Wandering Marfa's main drag

Image: Kenny Braun

It should be easy to size up a city with a single stoplight, but Marfa reveals itself as a many-faced god constantly shifting between identities. A healthy mix of old-school hipsters and German tourists flock here to gawk at Donald Judd’s art installations, yet glitches in that stereotype emerge. A traditional Mexican wedding spills out of a USO hall, and hardened ranch folk clomp bowlegged down the main drag.

The reality is that Marfa, established in 1883 as a railroad water stop—today it’s still around three hours from the closest airport (Midland or El Paso)—has morphed into a choose-your-own-adventure bump on the highway dedicated to all manner of activities. Among those on offer: boho-chic Instagram dining at buzzy restaurants.

Stay in a luxurious Airstream trailer at El Cosmico.

Image: Nick Simonte

We decided to drive from Houston, hurtling westward along I-10 for eight hours and resisting highway hypnosis before arriving at the El Cosmico campground. We planned to glamp two nights in a teepee, but thanks to thunderstorm damage, got upgraded to one of the restored Airstream trailers—surprisingly luxurious digs dubbed, fittingly, the Royal Palace.

Wagyu beef tartare at the Saint George.

We headed to the brand-new, all-white Hotel Saint George for some refreshment, our forks stabbing at wagyu beef tartare, each buttery bite sharpened by bits of caper. It took only one glass of refreshing Portuguese Santola vinho verde before we remembered that Marfa’s elevation—nearly a mile above sea level—amplifies the effect of libations.

Later, stumbling into the evening heat, we ran up against the town’s defining feature: a freight train bisecting the main drag, blaring its horn at all hours for indeterminate periods of time. Thirty minutes later, our path to dinner at Stellina was clear. This is Marfa’s most vaunted eatery, where fresh, Italian-inspired small plates flow freely. We found seating at the wraparound bar and dug into birds’ nests—tangled webs of filo dough spun atop beds of yogurt and fig olive jam—along with perfectly seared New York strips and crunchy cassava fritters doused in zingy chile fire sauce, floating away amid glasses of Txakolina rosé.

Feeling a bit rough the next morning, we stepped into hole-in-the-wall Marfa Burrito (325-514-8675) to order breakfast from women slinging eggs and chorizo behind a Dutch door. Cash was exchanged, and we all scarfed burritos wrapped in face-sized homemade tortillas, slathered in salsa verde. Then it was off to the Chinati Foundation to take in minimalist art among the landscape of spiky agave balls, violently hooting owls, and Texas horned lizards.

Artichoke at Cochineal

Our midday tour break brought perfectly crunchy “marfalafel” from Food Shark, a local mainstay, but we mostly saved ourselves for dinner at upscale eatery Cochineal, where an impressive steamed artichoke was followed by an unusually sexy South Texas antelope schnitzel, dazzling our palates alongside crisp cucumber salad. The flaky peach pie set the bar against which all summer desserts shall be measured.

Back at El Cosmico, we arranged a digestif in the form of a wood-fired hot tub, simmering away as the campground’s karaoke night started up nearby. Powerful sangria arrived, on the house. Far above, the dark desert sky revealed stars unthinkable, and wobbly renditions of Amy Winehouse and Paul Simon carried on the wind. Our weekend was waning with the moon, but we soaked it all in, full and content.

Stay

Austin hotelier Liz Lambert’s perfectly curated “nomadic hotel and playground,” El Cosmico, offers offbeat accommodations—from yurts and hammocks to apartment-like trailers good enough for Beyoncé (yes, she actually stayed in one). Trailers from $150 (self-camping $20). 

A star party at McDonald Observatory

Do

The five-hour guided tour at Chinati Foundation may eat up a whole day, but it’s the only way to truly experience the massive art installations from minimalist legends including Donald Judd and John Chamberlain. 

Attend a star party at McDonald Observatory, where constellation tours offer unparalleled Milky Way views. 

Free after 4 p.m., Bar Nadar, an adults-only pool bar, is a necessary antidote to the desert’s oppressive dustiness. Get a frozen prickly-pear margarita. 

Visit Alta Marfa, a brand-new vineyard in the Davis Mountains that has the Texas wine industry talking. 

Shop

Sturdy, desert-tested footwear is worked, sewn, and finished right before your eyes at Cobra Rock. The Ranch Candy boutique offers vintage Western wear, jewelry, and—of course—candy. 

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