Buckle up when you touch down in El Paso: It’s just the beginning of the journey. To head to Marfa, Texas, a tiny arts town with a big reputation, you’re going to need a tank of gas, a very long playlist and a pocketful of cash—there’s only two or three ATMs to be found in a place with fewer than 2,000 residents and just one stoplight.
After a Border Patrol check, change in time zones and a couple hours on the road, the first sign you’re in for some culture is in Valentine, where you’ll come across the oft-Instagrammed Prada Marfa installation that’s occupied this small spot on Route 90 since 2005. Travel another 35 miles and you’ll find yourself at Ballroom Marfa, the nonprofit behind the faux storefront that’s filled with the fashion brand’s real but untouchable shoes and handbags. Here, the organization hosts film screenings as well as visual and performing arts events, but there’s plenty of gallery galavanting beyond this converted dancehall to fill your visit, from the Ayn Foundation to Inde/Jacobs. A must-see, however, is the contemporary art museum founded in 1979 by the man who put this arts mecca on the map. Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation sits in a former air base that now houses large-scale installations from fellow minimalist artists, including fluorescent fanatic Dan Flavin’s untitled project that spans six buildings.
Photo Credit: Nick Simonite
There’s more grounds to roam at the 21-acre El Cosmico, where campsites and yurts mix with teepees whose flaps reveal leather loveseats and queen beds with heated mattresses. (Beware that between November and March, desert temperatures significantly drop, meaning the pipes in the communal bathhouse can freeze—we said it would be an adventure.) For some small luxuries like heat, air conditioning and a private shower, book one of the rainbow-bright vintage trailers filled with locally made toiletries, cooking supplies and other necessities. Outside, swing solo on a hammock or mingle with friendly strangers around a fire after grabbing beer and wine in the lobby’s lounge, the only place on site to find a Wi-Fi signal. Also check the calendar for special events, such as the first-Saturday-of-the-month Cosmic Karaoke sessions complete with tacos, micheladas and tunes under the night sky. Amateur singers take a back seat during the fall’s annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, which most recently brought Wilco and a St. Vincent-backed Fiona Apple to four days of workshops—from welding and screenprinting to yoga—plus baseball games, pancake breakfasts and pig roasts.
Down the road, the live music continues on Tuesday nights at Bar Saint George, a swanky lounge nestled inside Hotel Saint George, a property that opened in 2016 after a major update to an original hotel that railroad workers and traveling ranchers flocked to till the Great Depression. Filled with contemporary works from abstract painter Jeff Elrod, Boston-born Christopher Wool and other artists with connections to Marfa, the industrial space is home to 55 rooms with Australian sheepskin rugs, Aesop products and views of mountains and plateaus—a plush option for those looking to be surrounded by four firm walls come nightfall.
Photo Credit: Nick Simonite
When the temps rise, bibliophiles can cool off in the well-curated bookstore followed by a dip in the pool, and during the bar’s happy hour, fill up on small plates and $2 draft beers and $5 martinis. Those with a bigger appetite can head to LaVenture, the French- and Italian-flecked American restaurant that’s open seven days a week—a first for Marfa, which largely shuts down on Mondays and Tuesdays, and is otherwise known for fickle operating hours—and offers a wine menu packed with small and family-owned vintners.
Other fine-dining experiences await at Cochineal, whose backyard vegetables star in dishes like a mushroom souffle and simmered tomatoes, and the Thunderbird Hotel’s Capri, which will have you plotting a living room redesign as you sip on hibiscus margaritas and make your way through Texan cheeses. Seek out unpretentious nightcaps at local watering holes like Planet Marfa, a beer garden with pingpong, darts and a small but rowdy dance floor, while pool sharks can opt for Lost Horse Saloon, helmed by a tall, eye-patch-wearing fellow. Come morning, get your coffee buzz on at Do Your Thing, which serves a mean drip coffee not to mention housemade sourdough topped with deliciousness like ripe tomatoes, cream cheese and poppy seeds, or wander over to Frama, a cafe next to a laundromat that whips up inventive homemade ice cream to sample over a round of Scrabble.
You’ll want another sweet souvenir to remind you of your time out west. At Moonlight Gemstones, jeweler Paul Graybeal will set one of his collected agates into a bracelet for you, and at Cobra Rock Boot Company, wannabe cowgirls and boys can check out the American leather line of Chelsea and desert boots. Pick up a painted horseshoe that’ll easily slip into your carry-on at Cast + Crew, or if you’re planning on putting down some roots, opt for the dreamy midcentury hoop chair. When you round the corner to browse Marfa Brands’ essential oils-packed soaps, you can ask owner Ginger Griffice for advice. Like many others, the New York photog set out on a vacation more than a decade ago and never looked back. ◆
Ballroom Marfa, ballroommarfa.org; Capri, thunderbirdmarfa.com; Cast + Crew, castandcrewmodern.com; Chinati Foundation, chinati.org; Cobra Rock Boot Company, cobrarock.com; Cochineal, cochinealmarfatexas.com; Do Your Thing, doyourthing.us; El Cosmico, elcosmico.com; Frama, tumbleweedlaundry.com; Hotel Saint George, marfasaintgeorge.com; Lost Horse Saloon, losthorsesaloon.com; Marfa Brands, marfabrands.com; Moonlight Gemstones, moonlightgemstones.com; Planet Marfa, facebook.com/planetmarfa