New Braunfels: 16 miles SW of San Marcos, 48 miles SW of Austin, 32 miles NE of San Antonio. Gruene: 4 miles NE of New Braunfels
New Braunfels sits at the junction of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers—thus its current popularity as a watersports hub, and its original appeal as a spot to found a town. German settlers were brought here in 1845 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, the commissioner general of the Adelsverein, or the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, the same group that later founded Fredericksburg. Prince Carl returned to Germany within a year to marry his fiancée, who refused to join him in the wilderness, but his colony prospered without him. A flood of immigrants from Germany, spurred in particular by the revolution of 1848, made New Braunfels the fourth-largest city in Texas by the mid-1850s (after Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston).
Now a town of about 70,000 and growing fast—it gets a lot of overflow from nearby San Antonio—New Braunfels has lost much of its historic character, but its old downtown and nearby Gruene give you a taste of bygone days.
Tip: Keep in mind that some 100,000 people descend on New Braunfels during its 10-day annual Wurstfest, which starts at the end of October. If beer and brats and crowds—and, okay, a lot of fun—are up your alley, book a room far in advance.
Exploring New Braunfels
Take exit 187 from I-35 and turn left to get to the Greater New Braunfels Convention and Visitors Bureau, 390 S. Seguin St. (tel. 800/572-2626 or 830/625-2385), open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm. Here, you can pick up information about the area’s water recreation as well as a pamphlet with tours of the Gruene Historic District and historic downtown New Braunfels.
This is one of the few towns in Texas that doesn’t have a courthouse square; instead, it has a large traffic circle, with the Romanesque-Gothic Comal County Courthouse (1898) on one corner, surrounded by other buildings. Most of the old town lies within 5 blocks of this circle. In addition to the courthouse, downtown’s highlights include the Jacob Schmidt Building, 193 W. San Antonio St., built on the site where William Gebhardt, of canned chili fame, perfected his formula for chili powder. The 1928 Faust Hotel, 240 S. Seguin St., is believed by some to be haunted by its owner. Draughts pulled from the microbrewery on the Faust’s premises help allay even the most haunting anxieties. Henne Hardware, 246 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/606-6707), established in 1857—it’s said to be the oldest hardware store in Texas—sells modern bits and bobs, but maintains its original tin-roof ceiling, rings for hanging buggy whips, and an old pulley system for transporting cash and paperwork through the back office. Naeglin’s Bakery, 129 S. Seguin Ave. (tel. 830/625-5722), opened in 1868, stakes its claim as the state’s longest-running bakery. It’s the place to try kolaches, Czech pastries filled with cheese, fruit, poppy seeds, sausage, or ham, among other delicious fillings.
Several small historic museums are worth a visit. Set in a restored early 20th-century depot, the New Braunfels Railroad Museum, 302 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/627-2447), an all-volunteer effort, showcases a collection of train memorabilia, an elaborate model train set, and four antique rail cars: a locomotive, caboose, dining car, and boxcar. It’s open Thursday through Monday from noon to 4pm. Admission is free.
Prince Carl never did build the castle he planned for his sweetheart, Sophia, but on that site today, the Sophienburg Museum, 401 W. Coll St. (tel. 830/629-1572), is a good spot to learn a bit about the history of New Braunfels and other Hill Country settlements. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 4pm; $5 general admission, $1 students.
Two other museums, next door to each other on the east side of New Braunfels, vividly evoke the life of early residents. In the 11-acre Heritage Village complex, 1370 Church Hill Dr. (tel. 830/629-6504), the Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture sheds light on local 19th-century domestic life with its beautiful examples of Texas Biedermeier by master craftsmen, displayed in the gracious 1858 Breustedt-Dillen Haus. The complex also includes an 1848 log cabin and a barn with a replica of a cabinetmaker’s workshop. Hours vary seasonally; the museum is closed August and December, though tours by appointment are still available then. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors, $1 children ages 6 to 12. To tour other historic structures, from a one-room schoolhouse to a barber shop with miniature circus figures, stop by Conservation Plaza, 1300 Church Hill Dr. (tel. 830/629-2943). Most were moved onto this site from other places; the plaza centers around a gazebo and garden with more than 50 varieties of antique roses. Guided tours are offered from Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 2:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday 2 to 5pm; suggested donation is $2.50 per person.
Conservation Plaza is a project of the New Braunfels Conservation Society, which also manages the 1852 Lindheimer Home at 491 Comal Ave. (tel. 830/608-1512); it’s probably the best example of an early fachwerk house still standing. Ferdinand J. Lindheimer, one of the town’s first settlers, was an internationally recognized botanist—41 species of plants were named for him—and editor of the town’s German-language newspaper. Call ahead to request a tour, or to wander grounds planted with Texas native plants.
Chili Powder, Badgers & Frito Pies
Long before Taco Bell, William Gebhardt’s Texas chili powder commercialized Mexican food on a national scale.
