An eccentric place truly in the middle nowhere, Marfa has become a haven for artists who want to get away from the city noise and hear themselves think. Like a Brooklyn set to the backdrop of thedesert, you'll find well-crafted food and minimalist art at every turn.
Some people come here and "just get it." To be honest, I was more in the "I don't get it" camp, as I walked through the rows of concrete boxes in the cactus-filled fields that are considered art. You can go ahead and call my taste unrefined, but I enjoyed the quirky town nonetheless.
Even if you're not a minimalist art connoisseur, you'll have fun tracking down the UFOs who have been said to have been spotted, chatting with the fascinating locals about what brought them to the desert, and finding Instagram photo opps at every turn.
Logistically, you'll want to fly into El Paso and drive 3 hours or come after a trip to San Antonio, an almost 6 hour drive. I wouldn't spend more than 1-2 days here, though, and would pair it with a trip to the stunningly beautiful Big Bend National Park while you're at it. I'm not convinced it's worth a trip on its own, but I also would say do the trip if you can because there's nothing else like this place. Also, try to come Thursday-Sunday because a lot of things are closed during the week. #desertlife.
Before you go
In the 1970s, contemporary artist Donald Judd transformed this tiny West Texas town into the art oasis it is today. You'll definitely want to read or listen up on him before you enter the quirky town so that you better understand how this place came to be. Although he had a great vision to bring art to the desert, ironically, he'd probably hate the tourist influx that came along with that dream.
Also, don't forget that you're in the middle of oil country. This is a fascinating podcast on the tensions between the oil industry, the source of income for many Texans, and those who have lived in the desert for years and want to keep their landscape untouched.
where to stay
Book ahead! There aren't too many places in Marfa, so if you want to be right in town, you'll want to snag a place while they're available. A few options:
El Cosmico- This is where Beyonce stayed, so enough said! Probably the most Instagrammed place in Marfa, the sleeping establishments range from camping (bring your own tents or they have nice canvas ones onsite) to decked out teepees and airstream vans. Each is unique in color, set up, and decorations and scattered across a giant plot of land full of tumbleweeds and cacti. Think of this as the most hipster RV park you could ever imagine. Although, you've probably never imagined that. They have hammocks, a bar, and occasional entertainment. This is Marfa's closest thing to a social hostel. Even if you're not staying here, walk around at sunset. It's magical!
Hotel Paisano- Stay here if you want the typical West Texas feel. Where James Dean stayed while filming his final film Giant, this charming historic hotel is nice and thus definitely not the economic choice. The lobby has buffalo and deer heads and will take you back to the times of cowboys roaming out West. It also has great shops and a restaurant. Visit here even if you're not staying.
Riata Inn- Just outside the center of town (13 minute walk or 3 minute drive), this motel is much cheaper than staying right in the center, and the rooms are large with a good view of the mountains and dessert. I stayed here and definitely would again. You get more for your money.
Thunderbird- Set in a great location that's walkable to everything, Thunderbird epitomizes Marfa's minimalist chic vibe. The rooms are sparse - but in a trendy way. And there's a pool, so that's a huge plus in the summer!
If you don't care about being specifically in Marfa and are just doing a West Texas roadtrip in general, I have another option for you:
The Gage Hotel- A gorgeous hotel similar in feel to Hotel Paisano, the famous Gage Hotel is located in Marathon, TX, about an hour east of Marfa. Rated the #1 hotel in Texas and one of the top in the U.S., escape to quiet luxury with a pool, spa, fitness center, and renowned dining onsite. They also have casitas (small houses) that you can stay in if you prefer that vibe. There's not much to do in Marathon, so this location is more about the hotel than the actual town. Even one night before or after Marfa would be worth it!
what to do
If you don't like art, then there's not all that much to do in Marfa other than eat good food and just relax in the nothingness of the desert. This is why I'd definitely pair the trip with a visit to Big Bend National Park, which is not too far away.
