|Magnolia red Pegasus, the unofficial symbol of the city|
Nine months of exploration later, I feel like I’m ready to share with y’all what I think the best things to see, eat, and do are in Dallas…along with a liberal sprinkling of history and cool architecture (as if you could expect anything else from me!).
Getting to know that classic Dallas skylineLet’s dispel with some stereotypes about Dallas. It was never a city of cowboys—Fort Worth to the west was always Cowtown, a major hub for cattle drives and the ranching industry. And while fossil fuels play an important role in the local economy, Houston was and still is Texas’ major oil boom town.
Instead, Dallas grew into the city of commerce due to its strategic location at the intersection of the north-south Houston & Texas Central Railway and the east-west Texas & Pacific Railway. Cotton, oil, and manufacturing promoted the growth of banking and finance…and the city’s skyline. But deregulation encouraged reckless activities, and everything came crashing down in the Savings & Loan Crisis of the 1980s. Multiple plans for twin towers were canceled and the skyline stayed mostly the same until only very recently.
|Downtown seen from the Reunion Tower|
The Bank of America tower stands as the tallest building in Dallas and the third tallest in Texas. Its stair-stepped exterior deconstructs your typical six-sided box, creating a canvas for some mesmerizing LED lighting that runs along the edges. A true Dallas icon!
Although it’s not as visually interesting as Bank of America Plaza, you can still tell this skyscraper apart by looking for the two stacked Xs that emerge from the windows as well as the small fortress of white communications towers on top.
Famous architect Philip Johnson left his mark on several structures in Dallas during a career that spanned eight decades, but the Comerica skyscraper was his greatest postmodern commission in the city. Here, two barrel-vaulted shapes intersect in a cross and get gradually narrower via several setbacks the higher you go.
The Chase Tower stands out for its unmistakable “keyhole,” a six-story opening near the top of the skyscraper beneath which you can find the romantically-named Sky Lobby. This free 40th-floor observation deck is open from 9am to 5pm on business days only, so talk to the security officer at the ground floor lobby to be let in.
My personal favorite on this list, I always called this skyscraper the “Space Shuttle Building” growing up; after all, its slanted, diagonal walls do bear a striking resemblance to a rocket ship. From a distance, this building’s handsome teal glass windows will really catch your eye, but at street level the skyscraper lives up to its name, as it’s surrounded on all sides by water fountains and shade trees.
The most recognizable landmark in the city, the Reunion Tower is where you want to go for those postcard-perfect views. What looks like a giant microphone is actually a orb-shaped observation deck and two fancy revolving restaurants. I recommend showing up right before sunset to catch the city at the Golden Hour.
Further to the north, the Margaret McDermott Bridge ferries I-30 across the Trinity, and when completed will sport four broad parallel arches.
|Sky Lobby in Chase Tower|
That being said, if you’ve ever entertained a conspiracy theory before, you’ll find plenty to make history come alive for you in Dallas.
First things first: The Sixth Floor Museum (411 Elm Street). An essential stop for any visitor to Dallas, this museum details the events and controversy surrounding that tragic day. While strolling through the informative exhibits on the converted sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository (where Oswald shot the president from), you’ll deeply feel the grief the nation went through when it lost such a beloved president.
One of my earliest memories of Dallas is driving through Dealey Plaza as a kid with my parents and them telling me to look for the white X on the pavement, marking the spot where the president was shot. Still a busy thoroughfare today, it’s a tangible reminder that History Happened Here. The Grassy Knoll is right nearby, too.
|The Old Red Courthouse, a couple blocks away from Dealey Plaza|
After the deed was done, Oswald crossed the Trinity River and fled south into Oak Cliff. The police apprehended him at Texas Theatre, which has since been restored and now screens films and puts on live shows. Two days after the assassination, Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby took the law into his own hands, shooting and killing Oswald at the Municipal Building, the then-city hall on the east side of downtown.
