1. Where to Stay
Camp out boho-style at El Cosmico, owned by Liz Lambert of Austin’s beloved San Jose and Saint Cecilia hotels. Pick your accommodation type from among the teepees, tents, or trailers situated on an 18-acre stretch of desert just a few blocks outside Marfa’s tiny town center (from $40; or starting at $15 for bring-your-own-tent camping). Visiting bands and other creative types flock to this spot for its communal areas, including a hammock grove, reading room—a collaboration with the town’s excellent bookstore, the Marfa Book Company—and outdoor kitchen, plus wood-fired hot tubs available for rent, all designed to foster mingling and idea-exchange.
Bask in the Deco flourishes at the Hotel Paisano (from $99), where Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson, the stars of the 1956 classic film Giant, stayed while filming nearby. Off the lobby, there’s a room that serves as a mini museum-of-sorts for the movie, showing a recording on loop and displaying the original Life magazine cover celebrating the film. Cool off from the desert sun in the kidney-shaped pool, or while away the late afternoon in the 1930 building’s stylish lobby, decked in elegant High Desert chic, with vintage tilework, gleaming wood furniture, and assorted taxidermy. Head to Jett’s Grill for a margarita and, if you’re lucky enough to be there on one of the weekends a band plays, catch some live music in the courtyard.
Nerd out over the mid-century details at the Thunderbird (from $130), a classic roadside motel turned stylish boutique spot. Opened in 1959 but renovated in 2005 by Lake/Flato Architects, the hotel still has its original horseshoe shape with interior courtyard, along with hipper new touches, like record players and typewriters for rent, Malin + Goetz amenities, and minibar baskets stocked with Topo Chico soda water and other with-it essentials. Rooms have a coolly minimalist feel, with queen beds covered in woven Bolivian blankets, recessed lighting, and work by Marfa artists on the walls. Pop out to the pool in the afternoon, where the perfume of orange honeysuckle makes the dry heat a bit more bearable.
2. Where to Eat
Go gourmet at Cochineal, a design-forward restaurant specializing in nouveau Tex-inspired fare, like Peking duck tacos with citrus segments and a tangy apple-cabbage slaw ($15) and mesquite-grilled quail with celery-root puree ($16). Situated in a former ranch-style house, the red-and-gray color scheme coupled with funky southwestern details like a walled, cactus-landscaped patio look straight out of a Dwell spread, and the place attracts a similarly motley mix of local service-industry folk, in-the-know tourists, and rancher types in upmarket cowboy boots. Start off your meal with one of the excellent cocktails, like the tequila old-fashioned (reposado, mole bitters, agave, $12), and fork over $4 for the bread plate—the house-baked sourdough loaf with a cube of butter coated in black sea-salt and a sprinkling of powdered shiso is worth it. Be sure to ask ahead of your meal for the date pudding with caramel-rum sauce ($12), which takes extra time to prepare. And a word to the wise: This is one of the only restaurants in town open daily for dinner—many only operate Wednesdays through Sundays—so always check hours before making plans.
Reap the benefits of Marfa’s recent food-truck boom at Food Shark, a mobile eatery parked from noon to 3 under the pavilion Wednesday through Saturday and serving up Mediterranean-meets-West-Texas daily lunch specials with lots of veggie options (try the Marfalafel: falafel, harissa, and veggies stuffed in a tortilla, $7), and other portable snacks like five-spice beef bánh mì mi or adobo-chicken soft tacos (prices vary). Late nights, be sure to stop by the owners’ other eatery, the Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late Night Grilled Cheese Parlour, where the melted treats are served on old-school Plexiglas-Astroturf trays (open on Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30 p.m. onward, it’s the only late-night eating option in town).
Chill over dinner at Maiya’s, a Marfa favorite housed in a high-ceilinged vintage building right on the town’s main drag. The restaurant is rightly beloved for its delicious, if pricey, lasagna Bolognese with slow-cooked meat sauce ($26) and roasted salmon with pistachio nut butter ($26), plus salads made with seasonal veggies, like the roasted cauliflower with hazelnuts and dates ($8). Plant yourself at the U-shaped bar to mingle with arty locals and sip a refreshing cocktail like the Paloma, made with tequila blanco, fresh grapefruit juice, and grapefruit soda ($10).
