How to Spend a Weekend in San Marcos
JThere are few places in the world where you’ll find mermaid statues on street corners, a Lyndon B. Johnson history museum, and a crystal clear river that runs through the heart of a city. If you find all three, you’ve probably stumbled across the mystical town of San Marcos, Texas.
Nestled in the Texas Hill Country, San Marcos is a curious college town located halfway between San Antonio and Austin. It’s a city brimming with public art, vibrant nightlife, and Instagram-worthy brunches. Having lived in San Marcos myself for the past four years, I’ve gained insight into the ins and outs of the city and know a thing or two about the city’s most exciting happenings.
Just a three-hour drive from Houston, San Marcos is a welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. As you refine your summer vacation plans, don’t count San Marcos out, as the town has an unparalleled charm.
We’ve rounded up the best must-see events, activities, and restaurants for a weekend in SanMo.
Located in the heart of downtown, Baby donut and coffee is a fast and casual shop that attracts visitors with freshly made breakfast sandwiches and beautifully decorated sweet confections. The queue is nearly exhausted every morning, so be prepared for a worthwhile wait.
While Babe’s offers many breakfast staples, its menu features local favorites like honey butter chicken biscuits and maple bacon donuts. My favorite is a sausage and cheese kolache with an old fashioned donut. Although it may seem a little basic, kolache bread is so soft and airy that it will melt in your mouth. As for the donut: it’s sweet, simple and perfectly glazed on the outside.
San Marcos wouldn’t be the town it is without its range of cafes. Almost every hour of the day, every cafe is teeming with students huddled on laptop keyboards and visitors conversing in small groups.
One of my favorite cafes is a stone’s throw from Babe’s: Stellar Coffee Co., which has an assortment of espresso, matcha, and rotating selection of mimosas, wine, and beer. Open until 11 p.m. on weekends, Stellar is the perfect place to listen to live music or host your own show during karaoke night.
After a leisurely stroll through downtown San Marcos, I recommend heading to The Café-Bar for a midday pick-me-up. The quaint cafe is located inside a century-old building and features an assortment of trinkets that represent the culture of San Marcos, like posters by artists from Aquarena springs, a 1950s local tourist attraction with an underwater theater and glass-bottom boat tours. Enhancing the retro vibe, there’s a small vintage TV in the corner that works amazingly and plays shows throughout the day.
Craft drinks and homemade pastries are on the menu, along with seasonal drink specials. Stop by this summer to try the Brewchata, a cold brew horchata; Eau de la Rivière, a sparkling water with coconut and pineapple; or a Minted Palmer, a mint green tea lemonade.
While San Marcos is full of outdoor excursions and nature-filled landscapes, the city is also a dynamic and culturally rich spectacle of art. Hand-painted murals and carefully crafted sculptures are scattered across the city. In accordance with the status of San Marcos as an official Texas Mermaid Capital, it’s normal for magical creatures to have their place of honor in town. Whether you’re strolling the streets of downtown or exploring a nearby park, you’re sure to be greeted by a seven-foot mermaid sculpture; everything 10 minifigures located throughout the city celebrate the culture and history of San Marcos. Some sculptures also have a secret in their design, such as Oh for a muse of fire—a thermochromic pigment causes the sculpture to burst into a burst of color when it’s hot.
Mermaids have been a San Marcos icon since the early days of Aquarena Springs, when the “Aquamaids” performed underwater ballet and synchronized swimming for park visitors. Today, mermaids serve as a symbol of protection for the San Marcos River. To further celebrate its appreciation for mermaids, the city of San Marcos holds an annual event mermaid party each September, drawing visitors from across the country to flood the streets with fishtails and shells.
Make a splash
A trip to San Marcos is not complete without a visit to the crystal clear oasis that is the San Marcos River. Although there are many hotspots located across the city, a popular favorite is Sewell Park. Located on the campus of Texas State University, the park is free and open to the public.
Whether it’s a hot summer afternoon or an average school day, you’ll find students lying on Bikini Hill, kayaking on the San Marcos River or playing volleyball on sand. The park has existed since 1916, when Dr. SM Sewell, then a professor at Texas State, decided there should be a park with a place to swim on campus. The river was originally only three feet deep here, but students cleaned the bottom and built higher banks with mud scrapers and mules.
Walking by the refreshing water will make you want to kick off on a hot summer day. However, if you can resist the urge, consider lying among park visitors or renting water equipment like kayaks and paddle boards to enjoy the serene beauty of the surroundings. Still at a cool 72 degrees, the San Marcos River rises from Edwards Aquifer from the bottom of spring lakea natural feature that has existed for over 12,000 years.
Speaking of Spring Lake, visitors can access it via The center of the meadows, a research center located at Texas State University that focuses on habitat conservation and environmental awareness. Open year-round, Spring Lake offers plenty of activities for visitors, like the Glass-Bottom Boat Tour. Tour boats have been a San Marcos attraction since 1945 and offer visitors an in-depth look at nature around and within the lake.
During the tour, visitors will learn a bit about the Edwards Aquifer and its endangered species, including the Texas Blind Salamander and the Fountain Darter. While floating on the lake, visitors will also be able to observe the abandoned and redeveloped buildings of Aquarena Springs up close, including the AB Rogers’ Spring Lake Park Hotel, which now houses office buildings for the Meadows Center. Visitors looking for a more adventurous trip can explore the spring-fed waters through immersive snorkeling or kayaking. There are sights to see off the water too, as the area includes 251 acres of trails through the habitat that rare birds and wildlife call home.
If you can’t get enough of the beautiful river, head to Ivar’s River Pub for dinner and drinks after your water excursions. The pub is a relaxed college hangout with an award-winning patio that welcomes visitors with one of the best views in town.
Located directly on the San Marcos River, the pub’s patio serves as a prime spot to watch people float down the river while sipping on frozen margaritas. Home to Texas-inspired cuisine, Ivar’s offers dishes like BBQ macaroni and cheese, fried chicken topped with queso blanco and pico de gallo, and Cajun fried pork cracklins.
Some of my favorite menu items include the pub brisket nachos, which are topped with cotija cheese, queso blanco and fresh cilantro, and the mango berry mojito, a refreshing cocktail made with a blend of Cruzan Mango rum, strawberries, mint and fruit. juice.
Hidden in plain sight and a short walk from downtown San Marcos is one of the city’s newest hotspots: putting club. The 18-hole mini-golf course was created by a Texas State alumnus with the intention of being an adult playground.
While there are dozens of bars and live music venues in San Marcos, Putt Pub is more of a laid-back neighborhood bar with indoor and outdoor seating. Those not into golf can enjoy several games throughout the site, including tether ball and a giant Connect 4. The Putt Pub is restricted to 18 and over until 8 p.m. and 21 and over until closing time at 2 a.m.
With just a short trip to San Marcos, you’ll discover why the ever-growing city is a treasured gem nestled in the Texas Hill Country: it has a bit of everything for anyone who loves adventure and the outdoors.
For more information on San Marcos and things to do in the area, check out visitsanmarcos.com.