Trip Guide: Marfa
It’s the favorable acreage-to-other-humans ratio that draws most visitors, who come for the space that this Chihuahuan Desert outpost has in spades.
Note: This guide was updated in August 2016.
Believe it or not, there are still plenty of folks who haven’t “discovered” Marfa yet—it only feels like everyone already knows about this tiny West Texas ranching town (pop. 1,819 give or take a few New York refugees). Ironically, it’s the favorable acreage-to-other-humans ratio that draws most visitors, who come for the space, both physical and mental, that this Chihuahuan Desert outpost has in spades.
SEE + DO
WWJD: What Would [Donald] Judd Do?
You’ve likely heard all about Donald Judd, the Missouri-born artist who decamped to Marfa from New York in the seventies and bought up 40,000 acres and a number of buildings, including the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell (if you’ve missed his many profiles in the press, read this one by Michael Ennis). To see the late artist’s large-scale works, including the one hundred aluminum boxes he arranged in two artillery sheds, as well as site-specific installations by artists he admired (Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain, Ilya Kabakov), book a tour through the Chinati Foundation. Artist Robert Irwin’s latest installation, as long-awaited as it is monumental (it was 17 years in the making), is drawing even more art seekers to town than usual. Tip: If you just want to see Judd’s boxes ($10) and his 15 works in concrete (free), no reservation is necessary; you may tour them at your leisure, but be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes. Open Wed–Sun; 1 Cavalry Row, 432-729-4362.
To take a peek into “the Block,” Judd’s private residence, library, and studios (and to daydream about taking a dip in the swimming pool he designed), reserve a tour through the Judd Foundation. Note: Children must be at least 12 years of age, and admission is waived for full-time residents of Presidio, Brewster, and Jeff Davis counties. Open daily; 104 Highland Ave, 432-729-4406.
They don’t call it an artists’ mecca for nothing . . .
The creative and the cultured flock here like javelinas to prickly pear cacti, and there are plenty of museums and galleries to sate them, namely…
- Ballroom Marfa—open Wed–Sun; 108 E. San Antonio, 432-729-3600
- Marfa Contemporary—open Wed–Sun; 100 E. San Antonio, 432-729-3500
- Exhibitions 2D—open Wed–Sun & by appt; 400 S. Highland Ave, 432-729-191
- Arber & Son Editions—call for times; 128 E. El Paso, 432-729-3981
- Inde/Jacobs—208 E. San Antonio, 432-386-0044
- Rule Gallery—open Wed–Sat; 303-800-6776
- And, of course, Prada Marfa, which is not the work of Miuccia Prada but of the Scandinavian artists Elmgreen and Dragset, and which is not in Marfa but Valentine. Along U.S. Highway 90, 35 miles north of Marfa.
If you’ve seen enough contemporary art for one day/year/lifetime . . .
Catch a performance—anything from a play by local fifth- and sixth-graders to a special appearance by a Swedish rock band—at the Crowley Theater, which also plays host to the annual CineMarfa Film Festival. 98 S. Austin.
Take the five flights of stairs up to the cupola atop the Presidio County Courthouse. The tiny room has tall windows and one of the coolest views around that doesn’t require you to scale one of the nearby mountains. Open Friday 10–noon and 1–3; 301 Highland.
Check to see if Marfa Maid,“the little dairy on the prairie,” will be holding one of its cheese-making classes while you’re in town (they usually include a wine and cheese tasting too!). If not, keep your eyes peeled for their goat’s-milk delicacies on the menus of local restaurants and for sale at the Get Go specialty grocer. 15 Antelope Hill Road, 432-729-3987.
Communing with nature (and the supernatural) . . .
If you’re a serious hiker, you likely have your sights set on the wilds of Big Bend a little further south, but if you’re looking for an easy jaunt in town, head to the Dixon Water Foundation’s 2.5-mile Overlook Trail on Marfa’s northwestern edge. The trail’s entrance is at the north end of Austin Street. Another stroll- or bike-worthy stretch is RR 2810, which heads southwest from Marfa’s center.
