As a traveler unknown to the hidden treasures of Marfa, there are surprises around every corner. Old bank buildings house sought-after art exhibits, re-purposed churches serve as boutique stores, and a local laundromat can also be the place to get a cup of coffee or savor a scoop of ice cream.
Where is Marfa, Texas?
Marfa is a city in the high desert and located on a Chihuahuan Desert plateau of the Trans-Pecos in far West Texas, between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park.
It’s unlikely you’ll ever be “passing through” Marfa since the closest, larger airport is in El Paso, Texas (a good three hours away). It’s a destination spot many haven’t considered because of its more desolate location.
If you drive Southeast down US-90 long enough, you’ll uncover a stretch of road where traveling at 80 mph is normal and there’s likely to be little traffic on the road.
There’s a certain funkiness to Marfa…… and that’s before discussing the aliens.
As many may (or may not) know, Marfa is known for a phenomenon referred to simply as the “Marfa Lights.” Ask the locals or see for yourself; they are real. What they are is an entirely different subject and based on your own interpretation. They are located beyond the horizon and appear in orbs that flash in different colors and spots throughout the night. They may shoot upwards in beams or move in clusters in a uniform pattern.
There are several theories as to what they are and what environmental definition is responsible for them. But the area where they come alive used to be the Marfa Army Airfield and the lights do resemble a haphazard pattern of traffic control, so make of that what you will.
The best time to see the Marfa lights
The best time is dependent on what time of year you visit. In the summertime, the best time is daylight until 8:30 pm through twilight which extends until around 9:30. In the winter, by 6 pm it’s fairly dark. I’d suggest showing up later than 10pm, but from what I hear, early morning is the best time (1am – 3am)
The Marfa Mystery Lights are a must-see even if you only look for them for a few minutes. Many say they don’t come out every night but be patient because they’re out there.
There’s a parking lot to the official viewing point a few miles outside of town. Depending on what time of year you go, bring a blanket and wear layers because the temperatures can dip rapidly leaving you out in the literal cold.
The 34th Annual Marfa Lights Festival takes place September 3-4. It is the longest-running festival in Marfa and is complete with vendors, live music and a parade.
How to Spend a Perfect Day in the Quirky Town of Marfa, Texas
If you have an adventurous spirit or even a slightly curious one, a weekend trip to Marfa is ripe with eccentric oddities and small-town-meets-big-city culture. It’s definitely worth more than a day, but you can pack in quite an agenda in only 24 hours. Below is our Marfa Guide.
Day in Marfa Itinerary
Marfa is well-known as a small town where big players in the art world gather to showcase their work, start galleries, and add their urban footprint to an otherwise dusty spot on the map. This dichotomy makes for one interesting visit.
9:00 AM: Breakfast at Marfa Burrito
10:00 AM: Visitor Center and walk down Highland Ave.
12:30 PM: Lunch at Boyz 2 Men
1:30 PM: Day trip to Alpine or explore local art galleries and shops
4:00 PM: Ice cream break at Frama
4:30 PM: Stroll the streets of Marfa to check out street murals and hidden gems
6:30 PM: Dinner at Al Campo
8:00 PM: Drinks at Capri
10:00 PM: Head to Marfa Lights viewing area
Best Things to Do in Marfa, Texas
Marfa Texas Prada
Along this quiet stretch of pavement surrounded by prairie-type land is nothing that hints at the mystery that is Marfa, TX until you reach the famed Prada art installation on the side of the road.
Prada Marfa is a permanent sculptural art installation by artists Elmgreen and Dragset, off U.S. Highway 90, and about 26 miles northwest of the city of Marfa.
The sculpture is made out of traditional adobe bricks and mimics the architectural style of Marfa, which is known as a center for minimalist art.
To be clear, this is an art installation and not a Prada store.
Make a stop at the Marfa Visitor Center near the central part of town. Not only are the people friendly and willing to talk to you about their theories about the lights, but there are also free guides and maps of things to do when in Marfa.
They have an outlined restaurant guide of what time places are open and what kind of cuisine is available. Since it’s not a hopping metropolis, restaurants and galleries may have inconsistent hours or close unexpectedly. Check ahead of time before you plan your day.