This tumultuous period of history only added to the deeply-conservative city’s negative reputation, branding Dallas as “The City of Hate.” Dallas would only shake off this epithet decades later, when the popular soap opera Dallas aired in the ‘80s and the Cowboys became “America’s Team” in the ‘90s.
Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe (2215 Ross Ave)
Dallas has more than its fair share of beautiful, late-19th-century historic churches to choose from for this list, but the most beautiful of them all is, hands-down, the city’s Catholic cathedral, a striking Gothic Revival combination of deep red brick and white stone trim. In the ‘70s, the cathedral absorbed a nearby Hispanic parish and was rededicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe; it continues having services in English and Spanish today.
This entry isn’t merely a single building but rather a sprawling, 277-acre city park with a dozen or so Art Deco monuments, the largest such concentration in the world. Constructed for the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration, the sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-grand exposition halls bear larger-than-life murals depicting Texas history and culminate in the Hall of State. As the park serves as the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas, it’s absolutely mobbed in October but deserted for the other 11 months of the year.
Magnolia Hotel (1401 Commerce Street)
Built as the corporate headquarters for the Magnolia Petroleum Company in 1921, this three-winged skyscraper was crowned with a rotating sculpture of the oil company’s trademark red Pegasus, illuminated by stunning red neon lights at night. This same red Pegasus would become Mobil Oil’s logo when they bought out Magnolia in 1959. A non-rotating replica replaced the neon Pegasus in 2000, but the restored original rotates once again in front of the flashy Omni Hotel near City Hall.
The sole remaining theater from Dallas’ once-bustling “Theater Row” downtown, the Majestic initially hosted vaudeville acts in the ‘20s before showing films exclusively until it closed in 1973. Fortunately it was spared the wrecking ball that doomed its neighbors, and after a thorough restoration of its sumptuous, gold-leaf-ed interior, it reopened for live performances in 1983.
Mercantile National Bank Building (1800 Main Street)
Once a plain white office building, “the Merc” now houses luxury apartments, one of many options in the booming downtown residential market. Look for the Merc after dark, when its striking Art Deco clock spire lights up in red, white, and green.
Neiman Marcus Building (1618 Main Street)
Yes, that Neiman Marcus. The upscale department store still keeps its headquarters and flagship store downtown, the last remnant of what was once Dallas’s main shopping district before its competitors fled to malls in the suburbs. This Roaring Twenties-era store hearkens back to an age when window-shopping was done while walking outdoors on sidewalks in between errands.
Texas’ 254 counties have a strong tradition of grandiose county courthouses, and Dallas is no exception. Dating to 1892, this red sandstone courthouse was designed in the Romanesque Revival style, so it resembles a medieval castle, complete with turrets and defensive walls. Although county operations outgrew the building in the ‘60s—moving to nearby office blocks—the building was restored to its original condition and today hosts weddings and other special events.
A warm Beaux-Arts anomaly in a sea of cool blue skyscrapers, the Wilson Building survives from 1904, when it was one of the most upscale department stores. Today it’s been converted into upscale apartments…basically my dream place to live.
For the museum junkies
|The Wilson Building|
Tucked away in a corner of Fair Park, the African-American Museum offers exhibits that visitors of all races will find interesting. There’s an extensive folk art collection to check out, but I found the wing on the history of segregation in Dallas really instructive, especially for a white guy who grew up in suburbs to the north of Dallas.
Situated in front of big-time real estate developer Trammell Crow’s corporate headquarters, the Crow Collection formed from Crow and his wife Margaret’s personal collection of Asian art that they had accumulated over years of travel to East Asia. There’s some really exquisite pieces here, including unique purple jade from China, and it’s all free to the public.
One of my personal favorite corners of the city, the arboretum occupies a lush swath of land in East Dallas abutting White Rock Lake. A small army of pumpkins and squash invades the gardens in the fall, while hundreds of thousands of tulips and other spring flowers totally transform the arboretum during the Dallas Blooms event. Try not to photo-bomb all the folks getting photographed here for their quiceañeras and bridals!
|The chapel at Thanks-Giving Square|
Founded by 125 DFW-area survivors of the Holocaust almost 40 years after the end of World War II, this Holocaust museum was the first in the U.S. to receive a boxcar from Europe. Survivors often give testimonials here, so check the calendar before visiting.
