Texas Monthly’s Small-town Travel series explores the culture and history of destinations off the beaten path, offering advice on where to stay, eat, and sightsee.

Starting in 1874, millions of cattle clattered out of Bandera, prodded by whooping cowboys and kicking up dust as they headed to markets up north via the Great Western Trail.

The proliferation of barbed wire, along with a ban on Texas cattle imports after an outbreak of disease, put an end to those drives after two decades, but the cowboy spirit stuck around. Dude ranches opened in the twenties, and city folk flocked to the Hill Country town along the cypress-lined Medina River for a taste of a fading way of life. There, they could listen to strumming guitars, twirl a lasso, and learn how to two-step, while someone cooked them three squares a day.

Today, tourists still come from around the globe to visit what’s called the Cowboy Capital of the World. Some stay at the half-dozen remaining dude ranches; others book a room in town, where they’re close to the honky-tonks, the shops selling cowboy hats and belt buckles, and the weekly gunfights staged downtown.

Take Patricia Wolle of Germany, who stopped in Bandera during a three-day swing through Texas as part of a longer trip through the western United States. As the sun blazed overhead on a hot August morning, she climbed into a saddle strapped to a longhorn steer named Redneck, who was parked across from the county courthouse on Main Street, while her friend snapped photos.

“It’s really fantastic—and very hot. I love it,” she said about Bandera, after dismounting the steer and spending a few minutes checking out an old chuck wagon on display next to the animal. (The living history exhibits, which take place every Saturday morning, weather permitting, are part of the city’s Cowboys on Main program.)

Bandera’s permanent population hovers just under one thousand, but during summer months, Main Street bustles. There are rodeos and parades, country music shows, motorcycle rallies, and music festivals. The 11th Street Cowboy Bar even throws a rollicking Cowboy Mardi Gras in February, a three-day fete complete with a costume contest, gumbo competition, and a parade lively enough to make a Louisiana native take notice.

Sure, some old-timers might scoff at the city slickers who come here for a glimpse of the “real Texas,” but spend a weekend in Bandera and you’ll cross paths with real cowboys too. They ranch cattle, order up hotcakes for breakfast at the local eateries, and spin across dance floors. If you’re ready to channel your inner cowpoke, here are a few things to know.

Horseback riding with Bandera Historical Rides.
Horseback riding with Bandera Historical Rides. Pam LeBlanc

See & Do

Swing into the saddle and go horseback riding with Harrieth Stewart, a Finnish cowgirl who runs Bandera Historical Rides. Stewart first visited Bandera when she came to the United States to run the New York City Marathon in 2012. Hurricane Sandy canceled the race, and Stewart, who loves horses, headed south to soak up some equine culture. “That’s when I found Texas,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”

She eventually moved to Bandera, where it’s not uncommon to see horses hitched to rails in front of restaurants or moseying through intersections. Today she arranges all kinds of riding adventures, from two-hour tours to overnight campouts, and gives riding instruction.

Many of the guided rides follow the blue-green Medina River, which cuts across the southern edge of town. Since the spring-fed river has run dry just a few blocks upstream of downtown, riders earlier this summer got the unique experience of clattering down the center of a parched riverbed. Stewart also provides a briefing on the city’s history, from its Polish roots to its heyday as the starting point of the Great Western Trail, and takes riders past sites including the original jailhouse, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, and the historic district.

To brush up even more on Bandera’s history, learn about local cowboys and cowgirls, and get a glimpse of a real taxidermy goat with two faces, drop by the Frontier Times Museum at 510 Thirteenth Street. It’s just a few blocks from the Bandera County courthouse, built in 1890 with limestone blocks that were quarried locally and laid by Russian stonemasons.

Texans love to two-step, and you can find live music almost every night someplace in Bandera. Descend a darkened stairway to the long-running honky-tonk known as Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar bar at 308 Main. The place oozes authenticity. An old jukebox pumps out music during the day, and bands take the small stage at night. A proper layer of sawdust ensures a good slide across the dance floor.

