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Big Tex

The big state with big dreams has earned its spot as a big tourist destination.
By Haley Shapley

There’s something about the Lone Star State that attracts people. Maybe it’s the sheer size -- it is bigger than France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland put together, after all. Maybe it’s the down-home hospitality and Texan pride. Or maybe it’s the diversity of activities -- you can canoe in Austin, blast into outer space in Houston, devour authentic Mexican food in San Antonio, be a cowboy in Fort Worth, and hit the hippest bars in Dallas. Whatever it is that makes Texas special, there’s no denying that it’s a one-of-a-kind place with a spirit all its own. Just one visit and you’ll be hooked.

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Cosmopolitan and trendy, fun and funky, this top tourist destination in Texas is a shopper’s paradise, a foodie’s delight, and an urbanite’s oasis.

While Dallas is a modern kind of place, that doesn’t mean it has no past. For an in-depth retrospective of a national icon, visit The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (www.jfk.org). There you’ll get a comprehensive look at the life and career of John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor where his assassin fired the fatal shots. Another can’t-miss museum is the Dallas Museum of Art (www.dallasmuseumofart.org), which features pieces from masters like Renoir, Van Gogh, and Monet, as well as Egyptian art, Oriental and European rugs, antique glass, and much more. Plus, on the third Friday of each month, the museum stays open until midnight, offering a plethora of special events for night owls.

There are plenty of other options for those who like to stay out late. High above Dallas’s busy streets at the top of the W hotel, Ghostbar (www.n9negroup.com) is the place to see and be seen. And it isn’t just the beautiful people you’ll see -- step out onto the clear deck, suspended 33 floors above the ground below, and check out Big D’s distinctive cityscape. A private elevator that’s an experience in itself ushers you to your destination, where you can sip ghostinis and other specialty cocktails, get your groove on, and try to spot celebrities (Justin Timberlake, Kate Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Tony Romo, and Nick Lachey have all visited).

If instead you’re looking for a little fun country-style, point your cowboy boots in the direction of Gilley’s Dallas (www.gilleysdallas.com), where live country music and a 10,000- square-foot dance floor provide plenty of opportunity to put those boots to use. If your line dancing and do-si-do skills aren’t quite up to par, no worries -- there are free dance lessons on Saturday evenings to prepare you for a night of boot scootin’ boogying. And don’t forget your cowboy hat: You’ll need it to hang onto when you take a spin on the famous mechanical bull.

After a late night out on the town, retail therapy is just what you need. For a truly eclectic shopping experience, head to Bishop Arts District (www.bishopartsdistrict.com), which has a little of everything -- just a few of the attractions include, on the shopping front, a soda gallery with a retro candy selection, a gift shop, and a lifestyle boutique; for dining, a 1950s diner and a tapas bar; and a day spa and yoga studio for a little R&R. If stylish handbags at super-affordable prices are your kryptonite, Sam Moon (www.sammoon.com) will be your biggest weakness. After scooping up some purses for way less than you’d pay anywhere else, don’t miss the walls of jewelry, bins of hair accessories, and stacks of luggage.

With the right accessories in hand, you’ll be ready for a nice dinner at Dallas’s first gastropub, Social House (214-521-7500), which opened earlier this year in the trendy West Village. The underground bar features a fireplace and a warm ambience, while the menu showcases mini burgers, short rib grilled cheese sandwiches, and more than 20 beers on tap. For a lower-key meal and a stack of delicious cheddar fries either plain or piled high with bacon, chives, and jalapenos, check out one of Snuffer’s Restaurant & Bar’s (www.snuffers.com) eight locations in the DFW area.

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Fort Worth

Fort Worth offers something everyone can enjoy. Shopping reigns supreme at Sundance Square, while a trip to the Stockyards is essential in order to appreciate the city’s Western roots as a home on the range.

No visit to the city is complete without a trip to Billy Bob’s Texas (www.billybobstexas.com), the world’s largest honky tonk. Catch real bull riding on Friday and Saturday nights, along with concerts from some of country’s biggest acts. And this goes without saying, but the barbecue is unbeatable, so dig in and have some brisket, turkey, ribs, ham, chicken, homemade potato salad, and fresh coleslaw. In keeping with the country theme, the White Elephant Saloon (www.whiteelephantsaloon.com) is the place to go for authentic Wild West nightlife. A collection of cowboy hats on the wall and live music and dancing seven nights a week set the scene for this tried-and-true bar, once a watering hole for cowboys who spent their days wrangling cattle.

But cowboys weren’t the only ones to make their mark on this town. The women deserve some recognition, too, and they get it at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame (www.cowgirl.net), the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the courageous females of the American West. Here, kids will love taking a simulated ride on a bucking bronco, which is mixed with footage of an old-time rodeo and then turned into a movie you can see on-screen.