While the DMA may lack superstar masterpieces, it makes up for it with a collection that is both broad—spanning the globe and all of human history—and deep—over 22,000 pieces. Compare ancient Greek figurines with pre-Columbian ones, or come face to face with Mark Rothko’s walls of color. Best of all, the permanent collections are always free!
I haven’t been here in years, but I distinctly remember this “aquarium” having a huge, lush rainforest exhibit, so it’s not just a bunch of tanks with fish in them!
Historically outshined by its counterpart in Fort Worth, the Dallas Zoo was turned over by the City of Dallas to be run by a private organization and has really turned around in the past couple of years. It even has its own DART light rail station.
|The ferris wheel at the State Fair of Texas|
After his second term ended in 2009, George Bush moved to the elite neighborhood of Preston Hollow and chose the nearby campus of Southern Methodist University as the location for his presidential library. Love him or hate him, his library is still an interesting place to check out: the attractive building is clad in pecan wood and local limestone and has a fun side exhibit on presidents and baseball. The hagiographic museum nevertheless glosses over the Bush administration’s many crises and controversies.
If you’re a fan of art from Spain, visit this spectacular museum (also on the campus of SMU in north Dallas). It originated from Dallas oilman Algur Meadows’ personal art collection, and today spans paintings from Golden Age masters like El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya to modern celebrities like Picasso and Miró.
Nasher Sculpture Center (2001 Flora Street)
One of the world’s few museums dedicated to modern sculpture, the Nasher incorporates a pleasant sculpture garden with stunning exhibit halls designed by Renzo Piano. It grew out of the personal collection of Raymond and Patsy Nasher, founders of the NorthPark Center mall, and opened in 2003.
|Riding the light rail into Dallas|
This museum tells the story of Dallas from its haphazard beginnings as a French utopian colony (La Réunion), to its days as a segregated Southern town, and onto the major business center it is today. It’s housed in the handsome Old Red Courthouse.
Part children’s museum and part natural history museum, the Perot Museum moved to its new campus in Victory Park in 2012, named after Dallas businessman and presidential candidate Ross Perot and his wife, Margot. All of the scientific information and displays are really accessible for kids; plus, there are tons of interactive activities, too. And yet it doesn’t feel dumbed down at all for adults, as I really enjoyed exploring all the modern facility’s exhibits.
Parks to unwind in
|Dallas Blooms at the arboretum|
Klyde Warren Park, which opened to great fanfare in 2012, spans several blocks of the gridlocked Woodall Rodgers Freeway, but you’d never know it as this “deck park” is a quiet reprieve from the big city life. Here, a plethora of food trucks combined with shaded tables and chairs make dining al fresco a tempting option, while a broad, grassy lawn functions as downtown’s backyard.
Hiding in plain sight amongst the towering skyscrapers, Thanks-Giving Square is one of those Dallas treasures I had no idea even existed until this year, but it’s quickly become one of my favorite places to stop by (and to rack up those likes on Instagram!). A white, shell-like ziggurat anchors the plaza, standing in stark contrast to the cold glass windows of the buildings that surround it. Step inside, and you’ll enter a small chapel whose stained-glass spiral ceiling will leave you spellbound.
White Rock Lake out in East Dallas is one of a half-dozen or so manmade reservoirs in the metroplex, but in addition to drinking water it also offers much-needed green space to the suburban sprawl. Come here to practice for your marathon or to just enjoy the lakeshore.
Cool neighborhoods to explore
|Mural in Deep Ellum|
The Bishop Arts District is actually on the other side of the Trinity River, deep within Oak Cliff—which was once a separate city and still retains its own street numbering system and grid. This walkable, rapidly-gentrifying part of town offers dozens of independent shops and restaurants where you can find everything from freshly-baked pies to foreign-language books.
