Bigger is better in this Texan city
Size definitely matters in Dallas, where everything from its arts district to its annual state fair ranks among the largest in the country
“Howdy, folks!” exclaims Big Tex, the giant 16-metre cowboy that has welcomed visitors like me to the annual State Fair of Texas for the past 65 years. Dressed in a Western shirt, jeans and the obligatory cowboy hat and boots, the statue has become the official mascot for the event as well as a cultural figure for both Dallas and Texas.
Surrounded by storeys-high carnival rides, stalls selling massive bacon-wrapped turkey legs, and in the shadow of the enormous Cotton Bowl Stadium, one could hardly ask for a more apt demonstration of the catchphrase associated with America’s largest state: “Everything’s bigger in Texas”.
True to form, since its establishment in 1886, it has become one of the largest state fairs in the US, welcoming some 2.2 million people in 2017. It’s also one of the longest, beginning on the last Friday of September and running for 24 consecutive days.
The State Fair alone is an event that makes Dallas worth visiting. The grounds are replete with all manner of classic American fairground foods, from corn dogs to fried cheese curds. Screams overhead indicate the delight – and terror – from carnival-goers contending with the centrifugal force of Gravitron and the punishing pendulum swing of Rock It. There are also plenty of sideshow attractions such as basketball free-throwing for those not looking to lose their dinner.
On the other side of the fairground is the Texas Auto Show – touted, of course, as one of the largest new car shows in the Southwest – with some 400 vehicles showcased to the public. Visitors can also head to the popular Chevrolet Ride and Drive to tear up the track in a Corvette or Camaro. For more family-friendly pursuits, the state’s rich heritage of livestock and agricultural farming is celebrated through educational seminars, shows, competitions and petting farms.
Live music is another cornerstone of the fair, with scheduled performances on the Chevrolet Main Stage from international performers such as Flo Rida and country music stars like Maren Morris. Nightly parades with colourful floats and live performers are also not to be missed, as are the fabulous firework displays.
But for visitors whose trip to Dallas doesn’t coincide with the three-and-a-half weeks that the fair is open, the city offers plenty of other attractions.
TOUR DE FORCE
Perhaps the quickest ways to get a condensed overview of Dallas is with a city tour. Dallas City Tour’s “Combo Tour” offers a comprehensive look into the city in an efficient 90-minute time frame. The tour takes in 65 sites including Pioneer Plaza, a public park featuring 49 life-size bronze statues of longhorn cattle and three trail riders to commemorate the 19th-century cattle drives along the Shawnee Trail.
The second half of the trip focuses on one of the most infamous moments in Dallas’s history – the 1963 assassination of US President John F Kennedy. The tour follows the route President Kennedy’s motorcade took through Downtown Dallas on the day of his assassination, before tracing the movements of the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the moments immediately after. Among the locations visited are the Texas School Book Depository on North Houston Street, from which Oswald fired the rifle that killed the President, to the rooming house in which he was staying, the interior of which the owner has maintained in the exact state that it was on November 22, 1963. While organised tours can sometimes feel too restrictive, the Kennedy segment was one of the most stimulating experiences I had in the city. The guides were highly knowledgeable regarding the events surrounding Kennedy’s assassination – even though I’m something of a history buff, there was plenty that I took away from the tour – and the accompanying video clips from events before, during and after the assassination shown on board the bus provide a comprehensive contextual overview.
The quickest way to get an overview of Dallas is with Dallas City Tour’s “Combo Tour”
Travellers preferring to go it alone, however, can make use of a number of initiatives and services designed to make exploring Dallas more accessible. Key among these is the Dallas City Pass, which provides admission to four of the city’s most popular attractions: the Perot Museum of Nature and Science; Reunion Tower Geo-Deck; a choice between The Sixth Floor Museum or Dallas Zoo; and either the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum or the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. The City Pass costs US$48 per person (US$32 for children) and is valid for nine consecutive days after the first use.
A number of these tourist landmarks are located along the route taken by The McKinney Avenue Trolley, also known as the M-line Trolley, an overground tram system operated by vintage vehicles. Thanks to plenty of funding for the non-profit McKinney Avenue Transit Authority, the trams are completely free to use and run every day of the year. They operate on a loop that runs through McKinney Avenue in Uptown, with close to 50 stops to hop on and off, and pass a number of hotels in the area including The Ritz-Carlton, the Fairmont and the Sheraton. Travellers can also opt for the more comprehensive – but less scenic – Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) subway system that covers many of the city’s major neighbourhoods.
Texas is home to some of the US’s most popular and familiar cuisines, from barbecue to Tex-Mex, and with some 12,000 restaurants Dallas is one of the best places to gorge on authentic Texan food.
Located just a short distance east of Downtown, the neighbourhood Deep Ellum is known for both its live music and its culinary offerings. One of its most prominent residents is barbecue joint Pecan Lodge (pecanlodge.com) on Main Street, which has won numerous awards since it opened in 2010. The restaurant describes its cuisine as “just like homemade but with slightly less cursing”. Expect to find ribs, macaroni and cheese, and Southern-fried chicken.
Lockhart Smokehouse (lockhartsmokehouse.com) is another popular option for barbecue located in the Bishop Arts District southwest of Downtown. Meat here is generally ordered by the half-pound, and if you’re not sure what you fancy you can ask for a small slice as a taster. Meanwhile,
if you’re on the lookout for some top-notch steak, head to Nick and Sam’s (nick-sams.com) on Maple Avenue in Uptown, whose 16oz rib-eye will go down as one of the best steaks I’ve ever tried.
For Tex-Mex lovers, Mi Cocina (micocinarestaurants.com) offers a slightly more upscale take – it also has multiple locations around Dallas. Meanwhile, Meso Maya (mesomaya.com) on McKinney Avenue serves delicious, authentic dishes and is an ideal spot to grab a bite for visitors exploring the city using the M-Line Trolley.
ARTS AND ACTION
Another advantage of the M-line Trolley is that it goes directly through one of the city’s primary cultural hubs, the Dallas Arts District in Downtown – which claims to be the largest contiguous arts district in the US. The area is indeed impressive – it spans close to 28 hectares and 19 neighbouring blocks – and comprises, among many other buildings, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Dallas Museum of Art. The museum alone contains more than 22,000 artworks from across the globe – some stretching as far back as 5,000 years – and is one of the largest art museums in the US.
If you prefer your art to be of the physical variety, sports fans would be remiss if they didn’t attempt to catch a game while in town. The American Airlines Center, located close to the centre of Dallas in Victory Park, is home to the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Dallas Stars ice hockey team. For those feeling a bit more adventurous, the AT&T Stadium located midway between Dallas and Fort Worth in Arlington is the home of the Dallas Cowboys American football team.
Both stadiums regularly host concerts and other performances, along with tours that allow visitors to go behind the scenes. The massive AT&T stadium in particular is worth exploring: not only was the suspended HDTV display named the world’s largest by Guinness World Records in 2009, but the venue is also one of the largest National Football League (NFL) stadiums in the US. Reaching 98 metres from the pitch to the closing point of the retractable roof, the AT&T Stadium is reportedly able to fit the entirety of the Statue of Liberty within its grounds. As they say, everything is bigger in Texas…
The M-line Trolley goes right through one of the city’s primary cultural hubs, the Dallas Arts District
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT PAGE: Dallas night view; the Arts District; and the M-line Trolley
FROM TOP: American Airlines Control Center; and the Dallas Museum of Art