Bandera is a slice of life out of the Old West, a town that could easily serve as a John Ford film set. Established as a lumber camp in 1853, the self-styled (and trademarked) Cowboy Capital of the World still has the feel of the frontier. Not only are many of its historic buildings intact, rodeos are still held here on a regular basis (major rodeos are on Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend, but there are also frequent smaller rodeos in between). There’s a nod to contemporary attitudes—gun safety is discussed at the simulated shootouts that take place behind the visitor center, for example—but a lot of hunters live in the area, as evidenced by the taxidermist shops you’ll spot. In short, Bandera is not a Western theme park, but a real town. 

Genuine hospitality and friendliness to visitors are part of the local ethos. For information about local events, outfitters, and activities, stop in at the Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 126 Hwy. 16 S. (www.banderacowboycapital.com; tel. 800/364-3833 or 830/796-3045), open Monday through Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturday 11am to 2pm. 

Exploring Bandera

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Interested in delving into the town’s roots? Pick up a self-guided tour brochure of historic sites at the visitor center or head for the small Western Trails Heritage Park in the main square, across from the county courthouse. Historic markers commemorate the vast Texas cattle drives that once pounded through this area, which was on the Great Western Cattle Trail, immortalized in the book and movie Lonesome Dove.

Immigrant families from Poland settled Bandera in the 1850s; the church they built, the beautifully restored St. Stanislaus, 311 E. 7th St. (www.ststanislausbandera.com; tel. 830/460-4712), is the country’s second oldest Polish parish. The small Frontier Times Museum, 510 13th St. (www.frontiertimesmuseum.org; tel. 830/796-3864), opened its doors in 1933, an era when many museums were mainly showcases for curiosities. This one stays true to its original mandate—you’ll find a taxidermied two-faced goat and a medieval birthing chair among the exhibits—but it also offers a fascinating overview of the area’s history. The much newer (opened 2016) Bandera Natural History Museum, 267 Old San Antonio Hwy. (www.banderanhm.org; tel. 830/328-5090), features displays of dinosaurs and ice age animals made by the same company that created the dinos for Jurassic Park. The educational exhibits include real full-body mounts of animals that the museum’s founder hunted, placed in replicas of their natural habitats. 

Bandera Shopping

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If you stroll along Main Street, you’ll find a variety of crafters working in the careful, deliberate style of the past. The Leather Bank of Bandera, 318 Main St. (tel. 830-328-5080), is the outlet for distinctive Collins of Texas handbags (www.collinsoftexas.com), with styles ranging from vintage and bejeweled to contemporary. Millie & Marie, 204 Main St. (www.millieandmarie.com; tel. 830/328-5060), carries a lot of brands beloved by contemporary cowgirls, including boho-chic Ivy Jane clothing and chunky J Forks jewelry. Housed in a 1908 building, the stocked-to-the-gills Bandera General Store, 306 Main St. (www.banderageneralstore.com, tel. 830/796-8176), sells everything from boots to salsa. It has the only bookstore in town, as well as a fully functional 1950s ice-cream fountain serving malts, milk shakes, and banana splits. Western Trail Antiques & Marketplace, 200 Main St. (www.westerntrailantiques.com; tel. 830/796-3838), brings together contemporary local crafts as well as things retro, from vintage boots to farm collectibles. 

Off the Main Street drag, you can buy beautiful customized belt buckles, spurs, and jewelry at Hy O Silver, 1107 12th St. (www.hyosilver.com; tel. 830/796-7961). Suzoo’s Wool Works, 584 Hwy. 16 S. (www.suzoos.com; tel. 949/400-4225), is a magnet for knitters and quilters, who come for supplies and sign on for classes. 

Sports & Outdoor Activities

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You don’t have to go farther than Bandera Park (www.cityofbandera.org/2161/Park; tel. 830/796-3765), a 77-acre green space within city limits, to enjoy nature, whether you want to stroll along the River Bend Native Plant Trail or picnic by the Medina River. Or you can canter through the Hill Country State Natural Area, 10 miles southwest of Bandera (www.tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/hill-country; tel. 830/796-4413), the largest state park in Texas that allows horseback riding. Ask at the visitor center about outfitters for day rides; many guest ranches provide mounts. 

About 20 miles southeast of town (take Hwy. 16 to R.R. 1283), Bandera County Park at Medina Lake (www.banderacounty.org/services/MedinaLakePark; no phone) is the place to hook crappie, white or black bass, and huge yellow catfish; the public boat ramp is on the north side of the lake, at the end of P.R. 37. Get a single-day license for nonresidents ($16) at the Bandera True Value, 1002 Main St. (tel. 830/796-3861), and bring your own gear. If you want to kayak, canoe, or tube the Medina River, contact the Medina River Company, 1114 Main St. (www.themedinarivercompany.com; tel. 830/796-3600), which rents equipment and provides shuttle service. 

Most people visit the Lost Maples State Natural Area, about 40 miles west of Bandera in Vanderpool (www.tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lost-maples; tel. 830/966-3413), in autumn, when the leaves put on a brilliant show. But birders come in winter to look at bald eagles, hikers like the wildflower array in spring, and in summer, anglers do their best to reduce the Guadalupe bass population of the Sabinal River.