Deep Ellum has gone through a series of booms and busts over the years, a high point of which came in the ‘20s when the area was a major center of jazz and blues. The neighborhood—named after a Southern pronunciation of “Elm” Street—is on the upswing again today, and prides itself on the plethora of bars, restaurants, live music venues, and street art murals that dot the district.
My personal favorite part of town would have to be Lower Greenville, just to the northeast of downtown and made up of laid-back residential areas and one major commercial hotspot—Greenville Avenue. Featuring an eclectic mix of dive bars, thrift stores, hipster restaurants, and cafés, you can’t go wrong here day or night.
Uptown, as the name might suggest, is situated to the north of downtown, and is home to some of the city’s priciest real estate. It’s probably the most walkable neighborhood in the metroplex, a place where many residents live, work, and play all in the same vicinity. Ride the free trolley along McKinney Avenue to check out Uptown’s huge selection of stores and restaurants.
|The chapel at Thanks-Giving Square|
The Art Deco-era Granada Theater is arguably the city’s best live music venue, but there’s always stuff to keep you entertained going on in the neighborhood of Deep Ellum east of downtown. Check out the Dallas Observer alt weekly for local concerts.
For you more refined types, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Opera, and the Dallas Theater Center regularly offer concerts and performances throughout the year, and all three are right next door to each other in the Arts District.
Where to eat
|Fajitas at Mariano’s|
The Angry Dog has been building burgers for almost three decades now, making it a true Deep Ellum institution. It’s been consistently rated the best joint for hamburgers in the city by most local magazines for the past several years, and I’d have to agree. Unpretentious and delicious: a must-visit in Dallas!
Blind Butcher (1919 Greenville Avenue)
You may roll your eyes at this restaurant’s over-the-top hipster menu, which includes a “cup of bone broth” and pig ears with “orange fennel aioli,” but your eyes will be rolling back in delight once you sit down for some grub. I tried Canadian poutine here—pork belly with smoky gravy and cheese curds over fries—and enjoyed chowing down at the bar beneath a glossy tin ceiling and mere feet from the in-house butcher shop.Boulangerie by Village Baking Co. (1921 Greenville Avenue)
Butter croissants and the best baguettes in Dallas make Boulangerie a little slice of France in Lower Greenville. You can munch on pastries and sip your espresso while basking in that Texas sun out on the European-style streetside patio.
If you’re craving authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza, Cane Rosso’s your place. “The Red Dog” in Italian, this local pizzeria chain has branches across the metroplex but started in Deep Ellum with a traditional wood-fire oven. As a Texan who has sampled the simple, flavorful pizza of Naples, Italy, before *ahem*, I give Cane Rosso my stamp of approval.
Although the Dallas Farmers Market was historically the best place in town to pick up the fruit of the land, today under private management the market is less fresh meat and produce and more specialty stores and boutique shops. You’ve still got the open-air “The Shed” for your traditional fruit and veggie stands, but the remodeled market now offers everything from macarons to cajun food.
This Mexican restaurant has been in business for nearly a hundred years and is the last holdout of what was once Dallas’ “Little Mexico” neighborhood. Come here for lunchtime enchiladas after perusing the next-door Perot Museum, but if the line’s out the door, they’ve got almost two dozen locations across the metroplex.
Katy Trail Ice House (3127 Routh Street)
I’ve only ever been to this restaurant’s “outpost” far to the north in my hometown of Plano, but I’m sure that location’s barbecue (made fresh every Thursday through Sunday) is equally tasty. Bring your dog in from a walk on the Katy Trail and grab a combo plate with moist, Texas-style brisket laced with fragrant peppercorn.
Like Katy Trail above, I’ve only been to Lockhart’s Plano branch, but I can expect the original in Oak Cliff to make the same barbecue meat, poultry, and sausage, served up no-nonsense-style on butcher paper.
