When most people think of Dallas, two things immediately spring to mind – John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the long-running TV series of the same name.
It’s a shame, as this vibrant Texan city has long since shed its reputation as a haven for rednecks and feuding oil barons to emerge as one of the premier travel destinations in the US.
While old-fashioned neighbour Fort Worth remains stuck in the past, Dallas has embraced the future. This is no tourist-trapping “cowtown” – you’re more likely to see sharp suits than Stetsons wandering its wide streets.
Texans are notorious for never doing anything by halves, and Dallas is no different. Everything – not just the portions – is supersized, from soaring skyscrapers and mega malls to the largest arts district in the country.
So if you’ve only got a couple of days to explore Dallas’ delights, here’s an itinerary that captures the essence of this happening place.
10am: Explore the life, death and legacy of JFK
After eating breakfast at the hotel (the Canopy by Hilton Dallas Uptown is a short walk from the Cityplace/Uptown Station and perfectly placed to explore the city), jump in an Uber or catch a train to West End Station. Follow the signs to one of the most notorious sites in 20th century history – Dealey Plaza.
This is where, from the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building, a recently hired employee called Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade drove past on that fateful afternoon of November 22, 1963.
JFK’s assassination sent shockwaves around the world and plunged a nation into a deep period of mourning. You can learn about his life, death and legacy in the building where Oswald fired that fatal shot, which has been converted into the excellent Sixth Floor Museum.
You’ll need at least two hours to make your way round this beautifully presented exhibition displaying thousands of key artefacts, including the “Zapruder film” which captured the assassination in gory detail and a scale model of Dealey Plaza used in the investigation of Kennedy’s death.
It’s a surreal feeling to peer out of the corner window from where Oswald took the fatal shots and changed the course of American history. As you survey the infamous grassy knoll, you’ll no doubt find yourself chewing over conspiracy theories about the second shooter.
Admission costs US$18 (NZ$29) for adults and includes an audio guide.
411 Elm St, 75202. For opening times and events, see jfk.org
12 noon: Eat authentic Mexican cuisine
When you’ve had your fix of JFK, take a brisk 15-minute walk via Broom St to Meso Maya, an institution in the Dallas foodie scene.
Situated in an old tortilla factory dating back to 1938, this popular Mexican restaurant prides itself on its authenticity. Every dish is freshly prepared – from the homemade adobos and salsas to the hand-ground tortillas – and faithful to the fare found across both central and southern Mexico.
Start with queso poblano (melted cheeses with roasted poblano peppers and fresh corn) and made-from-scratch guacamole, then take your pick from the mains.
The serrano enchiladas (pulled roast chicken breast in white corn tortillas covered in a creamy sauce) and carne asada (wood-fired marinated steak) are highly recommended.
Meso Maya is also renowned for its cocktails – particularly the margaritas – so treat yourself to a Mexican concoction as you tuck into one of the desserts. The skillet baked blueberry cake with vanilla ice cream (US$9/NZ$14) is every bit as delicious as it sounds, though be warned: the servings are huge.
Given that this was among the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted, it’s no surprise that Meso Maya is usually heaving at lunchtime. You may want to book a table in advance to avoid missing out.
3656 Howell St, 75204. For menus and opening times, go to mesomaya.com
2pm: Give your brain some exercise
To work off all those calories, get (inter)active at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in nearby Victory Park.
Named in honour of two-time US presidential candidate Ross Perot and his wife Margot, this futuristic space is home to 11 permanent exhibit halls and six learning labs across five floors.
One of those people who gets bored easily wandering around museums? Fear not. There are countless dynamic exhibits and hands-on activities to stimulate your grey matter.
Highlights include the Sports Hall, where you put your athletic prowess to the test by racing an NFL running back, cheetah and Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the geek-friendly Robot Arena, which encourages you to design and control your very own machine.
General admission costs US$25 (NZ$40) for adults. There is an additional charge for special exhibitions.
2201 N Field St, 75201. For opening hours and details of upcoming exhibitions, visit perotmuseum.org
4pm: Pick up some bargains at the thrift store
Dallas is known for its huge shopping malls but the real gold is to be found in the city’s many thrift stores. One of the best is Dolly Python, a self-described 3800-square-foot vintage emporium.
