In a short drive from Austin, you can find world-famous barbecue, explore the area’s German past, kayak on a clear river, hike in a pine forest, shop in a Texas-size outlet mall—or mix and match these activities, depending on your interests. On a loop route from Austin to Lockhart, Luling, New Braunfels, and back, for example, you can enjoy barbecue and Teutonic history. Or you can just head back and forth down what’s known as the Golden Corridor: the 80-mile stretch of I-35 between Austin and San Antonio that includes San Marcos and New Braunfels/Gruene.

Unfortunately, in the past several years, real-estate development has turned the I-35 Golden Corridor into more like the Stop-and-Go(lden) Corridor. Towns such as Buda and Kyle are being swallowed up as bedroom communities of Austin, while New Braunfels is edging closer to becoming a suburb of San Antonio.

Note: Because Austin and San Antonio are so close to each other, several of the side trips described, especially the one to the LBJ parks and Fredericksburg, are as easy to do from Austin as from San Antonio. 

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EXPLORING TEXAS BARBECUE

Yes, chili con carne and chicken-fried steak have their champions, but when all is said and done, barbecue is the quintessential Texas food, deeply prized in all corners of the state. Just about every major culture and ethnic group that came to Texas—cowboys and Indians, Mexicans and Germans, Anglos and African Americans—have had their impact on Texas barbecue, perfecting the technique of combining meat, fire, and smoke into a sensory delight. Barbecue has a rich lore, lots of traditions, and, of course, endless debate over such important matters as wet or dry, direct or indirect heat, and sauce or no sauce.

No one would argue that Austin itself lacks good barbecue; several top spots are detailed here. But if you leave the city, you’ll find towns where a slower rhythm of life and the importance of tradition add an essence to the experience that Austin can’t provide. Small towns don’t have the strict clean-air ordinances Austin does, and to create old-time barbecue you need lots of smoke. City barbecue relies more and more on the use of commercial cookers, which just can’t match the character of barbecue cooked using wood. Moisture and sap in the wood create the smoke that gives the meat its flavor, and the pink line just below the meat’s surface is produced when nitrogen dioxide in the smoke mixes with myoglobin in the meat. Brisket cooked with a wood fire in a proper pit will have a line redder and deeper than brisket cooked in a commercial smoker.

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Experiencing Central Texas Barbecue

In Texas, barbecue varies from region to region—and in central Texas, the traditional “dry” method is most often used: A dry rub is applied to the meat, which isn’t marinated or basted; then the meat is cooked for many hours using indirect heat. This method produces a delicious crust. Barbecue joints in central Texas may cook a variety of meats, but there are three constants: brisket, spareribs (pork), and sausage. Beef ribs, pork chops, turkey, and chicken might be offered, but they are not considered essential. When ordering brisket, you’ll often be asked if you want it lean or fatty: Try the fatty. 

Another hallmark of Texas barbecue is the sauce—a sweet and spicy tomato-based concoction. There is a debate in Texas as to whether good barbecue needs sauce or not, to which there is no definitive answer. Almost all barbecue joints will offer sauce, letting you decide.

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In Texas, barbecue is always served with plain white bread, onions, and pickles. Popular side dishes include chili beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Often the barbecue is served on butcher paper (plates would be too highfalutin’). Most small towns sell barbecue by weight—prices run about $7 to $10 per pound for the mainstays, that is, ribs, sausage, and brisket.

It’s important to note that barbecue is traditionally eaten early, to allow ample time for digestion. Many small-town barbecue joints close by 6pm, and many run out of meat long before then. And one more thing to remember when heading to these small towns for barbecue: Bring cash. Credit cards are often not accepted.

So where can you find the best ‘cue in central Texas? That depends on the day, the time you arrive, perhaps the alignment of the stars—and of course, on your own taste. On some days, you might show up at a barbecue joint at just the right time: The smoky taste is at its height but the meat has not yet had a chance to dry out. On other days, you might miss the moment. But of the towns mentioned in this section, it’s safe to say that Lockhart, Luling, and Lexington are the ones where that magical convergence is most likely to occur.

