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7 Texas attractions you may not know about

Between May and September, more than 15 million hungry Mexican free-tailed bats take flight from Bracken Cave for their nightly dinner—insects. Photo by Jimmy White/TPWD

In a state where superlatives reign supreme and things are frequently described as “biggest” and “best,” Texas lays claim to many legitimately impressive attractions. In other words, we’re not just “all hat and no cattle” around here. But in such a large state, it can be hard to keep tabs on all the standout things to see and do.

Here, discover 7 such standouts—along with insider tips on how best to enjoy them. Some of the attractions may surprise you, and you’ll wonder how they escaped your attention.

1. One of the world’s largest Spanish art collections

Where: Meadows Museum, Dallas

Museum visitors looking at a painting of a woman.

Spanish art dating from medieval times to present day abounds at the Meadows Museum. Photo by Guy Rogers III 

An admirer of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, oil tycoon Algur H. Meadows set out to establish a small Prado for Texas at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The Meadows Museum, which opened in 1965, is now home to one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain. See artwork dating from medieval times to present day, including works by Spanish masters such as El Greco, Goya, and Picasso.

At the entryway, the massive undulating Wave sculpture by storied Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava greets visitors. Made of bronze bars installed over a black-tiled pool, it’s magnificent to view day or night. Adults, $12.

Insider tip: Periodically through the year, the museum hosts Drawing From the Masters, informal art classes led by artists and inspired by the museum’s collections. Check the program calendar for upcoming sessions.

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2. The world’s largest public repository of Black gospel music

Where: Black Gospel Archive and Listening Center, Waco

Couple browing records at the Black Gospel Archive and Listening Center.

Marvel at the large collection of old record albums at the Black Gospel Archive and Listening Center. Photo courtesy Baylor University

In the early 2000s, Baylor University professor Robert Darden (a longtime religious-music journalist) was growing concerned about the preservation of Black gospel music, a genre that has informed most of America’s music history.

This prompted Darden to write a New York Times op-ed piece in 2005 warning that “early gospel may soon be lost forever” due to a lack of organized archival efforts. Bolstered by the enthusiasm of other gospel fans who shared his concern, Darden soon took up the charge. The result: a state-of-the-art listening center and treasury of old record albums in the basements of Baylor’s Moody and Jones libraries.

Thousands of hours have gone into digitizing albums dating back to 1912, including ones from Grammy Award winners Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, in addition to lesser-known artists. Free.

Insider tip: If you can’t visit the center in person, access some of the recordings online at the Black Gospel Music Preservation Program’s Royce-Darden Collection. “Old Ship of Zion” by the Mighty Wonders (1972) is one of the collection’s jewels.

You may also like: Take a music road trip across Texas

3. The largest old-growth sabal palm forest in the U.S.

Where: Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville

A cluster of trees in the Sabal Palm Sanctuary.

Beautiful old-growth Sabal palms draw visitors to the 557-acre Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Photo by Larry Ditto Nature Photography

The Rio Grande Valley is a treasure trove for birding enthusiasts on the lookout for species not seen anywhere else in the U.S., such as great kiskadees. One of the best places to spot them is the 557-acre Sabal Palm Sanctuary.

Black phoebe bird holding a freshly caught bug in its beak.

Birding enthusiasts flock to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary to see a variety of bird species, including the black phoebe. Photo by Larry Ditto Nature Photography

The sanctuary’s approximately 30 acres of preserved forest make it the largest patch of old-growth sabals in the U.S. For a magical experience, walk along its 3 miles of nature trails, spotting feathery creatures from bird blinds and at a bird-feeding station. Adults, $5.

Insider tip: Through Airbnb, you can overnight on the sanctuary grounds at the historic Rabb Plantation House, a Queen Anne–style mansion built in 1892. $80 per night for a room with a queen bed and a private bathroom.

4. The world’s largest bat colony

Where: Bracken Cave, San Antonio

People recording as the Bracken Cave bat colony flies overhead.