The National Cowgirl Museum is just one part of the Fort Worth Cultural District, which also houses the Amon Carter Museum (www.cartermuseum.org), the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (www.fwmuseum.org), the Kimbell Art Museum (www.kimbellart.org), and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (www.themodern.org), all worth a visit to take in their diverse collections.

Looking for a quaint place to stay? The Ashton Hotel (www.theashtonhotel.com) is the city’s only small luxury hotel. With a location near Sundance Square and Bass Performance Hall, it makes the perfect place to serve as headquarters for your trip to Cowtown. Stop by the on-site Café Ashton for a well-reviewed meal of breakfast, lunch, or dinner (food critics adore this spot), or settle in for afternoon tea with scones, petit fours, and chocolate truffles.

For a hotel experience that the young’uns will enjoy, the recently opened Great Wolf Lodge (www.greatwolf.com), located near Fort Worth in Grapevine, Texas, already has kids howling with delight. The family-friendly all-suite resort includes an 80,000-square-foot indoor water park and an 84,000-square-foot outdoor park, available to resort guests only. And you know what that means -- none of the long lines traditionally found at big water parks. If that’s not enough to smile about, while the kids slide the day away in the North Woods–themed water paradise, parents will enjoy the adult spa.

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The Live Music Capital of the World, Austin is known for its cool college town vibe and sophisticated, yet unpretentious atmosphere. The heart of the city is found on Sixth Street, where live entertainment venues, funky boutiques, casual coffee shops, nighttime hot spots, and art galleries abound. Festivals take place here year-round; some of the best-known ones are South by Southwest and celebrations for Halloween and Mardi Gras.

While Austinites like to party, nature also figures prominently into the scene. Just a 30-minute drive from the city is an oasis worth making the short trek for. Popular with the locals, Hamilton Pool (512-264-2740) has 230-plus acres encompassing a 50-foot waterfall, a swimming hole, nature trails, rare plant species (like the chatterbox orchid), and plenty of birds.

But it’s not just outdoor natural wonders that abound -- outdoor restaurants are popular, too. Perched high above Lake Travis, Oasis (www.oasis-austin.com) offers spectacular views of the Hill Country. More than 40 decks are open on the weekends, and they’re all crowded at dusk as people clamor to see the breathtaking sunset view. For a quintessential Austin dining experience, Freddie’s (www.freddiesplaceaustin.com) has comfort food like chicken fried steak and stuffed meatloaf, served under a canopy of oak trees. Try your hand at pitching washers, a lawn game the restaurant is known for hosting.

If you want a little music with your food, that’s doable, too. At Stubb’s Bar-B-Q (www.stubbsaustin.com), you can get a heaping helping of some down-home hickory-smoked barbecue and good music from local and national acts. Don’t miss Sunday Gospel Brunch, a live music and buffet extravaganza popular with people of all ages and complete with Southern-style grits, migas, fried catfish, brisket, and make-your-own Bloody Marys.

For the best in fashion from up-and-coming designers, Shiki (www.shikistyle.com) is the place to shop. Trendy and sophisticated yet still laid-back (reminiscent of the city itself), the store is where fashionistas go to scoop up finds that won’t be on every fashion-forward woman in town.

After all that excitement, for a relaxing place to unwind in Texas’s capital, Carrington’s Bluff Bed and Breakfast (www.carringtonsbluff.com) is a crowdpleaser. But don’t worry -- there are no crowds here. The eight-room 1877 English country house (there’s a Main House and a Writers’ Cottage) overlooking a bluff provides all the serenity you could want, yet is close enough to downtown for a quick trip into the city. And if you’re looking for a midnight treat, both open kitchens are stocked with complimentary Blue Bell ice cream (if you’re from out of state, know that Texans take their Blue Bell seriously).

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San Antonio

Deep in the heart of Texas you’ll find San Antonio, where you can remember the Alamo, stroll the renowned River Walk, and eat some darn good Tex-Mex.

Join the 2.5 million-plus people a year who visit the Alamo (www.thealamo.org), San Antonio’s most famous attraction. The mission and fortress, now a museum, was the site of the Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. Stroll the gardens, take in the Wall of History, watch a film on the Alamo’s 300-year history, and see artifacts from the men who made their last stand there.

If snuggling up to Shamu is on your to-do list, then a stop at SeaWorld San Antonio (www.seaworld.com/sanantonio), the world’s largest marine life adventure park, is in order. Not only can you see sharks, seals, sting rays and sea lions, but you can also splash around in Lost Lagoon, the on-site water park; interact with a group of playful bottlenose dolphins; and take a spin on some white-knuckle thrill rides. Other water fun can be had at Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort (www.schlitterbahn.com/nb) in nearby New Braunfels. The park is consistently named the best in the country, and it’s no wonder why -- 65 acres beckon, with three miles of tubing, seven children’s water playgrounds, 17 water slides, the world’s first surfing machine, and three uphill water coasters. Plus, friendly policies like free parking, inner tubes, and life jackets, and guests being allowed to carry in their own food, make a trip to Schlitterbahn (that’s German for “slippery road”) all the more enjoyable.