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Lockhart & Luling

LOCKHART — If you have only one shot at trying “real” barbecue, Lockhart is the place to go. Texans flock to this little town (pop. 12,700), which boasts of being the “Barbecue Capital of Texas.” From Austin, take Hwy. 183/Hwy. 130 south about 30 miles. Lockhart has three important barbecue joints. Perhaps the most famous is Kreuz Market, 619 N. Colorado St. (512/398-2361); it’s open Monday to Saturday from 10:30am to 8pm. Go directly to the pit room in back, where a sign on the wall reads: NO SALAD. NO SAUCE. NO CREDIT CARDS. That’s right, this is one of the few places that refuses to provide sauce. Once you buy your meat, head to the large dining room where you can buy drinks and what few side dishes are available. 

If you want sauce with your barbecue, head to Black’s Barbecue, 215 N. Main St (512/398-2712), 3 blocks north of the town square; it opened in 1932 and is still run by the same family. In addition to excellent barbecue and a tangy sauce, Black’s also offers well-prepared side dishes. Food is served daily from 10am to 8pm. Note: Black’s also has branches in Austin and New Braunfels; check the website. 

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Your third option is Smitty’s Market, 208 S. Commerce (512/398-9344), a half-block south of the town square, open Monday to Saturday 7am to 6pm. Make a point of strolling into Smitty’s just to see the smoke-caked pit room; you practically have to step over the open fire pits in the floor to get your meat. This is located on the original location of Kreuz Market (see above)—the family parted ways some years ago, with one side keeping the original location while the other side kept the name. The recipes are about the same in both places, but many argue that the quality of the meat might be a little better at the new(er) place. 

Take a spin around Lockhart’s town square to see the impressive Caldwell County Courthouse. Built in 1894 of uncolored sandstone with red sandstone trim, the three-story structure has mansard roofs on the corners and decorative towers in the center and on the north and south sides. The town also has a pretty little library and several antiques shops.

LULING — From Lockhart, drive 16 miles south via Hwy. 183 to get to Luling. You’ll smell the town before you get there: The many oil wells in the area have a rotten-egg sulfur odor that lingers in the air. Never mind: Luling (pop. 5,400) has some of the best barbecue in the state. 

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The town is divided down the middle by railroad tracks. Where Hwy. 183 crosses the tracks, look for City Market, 633 E. Davis St. (www.lulingcitymarket.com; [tel] 830/875-9019), open Monday to Saturday from 7am to 6pm. As at other barbecue joints, you buy your barbecue in the pit room first, then get sauce, drinks, and sides (beans and potato salad only) in the dining room. Best bets: ribs or brisket. The dry rub on the ribs gives them a slightly crispy texture, and the brisket melts in your mouth. 

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Luling lay at the center of a central Texas oil boom. To earn more about that history, stop by the Central Texas Oil Patch Museum, 421 Davis St. (830/875-1922), in the historic Walker Brothers building. One large room is filled with artifacts of the early days of oil extraction. It’s open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm, closed noon to 1pm for lunch. Admission is $1 suggested donation. The museum doubles as the town visitor center. 

Luling is also known for watermelon and celebrates with a late-June festival called the Watermelon Thump.

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Rockin’ the Pumpjacks

While you’re in Luling, pick up a brochure and map for the Pumpjack Tour, named after the rocking-horse-like machines that bob up and down in oil fields. Denizens of Luling started dressing them up for fun, and then the local chamber of commerce commissioned Texas sign artist George Kalesik to decorate some. The pumpjacks are located close enough together that you can see the majority on foot.

Driftwood

Thirteen miles southwest of Austin from the junction of U.S. 290 W. and FM 1826, the tiny rural town of Driftwood (pop. 144) is known primarily for one thing: the Salt Lick, 18001 FM 1826 (512/858-4959). You can’t miss it—you’ll start smelling the smoke at least 5 miles before you arrive in this pretty little rural town. Unlike many central Texas barbecue joints, the Salt Lick uses an open stone pit, direct heat, and basting; often called “cowboy style” in Texas, this preparation method is similar to Kansas City-style barbecue. The meat gets a good smoky flavor, but leans more heavily on sauce, which is rich and tangy here. 

