Deep in the Heart of Texas
The historic birthplace of the Lone Star State, Washington County offers scenic countryside and friendly home-style hospitality
One of Texas’ most charming and historic destinations is picturesque Washington County, halfway between Houston and Austin. A short drive from either city will take you to the heart of the Texas wildflower region, among bucolic rolling landscapes and a variety of attractions.
But it’s not just the entertainment and scenery that make this place so special. Visitors to Brenham and neighboring towns delight in the friendly home-town ambiance and hospitality. You’ll find an unusually strong community spirit and old-fashioned Texas pride.
It’s no wonder that the first Anglo settlers chose this location above all others, in the vast wilderness that was Texas. Here they found natural beauty, and everything they needed to survive and prosper. As a result, many of the state’s important forefathers lived here — the men who shaped history. They left behind a rich heritage and a county full of historic treasures.
With so much to see and do in Washington County, a day trip from the city is not enough. To get the most from your visit you’ll want to spend at least a long weekend and immerse yourself in the culture and alluring country lifestyle. Choose a historic B&B or a luxurious countryside resort (see “Distinctive Lodgings” on page 22 for a sampling of options) to experience the enchanting character of this place.
Brenham, the Perfect Start for your Adventure
Stop by the Washington County Visitor Center, in historic downtown Brenham, to get the lay of the land — literally. The center’s unique terrazzo floor is actually a map of the county, showing the locations of top attractions. The knowledgeable staff can help plan your itinerary, based on your preferences and the length of your visit.
On Saturdays, in the same building, The Barnhill Center at Historic Simon Theatre, you can see an engaging 25-minute movie — The Dawn of Washington County — about Texas’ earliest beginnings. The movie also gives a sneak peek of historical attractions in the downtown area.
After the movie, ask for a tour of this magnificent landmark building. The restored 1925 Simon Theatre was originally a vaudeville stage, also equipped to show Hollywood’s first silent movies. You can learn about the upcoming schedules and possibly catch an evening show.
Then you’ll want to explore the rest of downtown Brenham, much of which is on the National Register of Historic places. You’ll find a delightful array of eateries and antique and specialty shops clustered around the courthouse square — most in picturesque buildings that reflect the town’s early history and charm. The Downtown Art Gallery and the Back Lot Gallery showcase local artists and their original works including paintings, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, photography, wood work and more.
Your downtown walking tour will be most enjoyable if you visit the intriguing sites that are part of Step Into The Past, Brenham Historic Tours. Children and history buffs especially love Glissmann’s 1925 Drug Store and the Brenham Fire Museum with its rare antique fire trucks. Equally fun is Toubin Park, displaying a historic cistern, and telling the story of Brenham’s State Archeological Landmark — the only one in Texas. A trip through Brenham Heritage Museum highlights even more of the county’s unusual stories through multi-media exhibits and interactive activities for children.
For a relaxing midday break, stop by the Must Be Heaven Sandwich Shoppe, with its expansive selection of deli-style sandwiches, quiches, soups and salads plus an old-fashioned ice cream and soda counter. Or check out Funky Café which, as its name implies, features an eclectic ambiance, but more importantly, a variety of artfully prepared dishes, including homemade soups and desserts. Or if you have a hankering for some authentic Texas barbeque, hop in your car and head over to Nathan’s BBQ along the highway on the outskirts of town.
For those who love historic homes, tours are available (by appointment) to see Brenham’s oldest standing residence, the 1843 Giddings Wilkin House Museum. You can also tour the 1870 Giddings Stone Mansion, built by the same patriarch of Brenham, Jabez Deming “J.D.” Giddings. His houses were architectural feats of the time and they reveal how aristocrats lived in early Texas.
The Giddings houses are owned and operated by the Heritage Society of Washington County, which also offers tours of the 1898 Ross Carol Bennett House. All these houses are Texas Historical Landmarks.
A visit to Brenham would not be complete without stopping by Blue Bell Creameries, one of the region’s most popular attractions. Although Blue Bell Ice Cream is sold only in 16 southern states, it ranks among the top-selling brands in America. Learn how this delectable treat is made and browse the Tour Center’s entertaining exhibits, videos and gift shop. While you are there, treat yourself to a scoop of your favorite flavor.
Dining & Entertainment
No matter where you spend your day touring in Washington County, you’ll want to return to downtown Brenham for the great food and evening entertainment.