Dry off and head to San Antonio’s first neighborhood, La Villita Historic Arts Village (www.lavillita.com), a site that was originally a settlement for Spanish soldiers and now features shopping, dining, and art galleries. Grab a bite to eat or sip a cocktail at one of four restaurants, then pick up some handcrafted goods from one of the area’s many artisans.

Can’t get enough of the camaraderie that comes with screaming at big-screen TVs with other sports fans? Tiffany Billiards (www.tbilliards.com) is the place to be for any big game or fight; plus it has an extensive sports memorabilia collection, live music most nights, and, of course, tons of pool tables. If you’re a beer connoisseur, check out Flying Saucer (www.beerknurd.com), where you can sample dozens of brews. If satisfying your sweet tooth is what you’re after, try family-owned Nadler’s Bakery and Delicatessen (www.nadlers.com). With the crowd-pleasing strawberry whipped cream cake, meringue kisses, and specialty breads, it’s no wonder Nadler’s is a local favorite.

For a romantic getaway La Mansion del Rio (www.omnihotels.com), situated along the River Walk, has a helpful staff, prime location, beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, and an acclaimed on-site restaurant, Las Canarias. This is the perfect place to stay for a getaway with your amante.

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The country’s fourth-largest city and the largest city in Texas has more than 2 million residents, and it’s easy to see why people flock to Houston -- it’s culturally diverse (90 languages are spoken throughout the area) and packed with activities, from great museums (there are 15 institutions in the Museum District) to top-flight golf (165-plus courses call the Bayou City home).

Try out one of those courses by spending a day on the links at Lake Windcrest Golf Club (www.lakewindcrestgolf.com), an 18-hole course with unrestricted access to the public and great prices. The fairways are generous, the greens plenty green, and the holes challenging enough for all skill levels. If you’re in more of a spectator mood, at state-of- the-art Sam Houston Race Park (www.shrp.com), the nation’s fastest-growing race track, you can catch live horse racing, watch music performances during the summer on weekend evenings, and grab a bite to eat at one of two restaurants and eight bars.

Houston is known as Space City due to NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (“Houston” was the first word Neil Armstrong spoke when he landed on the moon), so it’s only fitting that a trip includes a drop-in at Space Center Houston (www.spacecenter.org), where you can simulate blasting off into space (with rocket boosters, billowing exhaust, and all), explore an exhibit of spacesuits, and discover what life is like for astronauts in a microgravity environment.

When you come back down to earth and are ready to walk instead of fly, a little shopping may be just what you need to keep you grounded. Those looking for the best steals would be wise to wheel and deal at Traders Village Houston (www.tradersvillage.com), an open-air market held each weekend, housing 2,500 dealers on more than 105 acres. Festivals and special events take place throughout the year, so there’s always something more to do than just shop (although here, you may need all day for treasure hunting).

After all that bargain hunting, relax and savour something sweet at Sugarbaby’s Cupcake Boutique (www.ilovesugarbabys.com). The name says it all -- this place has every cupcake your taste buds could crave. Try an old standby like Va-Va-Vanilla, vanilla bean cake with your choice of traditional vanilla or chocolate buttercream, or go out on a limb with the mouthwatering Chocolate Covered Strawberry, chocolate cake filled with strawberry preserves, topped with strawberry buttercream and dipped in dark chocolate, or Criss Cross Applesauce, light applesauce spice cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting.

If you need something a little more substantial than a cupcake, try eating at the Grove (www.thegrovehouston.com), an urban dweller’s paradise located in Discovery Green (www.discoverygreen.com), a 12-acre park with a lake, interactive fountains, Wi-Fi access, an amphitheater, indoor and outdoor reading areas, and much more. The Grove features chic décor and serves up rustic American cuisine like seared ahi tuna with Mississippi grits, charcoal-grilled ribeye, and braised Long Island duck legs.

After a busy day in H-Town, crash at Hotel Granduca (www.granducahouston.com), a Tuscan-themed hotel in the Uptown/Galleria area. Here, you’re in for impeccable service and the feel of being transported to old-world Italy. Amenities include fully equipped kitchens, a billiard room, wireless Internet, and plasma high-definition televisions. Another good bet for a place to lay your head is Lancaster Hotel (www.thelancaster.com), a Theater District staple since 1926. European décor and charm combine with a prime location to make this boutique hotel a favorite in the city.

Haley Shapley is a freelance writer based in North Texas. She loves the plentiful shopping, sightseeing, and almost year-round sunshine that fill the state.