When Gebhardt, a German immigrant, moved to New Braunfels, he began taking an interest in the region’s local cuisine. In 1892, he opened a cafe in what is now the Jacob Schmidt building and began experimenting with herbs and dried chile peppers. A few years later, satisfied with his “Tampico Dust,” he began selling it around the state. In 1898, Gebhardt moved to San Antonio, where the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company became the largest purveyor of spices in the country. The company eventually branched out to produce canned chili (mostly meat) and canned tamales.
Gebhart’s New Braunfels cafe occupied a space behind a bar called the Phoenix Saloon (193 W. San Antonio St.; tel. 830/660-6000), which is claimed to have been the first in Texas to serve women, albeit in a separate beer garden. Entertainment at the saloon included badger fights and an alligator pit. The Phoenix closed in 1918 and was not re-opened until 2010, when new owners Ross Fortune and Debbie Smith paid tribute to its venerable history by, among other things, exposing a brick wall from the original 1871 building; placing a stuffed badger above the bar; and putting several types of chili dishes on the menu, including Frito pies. For the uninitiated, a Frito pie is a bag of Fritos that is slit open and topped with chili. (Whether a Frito pie should include cheese and other toppings on the chili and whether it originated in Texas or New Mexico are subjects of heated debate that won’t be covered here.) Co-owner Ross Fortune was a rock music critic for Time Out in his native England; when he decided to open a club in the U.S., he scoped out the Austin area until an old building in New Braunfels called out to him. So while craft beer and chili and an impeccable historic restoration set the scene, the reason for the Phoenix’s existence is live music, from New Wave to dance, blues, and karaoke. You’ll find live sounds here almost every night, usually without a cover charge. You can’t miss the place—look for a stencil of the Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder logo on the side of the building.
Get a more concentrated glimpse of the past at Gruene (pronounced “Green”), which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River, just 2 miles from I-35. First settled by German farmers in the 1840s, Gruene was virtually abandoned during the Great Depression. It remained a ghost town until the mid-1970s, when two investors realized the value of its intact historic buildings and sold them to businesses rather than raze them. These days, tiny Gruene is bursting at the seams, a place crowded with day-trippers browsing specialty shops—everything from smoked meat to antiques—in the wonderfully restored structures. Gruene is also home to potters and other artists with galleries here, as well as B&Bs, hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-friendly stops.
But Gruene is perhaps best known for Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene Rd. at Hunter Road (tel. 830/606-1281). Built in 1878, it’s the state’s most famous and oldest continually operating dancehall. Everyone from Little Richard, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard to Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks has taken the stage here, and it’s still one of the state’s best places to hear live music. But it’s also a down-home bar and beer garden, where you can sit out on a warm afternoon and soak in the old town atmosphere, even when there’s no entertainment on tap.
Outside New Braunfels
On the way from San Marcos to New Braunfels, you’ll probably see a billboard or five advertising Natural Bridge Caverns, 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Rd. (tel. 210/651-6101). It’s well worth a detour. Exit 175 off of I-35 and go under the freeway and head north about 8 miles on FM 3009. Named for the 60-foot limestone arch spanning the entryway, the caverns hold more than a mile of huge rooms and passages, some of which are filled with stunning, multihued formations—still being formed, as the dripping water attests. The daring—and physically fit—can opt to join one of the Adventure Tours, which involve crawling and, in some cases, rappelling, in an unlighted cave not open to the general public ($115–$140; age restrictions apply and advance reservations are required). The mild at heart might choose the Discovery Tour, which explores a half-mile of the cavern, or the Illuminations Tour, focusing on two chambers with lots of delicate formations. A variety of outdoor activities that involve climbing and swinging from ropes are available here too. The caverns are open 9am to 7pm June through Labor Day, 9am to 4pm the rest of the year; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Prices vary, depending on whether you book in advance. Generally, the Discovery and Illuminations tours are $22.50 for adults, $15 for kids ages 3 to 11; combination tickets are $30.50 and $20.
Just down the road, the 450-acre Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, 26515 Natural Bridge Caverns Rd (tel. 830/438-7400), is a drive-through safari park featuring some 50 species from around the world, including rhinos, camels, lemurs, and giraffes. You can either drive through or take a shorter (and equally safe) walking safari. Packets of food sold at the entryway inspire even some generally shy creatures to amble over to your vehicle. It’s open daily 9am to 4pm, or until 6pm in summer; admission costs $22 adults, $20 seniors, and $13.50 for children ages 3 to 11.
Sports & Outdoor Activities
Tubing is a favorite summer pastime along the rapids of the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam. Your experience here will depend on the Canyon Dam flow rate: When it’s low, you hardly move on the water; when it’s high—around 100 cubic feet per second or more—the ride is a lot more fun. The water here is fairly cold, which makes tubing fun during the summer, less so during spring and autumn. In addition, this area is sometimes subject to flooding. Contact the New Braunfels Visitors Bureau for up-to-date information. Outfitters who can help you ride the Guadalupe River on a tube, raft, canoe, or inflatable kayak include Rockin’ R River Rides (tel. 800/553-5628 or 830/629-9999) and Gruene River Company (tel. 830/625-2800), both on Gruene Road just south of the Gruene Bridge.