Live music, every Friday and Saturday night, lures locals and visitors to Home Sweet Farm Market & Biergarten. This family-friendly gathering place offers craft beers (and rootbeer for kids), wines, artisan cheeses and locally grown organic foods.
Unity Theatre, housed in a restored warehouse, is a professional theatrical venue featuring top performers from across the Texas region and beyond. It produces four mainstage productions each year as well as two smaller studio shows.
The O’Donnell Performing Arts Center at Blinn College, close to downtown, also hosts a variety of theatrical, musical and choral performances.
The downtown Brazos Valley Brewing Company is a craft brewery with outdoor entertainment spaces for casual visitors, events and parties. Stop by on weekends to sample their high-quality beers, ranging from blonde ales to stouts.
For a good evening meal, there are a number of options. For Italian fare, check out Volare, located in a historic house with fireplaces in some rooms and a backroom overlooking a garden. Other options include the Brenham Grill, located in the historic Ant Street Inn and offering a wide variety of menu selections, including authentic Mexican food; BT Longhorn Steakhouse, also housed in a historic building with a spectacular vintage bar; and 96 West, a contemporary bistro on the town square serving tapas, wines and craft beers.
Just outside of Brenham, Horseshoe Junction Family Fun Park gives your whole group an entertaining place to play together. Mini-golf, bumper boats, go-karts, laser tag, a rock climbing wall, mini-bowling and an arcade will entertain for hours. Adjacent to the park are several restaurants, a bowling alley and a multiplex movie theatre showing current releases.
Upcoming Brenham Events
Special events draw crowds to the downtown area, further promoting Brenham’s home-town atmosphere.
This year the annual Texas Brew-Fest is being combined with the Texas Arts & Music Festival, October 14th – 16th resulting in a weekend of live entertainment, craft beers and regional artists showing their works.
Friday, December 3 brings the annual Christmas Stroll, turning the town square into a magical holiday wonderland. This year’s Grand Marshall of the Lighted Christmas Parade is the legendary singing cowboy, Michael Martin Murphey. That afternoon and evening, Murphey will perform his Cowboy Christmas Concert at The Barnhill Center at Historic Simon Theatre. This show is chock full of cowboy and Christmas songs, cowboy poetry and colorful stories.
The annual Uptown Swirl in Downtown Brenham, on January 16th, is a celebration of fine wines from the region and around the world. Sipping, sampling and live music highlight the festive walking tour that turns the town square into a huge street party.
You won’t want to miss Big Al’s Historical, Almost Authentic, Electrified Vaudeville Show on January 27th and 28th at The Barnhill Center at Historic Simon Theatre. This popular extravaganza celebrates the Simon Theatre’s vaudeville heritage, featuring more than 30 performers.
Day Trips from Brenham
Go geocaching in Washington County! This treasure hunt is fun for anyone using a smartphone app or a handheld GPS device. Finding a cache is only part of the reward — the most fun is the journey to find a cache. Geocaching takes you to interesting places and you can collect points to win a prize. Start at the Washington County Visitor Center in downtown Brenham, to learn the details and get started.
The Visitor Center can also provide you with literature about Step Into The Past, Washington County Historic Tours. This brochure features a map of the county, guiding you to all other towns via a pleasant driving tour.
While you plan your route to county-wide destinations, be sure to include a drive along the scenic La Bahia Trail, FM 390. This was the main route used by Texas’ first settlers from America — 39 miles of it are within Washington County, linking some of the towns and historic sites. You’ll travel through flourishing landscapes that are especially beautiful in springtime when wildflowers bloom.
The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station is only a 45-minute drive from Brenham. You’ll want to spend at least a half-day here, to experience this grand tribute to history, the U.S. presidency, and the 41st president himself.
Don’t miss Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site, 25 minutes from Brenham. This is some of Texas’ most historically sacred ground. A full day is needed to see the four entertaining attractions within the 293-acre park.
Not only was this the first Anglo settlement in Texas (1821), but it was also the site where Texas delegates (including Sam Houston) declared the Mexican province of Texas to be a free and
independent nation — thus creating the Republic of Texas. In Independence Hall, you can stand on the very spot where these brave men risked their lives in 1836 to write their Declaration of Independence, determining the fate of Texas.
The Star of the Republic Museum tells these enthralling stories of early Texas through exhibits, tours, videos and the Pioneer Playroom, a simulated Texas frontier homestead where visitors can put themselves in the shoes of the earliest settlers.
