Round Top, The Aspen of Texas - My Family Travels

When I told Texas friends that Round Top is known as “The Aspen of Texas,” they started laughing. Round Top? That’s mighty high praise for a tiny, rural Texas town.

Round Top earned the Aspen label by retaining its vintage farm village charm while attracting some of the state’s wealthiest families. Real estate valuations for sleepy farmland have soared. Today, electric cattle fences and ornate gates separate second homeowners and Austin retirees from their authentic agricultural neighbors.

Tiny church in Henkel Sqaure, Round Top, Texas
Tiny historic church in Henkel Sqaure, Round Top, Texas.

The Round Top comparison to Aspen starts with real estate but doesn’t end there. With a population of 90 at the 2010 census, this tiny town generates a program of performing arts — poetry, music, and dance — that is far beyond its size.

And year-round, a robust array of antique furniture outlets brings in a healthy population of buyers and sellers. Other Aspen-like qualities include myriad art and antique galleries, artisanal coffee spots and wine bars.

Arts Flourish at Round Top Festival Institute

One of the outstanding institutions in town is the eclectic Round Top Festival Institute. In addition to festival weekends that draw thousands to the world-class summer institute, the Round Top Festival Institute has been teaching musicians since 1971. Visit any time to enjoy the bargain-priced, year-round performances and special forums.

Take a tour of the sophisticated teaching facilities and backstage area. The towering all-wood concert hall built in 2007 was designed by founder Jimmy Dick. The noted classical pianist who spearheaded the original fund-raising effort is still the director.

The hall was custom built for the Institute, maximizing style without sacrificing acoustics. Admire the ornately carved wood walls, copper fixtures and ceiling sporting a huge Lone Star (symbol of Texas). Mr. Dick believed that textured surfaces produced the best acoustics and its sophisticated appearance rivals the world’s best halls.

See A World Class Performance in Round Top

The Round Top Festival Insitute concert hall in Texas.
The Round Top Festival Insitute concert hall was custom built for the world’s top classical musicians and students to perform in Round Top.

Enjoy the superb student musical performances — so surprising to find so deep in the woods.

In 2021, the Summer Institute celebrated 50 years of coaching the world’s top young classical musicians. Aspiring college and graduate musicians from around the world compete for scholarships to the six-week summer program. Weekday afternoons are devoted to master classes, which are open to an audience that wants to learn more about the training behind the artistry of great musicians. Witness the hard work and endless practice that drives a classical music career. If none of the family are so musically-minded, visit on Saturdays when a day pass gets you into three concerts. Faculty and students of the highest caliber performed Beethoven, Gershwin and Samuel Barber at our visit and do so every week during the summer.

On the Festival Hill website, you’ll find other once-monthly weekend programs with eclectic offerings ranging from a poetry forum (April) to an herbal forum (March) to a performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet (December). 

Go Vintage in Round Top for Antiques and Texas Memorabilia

St. John the Baptist Church in Ammansville, Texas.
The painted church of St. John the Baptist twoers over Ammansville.

Another industry that seems too big for this tiny town is interior design. Antique dealers and interior decorators have taken over several roadside warehouses. Stop by to look for top-of-the-line cowhide furniture, mesquite wood coffee tables and a rich array of antiques. You can’t miss the farm that boasts Texaco pumps and vintage gas station signs all over its lawn.

Another striking designer outlet is the enormous Market Hill, a series of recently built metal hangers housing oversized furniture, architectural artifacts, sculpture befitting a huge garden and accessories like mirrors and vases you might find in a hotel lobby. I considered getting a seven-foot-tall, $99 willow wood pitchfork as a coat rack but could not think of a way to ship it home.

Round Top is known worldwide for its three Antique Weeks that take place in winter, spring and fall. The dates are Jan. 18-21, Mar. 14-31 and Oct. 10-27, 2024. During these weeks, every shop shows off their best antiques or features collectibles — even the bakeries. Meet hundreds of vendors from around the world who come in to trade.

If you’ve ever been to the Brimfield Antiques Market in Massachusetts, you’ll appreciate that the Aspen of Texas is also known as the “Brimfield of the West.”

Summer Weekends in Round Top, Texas

July 4th parade in Round Top
The popular July 4th parade in Round Top goes on rain or shine.

Summer may be hot (it is) but it’s a popular time for Austin and Houston families to rent an Airbnb or visit relatives at their family ranches.

Ignore the heat by window shopping at Henkel Square Market. Located in the at the heart of town, it is an Instagrammable collection of old Texas houses, law offices, a church and farm buildings. They were preserved and brought here by Houston doyenne Mrs. Faith Bybee in the 1960s. The rustic wood, brick and tin buildings are all restored. Some are stylish shops, including collectible dealers, a rowdy bar and pie and snack shops. Many have historic markers out front; it’s fun to see their restored interiors.

