New Braunfels is an old German town only 35 miles up the interstate in the direction of Austin. On the way there, you can take a side trip to visit a large, impressive cavern, and when you get to the town you can do some tubing on the Guadalupe River or spend the day at the biggest, best-known waterpark in Texas -- Schlitterbahn -- considered to be the best waterpark in the country. And, if you're curious about German customs and crafts, there are a couple of good museums that make for enjoyable visits. You can also find some Texas-style nightlife here in the form of old dance halls. And, if you elect to do that, you can stay the night at one of several hotels in town, including a couple of old properties with character.
New Braunfels was founded in 1845 by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, a well-connected German nobleman. He was appointed the commissioner general of the Adelsverein, or the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, the same group that later founded Fredericksburg. The German way of founding settlements was a more organized endeavor than the Anglo way. The society chose artisans and tradesmen for their potential benefit to the new community. It set aside money and supplies for the first years. And, among the first things Prince Carl did was see to the layout of the settlement, and the construction of a stockade and a fort. After seeing to these necessities, he left for Germany and never returned. New Braunfels, however, grew quickly with the flood of immigrants from Germany, especially with the revolution of 1848. By the mid-1850s, it was the fourth-largest city in Texas after Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston. But growth slowed soon after that. Today it's a town of about 36,000 inhabitants. The town owes much of its recent growth to its proximity to San Antonio. It's one of the few towns in Texas that doesn't have a courthouse square; instead, it has a large traffic circle, with the courthouse on one corner, crowded by other buildings. Most of the old town lies within 5 blocks of this circle.
Tip: Unless you have a particular interest in German heritage, avoid New Braunfels during its annual Wurstfest, a 10-day festival that starts at the end of October. Wurstfest lures 100,000 people to town, fills the streets with traffic, packs the hotels and restaurants, and makes it impossible to get acquainted with New Braunfels.
If you go to New Braunfels, consider driving the 15 miles farther up I-35, to San Marcos, if you want to do some kayaking or shop at two large outlet malls, which are en route.
On the way to New Braunfels, you'll probably see a billboard or two advertising Natural Bridge Caverns, 26495 Natural Bridge Caverns Rd. (tel. 210/651-6101; www.naturalbridgecaverns.com). These caverns are beautiful and make for an enjoyable side trip. Take exit 175 off of I-35 and go under the freeway and head north on FM 3009. Signs will point the way; the cavern is 8 miles from the interstate. From there the shortest route to New Braunfels is to continue north for 2 miles, then make a right on FM 1863. 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 ($100 for 3-4 hr.), while those who prefer their adventures outdoors can opt for the Watchtower Challenge, a 40-foot climbing tower with a zipline (prices vary, subject to weather and availability). 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; two different tours cost the same, $18 adults, $10 children ages 3 to 11. The Discovery Tour explores a half-mile of the cavern, viewing many formations of all types. The Illuminations Tour focuses on two chambers with lots of delicate formations, which are dramatically lit.
Just down the road is the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, 26515 Natural Bridge Caverns Rd. (tel. 830/438-7400; www.nbwildliferanchtx.com), one of those safari parks where you drive through the reserve and can view exotic animals from the safety of your car. The park covers 400 acres, with some 50 species from around the world; there's also a shorter (and equally safe) walking safari. Packets of food sold at the entryway inspire even some generally shy types to amble over to your vehicle. It is open daily 9am to 4:30pm, with extended summer hours until 6:30pm; admission costs $17 adults, $16 seniors 65 and older, $8.50 children ages 3 to 11.
If you want to head to old town New Braunfels, take exit 187 from I-35 and turn left. This will put you on to South Seguin Street. Only a block from the interstate, you'll see a CVS pharmacy, and behind it, in a white building, is the Visitors Center, but it's easier to pass that by and continue down Seguin until you see on your left the New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, 390 S. Seguin, New Braunfels, TX 78130 (tel. 800/572-2626 or 830/625-2385; www.nbjumpin.com). It's open weekdays 8am to 5pm. The staff can answer questions and give you a map and brochures.
South Seguin Street runs straight to the courthouse circle. Before you get there you'll pass the Faust Hotel (and brewpub), a handy place to spend the night and/or stop for a sampling of local flavor. It was built with that exuberance for decoration typical of the buildings of the 1920s and was completed just before the stock market crash of 1929. It's said to be haunted, probably by the hotel's original investors. A few blocks farther down is the Comal County Courthouse (1898). Like the courthouses in San Antonio and nearby Gonzales, it was built by J. Riely Gordon, but this was obviously not his best work or the best location.
