Home to a beautiful town square, awe-inspiring natural beauty, a rich history and a handful of crave-worthy restaurants — not to mention the hands-down best margaritas you’ll ever sip — you don’t have to search hard for an excuse to visit Georgetown. Ever-growing and always gorgeous, this Texas town marries its historic past with a bright future. Georgetown was founded in 1848 and has one of the best preserved Victorian downtown historic districts, but it’s also on track to be one of the largest cities in the country to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy when the municipal utility moves to wind and solar power in 2018. On a recent Saturday morning, we packed up our kids and an overnight bag and headed to up the highway for a 24-hour Georgetown getaway. But whether you stay for a few nights or just come to play for the day, Georgetown has plenty of hometown charm and fun adventures waiting for you.
Distance from Austin: Less than 30 miles and just over 30 minutes away.
Don’t miss: An hour after rolling into town, we found ourselves 70 feet underground marveling at the spectacular formations inside Inner Space Cavern, innerspacecavern.com. Hidden for more than 10,000 years, Inner Space Cavern is one of the best preserved caves in Texas, and because it’s a living cave, it is still actively growing. With young kids in tow, we joined the mile-long Adventure Tour, gawking at the tapering formations hanging from the cave’s roof like dripping icicles and the interesting shapes growing up from the ground that resemble everything from an ice cream cone to a sphinx as we meandered along the damp, dimly lit paved path. If you’re looking for a more raw and rugged experience, take the Hidden Passages Tour, where you light your own way with a flashlight, or the Wild Cave Tour, a four-hour, off-trail spelunking experience for advanced cavers.
Above ground, soak in the sunshine at San Gabriel Park, parks.georgetown.org, along the banks of the San Gabriel River. Seek shade beneath the 200-year-old oak trees, watch the ducks and geese or hit the trails — there’s nearly 9 miles of hike and bike trails along the North and South San Gabriel Rivers, which link and stretch to Lake Georgetown. Stop in for a craft beer at the newly expanded taproom at Rentsch Brewery, rentschbrewery.com, where you can taste German and American-style Texas craft beers and try to pronounce my personal favorite, the Doppeldunkelweizenbock.
Stroll through Georgetown’s quaint square wrapped by historical buildings dating back to the 1880s that now house more than 40 retail shops ranging from boutiques and art galleries to Nathaniel’s Custom Hats, where you can get a high-end custom cowboy hat, and two wine tasting rooms, Georgetown Winery and Grape Creek’s Georgetown Tasting Room, perfect for sampling Texas wines while you take a shopping break. Just a half-mile from the square, you can wander through the beautiful campus of Southwestern University, southwestern.edu. Catch an evening or matinee performance at the Palace Theatre, georgetownpalace.com, a live theatre venue originally built as a movie house in 1925. Live theater productions take place year-round — this month West Side Story takes the stage.
Eat here: Bring your appetite to Georgetown — the food and drinks alone are worth the trip. For breakfasts like skillet omelets served with grits, fluffy pancakes paired with peppered bacon and crispy waffles made heartier with fried chicken smothered in gravy, look no further than Monument Cafe. The truly ambitious should order a slice of the classic roadside diner’s signature pies, but we countered our sinfully delicious indulgence by popping into the adjoined Monument Market to load up on locally sourced, organic produce to take back home — most of it is picked fresh from the garden or a nearby farm the very same day.
Owned by the same restauranteurs who pioneered Monument Café and Monument Market, El Monumento is an architectural and culinary gem serving farm-to-table interior Mexican cuisine paired with some of the best margaritas you’ll ever put lips to. El Bar makes all of its cocktails by hand with house-made syrups and hand-squeezed juices — even the basic frozen margarita is an impressive concoction made using a Japanese shaved-ice machine, 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila, all-natural triple sec and fresh lime.
Brix and Ale serves up craft cocktails and finger-licking comfort cuisine like barbecue baby back ribs with Texas slaw and Gulf shrimp and blue corn grits drizzled with spicy Rattlesnake Texas olive oil from within its chic, modern space in the Sheraton overlooking Rivery Park.