Sunset bat flights from Bracken Cave make for dramatic photos. Photo by Karine Aigner

More than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats—the world’s largest bat colony—make their summer home just northeast of San Antonio at Bracken Cave, located on private land owned by Bat Conservation International (BCI). Mama bats give birth and raise their young here, so call it a maternity ward of sorts. Bats may have their detractors, but environmentalists and farmers praise their pest-eating prowess and welcome their presence.

Every night, the bats fly out of the cave to dine on approximately 400,000 pounds of moths, mosquitoes, and other insects. On select nights from May through September, the public can watch the dramatic spectacle at sunset. Tickets must be purchased in advance and go fast, so reserve early. Tickets, $30.

Insider tip: Join BCI as a member for additional opportunities to see the bats emerge on members-only nights.

You may also like: Underrated Texas state parks

5. The world’s first fully accessible amusement park

Where: Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio

Parents and their child using a hands-on display at Morgan's Wonderland.

Morgan’s Wonderland is a fully accessible amusement park where everyone — no matter their physical or cognitive ability — can have a fun time. Photo courtesy Morgan's Wonderland

Gordon Hartman’s daughter, Morgan, was born with physical and cognitive disabilities. As a testament to his love for her, Hartman created Morgan’s Wonderland in 2010, the world’s first fully accessible amusement park.

Everyone can come here for a thrilling day of fun, no matter their physical or cognitive ability. Think adaptive swings, waterslides (at the adjacent water park Inspiration Island), and more. Visitors with disabilities enjoy all this for free. Adults without disabilities, $19; $29 for both parks.

Insider tip: At Wonderland’s 8-acre lake, volunteers help people of all abilities do catch-and-release fishing from an accessible dock.

You may also like: Fun, fabulous San Antonio

6. One of the world’s oldest sailing ships

Where: Galveston Historic Seaport

Tall Ship Elissa docked.

For a taste of sea life in the 19th century, take a tour of the tall ship Elissa, built in 1877.

One of 3 ships of its kind that’s still actively sailing, the tall ship Elissa was built in 1877 and once hauled freight across the globe. The Galveston Historic Seaport is now its home, and hard-core sailing enthusiasts can learn to sail it via rigorous training sessions offered by the Galveston Historical Foundation.

Galveston Historical Foundation sailing aboard the tall ship Elissa.

The Galveston Historical Foundation offers rigorous sailing lessons aboard the tall ship Elissa. Photo by Koby Brown Photography

But you don’t have to sail the ship to experience its magnificence. Simply tour it, imagining life at sea in the 19th century. Roam the upper decks and marvel at the 3 towering masts, then explore the crew quarters below deck. Adults, $16.

Insider tip: Also at the seaport, a “Ship to Shore” exhibit provides insight into what Galveston was like for immigrants arriving at one of the nation’s largest immigration ports in the late 1800s. 

You may also like: Why you should go gallivanting in Galveston, Texas

7. The world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool

Where: Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale

Overhead view of the pool at Balmorhea State Park.

Take a refreshing dip in the 1.3-acre, spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

In the eastern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, you’ll find the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Each day, San Solomon Springs feeds more than 15 million gallons of crystal-clear water into the 1.3-acre pool.

The water stays a nippy 72 to 76 degrees year-round, and swimmers share it with turtles and fish, including the small and endangered Comanche Springs pupfish, which you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The pool is up to 25 feet deep, so you’ll see scuba divers here, too.

Speaking of diving, a high dive delivers plenty of thrills for those who take the leap. The park restricts the number of swimmers each day, so book online in advance. Adults, $7.

Insider tip: Although the pool is open daily, the park’s campsites and lodge rooms are under renovation and aren’t currently available for overnight stays.

Cynthia J. Drake, an Austin-based travel writer, regularly contributes to AAA Explorer, Southern Living, and Texas Monthly.

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