Brenham is only a little over an hour away from Houston, unless, of course, you find yourself stuck in a classic 290 traffic jam. You know the kind—three lanes of traffic merging into one as you find yourself regretting that can of La Croix, the Buc-ee’s sign promising bathrooms in the distance.
Two hours after setting out, my mom and I make it to Washington County, where the roads are lined with pastures of Jersey and Brahman cattle. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers flood the roadside here every spring, and year-round, thousands of birds traverse the mole-hilly landscape. It’s all very eye-catching.
Washington County is the birthplace of Texas, as the welcome sign reminds us, meaning that just beyond the tack store, County Bible Church, and real-life neighborhood called Gun and Rod Estates is the spot where the state’s Declaration of Independence (from Mexico) was signed one frigid winter morning back in 1836. It’s now the 290-acre Washington on the Brazos State Park, which offers guided tours of a replica Independence Hall, where the declaration was signed; Barrington Living History Farm, former home of the republic’s last president, Anson Jones; and the Star of the Republic Museum. “Five each or nine dollars for all three,” the Visitor Center informs us in a thick drawl.
We peek inside before a stroll along the banks of the serene, swift-flowing Brazos River, on our own, for free, stopping to study the board listing dozens of birds spotted in the park lately: blue jays, yellow warblers, a dark-eyed junco. We ourselves spy a large hawk soaring overhead before piling back in the car.
We pass an actual tractor on our way to downtown Brenham’s Main Street District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, perfect for the ancestry.com-obsessed desktop historians who converge here to explore the circa-1898 Ross Carroll Bennett Victorian home, Toubin Park Cistern, and endless supply of antiques.
At the time of the Civil War, Brenham was a bustling, rough-and-tumble town. In 1866 a catastrophic fire following a gunfight between occupying Union soldiers and locals prompted residents to form a volunteer fire department and build a network of 27 cisterns. Today the steam-pumper that drew water from them is housed in the Fire Museum on the east side of downtown.
We wander to the 1916-era blacksmith shop that’s now the popular Funky Art Café, which connects to gift shop The Pomegranate and, year-round, offers a 20-foot Christmas tree, plenty of art, and a killer chicken salad. Then it’s on to Today &Yesterday, which is located in a former opera house and will make you ask yourself: What item of attire can’t be made out of alpaca fur? “Look at the feet on that Santa,” a shopper stops to tell us. “I don’t think they’re original.”
Around every corner there’s an exhausted parent telling a kid, look, don’t touch, but despite the preponderance of breakables, downtown Brenham is very family-friendly, offering an old-timey carousel in Fireman’s Park, a toy store, a cutesy sandwich/ice cream shop, and, not far away, miniature horse farms.
It’s a glorious day outside, with blue skies for days, and we find ourselves heading north of town to The Antique Rose Emporium. If Brenham had its own secret garden, this would be it, a magical eight-acre nursery full of perennials and native plants. Old bed frames grow mattresses of clover, and a huge, 30-year-old cypress provides plenty of shade. As for those roses?
“March and April is the time to come,” a helpful employee tells us as we haul around our Texas lantana and Italian rosemary in a little red wagon. That’s when luscious blooms with names like Madame Driout, Pink Parfait, and Folksinger truly enchant.
“Oh, we’ll be back,” Mom tells her, and I couldn’t agree more.
What to Instagram
- The owl mural on the back wall of the historic JH Faske Co. Building (S. Baylor and W. Commerce) is street art at its best.
- Colorful vintage house shutters in front of Today & Yesterday make the perfect shabby-chic backdrop.
- The Flying Horse Carousel (1800 E. Tom Green) is one of five wooden carousels in Texas.
If You Spend the Night
- Ant Street Inn, a 15-room boutique hotel full of antiques, stained glass, soaking tubs, and lush gardens, is located within walking distance of downtown’s attractions and shops.
Where to Eat
- The bustling Funky Art Café is a lunch favorite for sandwiches, quiches, and house-infused iced teas.
- Farm-fusion meets tapas at upscale eatery Ninety Six West, where well-curated wine and craft beer lists and tasty flatbreads, cheese plates, and lamb tostadas attract crowds. Ask for one of the coveted seats out front, overlooking City Hall.