From the Visitor Center, it’s an easy walk down the main street of Marfa a.k.a. Highland Avenue. There are several smaller art galleries, local stores, and restaurants to stop in along the way. The bookstore tucked inside the sleek Hotel St. George is a prime spot to pick up a book by a local author and then, have an afternoon cocktail in the adjoining bar just past the front desk.
Ayn Foundation, Alpine, and Other Artsy Areas
The Ayn Foundation houses Andy Warhol’s Last Supper which takes up the entirety of the three walls. The unassuming door is easily missed and the casualness of the foldout table that holds the brochures for the exhibit is a contrast to the incredible nature of the art. The quiet space, size of the artwork, and the understanding that this is one of the most famous of Warhol’s work is overwhelming in the best way. Oh, and it’s free.
Other notable stopping places are Hotel Paisano where Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed, exhibits from the Chinati Foundation, and Frama at Tumbleweed Laundry right off the main strip to get a photo of the Welcome to Marfa mural and a latte.
If there’s time in the day, make the 25-minute drive to nearby Alpine which has a quirky character all its own with a beer garden at The Ritchey Wine Saloon and a backyard setup where they make delicious flautas at La Calavera, although you can’t be in a hurry because the wait can take some time.
Ballroom Marfa is an internationally recognized non-collecting contemporary art museum. Established in 2003 by Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn, the contemporary art and performance space is housed in a 1920s-era ballroom and is free and open to the public.
What to do Near Marfa
Marfa sits amidst some of the Southwest’s best natural and created wonders. Daytime tour options include Big Bend State and National Parks, McDonald Observatory, Chinati Hot Springs, the Davis Mountains, Balmorhea, and the town of Fort Davis.
What & Where to Eat in Marfa
Speaking of food to eat, there’s quite a range of food options in Marfa from inexpensive to fancier fare. But if you only have one day, start it off right by stopping at the famed Marfa Burrito. Simple in name, structure, and menu, people from all over, including celebrities, flock to this modest setup.
There’s a communal bowl of homemade hot sauce on the cardboard table and the coffee is a serve-yourself station. The burritos are good-sized and filling, especially the chorizo, but if you’re looking for anything fancy, add-ons, or substitutions, that’s not what this place is all about. Take cash because they don’t accept credit card and don’t be afraid to possibly sit at a table with strangers as seating is limited.
Boyz 2 Men Tacos
When lunchtime rolls around, the Boyz 2 Men taco place has massive brisket tacos brimming with tender, flavorful meat and all the right fixins’ because you get to choose your add-ons yourself. A healthy sprinkle of chopped, raw onion and cilantro is all you need.
The half portion is plenty for one person but if you want to indulge, go for the full. The directions can be kind of confusing because it used to be part of an actual food truck but the counter is inside the building that says Bad Hombres. If there’s a wait, head across the street and check out Planet Marfa to have a quick cold one.
Al Campo Wine Garden & Rustic Bistro
Dinner-wise, there are plenty of places to choose from, but again, check on times because things close early. Al Campo is one of the best places in Marfa. The setup epitomizes the quirky coolness of Marfa with a staff that is welcoming enough to almost feel like a long-lost family.
Try the queso, enjoy a glass of wine, or get a glass of the free hibiscus water. The decor is a mix of literary references and knick-knack goodness so sit back and stay awhile. For a nightcap, head to The Capri one of the few places that stay open later. Sit and talk to the bartenders. They’ll give you the real scoop of life in Marfa pre- and post-art expansion.
Maybe Marfa isn’t your average destination location or an easy stop through on your cross-country road trip but anyone who decides to embark on this unassuming small town will be amazed at all the hidden gems that await behind blistered doors and dusty roadways.
The best local food truck in Marfa is Food Shark, Lunch-only food truck offering Mediterranean grub, a rustic covered patio & seating in an old bus.
Marfa Texas Hotels
If you are interested in exploring the quirkiness of Marfa, Texas for more than one day, below are a few hotel suggestions.
Hotel Paisano This is where Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed. Check out reviews on Trip Advisor.
The Thunderbird Hotel Marfa is a retro-chic hotel built in 1959 and located off US-90 in downtown Marfa. Check out reviews on Trip Advisor.
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Courtney Hartmann is a freelance writer and social media junkie. Korea-born and Kansas-bred, this girl has a zest for life on the move. She’s called both coasts home, NYC for a brief period and San Diego since 2010, to explore new opportunities and fun adventures. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @mscourtneybeth.