If from here you take West San Antonio Street (3/4 of a revolution around the circle from S. Seguin St.), you'll come to a large old commercial building built of red brick, the Jacob Schmidt Building (193 W. San Antonio). It was here, in 1896, that William Gebhardt took his love for Texas chili and developed a way to popularize it in the rest of the country, an endeavor that eventually made chili the internationally recognized dish that it is today. You can see a mural on the side wall that commemorates the event. The ground floor of the building was a saloon, a grocery store, and a saloon again; after a fire, the saloon reopened as the Phoenix Saloon, rising, as it were, from the ashes. The building was later closed up for years but was recently reopened, again as the Phoenix Saloon (tel. 830/660-6000), by owners who obviously have a sense of history. Here you can get a righteous bowl of chili and honor the memory of Mr. Gebhardt. You can also taste the chili in the form of a chili burger, or in a Frito pie (served in an updated version of the original dish -- using the Frito bag as a container). The Phoenix is an enjoyable place to pass an evening. It has live music almost every night and usually without a cover charge.
If you walk down a little farther and across the street, you'll find Henne Hardware, 246 W. San Antonio (tel. 830/606-6707). This is a classic old hardware store with tall shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling, reached by using ladders attached to an old rail. Henne bills itself as the oldest hardware store in Texas (1893) and sells everything most hardware stores do, in addition to cookware, toys, and a number of traditional items not commonly found, such as old locks and doorplates for refurbishing old buildings.
A bit farther down are the railroad tracks and the site of the New Braunfels Railroad Museum, 302 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/627-2447), an all-volunteer effort, which is open from Thursday to Monday from noon to 4pm. The museum suggests a $2 donation to see the old depot, restored to its early-20th-century condition, the collection of train memorabilia, an elaborate model train set, and the four antique rail cars in its possession: a locomotive, caboose, dining car, and boxcar.
Just on the other side of the tracks (but not visible from the street) is the Huisache Grill, which probably has the best food in New Braunfels. If you're in the mood for baked goods, return to the courthouse circle and make a right back on to South Seguin Avenue. Naeglin's Bakery, 129 S. Seguin Ave. (tel. 830/625-5722), will be on your left. It opened in 1868 and stakes its claim as the state's longest-running bakery. For something different, try the kolaches -- Czech pastries filled with cheese, fruit, poppy seeds, sausage, or ham, among other delicious fillings.
In addition to the railroad museum mentioned above, New Braunfels has a few others. First, there's the Sophienburg Museum, 401 W. Coll St. (tel. 830/629-1572; www.sophienburg.org), located on the hill where the original Sophienburg fort was built by Prince Carl in honor of his fiancé Sophia. The museum has one room of rotating exhibits portraying life in the town during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum has a few interesting artifacts, but I don't think it's worth the time for most people, or the $5 general admission. It's open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 4pm. Students 17 and under only pay $1. Take West San Antonio Street a few blocks past the railroad tracks and turn left on Clemens Avenue. The museum is 3 blocks down on the right.
There are two related museums, next door to each other on the east side of New Braunfels, which do a better job of describing the life of early residents. Take South Seguin back toward the interstate; make a left onto Business 35, go 1 mile to Hwy. 46 and make a left, then your first right. The Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture, 1370 Church Hill Dr. (tel. 830/629-6504; www.nbheritagevillage.com), offers tours of the 1858 Breustedt-Dillon Haus, filled with period furniture made in the area, including some beautiful examples of Texas Biedermeier by local craftsmen of the last half of the 19th century. The house's fachwerk construction will also be something new for most visitors. Fachwerk consists of solidly built wooden frames filled in with a variety of materials, including brick, stone, and earth. The 11-acre Heritage Village complex, which is the site of the furniture museum, also includes an 1848 log cabin and a barn that houses a reproduction of a cabinetmaker's workshop. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 4pm from February 1 through November 30, closed December and January. The last tour begins at 3:30pm. Admission costs $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $1 for children ages 6 to 12.
Right next to the entrance to the furniture museum is Conservation Plaza, 1300 Church Hill Dr. (tel. 830/629-2943), a collection of seventeen 19th-century structures that were preserved and moved onto this site. Guided tours (included in admission) are offered from Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 2:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 2 to 5pm; adult admission costs $2.50, while children 6 to 17 pay 50¢. The site is closed on Mondays. The tour includes viewing an original 1870 schoolhouse, a store, a music studio, and several houses. On the grounds is a gazebo and garden with more than 50 varieties of antique roses.
Conservation Plaza is a project of the New Braunfels Conservation Society, which also owns the 1852 Lindheimer Home at 491 Comal Ave. (tel. 830/608-1512). It's a particularly good example of an early fachwerk house. Ferdinand J. Lindheimer, one of the town's first settlers, was an internationally recognized botanist and editor of the town's German-language newspaper. Call ahead to request a tour, or to wander the grounds planted with Texas natives (38 species of plants were named for Lindheimer).
