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The Short Version: Nestled between San Antonio and Austin, San Marcos is home to Texas State University and so much more. The city straddles the San Marcos River and is just a hop and a skip away from numerous outdoor activities from hiking to biking to paddling. The downtown area is marked by a rich arts and music scene and a wealth of restaurants, bars, and nightlife options. San Marcos has perfected the happy medium between urban amenities and outdoor adventure, making it an ideal spot for a romantic getaway.
I grew up in a small college town that transformed at the end of every August. The population would more than double, and bars kept their doors open a little longer as football dominated life. Autumn Saturdays became reasons to stay away from anywhere near the stadium. Cars with out-of-state license plates were a common sight, but come mid-December, the town reshaped into what it was during the summer.
And while my small town is primarily defined by the public university that gave the town its name, my experience in the town always felt bigger than the university. Sure, the university’s culture and students influenced the town significantly, but it’s not like the town just stopped in its tracks during every university break.
San Marcos, Texas is known for being home to Texas State University, but it offers much more. Located between Austin and San Antonio, the city of just over 68,000 people boasts an energetic arts scene, scores of outdoor adventures, and a lively downtown with plenty of grub, libations, and nightlife to go around.
Sarah Smith is the Social Media Specialist for Visit San Marcos, and she shared her passion for the town, the people, and its promise as an ideal vacation destination for couples needing a getaway. “One of the things that makes San Marcos a unique destination for a romantic weekend away is that it appeals to all different kinds of couples,” Sarah said.
The most intriguing feature of San Marcos’ natural landscape is the San Marcos River, which is fed by hundreds of springs and moves through the center of town. The river stays temperate throughout the year, making it something of an oasis during the long and blazing Texas summer. San Marcos is ideal for couples looking for a getaway spot that offers effortless access to outdoor activities without sacrificing robust downtown attractions.
Tubing is a popular way to experience the San Marcos River. Couples can rent tubes and float leisurely down the river that’s lined by greenery in some areas and city streets in others. It takes between about an hour to three hours — depending on the tube rental company — to tube down a stretch of the river. And tube rental companies offer shuttles from the end of the course back to where the tubers started.
Couples who are in the mood to paddle can rent kayaks, paddleboards, or canoes. Visitors who want to take their kayaking experience to the next level can take a glass-bottom boat tour. “They’re about 30 minutes long and go out on Spring Lake. You can see the springs bubbling up underneath the boat. It’s really cool,” Sarah told us. The Glow Tour (PaddleSMTX) service takes adventurers out at night on boats equipped with LED lights that illuminate the diverse underwater flora and fauna.
Enjoying the river in town is easy. Rio Vista Park is in the heart of the city but offers easy access to the San Marcos River with a rocky yet wadable shoreline. The park amenities don’t stop there. Other offerings include tennis and basketball courts, picnic tables, and the city swimming pool. It’s a great spot to enjoy a stroll after lunch or a break to cool off after exploring the city.
Sarah told us one of the best places to enjoy the landscape of San Marcos is at Purgatory Creek Natural Area. The area is just a few minutes outside of the city center but feels worlds away, offering several hiking trails. The landscape comprises upland meadows, juniper groves, tall canyon bluffs, and champion oak trees that are probably older than most people who visit Purgatory Creek.
There’s nothing better than a good meal and a cold drink after a day of outdoor adventure. San Marcos serves up plenty of food and drink options, a majority of which are conveniently located downtown. The heart of downtown San Marcos is “the Square,” a collection of locally owned restaurants, shops, bistros, and nightspots.
Blue Dahlia is a downtown food option offering a European bistro vibe and simple, healthy bites. The bistro serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and many ingredients are organic and locally sourced. The restaurant’s interior is charming and friendly, with plenty of two-tops where couples can cozy up. Outdoor seating is available in a quaint courtyard, complete with exposed brick walls and meandering vines.
Sarah said that Industry, another downtown spot offering classic American fare, is great for a playful date night. The restaurant offers smoked specialties, bowls, salads, and chef-crafted veggie dishes. The menu is centered around the in-house Texas Live Oak smoker, which cooks delectable dishes like crispy Brussels sprouts and chicken sando. Sarah told us, “Industry has lots of good music and delicious cocktails.”
Vacationing couples who want a late-night drink or a dance floor don’t have to leave downtown to find it. Harper’s on the Square is located right on the downtown Square and frequently hosts live music nights. There’s a pizzeria inside the pub that’s received rave reviews – and what’s better bar food than pizza? The bar is open until 2 a.m., so night owls have a place to party throughout the night.
Middleton Brewing is a little further out from downtown but is an excellent choice for couples who just can’t bear to leave their pups at home when they vacation. The brewery welcomes humans and dogs alike to enjoy outdoor seating adorned with colorful umbrellas and twinkling string lights. The beer list is extensive and diverse, and the rooftop patio offers unparalleled views of Hays County.
Sarah suggests couples keep an eye out for the many murals throughout the city while enjoying everything downtown San Marcos has to offer. From mini murals to large-scale installations that make for captivating photos, the downtown experience is full of color and excitement.
San Marcos enjoys a dynamic arts scene that fuels markets, festivals, and concerts throughout the year. Sarah said, “Because we’re located between San Antonio and Austin, we’ve drawn a unique culture between the two cities.” From an outdoor art park to university-based projects, every corner of the city offers something for art-loving couples.
Art Squared Arts Market brings local artists together from March to December on the second Saturday of each month. The market has many local art booths, live music, and hands-on activities. During summer, couples can enjoy Summer in the Park, which takes place every Thursday in San Marcos Plaza Park. Each evening is jam-packed with live music, and couples should be sure to bring a lawn chair and cold drinks to enjoy the night like a local.
Every September, merfolk take over San Marcos for the Mermaid Capital of Texas Fest. The city’s association with the mermaid was inspired by the many natural springs beneath the city. Part parade and part fair, the festival sees hundreds of mermen and mermaids flock to the city. When it’s not September, couples can experience San Marcos’ love of mermaids by viewing the many mermaid statues throughout the city.
Sacred Springs Powwow is an annual two-day celebration that takes place every October. Native dancers from across Texas gather to celebrate the arts, cultures, languages, and traditions of the Coahuiltecans, the indigenous population that has been in the area for thousands of years. The annual celebration features tons of vendors at the Grand Market with indigenous arts, crafts, and authentic food and drink.
Like most of the Lone Star State, summers are hot in San Marcos. Sarah told us her favorite season in the city is autumn, as the climate is more temperate, making outdoor activities more enjoyable. No matter what time of the year couples visit San Marcos, the locals await to welcome them with smiling faces and plenty of exciting events. When asked what the locals were like, Sarah said, “I would say our locals are quite the characters. They’re very artistic and very unique.”