The town of Marfa has been quirky from its inception. Originally a water stop on a rail line, the town was named after a character from a Jules Verne novel. It was booming between the 1920s and the late 1940s... Western movies were filming nearby, an Army airfield was training pilots for WWII, and things were looking up. Then, the air base closed in 1945, and the town began to shrink. Its remote location in the Chihuahuan Desert made it an oasis in a landscape that few dared to brave in the first place. But Marfa carried on.
In 1971, minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa from Texas, drawn in by the striking and stark landscape. He began buying old buildings and land to display art in permanent collections on a large scale. Judd died in 1994, but foundations have carried on his legacy... heck, the whole town works to continue his mission of promoting art in a setting that allows visitors to get full context for the work. As you tour the town, you'll start to understand. Marfa is the capital of quirk, making it a popular destination for those in search of inspiration. Here's a guide to Marfa, and Texas's artsy, offbeat side.
The most important force driving Marfa's art scene? The prestigious Chinati Foundation. It's actually located on the formerly abandoned military fort and was started by Judd. It now covers multiple buildings and lots of outdoor space, allowing each featured artist lots of space for their work. Many describe walking among the (at times) massive sculptures otherworldly, and almost spiritual. Either way, it's certainly a memorable experience. Every day at 4:30, the foundation offers tours of The Block, a massive complex of buildings, including airplane hangars, that Judd acquired and filled with art. It's right in the middle of town, and covers (naturally) a full city block. A tour will help you navigate the buildings and add even more context to the pieces. You even get to see the former residence of Judd.
The most famous art installation in Marfa is actually a bit outside of town, on a little-traveled stretch of highway: Prada Marfa. It's a fully-stocked Prada store in the middle of nowhere (totally locked and sealed to prevent people from breaking in and stealing the goods, of course). It cost a whopping $80,000 to build, and was meant to decay naturally (symbolism and all) as time passed. Funnily enough, the reason it's sealed so tightly is because vandals did break in... six days after the piece was installed.
Prada gave permission to use their logo on the "store", which actually almost got the installation in trouble. The Texas Department of Transportation deemed it an illegal "billboard" on the highway... but thankfully, the people of Marfa had it declared a "museum" with Prada Marfa as its only exhibit. Visit, see how visitors interact with it, snap a photo, and ponder the meaninglessness of material goods in the grand scheme of things.
The shops and restaurants in Marfa are just as artsy and quirky. Wrong Store is a kitschy little boutique that sells all kinds of artsy little goods. If you're a newcomer to Marfa, come here to grab a souvenir to remember your trip, and to talk to the owners for suggestions and recommendations for making the most of your visit.
Since you're in Texas, you should take the chance to visit a beer garden, a Lone Star tradition. Of course, this town's beer garden, Planet Marfa, is a little weirder than average. Grab a beer and find a place to sit back and relax... they have a giant tepee, a school bus, spiral staircases leading to upstairs nooks and crannies, fire pits tucked into corners, and more. Ping pong, live music, darts, a dance floor and a great crowd mean you'll have a different experience any given night. As far as drinks, they only have beer, and their food selection is about as limited (the nachos are no-frills and totally perfect), but it's the best place to spend a weekend night in Marfa.
Another spot where you can immerse yourself in the art scene of town? The Marfa Book Company. Their offerings are mostly art books, especially focused on minimalism, volumes of poetry, and the like, although they have a great YA section and some other bookstore-esque knick-knacks and gifts. There's a second room in the small shop which is part art gallery, part reading room. They also host lots of events, from movie screenings to musical performances (think, rapping cowboys) that can be BYOB. They're attached to the awesome St. George Hotel, which is worth peeking at (if you're not staying there, of course).
Ballroom Marfa is more than just a gallery that hosts art exhibitions and performances... they're an organization that works tirelessly to keep the arts scene in Marfa moving (they're partially responsible for Prada Marfa, actually.) The building displays innovative and provoking exhibits, and many of the sculptures and events across town are somehow funded or put on by Ballroom. Stop by, become a member, make a donation, and support the incredible things they're doing in Marfa.
Marfa is known for more than just its insane art scene... it's also the site of an ancient unsolved mystery: the Marfa Lights. Reports of strange and colorful balls of light floating in the air have been circulating for awhile, and so many have come in search of them that a viewing platform was built just off Highway 90. Some dismiss the phenomenon as car headlights, although rumors of the mysterious lights allegedly date back to the 19th century. Either way, it's something you have to see and decide for yourself. Plus, even if you don't see any lights, the view of the stars here is incredible. For your best shot at seeing something, stop by after 1 AM, ideally on a weekend, when things are a little quieter.
For accommodations that are just as quirky as Marfa itself, glamp out at El Cosmico. The campground has trailers, tents, tepees and yurts that are very cozy and well-appointed, and they have a hammock grove, wood-fired hot tubs for rent, outdoor showers, a communal kitchen, and bikes available. Even considering all of that awesomeness, the coolest thing about this spot is the sense of community... happy hours, camp cooking classes, live music, and their annual Trans-Pecos festival get you mingling with travelers from all over.
One of the most interesting parts of Marfa's history actually ties back into art as well. The Army base that was once at Marfa was used to house German POWs during WWII. Most were captured by Patton in North Africa, and Patton himself spent time here (drinking in the officer's club, no doubt.) Two of the German POWs painted massive murals in the dining room and library, depicting the West Texas landscape. One of the Germans actually went on to become a writer and illustrator of children's books. The space is also used to house modern-day art exhibits as well.
If you're looking for accommodations that are a little homier than a tepee, there are some really cool boutique hotels in Marfa as well, like the Thunderbird Hotel. It nails the "Brooklyn-meets-West-Texas" vibe to a tee-- cowhide rugs, rustic and locally-designed custom furnishings, rental typewriters and turntables, handcrafted textile blankets and all. There's a sweet pool, an outdoor fireplace, and a killer onsite bar/restaurant called The Capri to top it all off. Plus, since it's actually in a refurbished 1950s motor lodge, you know its the real deal.
Food Shark is a local favorite for lunch in town. They serve Mediterranean fare like falafel, hummus, and chicken wraps (and the occasional taco special) out of a refurbished old food truck. The joint is BYOB and offers Donald Judd-inspired picnic tables under a shelter where you can enjoy your grub... or sit in the converted school bus if you can snag a spot in there!
Also, they're slowly starting to operate the house behind the truck as a dinner place/bar called New Foodsharkland. Think, breakfast-for-dinner theme nights and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches served on TV dinner trays.
In addition to the Chinati Foundation and The Block, you can also take the Studio Tour, which gets you inside Donald Judd's architecture studio, art studio, and two houses that contain his earlier works from the 1950s and 1960s. You'll also see some furniture he made. It's a more personal look at the artist himself, and you can see the influence Marfa had on him and his work. He also collected pieces by other influential 20th century artists, and it's all on display. This tour is only offered on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, so plan accordingly.
End your trip through Marfa with the most meta art installation of them all: Target Marathon. It's a more... punk take on/parody of Prada Marfa. Recently, there's been buzz that Marathon, Texas might be the new Marfa, and it only makes sense that they should have their own art installation that takes on consumerism... or Marathon's lack thereof (Marathon currently doesn't have a real Target).
There's no bad time to visit Marfa. It does get chilly in the winter, especially at night, but you can still comfortably explore. Summer brings occasional afternoon rainstorms, which are sometimes welcome as they cool down the desert heat, but spring and fall are also great times to explore as well, especially if you want to combine a trip to Marfa with a visit to nearby Big Bend National Park.