The first thing you notice about Fredericksburg, a sprawling city deep in Texas Hill Country, are the broad streets, far wider than most urban American roads. And then there are the multitudes of tidy limestone buildings—houses, stores and restaurants—that line the streets, laid out in grid-like fashion.
None of this is random. Fredericksburg was one of the first planned communities in the country, laid out in the mid-1800s by industrious German immigrants, who came to Texas to create a better life. Limestone, readily available, became the choice building material.
Today, Fredericksburg is one of the best-preserved Bavarian communities in the country and makes for an ideal day or series of day trips from a hub in San Antonio, just 65 miles away, and other big Texas cities. It’s especially appealing in spring, when the famed Texas bluebonnets mingle with cherry red poppies and other wildflowers to create a flower-lined road trip.
Fredericksburg also boasts German and other ethnic restaurants, and wine tasting rooms (with most wineries welcoming groups) operated by nearby vineyards. There are also boutiques and impressive museums, including the National Museum of the Pacific War (there’s a good reason it’s located here). Nearby is the Texas White House, the home of President Lyndon B. Johnson. And not to be missed is Luckenbach, a hole-in-the-wall made famous by the 1977 Waylon Jennings song.
Blooming wildflowers make spring an especially beautiful season to visit Texas Hill Country.
Fredericksburg exists because of the determination of German immigrants who arrived in the mid-1840s after a harrowing journey. The Pioneer Museum Complex on the city’s Main Street is a good place to get a primer on Fredericksburg’s fascinating past. The three-acre complex is home to several 19th century structures that help tell the town’s story.
Of particular interest is the Vereins Kirche Museum, an octagon-shaped building that houses exhibits and artifacts that show the hardships the immigrants endured as they journeyed to hill country and settled in Fredericksburg. The building is a replica of the original, which served as a town hall, school, fort and a church for all denominations.
Just outside downtown, Der Stadt Friedhof, one of the city’s two historic cemeteries, provides a more personable glimpse of the city’s past, thanks to the storytelling abilities of guides like Glen Treibs, a fifth-generation descendant and a volunteer guide. He’s a wealth of knowledge about local history and many of the descendants who are buried in the Lutheran cemetery, including the maternal grandparents of Lyndon B. Johnson. His stories of the obstacles the Germans faced are captivating.
“Many, many of them died on their way here. This was the home for many of them,” he says, referring to the tombstones, many written in German. These pioneers, he adds, faced starvation, financial ruin, wild animals, Native Americans and neighbors killing neighbors during the Civil War.
World War history
Chester W. Nimitz is the reason the National Museum of the Pacific War is located in Fredericksburg. A native son, Nimitz served as commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces in the Pacific Ocean. His grandfather’s hotel became the foundation for what has become a contemporary 55,000-square-foot museum that traces its roots to the 1960s, when a group of small businessmen sought to honor the hometown son.
Today, the museum is a complex of buildings on six acres. Exhibits, artifacts, photographs, and oral histories chronicle the country’s World War II years in the Pacific, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the Japanese surrender four years later.
The road leading up to the Texas White House seems as long as the Lone Star State but the drive offers sweeping views of rolling pastures and hills, and it’s easy to understand why the 36th president found respite here.
Spread among 2,700 acres, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is home to the president’s last residence and remains a working ranch that is “more active now than when it was owned by the Johnson family,” says Ranger Clint Herriman. Hereford cattle, descendants of LBJ’s herd, still graze on the property.
The ranch, which once encompassed 4,000 acres and includes Johnson’s reconstructed boyhood home and the family cemetery, served as more than a retreat for the president. The expansive property allowed Johnson to impress and regal political and other guests, many of whom were unfamiliar with Texas and its vastness.
Country music history
All this Texas and presidential history is intriguing but can also be overwhelming. Luckenbach, just a short drive from the Johnson ranch, offers a respite, a place to kick back on a bench, sip a Lone Star Beer, and listen to country music, live and free.
Truth is, there’s not much else in Luckenbach. A few scattered buildings, including a weather-worn dance hall, a 19th-century general store (and now also a bar) and a post office, make Luckenbach not much more than a dot on a map. But Luckenbach became a refuge for country music outlaws, who left Nashville to create their own style of country music, decades ago. Waylon Jennings put Luckenbach on the country music radar with his hit, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”
These days, musicians from all over the globe show up, pull out a guitar or some other instrument, and perform, free, in a makeshift outdoor venue. It’s about as chill as you can get. And the unofficial motto: “Everyone is welcome in Luckenbach.”
The Visitor Information Center at 302 East Austin Street has designated bus parking behind the building. The center is just a block off Main Street, convenient to shops, restaurants and tasting rooms.