Texas Travel

City Spotlight: Luling

By Chet Garner 3.27.23

The air in Luling has been thick with the smell of Texas’ black gold for 100 years. The little Central Texas town was founded in 1874 as a railroad town, but — like many Texas towns at the time — the population boomed in the 1920s with the discovery of oil. And a century later, the enormous pump jacks all over town are still working hard, day in and day out, to slowly suck from that rich reservoir of oil under Luling. But there’s something extra special about Luling’s pump jacks.

Pump jacks might not be rare sightings in this part of Texas, but the ones in Luling are unlike any you’ll see in the entire country. The residents of Luling have turned those industrial eyesores into works of art by decorating them with all kinds of characters and pictures. As the pump jacks nod up and down, their decorations are animated. One is a quarterback throwing a football, one is a cow jumping over the moon, and another is a butterfly with flapping wings — they’re wildly clever. You’ll need to take the self-guided pump jack tour to see ’em all.


Wild for Watermelons

My favorite pump jack by a mile is the one with a redheaded kid that’s chomping up and down on a giant watermelon. Not only is it hilarious to watch, but it perfectly captures the spirit and culture of Luling. They’re absolutely crazy about watermelons here. Most folks think a watermelon is a watermelon, but in Luling, that couldn’t be further from the truth. They grow around 20 varieties; some a little sweeter, some with a thicker rind, some seedless, you name it. Swing by the farmer’s market in town, and you’ll find a bunch of experts on the subject happy to share their knowledge — and their melons.

Although Luling isn’t the official watermelon capital of Texas (that’d be Hempstead), they’ve hosted an enormous watermelon festival every June since 1957, the Luling Watermelon Thump. (Ever “thump” a watermelon to see if it’s ripe? That’s where the name comes from.) The annual Thump has all the trappings of a sensational small-town festival: They host a melon-eating contest, a seed-spitting contest (solo and team), a prize watermelon auction, and even a coronation for that year’s Watermelon Queen. So, if there’s any better time for a trip to Luling, it’s during the Thump.


Best Eats in Town (Besides Watermelon)

It’s virtually impossible to visit Luling without eating watermelon, but you really can’t leave without getting some barbecue. I know I say this about many towns, but Luling seriously has some of the best barbecue in Texas.

The first spot will be in my top five until the day I die. It’s called City Market, and it’s the epitome of the Texas barbecue experience. It feels like a real butcher shop the way you order your meat straight off the pits. They only have three meats — brisket, sausage, and ribs — and they’ve been doing it all the same way for nearly 70 years. One of their trademarks is their sauce, which has kind of a sweet, tangy, citrusy flavor. And one of the most beautiful things about City Market is that no matter how long you spend inside, you’ll come out smelling like meat cologne for the rest of the day. I’m telling you, the place is phenomenal.

There’s another famous barbecue joint just across the street called Luling Bar-B-Q. It kind of bucks the Texas tradition in that they have several different types of meat, like turkey and chicken, in addition to the usual stuff. Luling Bar-B-Q has only been around since 1986, making it relatively young compared to some of the other joints in Texas, and they do things a little bit more contemporarily. It’s an awesome alternative to classic barbecue while still giving you a good patina.


Out and About in Luling

The San Marcos River flows just south of Luling’s Main Street, and at certain times of the year, the water turns into this beautiful blue-turquoise color. There are some great places to swim in, including an old wood sawmill called Zedler Mill, which sits on a dam along the river. There’s a sweet swimming hole across the bank, perfect for paddleboarding or picnicking alongside — perfect summer fun.

The San Marcos keeps flowing south to Palmetto State Park, which isn’t far from Luling. It’s a unique state park because it’s one of the only places in Central Texas where the saw palmetto leaf grows. And so, while you’re hiking through the trails of this palm-frond forest, it feels like you’re somewhere in Bali. It’s weird, but it makes for some one-of-a-kind hiking trails. There’s also a little lake in the park that’s great for swimming.

So, here’s my advice for a perfect daytrip: Grab a watermelon from the Luling farmer’s market, head down to Zedler Mill or Palmetto State Park, crack that watermelon open, and spend the day lounging in the river.

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