Founded as the first nonmissionary, nonmilitary Spanish settlement in North America in 1755, Laredo (pop. 236,091) is surrounded by some of the oldest ranch lands in the United States. With a population that is about 90 percent Hispanic, the city is growing rapidly (more than doubling in the past 20 years) due to its position as the largest international trade center along the U.S.-Mexico border. The I-35 corridor feels as anonymous and fast-paced as anywhere in the United States, but the center of town still holds on to its historic personality.

At the heart of downtown Laredo, a block north of the Rio Grande, is the San Agustín de Laredo Historic District, site of the original 1755 Spanish settlement of Villa de San Agustín. Numerous historic buildings surround the plaza, including a small stone building next to La Posada Hotel that served as the capitol of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande. It now houses a museum (956/727-0977, Tues.-Sat., $2) containing a collection of memorabilia from the separatist movement of 1840.

Built as a high school in 1917, the place to stay to soak up Laredo’s substantial if faded character is the plaza’s stately La Posada Hotel (956/722-1701, $109 and up), which is also home to the Zaragoza Grill and a more expensive Latin American restaurant, the Tack Room.