In addition to being a decent highway rest stop with picnic tables and clean restrooms, the adobe Mystery Lights Viewing Area becomes a community gathering space when the sun goes down. Everyone strains their eyeballs toward the Chinati Mountains in the hope of glimpsing the strange, unexplained orbs of light that have been spotted here since at least the 1880’s. Along Texas Highway 90, ten miles east of Marfa.
EAT + DRINK
Marfa Burrito // Even if you’re from Austin and consider yourself an aficionado, you probably haven’t had a breakfast taco as good as Ramona’s. She makes fresh flour tortillas the size of hubcaps and fills them with chorizo and eggs and beans and potatoes and maybe a secret ingredient or two. You can ask her—en Español—what those might be. Open daily 6–2; 515 S. Highland Ave, 325-514-8675.
Boyz 2 Men Taco Trailer // Be forewarned that you’ll need both cash and a high tolerance for snark when it’s your turn to order at this run by Justice of the Peace David Beebe. A binder of hand-written pages serves as the menu and includes breakfast tacos, a McEgg Muffin sandwich, grits, Frito Pie, Pop Tarts, black beans and rice, cinnamon rolls, and a cold 75-cent pickle. 302 W. San Antonio, 432-729-4422.
The Capri // Chef Rocky Barnette’s menu changes frequently at this popular event space turned kitchen and bar (see Drinks section below), but you can expect plenty of fresh produce (perhaps watermelon radishes with habanero vinegar) and Texas-sized plates of protein (like a 46- to 52-ounce bone-in ribeye). 603 W. San Antonio.
Food Shark // Who knows where folks got their fill of falafel before this truck rolled to town. There’s almost always a line of lunchers waiting to order the beloved Marfalafel, which comes wrapped in a flour tortilla, plus hummus and veggie wraps, fatoush salads, and sandwiches. Tip: Daily specials are usually posted on Twitter and this Marfalist.org thread. (Word is that the Food Shark Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour will reopen at this location in the fall of 2016.) Open Wed–Sun noon–3; 909 W. San Antonio, 432-207-2090.
Marpho // Bonus points for the punny name and for melding Vietnamese flavors (bahn mi, pho) with American favorites (hot wings, fries). 1300 W. San Antonio.
Pizza Foundation // Don’t leave town without eating a slice of the Foundation’s thin, New York–style pie, washed down with a glass of wine or, if it’s a hot desert day, one of the slushy fruit limeades. Tip: Plan to go sooner in the day rather than later, because they’re only open till they run out of dough. 305 S. Spring, 432-729-3377.
Salsa Puedes // Tacos. Fried avocados. What more could you want from a food truck parked conveniently close to the Lost Horse Saloon?
Cochineal // For a sophisticated meal—perhaps mesquite-grilled quail on celery root purée or a spinach soufflé topped with Parmesan and golden raisins—there’s this white-tablecloth establishment, opened by New York restaurateur Tom Rapp and his late partner Toshi Sakihara not long after they migrated to Marfa in 2006. In addition to the lovely patio outside, there’s now a seated bar inside, perfect for a late evening drink. Open Thur–Tue, reservations recommended; 107 W. San Antonio, 432-729-3300.
LaVenture // The Hotel Saint George’s fine-dining option is helmed by chef Allison Jenkins (formerly of Austin’s acclaimed LaV), whose grilled blue prawns and cast iron–seared rib-eye are tasty revelations in the desert. (Read our latest review here.)
Stellina // It may be the newest dinner option in town, but this Mediterranean home-cooking option is helmed by a vet of the local dining scene, Krista Steinhauer, formerly of Comida Futura and Food Shark. Open Tue–Sat; 103 Highland, 432-729-2030.
Frama // Where can you order a latte or a scoop of ice cream while waiting for your skivvies to dry? At this quirky hybrid coffee shop/laundromat, of course. Call for hours; 120 N. Austin, 432-295-2469.