3. What to Do
Attend the fourth annual CineMarfa, running May 1 to 4 this year and screening around 20 rare, hard-to-find, or banned films in the Crowley Theater (originally built as a feed store) and other venues around town (free, but register online). On opening night, catch the 1974 flick Lord of the Universe, about a 16-year-old guru who tried to levitate the Houston Astrodome; or take in the 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer work The Passion of Joan of Arc, with a score performed live by Cat Power. Later in the summer, check out the Marfa Film Festival, coming up July 2 to 6 (five-day passes from $275), with an eclectic mix of features, shorts, music videos, experimental pieces, and nightly drive-in-style showings of classics under the stars.
Hit Ballroom Marfa (free admission; $5 suggested donation), one of the premier arts organizations in town, to view Sound Speed Marker, a video-based exhibit that explores the Southwest as a cinematic site. Through August 10, you can catch the exhibition’s three short films, including the 2014 debut of “Giant,” a Ballroom Marfa original documentary short that chronicles the decay of the Reata ranch film set, outside of Marfa, which was left neglected for decades after the movie wrapped.
Pop by the Marfa and Presidio County Museum, housed in an attractive onetime bungalow home, to learn about the town and region’s history, from the days of Native Americans to early settlers to ranchers and the military presence at Marfa’s Fort D.A. Russell, active from WWI to WWII, and nearby Fort Davis. Film buffs will geek out over the collection of photographs offering glimpses of Giant stars like James Dean spending time in town.
4. Insider’s Tip
See a different kind of star while you’re in West Texas—those in the sky, which are brighter and more numerous in this remote desert than you’ve probably ever witnessed. McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis (about a 40-minute drive from Marfa) hosts Star Parties ($14; $12 advance) three nights a week (Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights), which typically begin with a pointer-assisted tour of the night sky followed by the chance to look at the planets, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies through the center’s super-powerful telescopes.
5. Oddball Day
After exploring the nooks and crannies of this tiny town, hit the road for a drive worthy of the big screen. Get up early for coffee and a breakfast burrito ($3-$4) at Mando’s (1506 W. San Antonio St.; 432-729-3291), one of the oldest and, refreshingly, least chic restaurants in Marfa. Then drive beyond the town’s borders: To take in the same desolately beautiful countryside featured prominently in No Country For Old Men, simply look for the Moonlight Gemstones shop, a few blocks west of Marfa’s lone traffic light. Head south at the corner and you’ll be on RM 2810/Pinto Canyon Road, which gives way after a few miles to rolling hills surrounded by otherworldly desert landscapes teeming with cacti and other vegetation that looks straight out of Mars, or maybe Dr. Seuss. When you’ve had your fill, circle back and head west on Highway 90 (a.k.a. San Antonio Street) toward Valentine. Under two miles beyond this tiny, romantically named town, you’ll find Prada Marfa, a permanent art exhibition co-produced by Ballroom Marfa that improbably situates an ersatz Prada accessories store on this stretch of open road. You can’t step inside, but it’s disorienting-in-a-good-way to peer through the plate-glass windows and see the desert landscape reflected (plus, who knows how long it’ll be open—the Texas Department of Transportation has declared it an “illegal outdoor advertising sign” and has yet to decide the building’s fate). The day is still young, so jump back in the car and head back toward Marfa, grabbing a crispy fried Brussels sprout haystack with onions, blue cheese, and Sriracha on a bed of hand-cut fries ($8) at Fat Lyle’s food truck, across from El Cosmico. Then head north to H.E. Sproul Ranch near Fort Davis for a pre-arranged guided Jeep tour up Cook Mountain ($55 for adults; $45 for children) to glimpse native plants and wildlife like Ponderosa Pines and javelinas, plus spectacular views of the surrounding hills and ranch land. Give Pizza Foundation a ring on your way back into town to ensure your bubbling, thin-crust pie is ready when you pull up (and to make sure they don’t run out of dough, a common occurrence) for a perfectly comforting end to the day.
Do as the locals do and check Marfaist.org to learn about art openings, live music, and other events. In case you decide far West Texas living is for you, you’ll also find information about housing rentals, ride-shares, and more.
For information about where to see art in Marfa, this page offers a handy overview.
Tune your car radio to 93.5 FM (it’s probably the only station you’ll pick up way out here, anyway) while in Marfa to hear music, news, and other local and national public-radio broadcasts.
For an amusing and informative hyperlocal-news fix, visit bigbendnow.com or pick up a paper copy of the Big Bend Sentinel, which covers all the Far West Texas news that’s fit to print, from Marfa to El Paso.