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There's more to Texas than cowboys and oilmen, although the state still appeals to those who want "wide open spaces." Thanks in part to that oil money, both Houston and the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have several outstanding museums. At shrines like the Alamo, Texans take pride in their unusual heritage as an independent republic in the 1800s, and modern adventure awaits at visitor-friendly NASA facilities in Houston. At over 800 miles across the state, the tremendous geographic diversity includes East Texas forests, blackland prairie and the soaring peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend. Live music and theater is very popular, particularly in the Hill Country of Austin and Central Texas. So pack up the kids and hit the trail! Here are the top 18 family friendly must-sees in the Lone Star State:
- The Alamo – After a 13-day siege, things didn’t end well for the defenders, but the San Antonio landmark is where it all began for Texas. While you’re here, step across the street to the Menger Hotel to see where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders.
- Fort Worth Stockyards – This National Historic District features twice-daily Longhorn cattle drives down the middle of the street, a rodeo every weekend, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show on summer weekends, a 5400 square foot cattlepen maze and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.
- NASA Space Center Houston – Blast off to the multimedia home of astronaut training and Mission Control (related article on education.com: Family-friendly NASA sites.)
- Washington’s Birthday – This is a unique month-long annual event in Laredo (and sister city Nuevo Laredo just across the border) with elaborate parades, bullfights, an air show, a Jalapeno Festival, mariachis and a historical pageant in Colonial dress. It’s George and powdered wigs with a Latino twist.
- Springs and Rivers – Freshwater springs pour millions of gallons into crystal-clear swimming holes (like Barton Springs in Austin, Krause Springs in Spicewood and Balmorhea State Park in far west Texas) and springwater brings cool inner-tubing fun down the Comal, Frio and Guadalupe Rivers.
- Texas Book Festival – Every November, wordlovers swarm inside and around the domed Capitol building in Austin to enjoy a wide variety of bookish events, including a large “Children’s Chapter” with author readings (Lemony Snicket came one year) live music, games and dance.
- Palo Duro Canyon – the “Grand Canyon of Texas” offers camping, hiking and horse rentals. In summer, the outdoor musical drama “Texas” is staged at an amphitheater carved into the canyon.
- Piney Woods – East Texas has four national forests and five state forests; it’s about as far as you can get from tumbleweeds and desert. Canoe past the lush bald cypress and waterfowl on Caddo Lake, or down Village Creek in the Big Thicket National Preserve. Ancient Native American culture is waiting to be found at the Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site.
- Shakespeare at Winedale – The Bard plays in a barn! Every summer, college students from around the US perform several works by Shakespeare at a restored 19th century farmstead owned by the University of Texas. Kids ages 10-16 can attend Camp Shakespeare at Winedale, and in the spring the “Shakespeare Kids” classes stage performances during the Spring Festival of Play.
- Big Bend National Park – One of the nation’s least-visited but most dramatic parks; mountains, desert and river environments across an area about the size of Rhode Island.
- Kerrville Folk Festival – Texas has a rich tradition of live music, and this family-friendly institution at Quiet Valley Ranch brings 18 days of singer-songwriters, instrument workshops and performances to a lovely Hill Country setting.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center– Lady Bird Johnson’s love of plants and the outdoors gave Texas a highway beautification program and numerous parks and trails. Her work continues in the nature walks, lovely gardens and educational events at the Wildflower Center.
- Marfa-Alpine-Fort Davis – This triangle of towns in west Texas is a treasure trove of discovery. Hear the sounds of evening parades by African-American “Buffalo Soldier” cavalry who patrolled the frontier from Fort Davis, find a rather improbable Chihuahuan Desert arts haven at Marfa, and visit Alpine for outdoor sports, ballooning and the February Cowboy Poetry Gathering. At night, gaze at the heavens during a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory.
- Art Museum Riches – You can hardly find a better variety of artwork in the state than the offerings in Dallas and Fort Worth (although the Menil Collection in Houston gives it a fair try.) The Dallas Museum of Art has wide-ranging offerings and the Nasher Sculpture Center is spectacular, but for kids, the Amon Carter Museum of Western art in Fort Worth is perhaps more accessible. For “wow” factor, both building and content, also see the Tadao Ando-designed Museum of Modern Art.
- Go Batty – From about March to November, the world’s largest urban bat colony hangs out under the Ann Richards Congress Avenue bridge in Austin. At sunset, millions of Mexican free-tail bats swarm out in dramatic hordes to look for food, providing a fabulous nature show and also eating up to 20,000 pounds of annoying bugs each night.
- USS LEXINGTON Museum on the Bay – Moored near Corpus Christi, this vintage US Navy aircraft carrier offers self-guided tours throughout the ship, historic aircraft on the flight deck and WWII history from the foc’sle to the fantail.
- Texas Folklife Festival – UT San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures is well worth a visit any time of year, but its flagship event is the annual Folklife Festival, with music, dance, food and demonstrations from the forty or so cultural groups represented in Texas. Alsatians to the Wendish; they’re all here.
- Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum – It takes three floors of exhibits to cover the story of Texas, including early settlers, establishing the Republic of Texas and modern aspects of the state. The multimedia “Star of Destiny” film uses special effects to take visitors through Lone Star history.
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