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As you walk in the door of the original building (on the right as you enter the gate), you’ll see an open pit heaving with juicy turkey and chicken, low-and-slow smoked beef, and pork. You can order individual portions or all-you-can-eat family-style platters of beef, sausage, and pork ribs, served with sides like slaw, potato salad, pinto beans, and homemade pickles. There are also chopped beef sandwiches, ribs, brisket, and sausage by the pound. But save room for the fresh-baked blackberry or peach cobbler or chocolate pecan pie. You can eat in one of a series of rustic dining rooms; on a screened porch, which is pleasant when the weather is mild; or on one of the outdoor picnic tables shaded by heritage oak trees. The Salt Lick is open daily 11am to 10pm; it’s a cash-only place, but there’s an ATM on-site. 

The Salt Lick often gets crowded on weekends when Austinites come down with ice chests full of beer, which they drink while waiting for a table. It’s a tradition: For years Driftwood was a “dry” community, and the restaurant still doesn’t serve alcohol. But the liquor laws have changed, and now you can buy Texas wine or beer next door at Salt Lick Cellars (512/829-4013). It’s ironic that a community that was dry for so long is now also home to several spots purveying potent potables; maybe Hays County is making up for lost time. Along with Salt Lick Cellars, several wineries in the area have formed the Driftwood Wine Trail group; see www.driftwoodwinetrail.com for details. In addition, Stinson Distilling, 18281 FM 150, #211 (https://stinson.business.site; [tel] 512/894-2009), has won awards for its vodka, elderflower liqueur, and carajillo, a creamy rum and coffee combo. All are in a lovely section of the Texas Hill Country; it’s a perfect fit with an excursion to Wimberley. 

Want another taste before flying home? You can pick up brisket and some of the signature sweet-tangy-sour barbecue sauce at the Salt Lick’s Austin airport branch.

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Taylor, Lexington & Giddings

Taylor, Lexington, and Giddings aren’t really en route to anywhere else, but they’re close enough to each other to include all three in a day trip. Visiting them will give you a taste of rural Texas—as well as of smoked meat. 

About 35 miles northeast of Austin—take I-35 north to Round Rock, then Hwy. 79 E.—Taylor is home to Louie Mueller’s, 206 W. Second St. (512/352-6206). Here, the barbecue is cooked with the indirect heat method in an impressive pit. The rub uses a lot of black pepper, which, combined with the smoke, makes a wonderful black crust on the brisket. This large old-fashioned restaurant smells of the smoke that’s been wafting through here since 1949. It’s been in the same family from the beginning, and won a James Beard Foundation “American Classics” award. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm.

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From Taylor, it’s about a half hour’s drive (head east on Hwy. 79 then south on Route 112) to Lexington (pop. 1100), home of Snow’s Barbecue, 516 Main (979/542-8189). Snow’s is open only on Saturday, from 8am “‘til sold out”—which might be as early as 10am. It became a foodie destination after Texas Monthly dubbed it the Best in Texas in 2017. Everything here is excellent, especially the brisket, and it’s well worth the effort and timing needed to get here, although it is in the heart of barbecue country, which offers so many stellar options. If a trip to Lexington doesn’t work out, you can order Snow’s meat online. 

It’s only 19 miles south from Lexington via Hwy. 77 to downtown Giddings, where you’ll find some excellent barbecue at City Meat Market and BBQ, 101 W. Austin St. (979/542-2740). Opened in the early 1960s in an old-fashioned brick storefront at the intersection of Hwy. 77 (Austin St.) and Hwy. 290, this place sells fresh meat as well as barbecue. It’s open Monday to Friday from 7:30am to 5:30pm and Saturday from 7:30am to 4pm, but most of the barbecue is gone by 1 or 2pm. You can call ahead to reserve meat; you can’t miss with the pork shoulder.

While digesting your meal, stroll down Austin Street for a block to the Romanesque Revival-style Lee County courthouse, built in 1899 by J. Riely Gordon, who also built courthouses in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Gonzales. 

