Art and Adventure: A Guide to Marfa, TX

Where to eat, stay, and play in this little art-filled West Texas town with a big reputation
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Aug 22, 2015 | By Benjamin Stanley

Off the beaten path in West Texas, there's a little town by the name of Marfa. Despite it's diminutive size, it has made a name for itself as home to a mighty art scene with plenty to explore. Correspondent Benjamin Stanley and his wife Kay went to check it out.

fter living and working in the southeast for a decade, my wife and I were ready for a change. We quit our day jobs, put our life into a storage unit and hit the highway in search of adventure. When we were outlining our cross country trek, we started with a handful of must-see destinations: The Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Austin… and Marfa. Haven’t heard of Marfa? That’s OK. Neither had most people we know.

Founded in the 1880’s as a railway stop, this West Texas town has seen a rise in the last decade as a new wave of artists, writers and filmmakers have flocked to this isolated town to escape the ordinary. Hosting many festivals, events and quality art destinations, Marfa is cool, yet still too rugged and humble to be called “hipster.”

Looking to soak up the high desert vibes and starry skies, we drove the six and a half hours from Austin and landed in Marfa.

The town itself may be a little sleepy during the week (most shops and restaurants are either closed or have unpredictable hours Sunday through Wednesday), but really comes to life during the weekend. For a town measuring less than two square miles, there are a surprising array of farm-to-table restaurants, food trucks, boutiques and contemporary art centers.

Looking for something more adventurous? Make your way south to Big Bend, one of the country’s most overlooked national parks. Along with the park’s charming canyons and wildlife, you’ll find over 150 miles of trails, making it a great environment for a day hike or backpacking trip.

Despite the array of things to do, nothing feels urgent or rushed in Marfa. In a world of 60 hour work weeks, deadlines and always being plugged in, it may be just the respite you’re looking for: A little town where it’s perfectly acceptable to kick back in the shade, sip on a beer and enjoy a siesta.

Where to stay

El Cosmico
A truly one-of-a-kind destination, El Cosmico is part campground, part vintage trailer court, part getaway. Located on several acres on the south side of town, El Cosmico’s accommodations range from from eight renovated and customized vintage trailers (We recommend the 1953 Vagabond), traditional Sioux teepees, safari tents and a classic tent campground. El Cosmico also hosts a variety of workshops, festivals and cookouts throughout the year, all designed to foster creative and intellectual exchange.

Hotel El Paisano
This historic landmark of a hotel first opened its doors in 1930 and hosted James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of “Giant”. Although the property began to decline in the 60’s and 70’s, it has since been restored to its full glory – complete with historic bedrooms, a ballroom, swimming pool and Jett’s Grill.

Where to eat and drink

Cochineal
A hallmark of Marfa’s “casual elegance,” Cochineal offers a seasonal menu of outstanding dishes made with fresh ingredients from their in-house garden. Dine inside or in their courtyard – just be sure to make a reservation!

Padre’s
Grab a drink and some great food in a beautifully renovated, century-old adobe building. The bar is built of hardwood salvaged from the original flooring and offers an extensive selection of tequila. They’re also the best music venue in town, complete with a wooden dance floor. Don’t feel like dancing? They also have foosball, air hockey and pool tables.

Food Shark
The go-to weekend lunch spot. This Mediterranean-themed food truck has a rotating menu and a dining area built into a renovated school bus.

Art scene

The Chinati Foundation
A contemporary art museum founded by seminal American artist Donald Judd, it hosts his famous “15 untitled works in concrete” – groupings of identical concrete slab structures set against the stark landscape of the high desert. To see the work in its entirety requires a two mile walk, so it’s best to go early and avoid the midday heat.

The Marfa Contemporary
A small art gallery showcasing contemporary and unique artists. You can’t miss the car sculpture out front!

Prada Marfa
A permanent installation several miles west of downtown and originally built in 2005 by Berlin artists Elmgreen and Dragset, this “store” will never open its doors, but visitors can see goods from the luxury brand’s Fall 2005 line juxtaposed against the desolate landscape.

Exploring Downtown

Freda
A great pocket-sized boutique with an array of goods for him and her.

Cobra Rock Boots
Visit this workshop and retail space for highly coveted handmade boots. Fair warning though, their boots are made in small batches and there may even be a wait list for a pair.

Do Your Thing
This high quality coffee shop is cozily tucked into the back of Marfa Book Store. It’s easy to miss, but worth a visit.

Marfa Lights Viewing Center
Technically it’s nine miles outside of downtown, but who’s counting? Make your way out there after dark to seek out Marfa’s “ghost lights.” Whether you believe the paranormal hype or not, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot to stargaze.

Play

Big Bend National Park
Roughly an hour and a half south of town, the “splendid isolation” of Big Bend’s wilderness offers the largest expanse of roadless public land in Texas, making it a hiker’s paradise. It’s best to visit during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) for more temperate weather.

Marfa Film Festival (mid October)
Starting in mid October, this is a film festival unlike any other. The Marfa Film Festival is not a competition and showcases a diverse range of films, and brings a variety of musical acts and regularly shows film out on the prairies. [H]

Benjamin Stanley is the picture taker and adventure seeker behind The Hinterlands.
When he and his wife Kay aren’t out road tripping and exploring, you can find them enjoying ice cream or working in their studio.
Follow his adventures on his website and Instagram.

Images ©: Benjamin Stanley