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As a city that's often defined by what it's not – it's not Houston, it's not San Antonio, and it's not Austin – Dallas sometimes gets a raw deal, unfairly accused of an identity crisis and often the butt of cheap jokes about big hair and Texas brag. Fact is, Dallas can rightfully lay claim to some of the most iconic people, places, and things in the country: Big D is a legendary birthplace of big commerce, big shopping, and gigantic sports, including the home of “America's Team”, the Dallas Cowboys.
Founded on the banks of the Trinity River in 1841, Dallas grabbed center stage in the areas of insurance, banking, retail, conventions and trade shows while staunchly preserving and protecting its historic neighborhoods like the hip West End, trendy Deep Ellum and chic Highland Park, along the way building an enviable 45 miles of light rail (DART) in a state that practically worships the almighty automobile. Even in the toughest economic times, Dallas keeps going and growing, turning down-home “bidness” into high art with a big smile and a hearty handshake. Honestly, can you imagine Southfork Ranch being anywhere else? J.R. Ewing and the gang knew it all along -- size does matter.
5…How about them museums?
If anything has drop kicked Dallas into the 21st century as an arts player to be taken seriously, it's the impressive Dallas Arts District -- the largest in the country --that spans 68 acres and 19 blocks in the heart of the city from Woodall Rodgers Freeway to Ross Avenue.
Architectural gems include the eye-popping Winspear Opera House; try to see it at night in all its red-light glory. Allow plenty of time for the 370,000-square foot Dallas Museum of Art (1717 North Harwood, 214-912-1200, $10 adults, $7 seniors/military) and its 23,000 artifacts covering 5,000 years. Cross Harwood Street to the Nasher Sculpture Center (2001 Flora Street, 214-242-5100, $10 adults, $7 seniors/military), designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, to view more than 300 contemporary works dating from the 19th century. Tip: A combination ticket for $16 adults, $12 seniors/military gets you into both museums.
Cross Flora Street to the Crow Collection of Asian Art (2010 Flora Street, 214-979-6430, free admission) to wander among exotic finds from Japan, China, and India in a cool oasis and a very cool museum store. If you want bragging rights for staying at the biggest hotel in Texas, check in to one of the 1,846 rooms – or one of 24 presidential suites – at the nearby Dallas Sheraton Downtown (400 North Olive, 214-922-8000). Its real estate goes up and not out, so it's big, but not scary big. A small karaoke room at the ground-level Draft Sports Lounge lets you entertain in style and face-saving privacy. For even more bragging rights, visit the world's largest Hooters (the restaurant, that is) about a mile away in Victory Park near the historic West End (2201 N. Lamar, 214-979-WING).
4…When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping
True Dallas fashionistas can only go so long without indulging in a bit (okay, a lot) of retail therapy. Dallas shopping is only slightly less fierce than the local sports scene. Join the crowd and pay homage to the mothership: the one and only Neiman Marcus – before 40 other locations got in on the act, that is. Opened downtown in 1907 (1618 Main Street, 214-741-6911) by Herbert Marcus, his sister Carrie, and her husband Al Neiman, the grande dame of luxury retail is a shopaholic's dream, loaded with high fashion and exquisite gifts. The legendary Christmas catalog has featured such over-the-top His and Hers themes as robots ($400,000), and bowling centers ($1.4 million). If you prefer boots to Blahniks, hop a trolley (free) uptown to the West Village to Cowboy Cool (3699 McKinney Avenue, Suite 407, 214-521-4500). Or take DART to the funky Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff and pop in at the Soda Gallery, Bishop Street Market, and Make Shop and Studio (313 N. Bishop Avenue, 214-256-3061) where you can make your own jewelry, or maybe an ottoman. Stop for some jarochitas (“Mexican egg rolls”), deep-fried flour tortillas stuffed with cheese, chicken, and spinach at the Veracruz Cafe (408 North Bishop Avenue, 214-948-4746).
3… Dark day in Dallas
Whatever your politics, the powerfully evocative Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is a must-see (411 Elm Street, 214-747-6660, $13.50 adults, $12.50 seniors/youth, ages 0-5 free). It's the former Texas School Book Depository, where accused gunman Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and Dallas – and the world – was changed forever.
A 75-minute self-guided audio tour makes the experience especially intimate as you wind your way through the exhibit to the narration of Pierce Allman, the first reporter to broadcast from the depository on the day itself. Especially chilling is the glass-enclosed “sniper's nest” where the gunman – hiding behind stacked boxes – perched a rifle in the window as the presidential motorcade made its way toward the triple underpass. An X marks the fateful spot on Elm Street. Today a 24-hour Dealey Plaza webcam is aimed at the area, concealed in an exact replica of the box the rifle rested on (earthcam.com). Add the one-hour, self-paced Dealey Plaza Cell Phone walking tour ($2.50 with museum admission, $5 if purchased separately) that features a dozen stops including the grassy knoll and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza.
2… Art Deco and corny dogs
The 277-acre Fair Park two miles east of downtown has the world's largest collection of 1930s Art Deco exposition buildings. They provide a spectacular backdrop for the State Fair of Texas (bigtex.com, 214-565-9931) held every year from the last Friday in September to the third Sunday in October ($15 adults; $11 kids under 48 inches/seniors 60 and over; children two and under, free; free senior admission on Thursdays). “Big Tex” – a 52-foot figure with a 75-gallon hat and size 70 boots – towers over the teeming hordes of fairgoers in search of the best food you can fry and/or put on a stick. Trademarked “The Fried Food Capital of Texas,” even Oprah made the trek in 2009 to check out the deep fried butter. Fletcher's Corny Dogs – a hot dog coated in corn batter and deep fried on a stick – are practically synonymous with the fair, You can only get these puppies here and a couple of other events, so eat up.
Burn off some calories rooting for the teams at the Cotton Bowl college games, visiting the pavilions (the Automobile Building hosts the popular auto show) and riding the largest Ferris wheel in North America. Year round, the best deal is the Fair Park Passport ($24 adults, $14 children, valid for 90 days but not available for purchase during the State Fair) that includes admission to the African American Museum, Women's Museum, Hall of State, Museum of the American Railroad, the Children's Aquarium, and Texas Discovery Gardens.
1… Let's hear it for the 'boys
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Dallas Cowboys are still the biggest game in town, but not the only one. Dallas is the only major southwest metropolitan area to have five pro sports repped: the Mavericks (basketball), Texas Rangers (baseball), the Stars (hockey), the FC Dallas (soccer), and of course, the 'boys, who have taken home the Super Bowl ring five out of the seven times they've played. In 2011, “there” will become “here,” when Dallas hosts the big game for the first time at the new $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium, about 20 miles west of downtown Dallas on I30 (900 E. Randol Mill Road, Arlington). The largest domed structure in the world with a retractable roof seats up to 100,000, and will undoubtedly be torn to the ground in ecstatic frenzy if the Cowboys make it to Super Bowl XLV and win. In the meantime, you can tour this behemoth in a self-guided tour ($17.50 adults, $14.50 children/seniors), check out the Cowboys and cheerleaders' locker rooms, the Miller Lite Club, and the post-game interview room. Run around the field, throw some passes, and take pictures (no video). A VIP guided tour ($27.50 adults, $22.50 children/seniors) gets you extra stops at the private suites and the media press boxes, plus a pro photo of your visit.