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Lost Pines

Thirty-two miles southeast of Austin, just off Hwy. 71, lies an ecological anomaly—a pine forest surrounded on all sides by prairie. It is the last remnant of an extensive pine forest that once extended all the way from the Piney Woods of East Texas. This one piney patch has survived because its soil is rich in iron, which favors the growth of pine trees over grasslands. The area is also very hilly, which also marks a distinction from the surrounding flat prairieland. Located within the forest is Bastrop State Park (512/321-2101), which offers plenty of hiking trails, a golf course, a swimming pool, campsites, and cabins (which must be reserved by phone well in advance: 512/389-8900). Mountain biking is not permitted, but the park road, which extends to a nearby park, is one of the most popular bike routes in Texas. 

Also located in this pine forest is Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa (512/308-1234), a family-oriented resort in the same style as the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort on the outskirts of San Antonio. It’s located on the banks of the Colorado River and offers such activities as kayaking and canoeing, as well as horseback riding. Rates for a standard room run from $250 to $325, depending on the day of week and time of year. Promotional rates and packages are often available. 

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Glamping Around Austin

Travelers everywhere have discovered that glamour camping—aka glamping—can be more fun than the kind that involves discomfort. Less than an hour from Austin in all directions, you’ll find high-end canvas tents and treetop yurts that allow you to enjoy nature’s beauty from the comfort of a warm bed—and without having to go outdoors to use the bathroom. Expect to pay between $200 and $500 per night.  

SOUTHEAST (NEAR SEGUIN)

Best Texas Travel (888-993-6772) manages two properties near Seguin. The tipis and treehouse-style cabins at Geronimo Creek Retreat sit at the edge of the spring-fed creek for which they’re named. With private access to the water, guests can spend the day paddleboarding, tubing, kayaking, or swinging from a rope swing. The property has four cabins (each sleeps up to six guests), and five fully furnished tipis, all with modern perks like air-conditioning and heat, satellite TVs, kitchenettes, queen-size beds, and living room areas. You can fulfill your Robinson Crusoe fantasies on nearby Son’s Island at Lake Placid, where you can rent a thatched-hut cabana or glamping tent on a 4-acre island. Spend the day kayaking, paddleboarding, hydro-biking, and floating on this river-like long lake before the staff prepares a nighttime fire complete with all the fixin’s for s’mores. 

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WEST (NEAR JOHNSON CITY)

Walden Retreats (830/321-0295) is a top pick for a romantic getaway. Its luxury African safari-style tents have all the comforts of a five-star hotel with king-size bed, full bathroom, deck overlooking a high bluff, barbecue grill, and full kitchen. They sit on 96 acres with easy access to the Pedernales River; fishing poles and canoes are provided to help you enjoy it. 

SOUTHWEST (NEAR WIMBERLY AND NEW BRAUNFELS)

Talk about authenticity: At the exclusive two-person Sinya on Lone Man Creek (713/502-3997), you’ll sleep in a safari tent imported from South Africa. True, on this luxury adventure you get Hill Country, not veldt, views, but you don’t have to worry about getting eaten by a lion. At Collective Retreats (970/445-2033), 12 stylish wood-framed structures offer 1,500 thread-count linens, down comforters, and an in-room curated coffee bar that will have you forgetting you are supposed to be roughing it. The campsite sits along a ridgeline overlooking the 225-acre Montesino Ranch. The six luxurious treehouse-style cabins at River Road Treehouses (888-993-6772) overhang a creek that feeds into the Guadalupe River. Glampers have direct access to the river and can spend the day fly fishing, tubing, picnicking, or hanging in a hammock. 

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NORTHWEST (NEAR SPICEWOOD SPRINGS)

Four treehouses owned by a zip-lining outfitter, Cypress Valley Canopy Tours (512/264-8880), offer family-friendly fun about an hour northwest of Austin. This is not for those with a fear of heights: a zip-line canopy tour is required with your stay (if available), and wooden bridges, rope ladders, and rock staircases are used for getting around the property. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.