To get to Gruene, take exit 189 off of I-35 and turn left onto Hwy. 46, then follow the signs. Actually part of New Braunfels, Gruene (pronounced "green") is only 4 miles north of downtown. It was first settled by German farmers in the 1840s and stayed small. It was virtually abandoned during the Depression in the 1930s and remained a ghost town until the mid-1970s, when two investors realized the value of its intact historic buildings and sold them to businesses. These days, tiny Gruene is crowded with day-trippers browsing the specialty shops in the restored structures, which include a smoked-meat shop, lots of cutesy gift boutiques, several antiques shops, and an old Texas dance hall.
The New Braunfels Museum of Art & Music, 1259 Gruene Rd., on the river behind Gruene Mansion (tel. 800/456-4866 or 830/625-5636), focuses on popular arts in the West and South (as opposed to, say, high culture and the classics). Subjects of recent exhibits, which change quarterly and combine music and art, have included Texas accordion music, central Texas dance halls, and cowboy art and poetry. Live music throughout the year includes an open mic on Sunday afternoons, and the recording of New Braunfels Live radio show of roots music on Thursday evenings. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6pm from September 1 through April 30; and Monday through Thursday from 10am to 6pm, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 8pm, Sunday noon to 8pm the rest of the year. Free admission, though donations are gratefully accepted (and you can contribute by shopping at the museum's excellent gift shop).
Watersports -- Gruene is upriver on the Guadalupe, close to many outfitters who can help you ride the Guadalupe River on a raft, tube, canoe, or inflatable kayak, including Rockin' R River Rides (tel. 800/553-5628 or 830/629-9999; www.rockinr.com) and Gruene River Company (tel. 888/705-2800 or 830/625-2800; www.toobing.com), both on Gruene Road just south of the Gruene bridge.
Tubing in Central Texas -- Tubing is a favorite pastime during Central Texas summers. It's very simple. You drift lazily down the river in an oversize tube and occasionally enjoy a very little bit of white water. This stretch of the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam, and the San Marcos River below Aquarena Springs, are the preferred areas for spending time in the river. They are a bit different, and the experience you will have depends a good deal on local factors. For the Guadalupe, one of the biggest factors is the Canyon Dam flow rate. When the flow rate is low, you hardly move on the water; when it's high, the ride can be a lot more fun. What you're looking for is something around 100 cubic feet per second or higher. Call ahead to either of the outfitters listed above to inquire about the flow rate before you make the trip, or visit www.guadalupefly.com/flow.html. Another thing to keep in mind is that the water is released from the bottom of the lake and is pretty cold -- good during the summer, less so during spring and autumn. Also, sometimes this area is affected by flooding. In 2010, it was closed for more than a month. The San Marcos River isn't affected by most of these factors. The river is spring-fed and doesn't flood or slow down as much as the Guadalupe. The water is also a couple of degrees warmer, and can be enjoyed for a little longer into the autumn. But the tubing runs are shorter. I prefer tubing on the Guadalupe when the conditions are ideal because there is more variety and more time in the river. When conditions are less than ideal, San Marcos is preferable.
The other popular option for fun in the water is Schlitterbahn, Texas's largest waterpark and perhaps the best in the country, 305 W. Austin St., in New Braunfels (tel. 830/625-2351; www.schlitterbahn.com). If there's a way to get wet 'n' wild, this place has got it. Six separate areas feature gigantic slides, pools, and rides, including Master Blaster, one of the world's steepest uphill water coasters. The combination of a natural river-and-woods setting and high-tech attractions makes this splashy 65-acre playland a standout. The park usually opens in late April and closes in mid-September; call or check the website for the exact dates. All-day passes cost $45 for adults, $36 for children 3 to 11; children 2 and under enter free. The park has grown a lot over the years and now is in two distinct sections, linked by shuttles: the original park, and the new additions. If you're going straight to Schlitterbahn from San Antonio, take exit 187, turn left and drive to the courthouse circle, make a right onto East San Antonio Street, and drive 5 blocks.
Those who like their water play a bit more low-key might try New Braunfels's Landa Park (tel. 830/608-2160), where you can either swim in the largest spring-fed pool in Texas or calmly float in an inner tube down the Comal River -- at 2 1/2 miles the "largest shortest" river in the world, according to Ripley's Believe It or Not. There's also an Olympic-size swimming pool, and you can rent paddle boats, canoes, and water cycles. Even if you're not prepared to immerse yourself, you might take the lovely 22-mile drive along the Guadalupe River from downtown's Cypress Bend Park to Canyon Lake.
