A Travel essay about New Braunfels, Texas by James Bonner

An Invitation to the Charm of New Braunfels, Texas: A Slice of History and Hill Country Magic

At the edge of the rolling hills of the Texas Hill Country lies the surprising little town of New Braunfels, a winsome and historic detour of conventional Texas standards that offers an unrivaled blend of outdoor adventure, rich cultural heritage, and small-town warmth.

This scenic city, between San Antonio and Austin, invites travelers to explore its unique attractions, from its crystalline rivers to its authentic German heritage. Throughout this post, we will delve into the allure of New Braunfels, Texas, and discover why it’s a must-visit destination for those seeking an atypical Texan experience.

As a teenager, I started spending time in New Braunfels. I was attracted to the Guadalupe and Comal Rivers, which inspire outdoor enthusiasts and those who enjoy spending an afternoon on the river. The beautiful waters of both rivers provide an ideal setting for various water-based interests, making New Braunfels perfect for tubing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. Going tubing on the Comal is a quintessential New Braunfels experience.

I have made several spontaneous trips to the town for little reason other than to find that perfect spot in the rubber tube, and lay there thoughtlessly, letting it all go and trusting the river to guide me. The river’s gentle currents, towering cypress trees, and limestone bluffs create an idyllic backdrop for a leisurely float. Rentals are readily available.

The Comal River is often referred to as the shortest river in Texas, making the river perfect for tubing but incredibly convenient because you won’t have to preplan a drop-off and pick-up point. On top of that, the spring-fed waters of the Comal are a consistent 70 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a refreshing option for tubing or snorkeling even on the hottest Texas days.

New Braunfels proudly carries its German heritage—founded by German immigrants in 1845—the rich cultural influence is still palpable in the city’s architecture, festivals, and traditions. The town's heritage is celebrated year-round, especially during Wurstfest, an annual German-style sausage and beer festival held every November. At the world-renowned festival visitors can immerse themselves in German traditions, sample mouthwatering bratwurst, and enjoy lively polka music at this exciting event.

As an unforgettable cultural experience, you should plan your visit around Wurstfest. Many people also leap at the opportunity to see New Braunfels from above, via one of the hot air balloon tours. I think the hot air balloon “rides,” are an easy pass, and not because of a latent fear of heights or a misunderstanding of the science of hot air balloon travel, but rather, as beautiful as the Texas Hill Country is, a birds-eye view of this otherwise striking region does not translate as well as you might hope from above, unless you have an unhealthy fascination with Cedar Trees.

New Braunfels is home, too, to the “world’s best and biggest waterpark,” Schlitterbahn, temporarily closed (slated to reopen in June of 2024), an amusement park on the list of Great Wonders of Texas. Meditating on the lazy river or wading near one of the park's water bars remains the most pleasurable way to spend a day at Schlitterbahn.

If that isn’t your thing, Schlitterbahn genuinely has something for everyone. Given your choice of experiencing one or all of the following: the Master Blaster Uphill Water Coaster, the Raging River Tube Chute, the Falls, the Whitewater Tube Chute, the Double Loop Body Slides, the Boogie Bahn Surfing Ride, and the Bamboozle Bay Heated Pool (and Swim-Up Bar).

For a peak into the history of the area, the Sophienburg Museum showcases the German heritage of the region, offering insights into the early days of settlement in New Braunfels. At the museum, you’ll find a collection of artifacts, photographs, and exhibits that bring the city's history to life.

And be sure to visit the Heritage Village too. This living history museum allows you to step back through time and experience life in the 19th century. You can also explore historic buildings, artifacts, and demonstrations that offer insight into the daily lives of the town’s early settlers.

The historic district of Gruene, pronounced “green,” is a prime example of this cultural heritage. The town of Gruene is as much a living museum as anything, strolling through the Gruene Historic District makes you want to believe that you have taken a step back in time.

The Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest continually operating dance hall—in operation since 1878—is a popular attraction and hub for live music, drawing both locals and tourists between the historic wooden walls of Gruene’s main attraction. This area is also home to charming antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, historic buildings, stunning architecture, and the feeling of a bygone era.

My favorite experiences at the Gruene Hall have almost always included James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry; James McMurtry is an incredible wordsmith and musician who can often be found in Gruene, McMurtry penned classic Texas Country sounds like, “Just Us Kids,” “Hurricane Party,” and “Out Here in the Middle.”

There’s a reason New Braunfels is one of the fastest-growing towns in the country, and that’s because the town is one of the most unique and notable places in the Lone Star state. While growth can create the opportunity for better things, that type of growth requires conscious and thoughtful foresight and planning, which isn’t always a given.

New Braunfels is not a place to read about, the town truly is a travel bucket list must-see, and I might suggest you stop putting it off because progress tends to paint over the rustic charm of the past, even if the intent is to preserve it. I have always loved spending a weekend in New Braunfels, and then another, and making the time to eat at either the Muck and Fuss or the Alpine Haus Restaurant or both, after, or intermittently, throughout a day of German beer and floating.

Muck & Fuss has an incredible thirty-eight draft beers, each tailor-made specifically for Muck & Fuss, with great food and ambiance, particularly on nights when there’s a band, Muck & Fuss is a must-experience. The Alpine Haus is an upscale restaurant that serves made-from-scratch, authentic old-world German recipes, and is housed in a 165-year-old, historic building in downtown New Braunfels.

It’s easy to make the mistake of visiting Houston or the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex when planning your trip to Texas, and although I might understand it, conceptually, the decision is a poor one. I couldn’t even suggest that you would regret the decision, simply because you may not know what you’re missing. When you’re planning a trip to Texas, I can safely prescribe the Texas Hill Country, and specifically the towns of Comfort, Bandera, Boerne, and New Braunfels; with the majority of your stay in either Boerne or New Braunfels, or a combination of the two.

Whether you are enjoying a float on the Comal River, riding the Master Blaster Uphill Water Coaster, dancing to Dennis Quaid & the Sharks at Gruene Hall (Texas’ oldest dance hall, operating for 145 years), enjoying a one-of-a-kind beer at Muck & Fuss, or dining at the Alpine Haus Restaurant, your experience will be a one-in-a-lifetime, I assure you it’s not one that you will soon forget.

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