90 minutes to bliss
Round Top charms visitors with can't-miss shopping, rustic-chic hotels, and quaint holiday escapes
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 — aside from an antiquing paradise.
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 Cinda Palacios (Hotel Lulu) and Pete Bell (his 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.
Euro-inspired and striking, the white, circular hot tub and square pool at The Frenchie have become Insta-famous, with hundreds posting pics while lounging in the water and 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 (which hark to Scandinavian rustic design) accented by unmistakable, signature red-antlered mounts 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 Houston restaurateur/host extraordinaire Armando Palacios and his wife Cinda. Legendary in Houston for his eponymous see-and-be-seen eatery in River Oaks (where often, anything goes), Palacios bet on Round Top decades ago. A new project by the Palacios Murphy Hospitality Group, Hotel Lulu (the name 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, Hotel Lulu has become a go-to for urbane visitors who stay for the scenic vistas (we fell in love with the neighboring barn characters, namely a charming donkey, bull, and some alpacas), and Lulu’s, the red-hot restaurant helmed by executive chef Jose Monterrosa, the Italian-focused sister restaurant to the Houston locale. (Reflecting the tony crowd that favorites Armando’s, the scene at Hotel Lulu and Lulu’s is cosmopolitan, with patrons decked out in vacation chic.)
Pasta dishes at Lulu’s are wildly popular, especially the carbonara, a perfectly cooked fried egg with a healthy, orange yolk centering the dish. Caviar is a good starter, and the bread service 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; all go well with bloody marys, mimosas, and fresh bellinis. We ended brunch with an irresistible combo of gelato and bombolini, Italian doughnuts with crème anglaise.
Lulu’s downstairs dining room, chiseled in central Texas rock, is also worth a peek, as it's a favorite for private parties.
For a refined sip, the picturesque ll Cuculo bar is a must-visit for pre or post-dinner cocktails, after a day out, or a romantic date night. The main bar is striking with its deep wood and blue accents, while a curtained seating area — vibrant and velvet-adorned — sports plush seating with swoon-worthy upholstery. In a city full of Instagrammable scenes, this elegant spot is photo-shoot ready.
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 Amanti suite, overlooking the garden, with its soaking tub and porch.
While a massage, yoga, and dip in the pool is always recommended, we loved 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 alpacas next door. So rich is the country charm, we lost track of valuable shopping time.
But shop we must, and thankfully Henkel Square Market (201 N. Live Oak) is seconds away. The bustling square, with greens and a fountain, is a go-to center to find jewelry, clothing, and home decor. One could spend hours at Southern Beasts, where the clever Mary Lou Marks (who chats up visitors and recognizes shoppers from months and years prior) crafts whimsical animals out of vivid upholstery. We scooped up vintage headbands and bracelets and lusted over the vintage cowboy hats and gear and one-of-a-kind paintings. Upstairs, the clever folks at Starr’z hunt all over for retro mid-century modern furnishings jewelry, handbags, decorative pieces.
Next door is the exotic Sapana Dreams, (translated to “dream” in Nepali), where owner Jolie Helms curates and imports outerwear, vests, quilts, totes, and more from India and Nepal — all while empowering the impoverished crafters in those countries. A familiar Houston retail name, Helms is passionate about educating shoppers about the plight of those who create the goods for her first solo store — all while customers leave with some serious statement pieces.
A quick jaunt leads to our favorite Round Top art store, Humble Donkey Studio, a crafty playground founded by John Lowery, a former Houston marketing CEO who has turned his passion for Texan and animal-themed art into a two-story mecca of charm. Lowery celebrates in-store sales of his large paintings (in demand across the country) with wine, cowbell ringing, and the declaration that “a donkey got its wings.” We grabbed hats, small works, and even a Texas-themed doormat from the exclusive Lower40 collection.
Fashionistas should stop by stylish Houstonian/Round Top resident Marla Hurley’s chic boutique Modernmarla, where serious shoppers can grab luxe-label shoes, accessories, clothes, and more. (Be sure to score a cheeky “Kiss My Fancy Texas A*s” T-shirt for a Lone Star look that’s totally extra.)
Near ModernMarla, The Ellis Motel, the brainchild of former Houstonian Lee Ellis of Cherry Pie Hospitality, offers a little rock star Round Top vibe. Ellis calls his bar/hangout a “lounge and emporium,” one replete with a buffalo head and motorcycles. True to his culinary roots, Ellis owns the next-door Round Top Smokehouse, which quickly sells out of brisket, ribs, sausage, and more smoked fare.
A quick stroll to Royers Pie Haven is rewarded with some of the best pie in the state (note: try the Texas Trash pie). More bites can be found at Mandito’s (“little Armandos”) a Palacios-owned Tex-Mex cantina, and the fast-casual Popi Burger, which sits in the original Round Top General Store building and serves burgers, brews, coffee, salad, and breakfast. Beers on the deck are a must at Round Top Brewing, which also offers live music and chef-driven bites.
Last-minute holiday gifts and just-for-me items can be found at year-round shopping destinations such as Round Top Ranch Antiques and Round Top Vintage Market. Grab trinkets at Second Market and Company, Mallory et Cie, or Schmidt Jewelry & Gifts.
Take a stroll in the charming town square, where holiday music is piped through nightly and holiday ornamentation decks the halls. For some added holiday vibes, pay a visit to the world's smallest Catholic church.
Ringing in the new year? Indulge at wineries such as Busted Oak Cellars, Blissful Folly Farms, and Blue Mule Winery for a vino-fueled start to 2023.