Marfa Lights- Legend has it, these strange unexplainable orbs flickering in the sky were first seen by a cowboy in the late 1800s. Some say UFOs, others say they're just a reflection of passing by headlights, but you'll never know until you see them for yourself. There's a designated viewing area just 9 miles east of the center of the city. It's pretty fun to join in with others in spotting (or not spotting) them. Our motel receptionist instructed us that the lights were best seen late at night after several adult beverages. ;)
Chinati Foundation- A contemporary art museum full of Donald Judd's works, the collections can be donevia self-guided viewings or guided tours Wednesday-Sunday. Unless you're really fascinated by Judd or minimalist art, I wouldn't pay for the guided tour. The building you have to pay to access has glass walls all along the side, so you can just look straight on in, and all it is is different shaped aluminum boxes. Not worth the $15 fee IMHO. If you do decide you want a tour, book ahead of time, as there are only a few spots, and they do fill up.
Judd Foundation- If you can't get enough of Judd, the Judd Foundation offers private tours of his studios and works of art not found at the Chinati Foundation. Reservations are required ahead of time, and their website is the best place to get a sense of what you can see on the different tours. I didn't do these because I didn't get a reservation ahead of time, so I cannot comment on how "worth it" they are, but the studio tours in particular do look pretty cool and would give you some context to how the town sprouted onto the map as an art destination!
Ballroom Marfa- Yet another minimalist contemporary art gallery, this one does not house Judd's works and can be visited with no reservation. There is no entrance fee, only a suggested donation. The place is small and full of a few quirky and interesting exhibits. You can do the whole thing in 15-20 minutes.
Prada Marfa- Ahh, the famous fake Prada storefront in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it's a 30 minute drive north of Marfa! It really is in the middle of nowhere set just off the highway in the middle of the dessert. It's pretty hilarious, but I'm not sure why you'd ever really purposefully go here other than to get a picture.
where to eat
First of all, make sure these places are open. Many Marfa establishments are only open Thursday-Sunday. Don't let being in small town Texas fool you, there's actually great food here! Yes, there is a Dairy Queen, but despite that, you'll find few chains.
Food Shark- Don't miss this lunch-only spot. It's food truck-esque in the sense that you order at a truck, and they do the cooking there, but it's situated on a permanent lot full of tables and chairs and a converted old school bus that now houses dining tables with a heater for winter time. The food takes about as long as a normal restaurant, not a food truck, so just be prepared for a bit of a wait. The old, non functioning cars and cactuses remind you that you're in the desert, and the Mediterranean food is truly delicious (and they're super knowledgable about gluten free diets)! A classic Marfa spot.
Pizza Foundation- I didn't eat here, as it's not exactly good for a gluten and dairy free diet, but I've heard the thin-crust style pizza is some of the best out there!
Frama- I found matcha in the middle of the desert!!! Warning though: I ordered an almond matcha, and they gave me a matcha tea with a shot of sugary almond syrup instead of almond milk, as I meant (and they had on the menu!). Don't be a city slicker, and make sure to be clear about what you want at this cute little coffeeshop attached to Tumbleweed Laundry. Outside of it is the Marfa mural.
Do Your Thing- The perfect little hipster paradise coffee shop also has some great breakfast dishes, such as pastries, toast, and gluten-free options like frittatas. Fuel up for the day at one of the outside tables.
Stellina- Come early or be prepared for a wait at this Mediterranean homestyle cooking restaurant. They don't take reservations, and they won't text or call you when a table's ready, but you can enjoy a drink outside while waiting. They have both entrees and small plates, and from the decor and small space, you'll swear you're at a restaurant in San Francisco.
The Capri- I was beyond bummed that this beautiful restaurant was closed. With a beautiful ambiance, this spot is the choice of many brides for their big day. With great cocktails and outdoor dining, this is a magical little spot to finish off your day.