You don’t have to cross the globe to discover one of the world’s most unique travel destinations; as it turns out, you just have to cross most of Texas. Marfa, Texas, founded in the late 1800’s and known today as the quirky artist’s mecca, is a mix of both charm and other-world mystique. Step with us into an alternate reality (one with Middle Eastern food trucks, of course) and decide for yourself if Marfa is your next vacation destination.
Marfa, Texas is located in the middle of nowhere. Far out in west Texas, between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National park, this small town is near the Mexican border and isn’t on the way to anything. If you look at a map of Marfa, Texas, you’ll see the closest large city is El Paso, but that’s still three hours away. Nevertheless, the city has somehow reinvented itself from a dusty watering hole just barely a city in the 1800’s to something else entirely.
Nobody quite knows how Marfa got its name. Some think it’s from a character Fyodor Dostoevsky created in The Brothers Karamazov, but other believe its named after a Jules Verne character. Either way, Marfa got a new lease on life in 1971, when Donald Judd, minimalist artist, moved in from New York City and set up shop. Judd eventually bought up multiple buildings, abandoned hangars, and other locations to showcase his art and then create galleries to showcase additional artists’ work.
Judd died in 1994, leaving behind two foundations to maintain his legacy: the Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation. Together, these foundations occupy more than ten buildings in Marfa, garnering worldwide acclaim and visitors. Today, we’re sharing ten reasons you should consider starting the trek to Marfa, yourself.
1. The Chinati Foundation
The Chinati Foundation functions as a contemporary art museum based upon the ideals of Judd, its founder. The artists’ work housed here are breathtaking, and interplay with the stark surrounding desert in surprisingly beautiful ways.
The collection is vast, with tours split into two parts around a two-hour lunch break. The Chinati’s Selection tours include works by Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin. Outside the buildings are Judd’s fifteen works in concrete, which are available for self-guided discovery. These stark, manmade objects stand out sharply against the flat landscape and were poured and cast on site in the 80’s.
2. Marfa Lights
Marfa, Texas wouldn’t be Marfa, Texas without the lights! The horizon southeast of the town represents an area that’s extremely difficult to traverse, yet from the 19th-century people have reported seeing strange lights dance on the horizon. These lights have been attributed to ghosts and unidentified flying objects (UFOs), but the real reason remains (more or less) a mystery. Scientists chalk them up to atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights and campfires.
This mundane answer notwithstanding, visitors flock to the official Marfa Lights Viewing Area in the evenings. Located about nine miles east of town, towards Alpine, the center might just make a believer out of you.
3. The Marfa and Presidio County Museum
Also located along Highway 90 (everything, more or less is located along Highway 90, since it’s the town’s main thoroughfare), is this 1880’s adobe home and museum. Built by Don Juan Humphries, the house-turned-museum presents a collecting of local artifacts and historical lore about Native Americans, settlers, ranching, geology, and the Chihuahuan Desert. You will also, of course, find memorabilia from the film Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean and filmed right here in Marfa.
You might also enjoy the collection of glass negatives and panoramic photography created by Frank Duncan in Big Bend.
Yes, you read that right. There is, indeed, a Prada store in the desert. To dispel two myths, however, we must tell you that it isn’t a working store (though the shoes housed inside are real Prada) and it isn’t in Marfa, exactly, but rather about a half hour outside the town.
What’s not a myth, however, is that Beyonce has been photographed at this Marfa, Texas Prada.
The shop is actually a sculpture installation by Elmgreen and Dragset, artists, and was inaugurated in 2005. Elmgreen and Dragset intended the sculpture never to be repaired. They wanted it to slowly degrade back into the natural landscape.
5. Marfa Myths
Marfa Myths is an annual music festival. Created in 2014, it also hosts a multidisciplinary cultural program and is put on by nonprofit arts foundation Ballroom Marfa as well as Mexican Summer, a music label out of Brooklyn. Bands perform live music throughout the city with the goal of bringing together creative and collaborative work across multiple genres and disciplines.
Held in the spring of every year, keep in mind that Marfa, Texas weather can be something of a toss-up. Some years it’s hot, and some years it’s cold. Pack accordingly.
6. Ballroom Marfa
Speaking of Ballroom Marfa, the city’s largest and most extensive gallery was created in 2003. In addition to art, it hosts music and cinema and displays exhibits from artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Brigid McCaffrey, and Dan Colen.
The Ballroom was created by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn. Its home is a converted dancehall that, itself, was created in the 1920’s.
7. Davis Mountains State Park
Ready to get outside and away from the culture? Originally known as Limpia Mountains, the Davis Mountains range near Fort Davis in west Texas. Named to honor Jefferson Davis, they are home now to the Davis Mountains State Park and the Fort Davis National Historic Site. The park is a popular destination for travelers thanks to its beautiful rugged vistas and architectural significance of the fort.
You can hike, ride your horse, drive, camp, stargaze, backpack, or geocache throughout the scenic park. There’s even a bird blind just for birdwatching, as well as an interpretive center to help you identify the birds you’re seeing. There are miles of trails for hiking of biking up and down the mountainous ridges and valleys.
8. The McDonald Observatory
If you’re out in the middle of the desert, there’s no excuse for not getting a closer look at the heavens. The McDonald Observatory is an astronomical observatory. It’s located near Fort Davis, which isn’t far from Marfa, and run by the University of Texas at Austin.
Visitors can tour during the daytime, and stay for the star parties and twilight programs held after the sun goes down.
Where to Stay
Just figuring out where to stay is half the fun! Marfa, Texas, hotels are varied and–to say the least–interesting.
Located downtown, Hotel Paisano offers a historical, kitschy sort of flavor. This retro hotel hosted the stars of Giant while they filmed nearby and today it’s evolved to provide guests with wifi, a pool, and gallery shopping. Enjoy this hotel’s restaurant and top-notch ratings.
Not a hotel, but quite exciting, is El Cosmico. The 21-acre campground houses shelter in wide open spaces for its guests. Not your traditional campsite, El Cosmico offers renovated vintage trailers, Sioux-style tepees, Mongolian yurts, and safari tents for your enjoyment. You can also enjoy bikes, wood-fired hot tubs, a hammock grove, and an outdoor kitchen. Glamping at its finest!
This hotel might just be everything your Instagram account has ever dreamed of, thanks to its working typewriters, cactus trimmed wall, and a library full of vinyls. The Thunderbird a blue motel off the main highway with exactly 24 rooms and about as many reviews (don’t worry though, they’re all good). Oh, and there are no tv’s here, so better bring a book.
Hotel Saint George
You might almost think you time traveled when you walk inside the Hotel Saint George. It’s Soho and sparse, white and modern, and you’ll find extras like Aesop toiletries and an Illy espresso bar. The original Saint George stood in this very same spot in 1886 and was reincarnated in the 1920’s with lots of steel and concrete.
What to Buy
You can’t visit Marfa, Texas, without being inspired by the art, the crafts, and the crazy cheap vintage finds. Visit places like Cast and Crew, Freda, and Mirth for home goods, fashion, and lifestyle finds, with the occasionally delightfully random art discovery. Cobra Rock Boot Company is a boot shop where owners Colt Miller and Logan Caldbeck handmake your next pair of Cuban-heeled togs, and Marfa Brand Soap (next door) sells, well, soap.
Marfa, Texas, won’t be on your way to anything and it won’t be easy to get to, but if you do make it, you’ll be amply rewarded by the stark beauty of the west Texas desert landscape, the rich art and cultural community, and the great food.