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Culture on a budget: Five nearby towns to visit this summer

Culture on a budget: Five nearby towns to visit this summer

Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_2
The Gaudalupe River, which can be enjoyed on a visit to Gruene or New Braunfels.  Photo by Gabino Iglesias
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The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch offers a real close-up experience. Photo by Gabino Iglesias
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_1
One of the many winery/shops that can be found while walking around Gruene.  Photo by Gabino Iglesias
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_4
A few barrels of wine at Becker Vineyards. Photo by Gabino Iglesias
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_2
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_3
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_1
Austin Photo Set: gabino_staycation_june 2012_4

Just because you can't hop on a plane doesn't mean this summer has to be devoid of novel experiences. Luckily for Austinites, our city is within driving distance of a plethora of unique places that offer visitors a wide array of attractions and activities that accommodate all budgets. If you are staying put this summer, check out this list of some the best nearby cities and start planning your next day trip or weekend getaway. 

Gruene

Less than hour when heading south on I-35 lies the town of Gruene. Pronounced "green," like the color, Gruene was established by German farmers in the mid 1840s. Ernst Gruene, a German immigrant, arrived in New Braunfels with his wife in 1845 and found that acreage was scarce. The man and his two sons decided to acquire land just down river. The rest is history, and much of it can still be seen in town.

Today, Gruene is known as paradise for people who enjoy cooling off in the river during the hot Texas summer days. Both the Guadalupe and Comal rivers offer visitors a chance to do some whitewater rafting, relax while floating downriver in a tube or take a scenic trip in an inflatable canoe. Those not wishing to spend money on renting equipment can enjoy the water and have a picnic without spending a dime.

 Today, Gruene is known as paradise for people who enjoy cooling off in the river during the hot Texas summer days.

Besides taking a dip, there's much more for you in Gruene. Eating while looking down at the river, enjoying a few of the 20 wines that The Grapevine has available for complimentary tastings (remember that complimentary means free!) every day or tuning out and taking pleasure in a day of relaxation and rejuvenation at the local spa are just some of the things you can do in Gruene.

Once the sun goes down, the best thing to do is head on over to Gruene Hall. Built in 1878, Gruene Hall is Texas' oldest continually operating dance hall. The 6,000 square foot dance hall has a bar in the front, a small lighted stage in the back and a huge outdoor garden. Throughout the summer, the hall offers live music at least five nights a week.

Finally, one of the best things to do in Gruene is also one of the simplest and it's absolutely free: walking around town and enjoying the little curiosity and antique shops that lines the streets. If any of this sounds like fun, visit Gruene and find out why their motto is "Gently resisting change since 1872."

Fredericksburg

Another town with a German past is Fredericksburg. Located in the heart of the Texas Hill Country in Gillespie County, Fredericksburg was also settled by German immigrants in the early 1840's. Today, the German influence is very evident and the town has turned itself into a hotspot for people looking for wine, shopping, peaches and German food.

Bigger than Gruene and surrounded by wineries, peach orchards (some of which will let you pick your own) and lavender farms, Fredericksburg also has many options for those that want to stay inside during the hot summer days. The town boasts 15 galleries and studios, five museums, three spas and ten wineries. If you don't mind the heat, a leisurely stroll in the historic district is an interesting experience that offers a chance to enjoy the picturesque Main Street, full of turn-of-the-century architecture, and the many shops, restaurants and museums that fill the town with its history and heritage. While it might make you break a sweat, enjoying the historic district on foot is entirely free.

Fredericksburg boasts 15 galleries and studios, five museums, three spas and ten wineries.

If you have a designated driver and a bigger budget, a tour of a few wineries might be the perfect way to spend a Saturday with friends. Texas is increasingly being recognized as a place that produces superb wines and an estimated five million people enjoy visiting the wineries that dot the Texas Hill Country.

Georgetown

Commonly referred to as the Red Poppy Capital of Texas, Georgetown is only about half an hour north of Austin traveling on I-35. The main attraction is the restored town square, which now claims the title of Most Beautiful Town Square in Texas. With more than $120 million invested since 1982, the square is now full of shops that range from antiques to a toy store.

 This summer, Georgetown will be hosting the Music on the Square Summer Concert Series.

Besides a very nice historic square, Georgetown also offers a park that invites summer relaxation. The San Gabriel Park is just minutes from the heart of Georgetown and runs along the San Gabriel River. The park, which is open to the public, is a perfect place to have a picnic, go for a swim, have a day of fishing, canoeing or simply lounging under one of the many 200-year old oak trees that provide the park grounds with continuous shade.

If you have children, feeding the ducks and watching the friendly squirrels run around will keep them entertained for hours.

This summer, Georgetown will also be hosting the Music on the Square Summer Concert Series. Visitors will enjoy live music on the Courthouse Square every Friday night in June, July, and August. All concerts are free and will take place from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. For more information on the concerts, click here.

New Braunfels

The third town with German heritage on our list lies a little less than an hour south of Austin on I-35. New Braunfels is know for its food and fun yearly festival. Those who enjoy water can visit the 65 acres of wet fun that is Schlitterbahn, one of the best water parks in the nation, or float down the Guadalupe and Comal rivers.

 If cooling off without getting wet is what you seek, then visit the Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest caverns in Texas.

If cooling off without getting wet is what you seek, then visit the Natural Bridge Caverns, the largest caverns in Texas, which offer "cool" adventures because the temperature in the caver never goes above 70 degrees. Next to the cavers, the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch gives visitors a chance to experience a safari from the comfort of their own car (and gives children the unique experience of feeding the animals).

Since New Braunfels and Gruene are only about ten minutes apart, you can visit one of the attractions in New Braunfels, most of which require the purchasing of tickets of paying an entrance fee, and then head to the neighboring town for an afternoon of fun without charge.

Lockhart

Originally a part of Gonzales County, Lockhart became a separate county in 1848 because settlers were unhappy with their roads and the distance between them and the county seat. While the city's website states you can find hundreds of thriving small businesses in town, along with a rich history and friendly people, there is one thing that draws people to Lockhart more than anything else: barbecue.

 Located about 40 minutes south of Austin (if you take 183), Lockhart is officially recognized as the Barbecue Capital of Texas.

Located about 40 minutes south of Austin (if you take 183), Lockhart is officially recognized as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. The town receives about 250,000 visitors every year and they all come looking for what made Lockhart famous: its BBQ. Even Caldwell County Jail Museum, one of the city's only tourist attractions, offers BBQ.  Black's BBQ, Smitty's Market, Kreuz Market, and Chisholm Trail Barbeque are all famous for their meaty, smoky meats. 

The only way to figure out which one is your favorite is to go down there and try them all. Just remember to be courteous and don't invite your vegetarian friends on this particular trip. 

Art, nature, great food, and history are waiting for you this summer. Austin is close to many places that give the weekend or one-day traveler a lot of options. Get out there and explore the rich heritage, free fun and natural beauty that surrounds us.