Not long ago, when drivers paused at the stoplight on Highway 290 in the heart of Johnson City, an hour west of Austin, they might note the distinctive rusted silos of the 1880s feed mill—and then motor on to Fredericksburg. These days, travelers familiar with the thirty-sixth president’s hometown (which is named for one of his ancestors, James Polk Johnson) are more likely to pull over and stick around. Ranch families that have been around for generations are still here, but now so are young winemakers, acclaimed contemporary artists, and schoolkids drawn to those same silos, which now house the mind-expanding exhibitions of a small but excellent science museum.
“This is a crossroads town—always has been, always will be,” says artist Mark Smith, whose eponymous gallery is a stone’s throw from the 290 stoplight. “The good news is that Johnson City is developing very slowly, unlike Dripping Springs and Fredericksburg.” The town’s small size—the population has hovered around 1,600 for years—means that chains and big box stores haven’t found a home here, but a mix of scrappy artists and business-owners have. With a handful of popular new bars and wine-tasting rooms, a Thoreau-inspired luxury tent camp, a vintage motorcycle museum, and contemporary artists like Smith, Johnson City quietly hums, while maintaining its small-town authenticity. LBJ would be proud.
Eat + Shop
Sometimes strong coffee in small towns is hard to find, but not so in Johnson City. The slant-roofed Johnson City Coffee Co., a family enterprise that opened in May 2020, keeps travelers along 290 caffeinated with plenty of options, including twenty flavors of syrup, chai, oat milk matcha lattes, and Mexican cokes. On Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the parking lot is home to a small but lively farmer’s market. While a guitarist strums under a pecan tree, local bakers and artisans sell goods you can’t find in the Fredericksburg H-E-B: jars of pickled radishes, homemade sourdough, and produce grown at Texas farms from Hargill to Freedonia.
Thanks to West Main Streatery, a food truck park that shares a lot with the Coffee Co., it’s easy to find good tacos in J.C. (as the locals call it), even on a sleepy Sunday. Christophe Bonnegrace, a pedigreed chef from France who worked for celebrities in New York and L.A., runs food truck Herencia Cuisine, where dishes like Ratatouille Provencal boost the town’s international culinary profile. Across the park’s covered pavilion is the Cast Iron Punk, whose dishes, like charred tomato soup drizzled in basil-garlic oil, are on par with some I’ve tasted in Houston’s best restaurants. And between Mexican food truck La Chaparrita and the Cast Iron Punk, tacos are never out of reach.
Mark Smith Gallery offers the rare chance to meet someone who introduces himself as a Dadaist and a Rauschenbergian—and with no hint of pretension. Smith, the down-to-earth cofounder of Austin’s Flatbed Press and a nationally recognized artist, is one of the anchors of Johnson City’s small but standout art scene. Of the handful of local galleries that survived COVID, he says, most are contemporary, and there’s “not a bluebonnet in a one of ’em.” Smith, whose six-year masterwork, Hope Suite, will be in the permanent collection of the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago, teaches art and mindfulness classes from his Nugent Street gallery. He is quick to praise the expertise of the other J.C. artists and gallerists who share the street with him: Amanda Smith, whose photography gallery brings in artists such as Kate Breakey, famous for her luminous hand-painted nature photographs; Lee Casbeer, the Italian-trained classical artist who paints murals for clients across the globe; and Susan Kirchman, an accomplished former Texas A&M University art professor and mixed-media painter.
Pecan Street Brewing is the Hill Country version of an English pub, and it’s considered by many locals to be the living room of Johnson City. Across from the Blanco County Courthouse, Pecan Street Brewing keeps customers coming back with pub food like brick-oven pizzas and award-winning craft beers—try the popular Red Devil Amber Lager. The pub’s Sunday music nights, headlined by the band the Lost Sounds of a Texas Honky Tonk, are so popular they often sell out, particularly with the over-seventy crowd that dominates the dance floor.
Taste + Toast
A mere four-minute drive from the center of Johnson City, laid-back Lewis Wines is a welcome alternative to the imposing, tacky, mega tasting rooms that have shot up along 290 on what has been dubbed the “290 Wine Trail.” Using only Texas grapes, young winemakers Doug Lewis and Duncan McNabb prioritize local authenticity, wabi-sabi style. With Neil Young playing in the background, the deck overlooking the Pedernales River Basin is a low-key setting for tasting some of the best Texas Tempranillos out there. As one guest said, “It’s the kind of place where you want to get stuck in a rainstorm.” Lewis Wines’ occasional wood-fired pizza nights are popular—check the online calendar for reservations.
A two-minute drive west of Lewis Wines, Siboney Cellars is pulling in wine lovers for its tasty Texas-grapes-only wines, like the Coral Estrellas Sparkling Rosé, made with 100% Sangiovese grapes from the Texas High Plains. Presided over by Barbara Lecuona (one of the relatively few women in Texas’s male-dominated winery scene), Siboney’s tastings and events—including a Cuban sandwich night, hosted by Lecuona’s husband, Miguel—are making fans quickly.