Do Your Thing // If you’re in search of “coffee + toast + magic,” head to this industrial hideaway, which brews Blue Bottle and Cultivar, and often offers freshly baked pastries and frittatas with homemade harissa. Located in the back of the Lumberyard at 201 E. Dallas, 432- 701-0501.
The Capri // Snag a teal bar stool or a spot on the cobalt mohair sofas and drink to your new favorite West Texas watering hole. 603 W. San Antonio.
Lost Horse Saloon // This one of those bars that sells itself: it’s dark and narrow, it has old pool tables and a broad patio, it offers dollar drafts on Thursdays, and its owner is this guy. Open Fri–Sun; 306 E. San Antonio, 432-729-4499.
Where to go if you want to buy . . .
…rocks and custom-made silver jewelry: Moonlight Gemstones a mini emporium of rocks and gems run by Paul Graybeal, who specializes in West Texas agates, which he uses in his handcrafted sterling-silver pieces, everything from pendants and rings to bracelets and belt buckles. Open daily; 1001 W. San Antonio, 432-729-4526.
…handmade kicks: Cobra Rock Boot Company, where Logan Caldbeck and Colt Miller will happily add you to the wait list for their popular boots, each made with American full-grain leather and a full two-and-a-half weeks’ of work. Open Wed–Sun; 107 S. Dean.
…a $425 restored Bertoia wire chair: Cast + Crew, the small showroom where you can pick up brightly colored conversation pieces (a $20 gold horseshoe, a powder blue “paper” airplane sculpted out of metal) or chat up Cody Barber and Jennifer Creager about the vintage Bertoia and Eames chairs that they restore and repaint, often using a brilliant shade they call Marfa Red. Call for hours; 203 E. San Antonio, 806-789-7248.
…whatever the cool kids are reading: Marfa Book Company, just off the lobby of the new Hotel Saint George, which stocks a modest but exceptionally edited trove of books and magazines and often hosts readings and talks by authors and Lannan Foundation writers-in-residence. Call for hours; 105 S. Highland Ave., 432-729-3700.
…beautiful utilitarian items that you don’t really need but really want: Mirth, a jewel-box of a boutique that sells items both functional and delightful, like pointy leather Moroccan slippers, Japanese bottle openers, and ornate Venetian coin purses. Call for hours; 105 W. Texas, 432-729-4448.
…a “See Boyd Elder” T-shirt: Wrong Marfa, a former church that Buck Johnston (a graphic designer) and Camp Bosworth (an artist) have fashioned into an original store/gallery that hawks amusing, irreverent, and mostly local merchandise and artworks that range from the aforementioned T-shirt (if you don’t know who Boyd Elder is, be sure to ask) to earrings made with pennies flattened on the nearby railroad. Call for hours; 110 W. Dallas, 432-729-4979.
…homemade apothecary products and Pamela Love jewelry: Freda, a shoebox-sized space filled with things that would make perfect gifts for friends or—let’s be honest—for yourself, like Clyde wool hats, Maison Martin Margiela fortune eggs, or the locally made emu oil that always sells out in a flash. Open Wed–Sun; 207 S. Highland Ave, 917-653-5049.
…mid-century modern lamps: Marfa Lights and Lamps, the ideal place to geek out on vintage lighting with owner Lineaus Hooper who’s also known for his handmade leather medicine balls. Call for hours; 301 W. Dallas, 432-729-4774.
…handcrafted earth-hued wares: Mano Mercantile, a purveyor of beautiful ceramics, linen totes, silver and turquoise adornments, vintage Wrangler snap-button denim Western shirts made even more decorative with Japanese embroidery, and the cutest life-size jack rabbits you’ve ever seen made of vegetable-tanned leather. Open Wed–Sun 11–5; 120 E. El Paso, 432-729-2024.