Summer is also the time for the annual July 4th Parade. This one’s said to be the longest running Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi. Place your lawn chairs to the side of the road — rain or shine — and just watch. Classic cars, floats from local vendors, fire trucks and horses march with residents along the 2-mile route. Bring bags to collect candy and beads tossed out by costumed characters on floats.

Traveling artists and teens will enjoy the guided walking tours run by Get a Round Top each Saturday in summer. Visit local artists in their studios and watch woodworkers, jewelry makers and other artisans at work to better understand the unique Round Top scene.

At Exit 66 off I-10 W is the Hatari Safari Park, a drive-through safari that’s best done early in the day before the animals seek shelter from the sun. There are a few local wineries here; we think the tasting and touring is better done around Kerrville, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.

Dining Well on Blue Plate Specials and Tex-Mex

Royer's Pie Heaven display of pies
Royer’s Pie Heaven has sweet and savory treats to delight visitors.

Like Aspen, where sophisticated well-traveled visitors support a variety of excellent restaurants, Round Top does not disappoint. In Round Top, there’s Blue Willow Café for lunch, and Royers Pie Haven for sweet and savory quiches and pies. The Local Roots deli and market and LolliTop offer fresh-baked pastries, candy and ice cream.

We had an excellent gourmet meal at Duo Moderne, a stylish restaurant surrounded by the antique dealers of Market Hill.

The Painted Churches of Texas

St. Mary's Church of the High Hill
St. Mary’s Church of the High Hill has one of the prettiest painted interiors.

Round Top is a good base for exploring central Texas. Take a Painted Churches road trip and admire the small-town churches whose interiors were lavishly painted by Czech immigrants. Most date to the late 19th century. Each community would use their skills to build simple Catholic churches, cover them in adobe, then fresco or stencil the interiors in floral patterns and religious motifs.  

There are wonderful examples in the small towns of Ammansville and Schulenberg.

The town of Flatonia has a historic downtown. Admire the one-story buildings, some of which have become collectible shops and cafes. As the heart of the Czech and Eastern European immigrant settlements, it boasts the towering Church of St. Mary of Praha. St. Mary is truly one of the most impressive Painted Churches in central Texas, a work dating to 1895.

Sleeping + Barbecue Around Round Top

Living room of The Frenchie Inn
The bold Texas style of design makes The Frenchie a fun place to stay.

There are many options for lodging at a variety of prices. Yet like Aspen, everything costs more than you’d expect in a small town.

We stayed at The Frenchie, a super stylish inn with a nice pool located 5 minutes from the central square. The Frenchie doesn’t have much service — there’s no desk staff or restaurant. Guests do use their kitchen to store your groceries and dine on their wraparound porch or indoors.

Flophouz is another Round Top option, a hotel uniquely comprised of shipping containers re-purposed as rooms. They are stylishly furnished with Western memorabilia and cowboy art, situated beyond the edge of town.

One bargain in the region is terrific Texas barbecue. Giddings, known for its opulent courthouse, is home to City Meat Market, a ca. 1960 barbecue joint on U.S. 260. Although the pit smoke and grease don’t appear to have been cleaned since then, the famous pork and beef blend sausages and plump ribs are delicious. Use the large kitchen sink to wash up after dining.

Luling is notable for City Market BBQ, which has been grilling and smoking up the joint since the mid-1940s. Unlike some of its competitors, City Market looks like a spotless cafeteria. The counter servers, standing behind COVID-proof plastic barriers, wear gloves and bandanas to serve sides and banana pudding. To get barbecued brisket, sausage or pork ribs, push open saloon doors in the back -– like entering a speakeasy. The tiny, blackened room is packed with grills, scales and a coal-burning iron stove. Watch as two hefty guys with huge knivesportion out the food onto butcher paper plates.

Central Texas Road Trips

City Meat Market dining room, Giddings, Texas
The dining room of City Meat Market in Giddings, Texas dates to 1960 and the barbecue is spectacular.

Cruise the numbered FM roads (Farm to Market country roads.) You’ll discover small Texas towns with a few historic buildings, a big square and maybe an ice cream parlor or café. Look out for more BBQ joints too. These are some of our favorite stops near Round Top.

Visit the La Grange main square, for example. It’s the Fayette County seat whose even larger courthouse, dating to 1891, has a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, better known as a hero of the Revolutionary War, is the namesake of many Southern towns.

When in Luling, don’t miss the Luling Museum. It’s the site of the annual Watermelon Thump, a contest, with memorabilia of past Watermelon queens. The museum cashier, learning we were visiting from New York, complained bitterly that waves of young Austin families, looking for cheaper real estate and hoping to comfortably work from home, were invading Luling.

Even Luling is starting to sound like Aspen.

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