Unexpected Texas: Beyond cowboys, barbecue and big hair

I’ll be honest: Texas threw me for a loop. I was prepared for the warm weather, football, “Howdy y’all”s and the much-lauded Southern charm. But the diverse culture, burgeoning arts scene and culinary mastery? Consider me gobsmacked.

Here, from the cowboy culture and classic Texan fare I expected to world-renown art galleries and stellar vineyards I didn’t, a roundup of sites worth moseying up to in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Arts & Culture
In Dallas, I fell for the neighbourhood on the Katy Trail, a landscaped, six-kilometre path built on old railroad tracks winding through the city’s wooded parks and urban settings. For a bird’s eye view of the city, the 170-metre-tall observational deck of Reunion Tower offers the best view, where you’ll see attractions near and far, including galleries, parks and the nearby Sixth Floor Museum, the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

And there’s Deep Ellum, a few blocks east of downtown, one of Dallas’s up and coming ’hoods and a melting pot for culture, nightlife and street art. I took a walking graffiti tour through city streets and alleys, grabbed a slice of artisanal pizza from Il Cane Rosso as I people watched, then made a short trek to the Arts District, where a massive 19-block cultural sector lies. Highlights include the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the Crow Collection of Asian Art.

In Fort Worth, the Stockyards National Historic District offers a taste of the Old West. One of Texas’s biggest draws, the city was once a stopover for 19th-century cattle drivers, and the place from which livestock was dispersed throughout the state and country. The last facility of its kind in the U.S., the Stockyards are now a hot spot for rodeos and concerts, and the surrounding area is home to twice-daily cattle drives, old-school saloons and all things cowboy. While there, I couldn’t resist trying a pair of boots on for size at Fincher’s White Front Western Wear, indulging in mouth-watering Texas brisket at Cooper’s Old Time BBQ, and taking in an rodeo at Cowtown Coliseum (they’re held Friday and Saturday nights).

Cowboyed out, I went across town to the Cultural District — a museum buff’s dream. Set in a park-like setting, it features six world-class museums, including the Kimball Art Museum, which houses the first-known Michelangelo painting. All six are worth experiencing but if time is short, don’t miss the Kimball, the Modern Art Museum and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Napa, schmapa. Texas, it turns out, is the fourth-largest wine producing state in the country, and its grapes are impressive

In San Antonio, in addition to the hallowed Alamo, where the battle that killed 187 defenders inspired the state to eventually fight for and win their freedom from Mexico, the city’s River Walk won me over. A pedestrian-only street that runs for miles along the San Antonio River, it’s a beautiful path lined with restaurants, hotels, and myriad shops and museums.

Next, for a taste of Mexico, I strolled through Market Square, home to festivals, shops and plenty of local colour — and Mi Tierra, one of the city’s very best Mexican restaurants. My favourite activity after dark? The San Fernando Cathedral. The oldest in the U.S., its exterior is the nightly site of The Saga, a stunning 24-minute video/art projection created by French artist Xavier De Richmont, telling the story of San Antonio’s history.

Napa, schmapa. Texas, it turns out, is the fourth-largest wine producing state in the country, and its grapes are more than impressive. It’s easy to hop on a wine tour in Grapevine, a short jaunt from Dallas, for tastings at three local wineries, as well as a shuttle bus and driver.

Those thirsty for more should head to Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg in particular. One of the world’s best wine travel destinations according to Wine Enthusiast magazine, it’s here you’ll find one of the state’s most charming towns, and the second-largest viticultural area in the nation, covering more than nine million acres. Take in some of the town’s authentic German culture (immigrants settled here over 160 years ago) before riding along Wine Road 290, home to 15 award-winning wineries.

Here’s the thing about Texan cuisine: It pretty much has it all. While Tex-Mex, BBQ, chili and chicken-fried steak are ubiquitous, there’s no shortage of contemporary American bistro dining options, upscale pan-Asian dishes, gourmet food trucks, tailgate-ready drive-ins, chef-driven organic and/or vegan eateries, in addition to numerous Zagat-rated restos.

Here are a few standouts:
In Dallas Kitchen LTO, 3011 Gulden Ln., Ste. 108; Oddfellows, 316 W. 7th St.; The Rustic, 3635 Howell St.
In Fort Worth Bird Café, 155 E. 4th and Commerce; BREWED, 801 Magnolia Ave.
In Grapevine Main Street Bistro & Bakery, 316 S. Main St.; Dino’s Steak and Claw House, 324 S. Main St.
In San Antonio La Fogata, 2427 Vance Jackson Road; The Fruteria – Botanero, 1401 S. Flores St.; Alamo Street Eat Bar, 609 South Alamo St.

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