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Staying at a guest ranch

Accommodations in the Bandera area range from rustic cabins and RV hook-ups to upscale B&Bs, but if you’re looking for lots of activities and/or a genuinely relaxing getaway, stay at one of Bandera’s many guest ranches. The Bandera website (www.banderacowboycapital.com) has a full listing of them; below are some of our favorites. Rates at all the following are based on double occupancy and, unless otherwise specified, include three meals, two trail rides, and most other activities.

Note that most guest ranches have a 2-night (or more) minimum stay, but honestly, you wouldn’t want to spend less time than that at a dude ranch—it’ll take at least half a day to start to unwind. Expect to encounter lots of European visitors; chat with them and you’ll learn about all the best beers in Texas—and Germany. 

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The Dixie Dude Ranch, 833 Dixie Dude Ranch Rd. (www.dixieduderanch.com; tel. 800/375-YALL [375-9255] or 830/796-7771), is still a working ranch, run by a seventh-generation Texan. You’re likely to see white-tailed deer or wild turkeys as you trot on horseback through a 725-acre spread. The down-home, friendly atmosphere keeps folks coming back year after year. Rates are $150 per night for adults, $60 to $110 for children depending on age. 

Tubing on the Medina River and soaking in a hot tub are among the many activities at the Mayan Ranch (www.mayanranch.com; tel. 830/796-3312 or 830/460-3036), another well-established family-run operation ($170 per adult, $80–$100 per child). The ranch provides plenty of additional Western fun for its guests during high season—things like two-step lessons, cookouts, hayrides, singing cowboys, or trick-roping exhibitions. 

The Silver Spur Guest Ranch, 9266 Bandera Creek Rd. (www.silverspur-ranch.com; tel. 830/796-3037 or 460-3639), offers the best of both worlds: creatures and creature comforts. Horses, longhorn cattle, miniature donkeys, and pygmy goats are among the four-legged residents of the 300-acre spread, while a Healing Studio provides a serene space for treatments like aromatherapy. The ranch, which abuts the Hill Country State Natural Area, also boasts the region’s largest swimming pool and a great kids’ play area. There are several different rates: You can go for all-inclusive ($130–$170 adults, $50–$95 children), non-riding ($110–135/$50–$85), or breakfast-only ($55–$105/$20–$55) plans.

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Where to Eat in Bandera

If you’re looking for Tex-Mex or country cooking with lots of local atmosphere and little harm to your wallet, you’ve come to the right place. Typical is O.S.T., 311 Main St. (www.ostbandera.com; tel. 830/796-3836), named for the Old Spanish Trail that used to run through Bandera; it’s been open since 1921. Check out the John Wayne room, covered in photos and old movie posters of “the Duke.” Brick’s River Cafe, 1105 Main St. (www.bricksrivercafe.com; tel. 830/460-3200), behind the River Oak Inn at the north end of town, serves up down-home standards such as chicken-fried steak, fried catfish, and liver and onions. From a seat on the back deck (half enclosed, half open-air), you can look out over the Medina River. Mi Pueblo, 706 Main St. (tel. 830/796-8040), is known for its generous portions of dishes like enchiladas verde, carnitas, and breakfast burritos. The huge TJ’s at the Old Forge, 807 Main St. (www.tjsoldforge.com; tel. 830/796-9990), which calls its atmosphere “modern Western,” has a nice selection of salads, fish, and lighter fare alongside its burgers and steaks. The two-tiered dining room has bars with TVs tuned to the latest games. 

It’s worth the 13-mile drive northwest of Bandera, via gorgeously scenic Hwy. 16, to visit the little town of Medina, which calls itself the Apple Capital of Texas. Love Creek Orchards (www.lovecreekorchards.com; tel. 800/449-0882 or 830/589-2202) on the main street runs the Apple Store Bakery & Patio Café, which sells apple pies and other fresh-baked goods, as well as apple cider, apple syrup, apple butter, apple jam, and apple ice cream. Not feeling fruity? The restaurant out back serves some of the best burgers in the area. 

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Bandera Nightlife

Bandera has a lot of rustic, often loud, honky-tonks. If you’re in town on an off night, you can chew the fat in peace with some of the other patrons. On Friday and Saturday, there’s usually live music, so come prepared to dance.

One popular joint is Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar, 308 Main St. (tel. 830/796-8826), downstairs below the Bandera General Store. A well-known figure in Texas country music, Arkey has written songs for some of the biggest names in the state, including Willie Nelson. Sawdust is strewn on the floor to provide a better surface for boot scootin’. On a table in one of the corners, you can see where Hank Williams, Sr., carved his name. Just down the street, the Chikin Coop, 401 Main St. (tel. 830/796-4496), is so named because it used to have chicken wire in place of windows. It has live music on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, everything from rockabilly to Western swing. In addition to concerts, some by national recording stars, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, 307 11th St. (www.11thstreetcowboybar.com; tel. 830/796-4849), is known for its Wednesday steak nights: You bring your own meat, the bar provides the barbecue grills, utensils, and spices—and sells side dishes.

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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.