Come to Mariano’s for the best Tex-Mex in Dallas. Smoky fajitas arrive loud and sizzling at your table, while an endless supply of fresh flour tortillas gets churned out in the bakery up front. The frozen margarita was invented here and makes a great complement to a sprawling combo platter or the classic fajita.
|Brisket at Pecan Lodge|
A Deep Ellum phenomenon, try to get here a few minutes before they open for lunch at 11am or you’ll be stuck in a line that trails out the door! A husband and wife team started Pecan Lodge as a catering business running out of the farmers market, but their barbecue (and fixins) got to be so popular they had to open up a full-scale restaurant to keep up with demand.
An assortment of picnic tables, mismatched chairs, and an odd table or three round out what is Lower Greenville’s food truck mecca. Grab a Vietnamese bánh mì, a Cajun po’ boy, or a Greek gyro and pair it with a pint of made-in-Dallas craft beer. There are different food trucks parked here every night, so check their website’s calendar to see the selection!
Coffee house recommendations
|Latte at Mudsmith|
As the French name might suggest, this café’s doors open to the street “under the bridge,” a pedestrian walkway over Hardwood Street in Uptown. But the Parisian-inspired coffee shop shines just like the City of Lights: expertly-crafted espresso pairs nicely with fresh pastries, and you can catch up on the latest issue of The Dallas Morning News inside the handsome teal-and-black interior or outside on the patio.
Lower Greenville’s always been a great place to bar hop, and Mudsmith doesn’t shy away from this, offering local craft brews alongside cappuccinos and cortados. With plenty of tables and a hunting-lodge-chic lounge in the back, it’s a great place to get some studying or writing done in. Their grilled cheese and tomato soup combo is truly comforting.
Operating on the ground floor of downtown’s Gothic-style Joule Hotel, Weekend Coffee serves up fresh java every day of the week and offers sweet and savory options in their breakfast menu. I love that they place your coffee mugs and food on a wooden plank, making it easy to sit wherever you like in the Joule Hotel’s upscale lobby.
|Bird sculptures in Deep Ellum|
Part coffee shop, part bar, part independent bookstore, The Wild Detectives was the braindchild of two Spanish engineers who moved to Dallas several years ago and found the city lacking in places to bond over books and brews. They turned a charming orange bungalow in the Bishop Arts District into one of the leaders of the city’s budding literary scene. For my fellow hispanophiles, they also serve Spanish-style toasts, wine, and gin and tonics.
How to get around
|Trinity Railway Express train|
The country’s longest light rail system links distant suburbs with downtown, where four train lines converge. Hundreds of modern, accessible, and air-conditioned buses running on compressed natural gas fill the gaps between light-rail stops. Two-hour tickets cost $2.50, while an all-day pass will run you $5.00. I recommend using the region’s free GoPass mobile app for buying tickets and keeping tabs on realtime bus locations, but you can’t beat Google Maps for transit directions.
The free Dallas Streetcar shimmies across the Trinity River every half hour—the ideal way to hop between downtown and Oak Cliff on the other side of the river. This fall, the modern streetcar is due for an extension that will take it deeper into Oak Cliff, out to the Bishop Arts District.
The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority runs the free M-Line trolley between downtown and Uptown. This heritage streetcar system is a fun way to check out the shops and restaurants along McKinney Avenue.
How to get there
|Neon American Airlines logo|
Trains: Amtrak provides daily service to San Antonio and Chicago via the Texas Eagle train. The hour-long Trinity Railway Express runs between downtown Dallas and Fort Worth, with 20 weekday trips in both directions and half that on Saturdays. Amtrak and the TRE stop at Union Station.
Buses: Megabus operates low-cost direct trips between Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, arriving at the East Transfer Center near downtown’s Pearl/Arts District DART station. Greyhound has a bus depot across from the shiny Omni Hotel at 205 South Lamar Street.
Driving: Interstate highways 20, 30, 35E, and 45 all converge in Dallas, as does U.S. Route 75 from Oklahoma.
Have you ever been to Dallas before? What did you like or dislike about it? If you’ve never been, what kind of stereotypes do you have of the city? Tell me below in the comments!