When it comes to travelling, North America is a generous host, offering almost every kind of holiday experience imaginable. However, for those seeking the quintessential American escape, nowhere does it better (or bigger) than Texas. Cowboys, honky tonk and ‘ranch water’ are just the tip of the multi-sensory melange that is true Americana.
Don’t be daunted by the size of the US’ second biggest state: visitors can enjoy its best bits – modern cityscapes, cowboy country and historic towns – easily within the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. This more than 9,000 square-mile area offers the complete Texan experience – and it’s all accessible by rail. So if you’re not quite ready to embark on that all- important US road trip, this Texan train journey could be the perfect alternative.
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Step One – Dallas
Start your trip by flying into Dallas. This dominating metropolis sprung up along railroad lines transporting cotton, cattle and oil, and soon bloomed into one of the state’s largest cities. Expect everything a major Western city can offer: fancy cocktail bars, art galleries and museums galore – plus the key Texan ingredient: unbeatable barbecue.
Head to Main Street for Terry Black’s BBQ. Inside a smoky interior shot through with beams of sunlight and cooled by lazily spinning fans, diners can experience the chain’s famous slow-cooked brisket (smoked for 13 hours) paired with succulent sides such as coleslaw and creamed corn. Be sure to add the banana pudding for dessert.
Digest with some window shopping through Main Street’s eclectic retail landscape. Pop into vintage clothes shops such as Dated Faded Worn, sample olive oil in 1890 Marketplace and start acclimatising your stomach for Texas portions with a sweet treat at Insomnia Cookies or Picoli Ice Cream. While barbecue is big in Texas, those with dietaries aren’t forgotten. Try Slutty Vegan for seriously indulgent burgers such as the Super Slut and the Big Dawg.
If planning a visit in autumn, attending the Texas State Fair is a must. Developed in the 1880s, it aims to embody ‘all things Texan’, so is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the area’s agriculture, industry and cuisine (i.e. BBQ, Tex Mex and deep fried everything). Among its Art Deco architecture (the biggest collection of art deco in one place) lies a petting zoo, fairground rides, an auto show, corn dogs and ‘Big Tex’, an unnerving 55-foot-tall cowboy who speaks to the visitors. Go figure.
For the rest of your Dallas stay, pick your preference. The 66-acre Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens are an essential day out with the kids, while the Sixth Floor Museum provides a haunting dive into the assassination of JFK, located in the spot from which he was shot. And don’t forget to try the Mexican food: Beto & Son offers broth bowls, tortas, and fajita skillets alongside liquid nitro margaritas.
Step Two – Fort Worth
Now begins your journey into serious cowboy country. Take the Trinity Railway Express from Dallas to its sister city of Fort Worth. Though only an hour west, it feels like a world away from the massive metropolitan hubbub of Dallas.
Even downtown is different. While towering metal structures still make up a modern skyline, down on the ground roads are paved in red brick and sidewalks are lined with trees and delicately-designed lampposts. The atmosphere is calm and unhurried, yet signs point to a wilder nightlife. Try Basic Bar for a cheap and cheerful pint, or pop on a frock and pull up a pew at Curfew, an art deco bar where ‘cowtown meets funkytown’.
Despite its historic reputation, there’s plenty of post-cowboy culture to be found in this metropole. Its cultural district is crammed with numerous art, science and history museums, though its most pleasing inclusion might just be the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. This interactive exhibition documents stories of women who made their mark on the West, whether rodeo stars or artists.
Your priority here however, is to get to the Stockyards National Historic District, whose streets are something straight out of a John Wayne movie. Silverados, corvettes, mustangs and every other iconic American motor idle at crossroads, moving aside for the occasional parade of cowboys showing off their horses. Wooden shop awnings reach out over the sidewalk, sheltering windows displaying a plethora of ranchers accoutrement: saddles, hats, belt buckles, and various souvenirs. Head to Maverick Fine Western Wear, which not only stocks all of the above, but lets you drink while you shop. The in-store bar has customers sipping away while their cowboy hats are steamed into shape.
Grab a spot on East Exchange Avenue at 11.30am or 4pm to see why Fort Worth is nicknamed ‘cowtown’. The local Longhorn herd – made up of 17 cattle carrying near six feet horn spans and some over a tonne of weight – shuffle their way down the street wrangled by genuine cowhands. It’s a sight (and smell) not to be missed.
Sign off with a night at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, where competitors from all over the American South compete for prestigious titles at the Cowtown Coliseum. End the night at Billy Bob’s, built in 1910 and the world’s largest honky-tonk. Part arcade, part pool hall, part sports bar, part dance hall, part gig space – it’s a neon-clad interior space in which locals drink, dine and dance beneath a sparkling saddle disco ball. We’re confident you’ll experience nothing else like it.
Step Three – Grapevine
Head back towards Dallas via Grapevine, a historic old burg just north of DFW Airport. This pristinely preserved town is chocolate box America. Boutique, independent shops line a high street accentuated with flower beds and decorations and boasting a buzzy atmosphere where locals mix with day-tripping tourists.
The people watching (and car spotting) makes Grapevine a great lunch spot, and thankfully the eating options are endless. Dig into barbecue at AJ’s, try traditional southern at Mason & Dixie or go French at Chez Fabien (who also do a fantastic breakfast). Whatever you do, don’t miss out on world-class subs at Weinberger’s Deli, a never-not-packed sandwich bar owned by Chicagoan Dan Weinberger. Subs, cubanos, sausages, cheesesteaks and more are all on offer with some seriously creative flavours. Plus, Dan’s always experimenting with his menu, so veggies and vegans are welcome (this writer had an improvised Vegan Shrimp Po’Boy with remoulade sauce on a garlic toasted baguette. Divine).
Dedicate a good amount of time to browsing the local stores. Take a look in Talking Animal Books, a charming bookstore just off Main Street, pop into Bermuda Gold and Silver Jewellery to hear stories of its banking history (including a Bonnie and Clyde incident) and sample the best grapes from around the state at Messina Hof Grapevine Winery.
As the self-proclaimed ‘Christmas capital of Texas’ Grapevine knows how to do festivities, and few places in town showcase it better than the Grapevine Vintage Railroad. A old, lovingly upkept 1920’s train pootles between Grapevine and Fort Worth, giving up to 400 travellers a taste of the olden days through train robbery re-enactments and festive-themed experiences. At Christmas, the train transforms into the North Pole Express, becoming bedecked in baubles and treating travellers to a visit from Santa and servings of Frosty Chocolate Snow Milk. Throughout the year it takes on different guises such as ‘Witches Brew’ at Halloween, ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish!’ for St. Patrick’s Day and various Valentine’s Day, Spring Break and other themed excursions. Journey time is an hour and 45 minutes one way.
This easy route through the Dallas-Fort-Worth metropole is a great way to taste some of America’s most iconic offerings. A brilliant blend of southern-American cuisine, cowboy culture and modern-day metropolises, this rail route is ideal for US first-timers, or those looking to delve into some southern American culture.
Discover more about Texas and all it has to offer here.
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