For bigger shows, head to the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, where musicians including Gary P. Nunn, Jason Aldean, and Ray Price have taken the outdoor stage, and the indoor bar serves cheap beer. On Wednesdays, you can bring your own steak (or whatever you like) to toss it on the grill outside while boot scooters twirl on the dance floor.

“It’s real cowboy, that’s what I love about Bandera,” says De Foster, who manages country crooner Nunn and who bought the venue earlier this year from longtime owner James McGroarty. “These guys come in and they aren’t just wearing spurs to wear them. They’re wearing them because they’re working cowboys.”

Dessert from the Bandera General Store.
Dessert from the Bandera General Store. Pam LeBlanc
Brush up on Bandera’s history at the Frontier Times Museum.
Brush up on Bandera’s history at the Frontier Times Museum. Pam LeBlanc

Shop

On a recent afternoon, John McShane Jr. sat at the soda fountain inside the Bandera General Store, eating vanilla ice cream with extra chocolate sauce and reminiscing about the time he spent as a boy sweeping the floors of the very same building more than sixty years ago. McShane, now a Dallas attorney, lived in Bandera as a boy, when his father ran a furniture store in the building during the forties, fifties, and sixties. “When I grew up, Bandera was a real cowboy town,” he says. “Today it’s somewhat cowboy but a little more touristy.”

McShane still loves to visit, and always makes it a point to visit his parents’ graves and stop by the Old Spanish Trail restaurant, or OST, across the street. “That’s where my father ate lunch six days a week. And it looks exactly the same.”

Today the Bandera General Store sells vintage or gently worn cowboy boots, straw hats, candy, stick horses, T-shirts, and jewelry. According to legend, a ghost named Henry occasionally knocks things off the soda fountain counter, rings bells, or blows hot breath down the owner’s neck.

For authentic Texas products, mosey over to Spirits of Texas at 1107 Cypress, where 95 percent of the wares that line the shelves are made in the Lone Star State.

You can find a hat by Michael Malone, who crafted hats for the Lonesome Dove series and shoots a .22 bullet through every top hat he makes (regular cowboy hats don’t get the same treatment). There are hand-carved bottle stoppers, handmade domino sets, velvet and silk corsets, cookware, seasonings, coffee, chocolates, a whole section devoted to Kinky Friedman stuff, and more than fifty types of Texas-made booze, from hard-to-find Man in Black tequila to Nine Banded Whiskey.

Owner and fifth-generation Texan Nancy Harvey opened the store three years ago. “We’re in the heart of Texas history and everything sold here was imported. We needed a store about Texas,” she says. She did it right, and even snagged the buggy used in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a door from the Goliad courthouse, and a wooden casket more than a century and a half old, to create proper ambience.

Dine & Drink

For a fine Akaushi ribeye or grilled pork chop, slide into a booth at TJ’s at the Old Forge, 807 Main. You can sit on a saddle mounted on a barstool or serve yourself from a salad bar housed in an old wagon at the Old Spanish Trail, 311 Main. I’ve never seen a pancake as big as the one draped across my plate when I stopped by for breakfast. And don’t miss the John Wayne room, filled with photos and other memorabilia.

At the Hen’s Nest, everything—from the grits to the quinoa plate and even the grilled cheese—comes topped with an egg.

The Vaquero Motel.
The Vaquero Motel. Pam LeBlanc

Stay

Hang your hat at the Vaquero Motel, 1103 Maple. The dozen individual cabins, each with a porch and firepit, first welcomed overnight guests back in the forties. The location—just off Main Street, next to the Medina River—puts you within walking distance of every place in town. And as the manager points out, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar is a quick 221 steps away—and fewer to get back, because you can just roll down the hill.

There’s also the Best Western, and numerous short-term rentals available through Backroads Reservations and A Place to Stay Reservations. Rather rough it? Pitch a tent at nearby Hill Country State Natural Area, ten miles southwest of the town.