The Best Way to Spend a Weekend in San Marcos
There 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 running through the heart of a city. If you find all three, you’ve probably stumbled upon the mystical town of San Marcos, Texas.
Nested within the Texas Hill Country, San Marcos is a curious college town located midway between San Antonio and Austin. It’s a city flowing with public art, a vibrant nightlife, and Instagram-worthy brunches. Having lived in San Marcos for the past four years myself, I’ve gained an insight into the ins and outs of the city and know a thing or two about the most exciting happenings in town.
Only a three-hour drive from Houston, San Marcos makes for a welcome getaway from the fast-paced hustle of city life. As you narrow down your summer vacation plans, don’t count San Marcos out, as the city has a charm like no other.
We’ve rounded up the best events, activities, and must-visit restaurants for a weekend in SanMo.
Established in the heart of downtown, Babe’s Doughnut & Coffee is a fast-and-casual shop that lures visitors with freshly made breakfast sandwiches and beautifully decorated sugary confections. The line is nearly out the door on any given morning, so be prepared for a well-worth-it kind of wait.
While Babe’s has plenty of breakfast staples, its menu features local favorites like honey butter chicken biscuits and maple bacon doughnuts. My personal go-to is a sausage and cheese kolache with an old fashioned-style doughnut. While it may seem a bit basic, the kolache bread is so soft and airy, it’ll melt in your mouth. And as for the doughnut: it’s sweet, simple, and perfectly glazed on the outside.
San Marcos wouldn’t be the town it is without its array of coffee shops. Nearly every hour of the day, each coffeehouse teems with students huddled over laptop keyboards and visitors conversing in small groups.
One of my favorite coffee shops happens to be just a stone’s throw from Babe’s: Stellar Coffee Co., which offers an assortment of espresso drinks, matcha, and a rotating selection of mimosas, wine, and beer. Open until 11 p.m. on weekends, Stellar is just the spot to catch live music or put on a show of your own during karaoke night.
After taking a peaceful stroll through downtown San Marcos, I recommend heading to The Coffee Bar for a little midday pick-me-up. The picturesque coffee shop is located inside a 100-year-old building and features an assortment of knickknacks that represent San Marcos culture, like posters of performers from Aquarena Springs, a local tourist attraction from the ‘50s that featured an underwater submarine theater and glass-bottom boat tours. Enhancing the retro vibe, there’s a small vintage television in the corner that surprisingly works and plays shows throughout the day.
Handcrafted drinks and homemade pastries are on the menu, along with special drinks each season. Stop by this summer to try the Brewchata, a cold-brew horchata; the River Water, a sparkling water with coconut and pineapple; or a Minted Palmer, a lemonade with mint green tea.
While San Marcos is filled with outdoor excursions and nature-filled scenery, the city is also a sight for vibrant and culturally rich art. Handpainted murals and carefully crafted sculptures are scattered across the city. In keeping with San Marcos’s status as the official Mermaid Capital of Texas, it's only fitting for the magical creatures to have their honorary place in town. Whether you're strolling the streets of downtown or exploring a nearby park, you’ll be sure to be greeted by a seven-foot mermaid sculpture; all 10 sculptures located across the city celebrate San Marcos culture and history. Some of the sculptures also have a secret to their design, like Oh for a Muse of Fire—a thermochromic pigment makes the sculpture erupt into an explosion of color when the weather is warm.
Mermaids have been a San Marcos icon since the early days of Aquarena Springs, when “Aquamaids” performed underwater ballet and synchronized swimming for park visitors. Now, mermaids serve as a symbol of protection for the San Marcos River. To further celebrate its appreciation for mermaids, the City of San Marcos hosts an annual Mermaid Festival every September, drawing in visitors from across the country to flood the streets in fishtails and seashells.
Make a Splash
A trip to San Marcos isn’t complete without a visit to the crystal-clear oasis that is the San Marcos River. While there are numerous access points located across town, a popular favorite is Sewell Park. Located on Texas State University’s campus, the park is free and open to the public.
Whether it’s a warm summer afternoon or an average school day, you’ll find students lying out on Bikini Hill, kayaking down the San Marcos River, or playing sand volleyball. The park has been around since 1916, when Dr. S.M. Sewell, then a professor at Texas State, decided there should be a park with a place to swim on campus. Originally, the river was only three feet deep here, but students cleaned out the bottom and built higher banks with mud scrapers and mules.
Walking beside the refreshing water will make you eager to jump in on a hot summer day. However, if you can resist the urge, consider lying out among parkgoers or renting water equipment like kayaks and paddleboards to take in the serene beauty of the surroundings. Always at a cool 72 degrees, the San Marcos River streams up from the Edwards Aquifer through the bottom of Spring Lake, a natural feature that’s been around for over 12,000 years.
Speaking of Spring Lake, visitors can access it via The Meadows Center, a research facility located at Texas State University that focuses on habitat conservation and environmental awareness. Open year-round, Spring Lake offers numerous activities for visitors, such as the Glass-Bottom Boat Tour. The tour boats have been a San Marcos attraction since 1945 and give visitors an in-depth look at the nature around and inside the lake.
On the tour, visitors will learn a bit more about the Edwards Aquifer and its endangered species, including the Texas blind salamander and the fountain darter. While floating down the lake, visitors will also get an up-close look at abandoned and repurposed buildings from Aquarena Springs, including the A.B. 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 an immersive snorkeling or kayak tour. There are sights to see off the water as well, as the area includes 251 acres of trails through 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 casual college hangout with an award-winning patio that greets visitors with one of the best views in the city.
Located right on the San Marcos River, the pub’s patio serves as the prime spot to watch people float down the river as you sip on frozen margaritas. Home to Texas-inspired cuisine, Ivar’s features dishes like BBQ mac 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, along with the berry mango mojito, a refreshing cocktail featuring a blend of Cruzan Mango Rum, strawberries, mint, and fruit juice.
Hidden in plain sight and just walking distance from downtown San Marcos is one of the city’s latest hot spots: Putt Pub. 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 music venues located in San Marcos, Putt Pub is more of a laid-back neighborhood bar featuring both indoor and outdoor seating. Those not into golfing can enjoy several games throughout the venue, including tetherball and a giant Connect 4. Putt Pub is limited to those 18 and over until 8 p.m. and reserved for those 21 and over until closing time at 2 a.m.
With just a short trip to San Marcos, you’ll discover why the constantly growing city is a treasured gem tucked away in the Texas Hill Country: it has a bit of everything for all who love adventure and being outdoors.
For more information on San Marcos and things to do in the area, check out visitsanmarcos.com.