Located way out in the ‘burbs, you’ll need to get an Uber to this kingdom of kitsch. But it’s worth making the journey to pick up a bargain or two and receive a nostalgia-fuelled hit of Americana.
Allow at least an hour to explore the racks, try on secondhand cowboy gear and thumb through the vintage vinyl.
Dolly Python stocks everything from hand-picked clothing to funky furniture and antique jewellery, so you’re bound to find something that floats your boat.
1914-1916 N. Haskell Ave, 75208. Go to dollypythonvintage.com
7pm: See the city from above
After some much-needed R&R back at the hotel, head downtown to the 560ft Reunion Tower, where you’ll see Dallas from a whole new perspective.
Known locally as “The Ball” for its distinctive glowing sphere that lights up the Dallas skyline, you can take a lift up to the GeO-Deck for stunning 360-degree panoramic views over the city.
High-definition cameras allow you to zoom in on iconic landmarks like Dallas Zoo and Dealey Plaza, and there are interactive touch-screens explaining the significance and history of the buildings below.
General admission costs US$19 (NZ$31) for adults, with discounted rates available to groups of 15 or more.
300 Reunion Blvd E, 75207. For opening hours and upcoming events, go to reuniontower.com
8.30pm: Drink and dine in Deep Ellum
For dinner, jump in a cab bound for Deep Ellum. This historic, neon-lit entertainment district founded in 1873 is famous for its live music scene, art galleries and vivid street murals. Big crowds are a common sight on weekends.
There are more than 60 restaurants in the area covering virtually every cuisine under the sun, so you’re not short of options. Should modern American fare appeal, give STIRR on Main St a whirl.
This contemporary establishment may be a little out of step with Deep Ellum’s down-at-heel image, but the dishes are inventive and the portions plentiful.
Feeling adventurous? Try the East Texas hickory grilled quail or blackened red fish with lobster potatoes au gratin, crawfish gravy and broccolini. Wash it down with a chef-crafted cocktail (I can vouch for ‘the Deep Smash’).
Spend the rest of your evening drinking beer at local breweries – Deep Ellum Brewing Company is a good option – and dancing to some jazz, indie, country or blues in one of the numerous live music bars dotted around Commerce, Canton, Elm and Main streets. Adair’s Saloon and Twilite Lounge are worth checking out before you decide to call it a night.
For upcoming events in Deep Ellum, see deepellumtexas.com
10am: Wander through beautiful gardens
Allow yourself a little sleep-in and a hearty breakfast to soak up all the booze before hitching a ride to the beautiful Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden on Garland Road.
Nestled on the eastern shore of White Rock Lake, this 66-acre, privately-run urban oasis is a great spot to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and reconnect with nature for a few hours.
There are 11 display gardens inside offering seasonal colour and fabulous blooms all year-round thanks to the efforts of 50 full-time gardeners and a cheerful cast of volunteers.
Pick of the crop are the Crape Myrtle Allee – where sweeping trees enclose a long stone walkway, making for a great photo opportunity – and A Tasteful Place, a potager garden producing sustainable, locally-grown food.
There are three daily tastings and cooking demonstrations in the pavilion. We got to sample the cauliflower brownies, which were surprisingly tasty.
Our trip in November allowed us to enjoy the magical 12 Days of Christmas exhibit – featuring 25-foot-tall Victorian-style gazebos depicting scenes from the traditional carol – and German-style model village.
The gardens are open daily from 9am-5pm and stage activities and events throughout the year. There are cafés, a restaurant and tearoom on site, as well as picnic spots.
Admission prices vary, depending on the season. Discounts are offered to groups of 10 or more.
8525 Garland Rd, 75218. For events, go to dallasarboretum.org
12 noon: Enjoy some traditional Texan fare
By now you’ll have worked up a hunger, so hail a taxi uptown to The Rustic, a local favourite offering wholesome, home-style grub made with ingredients sourced from Texan ranchers and farmers.
Order some chorizo empanadas, tempura-battered cactus fries and wild boar meatballs to share. Then, if you’ve still got room, plump for The Rustic’s pièce de résistance – ‘The Drunk Chick’.
