A smear of orange and yellow spreads across a gray-blue evening sky as the sun begins its slow descent over Round Top. Surveying the picture-perfect display over a small pond and his expansive yard, a local utters what’s become a familiar chorus around these parts.
“Yeah, Round Top is the new Jackson Hole.”
His declaration to us isn’t far off. But how did a quaint Texas town 90 minutes from Houston — with an official population that averages between 93 and 99 — become analogous to the celebrity-packed city in Wyoming?
Credit — or blame (if you’re a Round Top native) — the wildly popular Round Top Antiques Show, which draws hundreds of thousands from across the globe twice a year and is known in shopping circles as one of the top antique events around.
While generations of locals in usually sleepy Round Top have built their livelihoods around the shows, smart Texans have started snatching up property so quickly that million-dollar bidding wars are now common. What for decades was a road trip for charming old trinkets and darn-good pie is now a Texas luxury hub.
But when the crowds depart, the old German town gets back to its Lone Star State roots of rustic charm, classic attractions, and colorful characters, perfect for a day trip or weekend stay. New retail, sundry shops, restaurants, (breakfast can still be a dicey affair), and a microbrewery make Round Top a year-long choice for those needing an escape from traffic, high-rises, and clamor.
Houstonians are sure to recognize some familiar faces who have set up shop, from hip hotels and restaurants to a cheery, donkey-themed art house. (Houston travel tip: Any playlist from Bayou City native Lyle Lovett makes for a perfect Houston-to-Round Top soundtrack.)
Now, Round Top is welcoming visitors — and shoppers, of course — for Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and lazy weekends. Those escaping Houston’s freeze this week can catch “A Classic Round Top Christmas” at Round Top’s Town Square (100 Main St.). From 11 am to 1 pm on Friday, December 23, families can gather at the town square gazebo for photos with the Grinch and some favorite characters.
Thanks to the swarms of antiques show visitors, Round Top has no shortage of lodging, including charming bed and breakfasts, boutique hotels, cabins and cottages, and even sporting clubs and ranches such as the sprawling Big Easy Ranch. Those in search of hotels will find some notable Houstonians are ready to host, including Armando and Cynda Palacios (Hotel Lulu), Lee Ellis (The Ellis Motel), and Pete Bell (The Cotton Pearl Motel, set to open January 1, 2023 and, accepting bookings now, is sure to be a hit with its pool and courtyard).
Much of the lodging here is a study in preservation and adaptive reuse, with many home to buildings dating back to the late 1800s and Round Top’s founding. The Round Top Inn is literally a piece of Texas history, its compound home to the only surviving building that harks back to Texas’ cigar-making days. The white, circular hot tub and square pool at The Frenchie have become Insta-famous, with hundreds posting pics while lounging in the water while sipping wine. Three individual houses, one dating back to the 1890s, make up the Round Top Motel, conveniently situated in downtown just across from Rummel Square.
Expect rustic chic in many hotels, such as The Vintage Round Top, which marries modern sensibilities with classic vintage flair (its Boho cottage is internationally acclaimed and has landed on many best-of lists). It’s quite hard to miss the Red Antler Bungalows while entering the town, the modern complex of black bungalows accented by unmistakable red-antlered mounts (which hark to Scandinavian rustic design) constantly spur a “what is that?” from travelers.
For a little Houston in Round Top, CultureMap visited the luxe Hotel Lulu, namely to pay tribute to River Oaks restaurant host extraordinaire Armando Palacios and his charismatic wife Cynda. Legendary in Houston for his eponymous see-and-be-seen eatery (where often, anything goes), Palacios bet on Round Top decades ago. A project by the Palacios Murphy Hospitality Group, Hotel Lulu (a nod to his impossibly charming wife’s family nickname) follows the Round Top trend of bungalows/casitas on a compound, with a central courtyard and pool. Nestled just outside the bustling Henkel Square, it’s become a go-to for urbane visitors who stay for the scenic vistas (we fell in love with the neighboring barn characters, namely a donkey, bull, and some swift llamas), and Lulu’s the red-hot restaurant helmed by executive chef Jose Monterrosa, the Italian-focused sister restaurant to the Houston locale. (Given the tony crowd that favorites Armando’s, the scene at Hotel Lulu and Lulu’s is cosmopolitan, with patrons decked out in vacation chic.) The picturesque ll Cuculo bar is a must-visit: the main bar is striking with its deep wood and blue accents, while a curtained seating area — vibrant and velvet-adorned — area sports plush seating with swoon-worthy upholstery. In a city full of Instagrammable scenes, this elegant spot is photo-shoot ready.
Pasta dishes at Lulu’s are wildly popular, especially the carbonara, a perfectly cooked egg with a healthy, orange yolk centering the dish. Caviar is a good starter, and the bread service, directed by Houston baking whiz Sasha Graumann, is so divine it could potentially be a meal paired with fresh butter and a full-bodied red wine. Grilled branzino and a beefy tenderloin make excellent choices for proteins, while tiramisu and gelato are sweet finishes. Brunch features many lunch and dinner items, we loved the country-table-themed Uova in Purgatoria, where a farm-fresh fried egg sits in a bed of delicious red sugo sauce. Carnivores can power up with the steak and eggs, adorned with a chimichurri sauce, and all go well with bloody marys, mimosas, and fresh bellinis. The downstairs dining room, chiseled in central Texas rock, is worth a peek.
Hotel visitors can plan for family stays in the two-bedroom Grandiosa suite that offers a large outdoor deck overlooking the garden. Grande suites feature a king bed and a “napping” smaller bed, while each Classica suite is centered by a tall, canopied bed that’s nearly impossible to leave. Couples will love the romantic Amantic suite, overlooking the garden, with its soaking tub and porch.
While a massage, yoga, and dip in the pool is always recommended, we recommend swaying away on the porch swing. Staff here (managed by the welcoming manager Cara) craft house-made cocktails and serve up bottles of wine perfect for porch sipping and taking in the lush trees, nearby lake, and of course, the friendly donkey and llamas next door. So rich is the country charm, we lost track of valuable shopping time.