Stay here: Even in winter in Central Texas, you can most likely plunge into the heated outdoor pool at the Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center, sheratongeorgetowntexas.com, Georgetown’s gleaming new full-service hotel sitting on the banks of the San Gabriel River. With 222 rooms, an oasis-like outdoor pool, a sprawling lounge area, cocktail bar and restaurant, and even a sundry shop and fitness center, the hotel offers accommodations for every kind of traveler, from business professionals to families like us.
Take advantage of the row of shiny new bikes parked outside the hotel entrance — they are complimentary for guests on a first-come, first-serve basis and equipped with helmets for adults and children so you can pedal together as you explore the bike trails fringing the river.
Always free: It won’t cost a dime to revisit the past at the Williamson Museum, williamsonmuseum.org, a nonprofit organization located right on the square dedicated to promoting the culture and heritage of Williamson County through educational programming and hands-on exhibits suitable for all ages, even kids. And art lovers should check out the free Georgetown Art Center, georgetownartcentertx.org, which exhibits over 300 works of art by more than 200 artists annually.
Kids will love: If you judge a playground by the children who play there, then Georgetown Parks and Recreation’s Creative Playscape is the coolest one ever, according to our three kids, who climbed up ladders, ran across bridges and zoomed down slides for hours in the cold mid-morning drizzle. Originally a wooden playscape funded and built by more than 800 community volunteers, the structure was recently replaced after decades of wear and tear with a new one designed to honor the previous well-loved structure. When the weather heats up, let the kids cool off in the Blue Hole, a refreshing lagoon hemmed in by limestone bluffs along the South Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Famous festival: Pop over to Georgetown April 28-30, when red poppies are in full bloom and folks gather from all around to take part in its popular Red Poppy Festival, redpoppyfestival.com. Known as the Red Poppy Capital of Texas thanks to the vibrant flowers that have brightened Georgetown’s landscape for more than 70 years, reseeding themselves from year to year along streets, highways and yards, this annual three-day festival now draws around 55,000 visitors. Expect a wide array of family-friendly activities at this free festival including the Red Poppy Taste Awards, parade, car show, live concerts, a kid’s fun zone and more.
For more information: visit.georgetown.org
LOCAL VIEW: Q&A with Georgetown resident Nell Benold
Nell Benold wasn’t quite 18 when she first moved to Georgetown in 1946 to attend Southwestern University. She graduated in 1948 and met her husband, Douglas M. Benold, a Georgetown resident since childhood who practiced medicine there for 56 years. With a deep love for the town she’s called home for the past 70 years and a rich knowledge of its history, Nell happily shares some local insight about the city she’s witnessed explode in population over the years.
Q: What’s the biggest change you have seen in Georgetown?
A: Of course the size. Georgetown has always been extremely progressive and forward-thinking, but it didn’t always grow as fast as it does now. When I went to the university and for many years after, Georgetown’s population was 5,000. It is a whole different world now, but all of the people have added a wonderful dimension to the town — we have quite a cosmopolitan population now.
What should people do when they visit?
We have a beautiful square with really nice shops all around and eight wonderful restaurants. We have lots of nice festivals here throughout the year — there is the Red Poppy Festival in April and the annual Christmas Stroll, which is just spectacular, and every Friday night of the summer, people can come out to enjoy free live music concerts — everything from jazz to country music. Williamson County Museum, in the old bank building on the west side of the square, has wonderful rotating exhibits and good curators where you can learn all about our history. San Gabriel Park is where the two San Gabriel Rivers, the North Fork and South Fork, run together. Back in the day when my husband was growing up here, it was really the only place in town to swim. Now the park is a great place to go have a picnic, see the ducks and walk or ride your bike along the hike and bike trails.
Where is a unique spot to shop?
Handcrafts Unlimited, right on the south side of the square, is a consignment store that is different because everything is handmade by people 50 years and older. It is a nonprofit, all-volunteer-staffed shop full of really beautiful handcrafted items like quilts and other items made by hand.