Opened in 2022 by two couples—Adrienne Ballou and Garrett Crowell, along with Margot and Matt Piper, who all worked together at Jester King Brewery in Austin—Nice N Easy has rapidly become the go-to spot for Johnson City’s young winemakers and other smart folks. In a thoughtfully restored historic building, they serve wines from their own label and beers from their own brewery, as well as classic cocktails like Negronis and Palomas. Artist Mark Smith, whose gallery is across the street, believes that it’s projects like Nice N Easy—businesses run by young families bringing energy to town—that are Johnson City’s future. Don’t miss the Frito pie.
There are many new wine-tasting rooms in town, and the shiplap environs of Crowson’s is one of the coolest. You might hear Tom Waits crooning from the record player while owner Henry Crowson philosophizes about terroir—and he pronounces the word right, too. Crowson expounds readily on ancient Georgian winemaking techniques, ones he uses in his “non-interventionist” natural wines. His goal is to “chop down the tree of pretension” associated with wine culture—a goal he achieves with a big handshake and ample jokes. Visitors can order a cheese board from his wife Amy’s gourmet shop, Picnic’d, next door. Just around the corner, Tatum Cellars has opened a tasting room in an airy space on Nugent Street. And Pebble Rock Cellars, in a cute stone house on 281, sells growlers of “European-style table wine” that only cost $12 for a refill.
See + Do
Since it reopened its doors in 2015, the Science Mill—a repurposed mill with distinctive silos—no longer churns out grains, but instead interactive exhibitions that coalesce science, art, and play. Bonnie Baskin, the former CEO of two biotech companies, founded the Science Mill with the mission of bringing STEM-focused learning to the children of Central Texas. Visitors can fly over dinosaurs in the Jurassic Flight 4D virtual reality experience, learn about recycling fish poop in the aquaponics greenhouse, or get to know the African spurred tortoises that live on the grounds. And parents love it, too. On a sunny Sunday, a dad fixated on the outdoor Rube Goldberg—like ball machine shout to his wife: “I could play this forever!”
In a former Model T showroom from the early 1900s, bikers from across the state swoon over the Texas Vintage Motorcycle Museum. Opened in 2022 by a bike lover and retired corporate VP, Gordon Massie, this 6,500-square-foot space with more than ninety bikes conveys “the art of the motorcycle”: the sparkling chrome-front forks of a Harley; the smooth curves of a 1967 Bultaco Metralla; the glossy cherry red accents of a 1972 Triumph. A sign on the door says, “Sit a Spell,” and visitors often do, happy to swap stories from the road as they admire the two-wheeled beauties in their midst.
There are diversions for all at the expansive Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site and National Historical Park. From the state park’s entrance off of 290, a short walking trail to the Living History Farm takes visitors back to the early 1900s; volunteers dressed as German settlers tend farm animals, a garden, and an early twentieth-century blacksmith shop. Butchery enthusiasts can even observe how, once a year, they turn the farm pig into farm food—doing it just like the German settlers did. A five-minute drive from there along the Pedernales River, a natural divide between the two properties, leads to the National Historical Park. Here, in the front yard of LBJ’s family ranch home, known as the Texas White House, visitors can admire the sprawling branches of the Cabinet Oak, renowned for the many cabinet meetings LBJ hosted there. The former airplane hangar adjacent to Johnson’s jet, Air Force One-Half—so named because the full-size Air Force One could not fit there—is now a mini-museum where visitors can pick up a landline to eavesdrop on recorded conversations between Johnson and his advisors.
Clear water flows over fern-edged limestone rocks at Pedernales Falls State Park. It’s one of the best places in Central Texas for a cool summer swim, a welcome option after a hike on its 5.5–mile loop trail. It is also one of the most popular state parks. On weekends and holidays, make sure to reserve your spot on the Texas State Park website so you won’t be turned away by the dreaded “Park Filled to Capacity” sign posted at the entry.
The luxury tents at Walden, along the Pedernales River twenty minutes from J.C., are a dreamy escape from the wine pilgrims and traffic along 290. Henry David Thoreau might roll over in his grave if he knew that his famous treatise on living deliberately and plainly inspired a plush tent with wood-paneled walls, Turkish robes, and a mammoth claw-foot bathtub. But he would certainly appreciate the Texas sun setting over the Pedernales, visible from the cabin’s deck, or his view of the stars while lingering over the cozy fire pit.
With 78 comfortable mini ranch-style villas, a restaurant, tasting room, brewery, pool, and spa, the Carter Creek Winery Resort and Spa is a small empire. Its aesthetics, dominated by an abundant use of beige and concrete, may not be for everybody—but the good vibes are. Gulcin Johnson, the amiable Turkish spa director with her own skincare line, has such a following that the spa is in constant demand. Jim Carter, the friendly vintner and owner—through California-based Carter Hospitality Group—is investing in the community; he is building a housing development on 290 to make living in the area more accessible—because all of those wineries need people to work in them.
There are some juxtapositions so improbable that they are worthy of exploration. The flamingo-themed Bentley Hotel at the 290 Wine Castle goes for a palm-tree Miami aesthetic, while the adjacent faux fortress, the 290 Wine Castle, is all boozy Camelot: dragon statues, paintings of knights, a “dungeon” downstairs for large wine tastings. But the showers in the Bentley’s comfortable rooms have six different shower heads, the robes are ridiculously fluffy, and there’s a hot tub. Sometimes a collision between Miami Vice and Monty Python’s Holy Grail is not a bad thing.