At Barrington Living History Farm you can literally experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the mid-1800s. This was the family home of Dr. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas before it became part of the United States. You’ll experience how his family lived through interpreters in period clothing, demonstrating 19th century methods and tools for planting, caring for the livestock, cultivating and harvesting the fields. Tour the main house, two slave cabins, a kitchen building, smokehouse, cotton house and barn that made this farm self-sufficient.
Enjoy a picnic on the beautiful park grounds next to the Brazos River, and explore the interpretive hiking trails. At the park’s Visitor Center are more interactive exhibits and a large Texas gift shop.
Next year marks the 180th anniversary of Texas Independence. A huge celebration will be hosted by Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site on March 5th and 6th. Musicians, soldiers, historical re-enactors and craftsmen will gather for the festivities.
Just outside the park is the only restaurant in the area, but R Place doesn’t disappoint. On weekends you’ll find great sandwiches and barbeque for lunch, and savory Saturday night cuisine with beer and wine.
The pretty rural village of Independence, a 15-minute drive from Brenham, was the next Texas town to be established in 1824. It is here that you can tour Texas’ oldest standing Anglo homes, a one-room school house from the era, and the remains of the original Baylor University campus — all Texas Historic Landmarks.
At the Texas Baptist Historical Museum, you can sit on the pew that Sam Houston often occupied, and run your fingers over the initials he carved. This is Texas’ oldest continuously-operating Baptist church, where Sam Houston was baptized. You’ll see fascinating historical exhibits, including artifacts from the Houston family.
While in Independence, stroll through the spectacular gardens of the Antique Rose Emporium, a favorite for tourists and horticulturists. Then visit Windy Hill Winery, a few miles south and halfway back to Brenham. Here you can learn about Texas wine-making, and enjoy the tasting room and gift shop.
Chappell Hill, founded in 1847, looks much like it did in the 19th century. If you make the 15-minute drive from Brenham, you’ll feel like you are on the set of a western movie. Stroll down Main Street that is lined with buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chappell Hill Museum is a must-see.
This tiny town is a great shopping destination and has several locally-owned restaurants that are famous for Texas barbeque, steaks and delicious home cooking. Among the best is Bevers Kitchen, located in a modified 1900s-era Victorian-style cottage and featuring home-style country cooking.
Chappell Hill is home of the official annual Bluebonnet Festival of Texas. Slated for next April 9 - 10, it is the seventh most popular festival in the state, according to Texas Highways Magazine. Come savor the great food, sing along with the live music, and shop over 400 vendors with carefully-selected merchandise. Then enjoy a spectacular drive through the surrounding countryside during the height of the Bluebonnet season.
The Chappell Hill Lavender Farm is also a worthwhile stop for its beautiful lavender fields, gift shop and lavender cuisine. Pick your own lavender during the summer harvesting season.
Burton, a 20-minute drive from Brenham, is a sleepy town of only 325 people. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a bustling business center. Cotton was brought into town from surrounding cotton plantations, to be ginned and shipped to markets via the railroad.
Here you can see America’s oldest operating cotton gin, built in 1914, at the Texas Cotton Gin Museum. The restored 1898 Burton Railroad Depot continues the cotton story, and also highlights the many generations of passenger train travel that was prevalent across Texas. Both of these intriguing attractions hold various historical designations.
The cotton era comes alive at the Burton Cotton Gin Festival, April 15th and 16th. Enjoy gin tours and live music. See demonstrations, a colorful parade, a tractor pull, a petting zoo and more.
Adjacent to these attractions you’ll take pleasure in Burton’s shopping adventures, local eateries, markets and taverns. The nearby Saddlehorn Winery offers beautiful countryside views while you sample its award-winning wines.
A few miles south of Burton, just across the county line, you’ll find the quaint town of Round Top. This historic German village is a premier destination for shopping, art galleries, good food and evening entertainment. Semi-annual antique fairs — held throughout the countryside — attract thousands of enthusiasts from across the U.S. in the spring and fall.
The Round Top Festival Institute features a breathtakingly beautiful concert hall where many professional performances are offered throughout the year. This educational facility for young musicians also provides period-styled housing, a chapel, touring gardens and beautiful grounds for events.
Each summer, the Institute also hosts the annual Round Top Music Festival, where young musicians from around the world come for six weeks of intense training, while also performing as part of the Texas Festival Orchestra. Next year the festival will be held from June 4 through July 16.
Sharon Brass is a freelance writer who has lived in Brenham, Texas for 12 years and is the author of the book, “The Burning of Brenham,” and publisher of Brenham and Washington County Magazine.Edit Module