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Johnson City: Popular Hill Country Destination with Small Town Charm

December 15, 2023 Texas, Texas History, Member Spotlight

Johnson City has long been known as the birthplace of 36th U.S. president Lyndon Johnson and the gateway to the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail on Highway 290, but this small-town charmer has been gaining popularity as its own destination for visitors and retirees.

Despite a population of just over 2,000 and less than two square miles, Johnson City has enough to see, eat, drink, and do for weekend getaways and more.

The headlines in just the past year tell the tale of Johnson City’s rise with the Houston Chronicle in November 2023 writing: Why Johnson City in Texas Hill Country is the New, Cooler Fredericksburg.

Others agree.

“Just an hour west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country is Johnson City, Texas, known as the hometown of President Lyndon Johnson,” says Southern Living. “Of course, the small town is steeped in history, but stay for a bit and you'll find yourself in awe over the area's natural beauty, impressive wineries, and wide open spaces. Here, it's easy to escape the big-city crowds and find a bit of solitude mixed in with a good dose of local charm.”

Some visitors are choosing to stay and make Johnson City home with Yahoo! Finance reporting that the area is among the safest places to retire in Texas.

"The area is also renowned for wineries, shopping, and outdoor recreation. The natural beauty and safety make Johnson City ideal for retirees," says the report.

Some are not even making it to the wineries on 290 with a growing list of places to visit between Dripping Springs and Johnson City.

“Sure, we all love Fredericksburg, but in the last couple of years, a lesser-known stretch of the Texas Hill Country has flourished. The 25 miles between Johnson City and Dripping Springs offer dozens of wineries, not to mention craft breweries and distilleries, chef-driven restaurants, and endless green grass dotted with hay bales and bluebonnets. For the hikers and bikers, you’ll be a stone’s throw from Pedernales State Park, and for the city lovers, these towns sit smack in between Austin and San Antonio,” gushes the publication Paper City.

For those who visit this month, will be treated to the Johnson City free Christmas/Holiday Lights display with more than two million Christmas lights in the historic square off Main Street, Memorial Park, the PEC headquarters, and just about every business in town.

Johnson City is Named for a Relative of LBJ

It’s not just a coincidence that LBJ was born and raised in a town called Johnson City because the town was founded and named for 19th-century relatives of his family.

“It’s easy to make the assumption that Johnson City changed its name after its hometown boy became famous; however, that isn’t the case. It has always been Johnson City. Founded in the mid-1870s by settler James Polk Johnson, who favored its location near the Pedernales River, the village was named in his honor in 1879,” explains Back Roads Texas. “So, if you thought it was named after LBJ, well, you aren’t entirely incorrect; right family, wrong generation. The future president was a direct descendant of James P. Johnson (he was LBJ’s father’s cousin).”

Despite becoming the Blanco County seat in 1890, the town grew slowly, not gaining modern utilities until the 1930s.

It helped that one of its small-town boys was growing into one of the most powerful politicians in the country.

“After Johnson became a United States senator and began his climb to the presidency, telephone service rapidly progressed from the old magnetic box phones to dial service and then to worldwide service. In addition, when he returned from the White House, Johnson made the United States a gift of his lands, now the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historical Park,” says the Texas State Historical Association. “Johnson City, for many years mainly a ranch trade center, had a steady tourist business from its origins.”

Even with its claim to the birthplace of a U.S. president, Johnson City boasted less than 1,000 residents in 1990 and has seen its population more than double in the last 35 years.

Weekend To Do List in Johnson City

There is now enough to do in Johnson City to fill a month of weekends, but here is a list to get you started on your next getaway to Hill Country:

  • Science Mill: This hands-on family-friendly destination features cutting-edge technology-based exhibits, games, and programs. The Science Mill is housed in a community landmark – a feed mill built in 1880.

    Says Southern Living: “The Science Mill helps children understand the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) while inspiring curiosity. Exhibits include a fractalarium, a beautiful mesh of science and art; Deep Sea Robotics, which teaches about oceanic drones and their importance in reaching unexplored depths; Masters of Disguise, which teaches about animal camouflage with live animals; the Paludarium, with crabs, fish, and an entire swampy ecosystem; and Jurassic Flight, a virtual reality experience that takes you back to prehistoric times.”
  • Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park: You can gain a complete understanding of the life and times of President Johnson with this national park that features a visitor center, his boyhood home (where he lived from age 5 through high school graduation), the LBJ Ranch (known as the Texas White House) and the Johnson Settlement. Southern Living says the Johnsons donated the Texas White House to the National Park Service in 1972 and Lady Bird continued to live here until she died in 2007.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site: This 700-acre site is directly across the Pedernales River from the LBJ Ranch. There is a living history farm to visit along with walking trails with a chance to spot bison, longhorns, wildflowers, creeks, and historic cabins.
  • Pedernales Falls State Park: Enjoy the rugged beauty of this popular state park that features camping, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, and more.
  • Go Shopping: Visit the shops all along and just off the main street in Johnson City and don’t miss the Old Annex Market which has 20+ local vendor booths.
  • Wine Tasting: You do not have to leave Johnson City to go wine tasting as the town is host to a growing number of small tasting rooms. Some of the favorites are Alex Anthony Vineyards on North Nugent Ave. where the host serves up great food, drink, and heartfelt conversation, and Crowson on Ave. G, another small winery that welcomes visitors with a cozy tasting room (try their adjacent sandwich place next door - Picnic-D)
  •        Enjoy a Meal: Johnson City has a lot of good options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try these spots on your visit --
    • Pecan Street Brewing: Comfort food, live entertainment, award-winning beers, and a pet-friendly biergarten just across the street from the historic courthouse.

    • Bryan’s on 290: Cozy Texas Hill Country dining by chef Bryan Gillenwater that features popular wine pairing dinners.

    • Johnson City Coffee Co.: Serving locally roasted coffee and features a farmers market on Saturday as well as a food truck park including the Cast Iron Punk (breakfast tacos, French toast), Herencia Cuisine (grilled filet mignon, hibachi salmon, garlic rosemary chicken), and Hot Mess Pizza & Grill (calzones, wings, fries, pizza).

    • Lady Bird Lane Café: Open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday with flatbreads, sandwiches, and wraps.

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