…timeless, eco-friendly wardrobe staples: Communitie, New York designer John Patrick’s newest outpost, where you’ll find racks of T-shirts, slips, and merino/cashmere ponchos from his Organic line, as well as brass cuffs and cage clutches by Anndra Neen. Open Thur–Sun noon–6, 122 N. Highland Ave, 432-729-2055.
Hotel Paisano // The thirties-era hotel is famous for putting up Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson during the filming of Giant in the summer of 1955, and—thanks to several life-saving renovations—it hasn’t lost its own star wattage. The 41 rooms are by no means posh but they’re certainly comfortable (some have shared baths though). So too are the lobby and courtyard, which have retained their historic appeal and serve as laid-back gathering spots for locals and visitors alike. $99–$289; 207 Highland, 432-729-3669.
El Cosmico // A charming collection of refurbished trailers, safari tents, brick-floored teepees, and one Mongolian yurt is spread over 18 acres on the edge of town and falls somewhere in between “roughing it” and “glamping.” 802 S. Highland Ave, 432-729-1950.
Thunderbird Marfa // Recent renovations have made this 24-room, desert-minimalist property with a pool feel a little more private. From $140; 601 W. San Antonio, 432-729-1984.
Corte del Norte // Designed by the folks behind Garza Furniture, this is the minimalist Airbnb rental of a Marfa pilgrim’s dreams, complete with Big Bend Roasters coffee, a fire pit, and a stock tank pool. It’s ideal for groups, who can reserve the Love House (which sleeps five), the Rock City House (sleeps four), or the entire compound. Rates begin at $375; 205 E. San Antonio, 415-562-7329.
Faxonia // You can now shack up at Marfa’s first church, thanks to the charming creative couple behind Wrong Marfa, who have blessed this two-person hideaway with both their singular eye for quirky design and friendly hospitality. $195/night; 1110 1/2 Dallas, 432-729-1976.
BEFORE YOU GO
A few tips:
• Businesses can keep funny hours around here, so check ahead of time—and then prepare to make alternate plans when you find a shop or restaurant unexpectedly closed for the day. If you can, come at the end of the week. Most everything’s shut on Mondays and Tuesdays.
• There are a number of popular annual events in Marfa, including the CineMarfa Film Festival in the spring, the Marfa Film Festival and Viva Big Bend Music Festival in the summer, the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love in the late summer/early fall, and Chinati Weekend and the Marfa Lights Festival in the fall. They’re great excuses to visit, just make sure to book your lodging and dinner reservations way in advance.
• If you’re not used to the desert climate, prepare for bright sun, cool nights, and dry air.
Read up . . . on the latest local news from the Big Bend Sentinel, Marfa’s paper of record, at BigBendNow.com
Bookmark . . . Marfalist.org, the town’s online community forum, and local Buck Johnston’s always-spot-on recs.
Follow . . . local character David Beebe on Twitter, photographer Jennifer Boomer on Instagram.
Tune In . . . to Marfa Public Radio (it’ll be 93.5 FM on your dial)
Texas Monthly writers on Marfa . . .
Dispatches from contributing writer—and Marfa resident—Sterry Butcher
“Miracle in the Desert” by Michael Agresta (July 2016)
“Made in Texas: Marfa Brands” by Lauren Smith Ford (April 2016)
“Made In Texas: Agate Ranch + Marfa” by Kristie Ramirez (March 2014)
“What Is Art?” by Francesca Mari (November 2013)
“Where To Stay Now: El Cosmico” by Jordan Breal (November 2012)
“The Big Bend Theory” by Andy Langer (October 2011)
“Marfa Best Western” by Jordan Breal (August 2010)
“One Hundred Boxes” by Jim Lewis (October 2007)
“The Truth Is Out There” by Michael Hall (June 2006)
“The Buzz About Marfa Is Just Crazy” by Michael Hall (September 2004)
“The Minimalist” by Michael Ennis (April 2003)
“My Favorite Marfa” by Robert Draper (October 1997)
“Texas Primer: The Marfa Lights” by Gary Cartwright (November 1984)