For more details about all the places where camping, food, and water toys are available along the Guadalupe River, pick up the Water Recreation Guide pamphlet at the New Braunfels Visitors Center.
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; www.texasskiranch.com), 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 complex is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10am to 8pm, Friday and Saturday 10am to 9pm, Sunday 10am to 6pm.
Where to Stay in New Braunfels and Gruene
The Prince Solms Inn, 295 E. San Antonio St., New Braunfels, TX 78130 (tel. 800/625-9169 or 830/625-9169; www.princesolmsinn.com), was built to be a small hotel. It has been in continuous operation since 1898. A prime downtown location, tree-shaded courtyard, and florid, High Victorian-style sleeping quarters have put accommodations at this charming bed-and-breakfast in great demand. Three Western-themed rooms in a converted 1860 feed store next door work for families, and there's an ultraromantic separate cabin in the back of the main house. Rates range from $125 to $195.
The Faust Hotel, 240 S. Seguin St. (tel. 830/625-7791; www.fausthotel.com), has standard rooms going from $69 to $99. Rates go up when there's a festival in town. This is in many ways a classic old hotel with an ornate lobby and welcoming brewpub.
For a bed-and-breakfast experience, consider the Gruene Mansion Inn, 1275 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels, TX 78130 (tel. 830/629-2641; www.gruenemansioninn.com). The barns that once belonged to the opulent 1875 plantation house were converted to rustic elegant cottages with decks; some also offer cozy lofts (if you don't like stairs, request a single-level room). Accommodations for two go from $170 to $240 per night, including breakfast served in the plantation house. Two separate lodges, suitable for families, are available, too ($260-$340).
The nearby Gruene Apple Bed and Breakfast, 1235 Gruene Rd. (tel. 830/643-1234; www.grueneapple.com), set on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River, is less historic, more upscale. This opulent limestone mansion, built expressly to serve as an inn, hosts 14 luxurious theme rooms, from "Wild West" and "Shady Lady" to the more decorous "1776"; many look out on the river from private balconies. On-site recreation includes a natural stone swimming pool, hot tub, pool table, player piano -- even a small movie theater. Doubles range from $175 to $235; midweek discounts available.
If you're planning to come to town during the Wurstfest sausage festival (late Oct-early Nov), be sure to book well in advance, no matter where you stay -- that is high season here.
Where to Dine in New Braunfels and Gruene
The New Braunfels Smokehouse, 1090 N. Business 35 (tel. 830/625-2416; www.nbsmokehouse.com), opened in 1951 as a tasting room for the meats it started hickory smoking in 1943. Savor it in platters or on sandwiches, or have some shipped home as a savory souvenir. It's open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; prices are moderate. For my money, the Huisache Grill, 303 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/620-9001; www.huisache.com), has the best food in town. The American menu has classic and original dishes. The pecan-crusted pork chop, the mixed grill, and the blue cheese steak are among my favorites. Lunch and dinner are served daily; prices are moderate to expensive. The restaurant is broken into several different dining areas, each with its own character. To find it, take West San Antonio from the courthouse and take the first driveway to the left after you cross the tracks.
If you want just steak, Myron's, 136 Castell Rd. (tel. 830/624-1024; www.myronsprimesteakhouse.com), serves perfectly prepared Chicago prime in a retro dining room (a converted 1920s movie palace). Prices are big-city expensive, but the outstanding food and service, combined with the atmosphere, make any meal here a special occasion. Myron's is open for dinner nightly. Reservations are recommended.
In Gruene, the Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar, 1287 Gruene Rd. (tel. 830/625-0684; www.gristmillrestaurant.com), a converted 100-year-old cotton gin, includes burgers and chicken-fried steak as well as healthful salads on its Texas-casual menu. Kick back on one of its multiple decks and gaze out at the Guadalupe River. Lunch and dinner daily; prices are moderate.
New Braunfels and Gruene After Dark
At the Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre, 290 W. San Antonio (tel. 830/627-0808; www.brauntex.org), a restored 1942 movie theater in midtown New Braunfels, you can expect to see anything from Frula, an eastern European folk-dancing extravaganza that played Carnegie Hall, to such local acts as the Flying J. Wranglers.
Lyle Lovett and Garth Brooks are just a few of the big names who have played Gruene Hall, Gruene Road, corner of Hunter Road (www.gruenehall.com), the oldest country-and-western dance hall in Texas and still one of the state's most outstanding spots for live music. If you don't like the act playing at Gruene Hall, try the Phoenix Saloon, 193 W. San Antonio St. (tel. 830/660-6000; www.thephoenixsaloon.com).