host of other refreshing beverages, and yummy bites (I enjoyed my kale salad with added chicken).
Do Your Thing Coffee
A Marfa mainstay, Do Your Thing Coffee is another great option for your morning (or afternoon) coffee needs. Trust me, you’ll never be in want of great coffee in Marfa.
Happy Hour Hotel Saint George
One of my favorite places to cool off at the end of a hot West Texas day is in the lobby at Hotel Saint George. Even better are their happy hour cocktail prices.
Located right next to a laundry mat (that makes for a very great photo backdrop btw), Frama Coffee is one of a few great coffeeshops in town. And to make it even better, they serve ice cream.
Pro Tip: This is where you can find the infamous orange Greetings from Marfa sign out front. Also, Frama is the letters of Marfa, scrambled, and you can find their sister coffee shop in Alpine, scramble-named Plaine.
Where to Stay in Marfa
Modern glamping meets West Texas desert at El Cosmico. Part of the Bunkhouse Group, a trip to Marfa isn’t complete without a visit here, if not a stay. Guests can choose from self-camping, tents, teepees, yurts, vintage trailers, or their newer Cosmic Kasita when booking. Accommodations can fill up fast, so if you’re planning a trip, be sure to make reservations early! I’ve stayed in one of their safari tents which was absolutely lovely, albeit hot on a midsummer’s day. The outdoor showers are an absolute delight in my book. Anyone is welcome to come out to explore the grounds (and snap some photos), and the gift shop is not to be missed.
The Thunderbird Hotel is the first and only non-Airbnb place I’ve stayed at in Marfa to date. I’ve typically traveled to West Texas in large groups or solo, and having a kitchen to cook in has been important. Hotel rates are not inexpensive in Marfa, but the Thunderbird Motel was pretty reasonable, so I gave it a try on a recent visit. The room was absolutely lovely, and I received some of the best customer service with the manager (Chris) throughout our stay there. He was super friendly and gave us some great recommendations on where to eat in town with all of the changes that pandemic had brought. He even gave us some pointers for our drive down to Chinati Hot Springs (there are two ways to get there and he recommended not taking the one that was mostly unpaved road—which saved us tons of time in the end).
The roadside hotel also has a pool (much coveted during the summer months!), and a gorgeous courtyard garden. You can find carefully curated souvenirs in the lobby along with light fare available for purchase (and I do believe we received a beverage of choice at checkin).
Pro Tip: You can rent one of their bikes at a discounted rate if you’re staying at the hotel, or for about $20/day if you’re not a current guest. And no need to lock up the bikes in this tiny town—but they’re a perfect way to get around. Also, the Thunderbird is home to the See Marfa Lights mural you’ve probably seen in pictures and makes for a great photo op.
Of all the visits I’ve made out to Marfa and West Texas, I’ve only stayed at a traditional hotel once. Most of the others have been Airbnb accommodations either with the group I was with, or on my own. I find this the most affordable way to enjoy most of my road trips, as they often have a kitchen so I can offset with at-home cooking at least part of the time. Plus the Airbnb options out in Marfa are gorgeous. I also have a friend with a fun and quirky place out in Alpine that I stay at from time to time.
The Best Things to do Near Marfa
Visit Fort Davis
About a 20-minute drive north from Marfa, Fort Davis is a great little down you’ll drive through to get to some other recommended stops along the way. Check out the restaurants in town, and the National Historic Site (more info on that below).
McDonald Observatory Star Party
Much like the drive out to West Texas is part of the whole experience, so is the drive up to the McDonald Observatory. It’s most well-known for the Star Parties, a nighttime showing of the magnificent Milk Way overhead. The Observatory itself is a research unit of UT Austin. Located in the Davis Mountains, a visit here offers some of the darkest skies in the continental United States.
The Star Parties themselves feature evening outdoor constellation tours (think tour guide with a laser pointer that reaches to the stars), and telescope viewings set up around the grounds. I highly recommend getting tickets as far in advance as possible, as they are only available certain nights of the week, and they can definitely sell out fast. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Marfa, and the views along the way are absolutely lovely, especially around sunset. I do have to admit that it took me three Star Parties before I really got a great view of the night sky, clouds are definitely not your friend during them—but it’s still a fun time.
There are also daytime tours available where you can go up the hilltop and see inside of the larger telescope buildings. Pre-pandemic there were self-guided tours available, which I would highly recommend. Double check before heading out to see if the Visitor’s Center is open for the day and if self-guided tours are an option during your travel; they had the roads up to the large telescopes closed for a time.
Pro Tip: Make sure not to wear light-up shoes (you’d be surprised how many kids still show up with them), and to put your phones away during the evening Star Party. Part of the magic that makes them so amazing is letting your eyes adjust to the dark (they do have dark sky friendly lighting so you can see), and you don’t want to ruin the experience for others. And be sure to visit their gift shop, it’s a good one!
Davis Mountains State Park
This is one of my must-visits every time I visit West Texas. I absolutely adore the views from the Skyline Drive, my kids and I have spotted teams of wildlife in the distance below—so bring binoculars! The park is also home to the Indian Lodge, a beautiful white adobe hotel right inside of the park. Reservations fill up on the park website months in advance, so be sure to plan accordingly!
Pro Tip: Pack a picnic and sit at The King’s Table at the end of the Skyline Drive in the evening for a stellar sunset viewing.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Back in Fort Davis, it’s worth paying a visit to Fort Davis National Historic Site (and getting your National Park passport stamped!). It was a working frontier military post from 1854 – 1891, and you can walk through a number of restored buildings outfitted with items from the original camp.
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
Located between Fort Davis and Alpine, the Nature Center offers deeper insight into the Chihuahaun Desert (which all of West Texas is a part of). The Center is housed on 507 acres of semi-desert grasslands and igneous rock outcrops. You can hike 5 miles of trails, and explore their mini botanical gardens, cactus collection, and their mining exhibit and geologic timeline. I’ve yet to hike along their trails, but it’s a good place to spend an hour, and they have a great gift shop (and clean bathrooms!).
Pro Tip: Save your receipt from Davis Mountain State Park and they may still offer you a discount!
Things to Do in Alpine, Texas
Cedar Coffee Supply
Hike up to the desk on the hill
Annual Art Walk
Things to Do in Marathon, Texas
V6 Coffee Bar
Other Things to do on Your Trip to Marfa
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Big Bend National Park
Balmorhea State Park
Chinati Hot Springs
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Ghost Town Terlingua
Quirky Things to Know About Traveling to West Texas
- You’re gonna be on West Texas time, aka things run at a slower pace, and not everything’s open 24/7 everyday.
- Cell phone service can be spotty
- Looking for the mini Target? Unfortunately, it’s gone.
- It can get super hot—and super cold.
- The sky is absolutely gorgeous out there.
Things to See on Your Drive There
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Pecos River Bridge
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Langtry Rest Stop
West Texas is one of my all-time favorite places to travel to. I hope this inspires your own road trip out there. If you do go after reading my guide, be sure to tag me in your photos on Instagram!
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