This signature, Instagram-worthy dish is made with game hen and so called because it’s cooked with a beer can stuffed in the middle of the bird (usually a Bud). It comes with jalapeño spoon bread and chile-lime butter and lives up to its billing as the “juiciest chicken in Texas”.
Other mouthwatering options include the Messy Jessy veggie burger and vinegar slaw, and Gulf shrimp po’ boy sarnie. Steer clear of the tacos though, which lacked flavour.
As well as the finger-licking food, there’s a huge range of local craft beers and Texas-themed cocktails to keep you refreshed.
3656 Howell St, 75204. For menus and opening times, go to therustic.com
1pm: Get your modern art fix
If you adore art, then you’ll love Dallas. Spread across 68 acres and 19 blocks, the city’s dedicated arts district is the biggest in the country, offering up world-class exhibitions and visual and performing arts experiences.
Begin your artistic odyssey at the Dallas Museum of Art, home to 25,000-plus works spanning 5000 years of history. The gallery’s dynamic collection is constantly updated so there will always be something new to gawp at, whether it is Picasso or Pollock that gets your creative juices flowing.
For the remainder of the afternoon, explore the area at your own leisure. It’s impossible to see it all, but Nasher Sculpture Center is worth a look, showcasing an impressive array of contemporary and modern pieces, ditto the Crow Museum of Asian Art, where you can take wellness classes involving yoga and meditation in between admiring the artworks.
And if you have time, take a walk through Klyde Warren Park or complete the Texas Sculpture Walk between Ross Ave and Flora St.
For upcoming events, see dallasartsdistrict.org
3pm: Shop till you drop at Highland Park Village
Should you need to get rid of some excess dollars, take a 10-minute cab ride to the Highland Park Village shopping plaza.
Completed in 1931, this Spanish Mission-style development was the first self-contained shopping centre in the US and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000.
Luxury’s the name of the game with Tom Ford, Jimmy Choo, Valentino and Dior among the designer stores vying for your hard-earned bucks.
The Village has a handful of fine-dining restaurants, cafés and bistros plus an art deco theatre showing the latest releases to keep you out of mischief for a while.
47 Highland Park Village, 75205. For opening times and a store directory, go to hpvillage.com
7pm: Expand your stomach at an authentic barbecue joint
Having spent most of the day on your feet, you will want some downtime at the hotel before hitting the town again for a Dallas rite of passage – stuffing your face with Texas-style barbecue in one of the legendary smokehouses.
Not sure where to go? Look no further than Lockhart Smokehouse, in the trendy Bishop Arts District.
There’s no table service – you have to go to the counter at the back to order, pick up and pay for your food, priced by the half pound. The meat is pulled directly off the smoker and sliced specifically to your needs.
If you’re in a group, get a smorgasbord to share. Start off with a bit of brisket (said to be the best in town), dry rubbed spare ribs and smoked chicken. Throw in a handful of sides (potato salad, mac and cheese and blue cheese slaw) and you’ve got yourself a feast.
Everything comes wrapped in brown butcher paper, so don’t be afraid to eat with your fingers or get sauce over your chops as you consume your body weight in beef.
No visit to Texas would be complete without overindulging like a local at a traditional meat palace.
400 West Davis, 75208. Visit lockhartsmokehouse.com
9pm: Live music and cocktails in bohemian North Oak Cliff
When the meat sweats kick in, that’s your cue to put down the turkey leg and see what else the Bishop Arts District has to offer.
Alongside the high-end restaurants, coffee shops and quirky boutiques, there’s an abundance of bars in the hip Oak Cliff neighbourhood you’ll want to check out.
Head south down North Bishop Ave and stop by Bar Eden for a cocktail, before moving on to Revelers Hall to see local musicians play everything from jazz and piano ballads to Latin sounds.
For upcoming events, see bishopartsdistrict.com
Getting there: American Airlines operates daily passenger services to Dallas Fort Worth from Auckland.
Downtown Dallas is a 30-minute taxi ride from the airport, which should set you back roughly US$60 (NZ$100). To save cash, hop on the DART light-rail (dart.org) that runs downtown and costs US$3 (NZ$4.90) for a two-hour pass. The journey takes about 50 minutes to an hour.
Carbon footprint: Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.
More information: visittheusa.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Travel Texas.