What to see — and skip — on a magical West Texas journey to Marfa
Marfa. Mythical creative mecca? Starkly gentrified desert town that attracts hipsters like flies to artisanal honey? Far-flung West Texas oasis that seems more like a film set than a functioning town?
In a relatively short amount of time, Marfa has been through several transformations, and, for better or worse, in its current manifestation, it’s become a place where you can order $40 beef tongue carpaccio and then sip $2 Lone Star tallboys with the rancher whose cow you just ate. While there’s no denying that it’s now a major destination for art-world tourists, underneath the hip, artsy sheen, Marfa retains its quirky, dusty, small-town soul.
Here’s what to see — and what to skip — when you make the magical trek out west.
Showcasing regularly changing exhibits of visual art, music, and film, Ballroom Marfa is a must-see gallery. Housed in a converted old dancehall, this offbeat space is the heart of Marfa’s contemporary art scene (next to Chinati, that is).
Lost Horse Saloon
If you want your non-Texan friends to think they’ve had a real adventure, take them to the Lost Horse Saloon, where you’re bound to see as many cowboy hat-clad locals as tourists. Though Marfa isn’t short on glitzy drinking establishments, the Lost Horse offers true dive vibes: think $1 drafts on Thursdays, free pool, rustic wood-paneled walls, saddles, and taxidermy.
The Marfa Lights Viewing Center
Though it may seem cheesy at first, trying to catch a glimpse of the famed Marfa Lights is all part of the Marfa experience. Cozy up with a travel mug of whiskey coffee, and keep your eyes peeled for the ghostly orbs that dance and shimmer on the horizon line between the prairie and the mountains.
This historic, charming property — where Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean camped out during the filming of the 1956 classic Giant — is still the coolest hotel in town. With its Mediterranean-style outdoor fountain and courtyard, classic Texan ranch decor, and retro-chic vibes, the Hotel Paisano is a stately relic of Marfa’s past.
Artist Donald Judd was hell-bent on creating inventive exhibition spaces in Marfa, and this minimalist gallery continues Judd’s legacy into the present, with its clever, sculptural shape and sleek design touches.
If you’re in town on a weekend, be sure to stop by the Ayn Foundation to see The Last Supper by Andy Warhol — there’s nothing as disorienting as seeing a giant, wall-sized Warhol in a tiny, remote Texas town.
Marfa Book Company
In the lobby of the Hotel Saint George, the Marfa Book Company boasts an incredibly well-curated selection of art and architecture books, poetry journals, and local fiction, plus cool prints, apothecary products and housewares for sale.
The former home of funky bar Padre's is now the headquarters of the area's oldest newspaper, the Big Bend Sentinel, as well as an all-day gathering space for coffee, cocktails, and community. The paper's new owners, who acquired it this year, opened The Sentinel as a means to connect the community to the newspaper in a new way and further the mission of local, independent journalism.
The Chinati Foundation (self-guided viewing)
Marfa’s main attraction is well worth your time, of course. Judd left his imprint on the landscape with the Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre former military base that now houses works by Judd, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, and other contemporary artists. It’s free to see the outdoor works and $10 for self-guided viewing of select indoor works.
Hate us if you want, but Prada Marfa is 100 percent skippable. The Insta-famous art installation is cool, sure, but most people drive all the way out there (it’s 30 minutes from Marfa, in Valentine), spend five minutes snapping jumping selfies, then leave. You’re better off spending more time in town — or driving to Big Bend National Park.
If you’re in the market for a $460 silver cuff or a $690 blue geode ring, by all means, pay a visit to Freda, a “concept and lifestyle store.” Otherwise, feel free to skip this pricey shop and go inhale burritos at the beloved Marfa Burrito next door.
Renting bikes at El Cosmico
Yes, Beyonce once rode around Marfa on an El Cosmico bike, and a horde of influencers followed suit. Yet, wandering aimlessly on foot is the best way to get a feel for this eclectic town, with its surreal visual wonders and strange nooks and crannies that can make you feel like you’re trapped in a dream.
The tour of Chinati/Judd Foundation
Unless you’re a diehard Judd head, it’s cool to skip the full-day and half-day tours of Chinati (opting for self-guided viewing, instead), and the same goes for the Judd Foundation, which offers public tours of Judd’s Marfa studios and home.