Don’t confuse Fort Worth with its city slicker cousin, Dallas. Cowtown – as Fort Worth is often referred to – maybe just 30 miles down the road but it’s a world away from the Big D’s bright lights and big hotels. For an authentic taste of Texas – think cowboy culture and the old west - Fort Worth is where you go writes Kaye Holland
Most of us are creatures of habit and as such our American holiday spots tend to be tried and trued haunts – hello Orlando and Anaheim. But if the idea of visiting Mickey et al yet again has lost its appeal, leave the coasts to first timers and take a trip to Texas.
The majority of visitors to the Lone State tend to rush to Dallas – Texas’ most mythical city owing to the success of the Dallas Cowboys football team (and their easy on the eye cheerleaders) and THAT television show (cue the theme music). It’s easy to spend a few days in Dallas shopping (Dallas has more malls per capita than any other city in the US) and enjoying the upscale dining scene, but it would be a terrible shame not to venture west to Fort Worth. And you’ll need at least a couple of days to do it justice.
For Dallas’ confident little sister is actually one of America’s fastest growing cities. But happily, despite now being the 16th largest city in the US, it hasn’t yet grown to the point where it has lost its charm.
Talking of charm, make the Downtown district – home to the newly developed 55,000 square foot Sundance Square Plaza – your first Fort Worth port of call. When savvy urbanites close their eyes and dream of the perfect urban neighbourhood, chances are it looks a lot like Downtown.
Don’t miss the new eight foot bronze sculpture of JFK which stands in front of the Hilton Hotel (formerly Hotel Texas) in General Worth Square where Kennedy spent the final night of his presidency after giving a speech to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
But if you’re after a holiday and not a history lesson, indulge in some excellent retail therapy. The shops in downtown Fort Worth aren’t all for the masses – far from it. Individuality is what Fort Worth does best so you won’t find identikit stores. Rather the streets surrounding the attractive square are lined with cool, independent boutiques.
I can’t fit in all my favourites but Retro Cowboy (406 Houston Street) and Peter Brothers Hats should figure on any itinerary. The former is the place to pick up cool cowboy themed souvenirs while the latter has housed and sold an elegant edit of stetsons since 1911.
The 14 block Sundance Square is also reeling with restaurants and bars. Half the fun is taking a chance of a place you like the look of but, if you need a little guidance, I can vouch for the Bird Cafe - a stylish, split level restaurant specialising in small plates and innovative salads (the roasted beets and poached pears dish is to die for)
As a lifelong vegetarian, it’s the kind of restaurant I dream of living around the corner from but it’s not what I expected to find in barbecue obsessed Texas. I also enjoyed a hearty yet healthy black bean and quinoa dish atSpiral, an amazing organic vegan restaurant on upcoming Magnolia Avenue that proves there’s an awful lot to discover about the Lone State beyond what you know from watching John Wayne Westerns.
But of course if you want barbecue, Fort Worth won’t let you down. Texans take barbecue very, very seriously and their slow cooked chopped or sliced beef puts our charred barbecued burgers to shame.
Who does the best barbecue? It’s a topic close to Texan hearts. Every Fort Worth resident has their own opinion but in downtown Fort Worth, Reatea comes highly recommended.
As does the Main Street Forth Worth Arts Festival – just one of the festivals filling up Forth Worth’s calendar (each month of the year, there’s something happening somewhere – a festival, a show or an exhibition). I was fortunate to be in Fort Worth during April when the annual event – ranked as the number one arts festival in Texas and the sixth largest in the US – was taking place. I really enjoyed strolling along Downtown’s main thoroughfare, admiring the works and wares of the assembled artists, dancers, musicians and exhibitors.
Downtown is also where you’ll find the Fort Worth Water Gardens which occupy what was once Hell’s Half Acre – a brothel and saloon packed district where cowhands had their last bit of fun before heading out on the Chisholm Trail. The tranquil, picturesque gardens are opposite the high octane Omni Hotel – where I was lucky enough to rest my head.
I’d been expecting something fancy (everyone I met from the customs officer to my taxi driver had nodded their head approvingly when I revealed my accommodation). But even so, I hadn’t anticipated the sheer luxury I walked into. The rooms are truly fab, boasting every amenity you could desire, and seriously spacious. They say that everything is bigger in Texas and that was certainly true of my room at the Omni which was larger than my London flat. Decor wise, they’re discreetly deluxe: pretty without being cutesy, elegant without being intimidating. Needless to say The Omni soon felt like home – though it hardly looks like it.
On day two, after a breakfast spread fit for an emperor, it was time to check out Fort Worth’s Cultural District for only a Philistine would visit the town oft called ‘Where the west began’ without seeing some of the town’s many museums and cultural sites.
I succumbed to the self imposed yet inescapable pressure of ‘the checklist’. You know: the one that demands you visit every single site, museum and monument that you’re supposed to. Take a bow the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
However if you’re not mad about museums, try the Kimbell Art Museum and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The Kimbell - which enjoys the moniker ‘America’s best small museum’ opened its newest addition, the Renzo Piano Pavilion, late last year (27 Nov 2013). The National Cowgirl Museum pays homage to the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe and Sacagawea and the remarkable development that these tough western women made to the region’s development. And exploring the Cultural District is easy thanks to Fort Worth B-Cycle, the first bike sharing system in North Texas.
But much of Fort Worth’s appeal lies in the famed Stockyards National Historic District which looks much the same as it did 100 years ago. For me the highlight of the Historic District was watching a small herd of Texas longhorns, guided by the steady hand of the Fort Worth herd drovers, make its way down Exchange Avenue in the daily cattle drive.
The Stockyards Cattle drive is heavily touristed – you might run into the couple you chatted with at breakfast – but it’s also a hit of bonafide culture and fabulously fun. If you’re in town on a Friday or Saturday night, catch a real live rodeo at the historic Cowtown Coliseum. The Stockyard Rodeo Championship – the world’s only year round rodeo – features bull riding, calf roping, team roping and barrel races and is a genuine Kodak moment.
And no visit to the Stockyard District would be complete without seeing the Stockyards Hotel – where Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, holed up during his 1932 Fort Worth stay – before rocking out at Billy Bob’s Texas. The world’s largest honky tonk – formerly a barn that housed prize cattle during the Fort Worth Stock Show – is a beguiling place both for camera clad tourists and those who simply want to blend into a destination that knows how to have a good time. I enjoyed a lively night for sure playing pool, watching up and coming country stars perform and enjoying the live bull riding competition over a craft beer.
On the subject of nightlife, every diary should have a window for a wild evening at The White Elephant Saloon. This authentic western watering hole, owned by local boy turned TV chef, Tim Love, is the kind of place you pop in for a quick, quiet drink and six hours later you’re still there – as I kind testify. I was roped into a group next to me at the bar who, with the help of too many drinks and the nightly live western music – soon felt like old friends.
For Fort Worth is made even more inviting by its startlingly welcoming people – everyone smiles and says hello – who are happy to share their world with you. Back home I often think about the folk of Fort Worth. I remember how friendly they were to a foreign journo passing through. And I think of the improbability of it all: there just 45 minutes away from the metropolis of mayhem that is Dallas, lies lovely Fort Worth. A Texas I didn’t know existed is right there, ready to be discovered.
Saddle up and go now (when the weather is less stifling than in the scorching high summer months) before everyone else wises up…
Getting there Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) is located 17.5 miles from Fort Worth
Need to know For more info on Texas, invest in Lonely Planet’s guide to Texas (£15.99)