You can go tubing too, at the original Schlitterbahn, 305 W. Austin St. (tel. 830/625-2351), which now has several branches in Texas, and even one in Kansas City. At 70 acres, including two distinct sections separated by a free tram, Schlitterbahn has a lot more than tubing to offer (though there’s an entire park section, named Tubenbach, devoted to that activity). Gigantic slides, wave pools, and rides, including a five-story water fun house and Dragon’s Revenge water coaster, make for a day—or more—of fun; there’s a resort on the property should you decide to stay overnight. The combination of a natural river-and-woods setting and high-tech attractions makes this splashy playland a standout. The park usually opens in late April and closes in mid-September; call or check the website for exact dates. All-day passes cost $65 for adults, $52 for children ages 3 to 11 and seniors 55+; significant discounts are available if you purchase tickets online.
Those who like their water play a bit more low-key might try New Braunfels’ municipal Landa Park Aquatic Complex, 164 Landa Park Dr. (tel. 830/221-4360). Here you can swim in a pool that’s fed by Comal Springs and maintains a constant 72°F (22°C) year round—it has a water slide and mushroom fountain—or at an Olympic-size pool. In the same park, the City Tube Chute (tel. 830-608-2165), the world’s longest water slide, gives tubers an exhilarating ride on the Comal River. If you’re not prepared to immerse yourself, consider a paddleboat excursion on Landa Lake; see www.nbtexas.org/162/Landa-Park-Attractions or call 830/221-4350 for details.
Perhaps you want to buy your own toys—and learn how to use them. The 70-acre Texas Ski Ranch, 6700 I-35 N. (tel. 830/627-2843), is paradise for those interested in wake, skate, and motor sports. Features of this expanding complex include a cable lake, boat lake, skate park, and motor track—at all of which you can test the equipment you want to purchase or rent (you can also bring your own). Training clinics and private lessons for a variety of sports are offered. Costs depend on the use of facilities and classes. The main building is open Monday 3pm to dark, Tuesday to Saturday 10am to dark, and Sunday 11am to 6pm. Various other facilities have different hours; check the website.
Where to Stay in New Braunfels & Gruene
The Prince Solms Inn, 295 E. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/312-5387), was built in 1898 and has been in continuous operation as a hotel since then. A prime downtown location, tree-shaded courtyard, and eight “Texas Victorian” rooms—they’re historic without being fussy—have made this inn popular. Many of the rooms are small and the location on a busy street—not to mention the piano bar downstairs—means that they’re not overly quiet. Rates range from $125 to $195 double, including breakfast.
A classic 1929 hotel, the Faust Hotel & Brewing Co., 240 S. Seguin St. (tel. 830/625-7791), has refurbished Art Deco–style standard rooms that average from $119 to $169, plus suites for $209. The cheery downstairs brewpub serves up such cross-cultural bar food as German nachos: Kartoffel chips topped with house-made bratwurst, sauerkraut, and beer cheese sauce.
In Gruene, the Gruene Mansion Inn, 1275 Gruene Rd. (tel. 830/629-2641), offers 31 rustic-elegant rooms, some in the opulent 1875 plantation house, some in converted former barns, others in individual cottages; 2-night minimums apply in some cases. Accommodations range from $195 to $300 double per night, including buffet breakfast served in the plantation house.
Where to Eat in New Braunfels & Gruene
At the stylish Huisache Grill, 303 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/620-9001), the American menu has both traditional and contemporary dishes. You can’t go wrong with the pecan-crusted pork chop, the mixed grill, or the bleu-cheese steak. As might be expected from a dining room with a wine bar, there’s a nice selection of bottles. Lunch and dinner are served daily. Prices are on the moderate side, with most dinner entrees ranging from $16 to $20, a bit higher for steak.
The New Braunfels Smokehouse, 1090 N. Business at I-35 (tel. 830/625-2416), opened in 1951 as a tasting room for the meats it started hickory-smoking in 1943. Now in a smaller building around the corner from the original location, it’s more of a deli with picnic tables and paper plates, along with a cold box where you can buy packaged meats. Hot dishes like chicken and dumplings are offered, too.
For classic surf-and-turf at classic prices, Myron’s Steakhouse, 136 N. Castell Ave. (tel. 830/624-1024), offers clubby dining in a converted 1924 movie theater. The cocktail bar is a nice complement. Next door, McAdoo’s Seafood Company, 196 N. Castell Ave. (tel. 830/629-FISH [629-3474]), serves well-prepared fish in a variety of styles—from Creole to fried and grilled—in a beautifully restored historic post office.
In Gruene, the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar, 1287 Gruene Rd. (tel. 830/625-0684), a converted 100-year-old cotton gin, serves a Texas-casual menu of burgers and chicken-fried steak as well as healthful salads. Kick back on one of its multiple decks and gaze out at the Guadalupe River.
New Braunfels & Gruene Arts & Entertainment
At the Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre, 290 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/627-0808), a restored 1942 movie theater in midtown New Braunfels, you can expect to see anything from tribute shows to major talent like Travis Tritt.
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.