If ice cream is your religion, then Brenham is Mecca. On any given day, up to two thousand people visit the Blue Bell Creamery (1101 South Blue Bell Road, 800-327-8135, bluebell.com), the birthplace of every true Texan’s favorite frozen treat. Cheerful guides spice up the tour with fun facts—Blue Bell is sold in twenty states, and most cookies and wafers are made in house—while ushering guests through elevated hallways overlooking mixing and packing rooms. The tour clocks in at a third of a mile long with two flights of stairs, which means you shouldn’t feel guilty devouring the generous helping of ice cream served at the end.
Though Blue Bell put Brenham on the map, the town of 16,000 on Highway 290 offers more than a double scoop of Homemade Vanilla. Its historic downtown is one of the state’s most charming, lined with chic shops, creative restaurants, red-brick inns, two impressive theaters and, of course, a handful of ice cream parlors.
The visual and cultural draws are not just a stroke of luck—though Brenham’s location, halfway between Houston and Austin, makes it a popular weekend destination for city dwellers. The town owes much of its allure to Jennifer Eckermann and Brenham’s Main Street Board. Since 1999, Brenham’s downtown has been a part of the Texas Main Street Program, an official historic designation that allows the city to apply for grants to finance construction of features like urban parks and pedestrian paths. It also instills a sense of pride in residents and owners who work to preserve the numerous 19th- and early 20th-century buildings that would often be easier to tear down than to renovate.
“We’re a true community here,” said Eckermann, who added that storeowners plant flower baskets or repair sidewalks even when it is not required. “The value of downtown real estate has recovered significantly since Main Street Brenham was reinstated twelve years ago.”
For that reason, Brenham has largely avoided the kind of degeneration—vacant and dusty storefronts, spare the occasional collectables store with odd hours—that has invaded many other historic towns.
Instead, shopping options are plentiful, and on occasion even more exciting than in major cities nearby. Orders for Italian-designed Lombaggi sweaters and scarves pour in from France, San Francisco and Dallas at Beadboard UpCountry (101 South Baylor Street, 979-830-8788, beadboardupcountry.com), an elegant shop decorated in creams and Parisian blues that is owned by Maryanne Flaherty, a California native. But why Brenham? “This is where the truck broke down,” Ms. Flaherty said, smiling, though she quickly raved about her sophisticated clientele, who turn to her whenever they’re in the market for Peacock Alley towels, exclusive Arte Pura linens or handmade French candles.
Outfit your living room with finds from Hermann Furniture (213 West Alamo Street, 979-836-7231, hermannfurniture.com), which proclaims to be the “oldest family owned and operated furniture store in Texas.” Chances are you’ll find the fifth-generation owner, Jennifer Hermann, setting up seasonal displays throughout the 30,000-square-foot space, which she has stuffed with oversized couches and leather chairs and styled with custom silk flower arrangements and decorative trays.
Gifts for friends may end up in your own home if you stop by The Pomegranate (203 West Alamo Street, 979-836-1199) where you’ll find POURfect kitchen utensils, Crabtree & Evelyn bath products and even registry-ready china and sterling silverware. The small gift shop also fronts the Funky Art Cafe, where diners sit between bright-purple accent walls adorned with original artwork and refuel on house-made chicken salad or pimento cheese sandwiches paired with fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Brenham has a great nightlife, as well. The Unity Theatre (300 Church Street, 979-830-1460, unitybrenham.org), a sixteen-year-old performing arts venue in a redbrick building with two stages, recruits actors and directors from major metropolitan markets like Houston and Dallas, who put on high-caliber theater productions. (The theater is closed until October, but its upcoming season includes “Steel Magnolias” and “The Turn of the Screw.”) And while the stunning Simon Theatre (115 West Main Street, 979-836-3696, saveoursimon.org), an old movie house and ballroom, isn’t quite ready for film screenings — preservationists are meticulously restoring the theater’s stage—patrons can go to the visitor’s center and learn about the building’s Beaux Arts Classical Revival-style architecture.
If you time your visit properly, days should end just as they started: with ice cream or—dare we suggest—gelato. “I’ve never tried this stuff,” a local teenager in a Brenham High School volleyball T-shirt sheepishly said as she dove into a cup of the mango flavor at Yumm! (106 East Alamo Street, 979-836-4447), a new pizzeria and candy store. She seemed to quietly enjoy it, but for those who consider the Italian dessert a sacrilege in Brenham, don’t worry—Blue Bell ice cream is on the menu, too.