In one particularly memorable episode of the classic 80s TV show Dallas, oil baron JR Ewing spitefully says to his half-brother Ray “You’re nothing but a dumb cowboy.” Ray replies “Yeah but I can still knock you on your butt.”
Their rivalry sums up the difference between the two neighbouring Texan cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Over the years they have slowly grown into one another, so much so that the huge international airport that services both cities is known as ‘Dallas Fort Worth (DFW)’ and sits smack in the middle.
Yet despite the huge capacity of DFW, international tourism is relatively small. For Dallas this is understandable because, while a surprisingly pleasant city, it offers nothing new that the global jetsetter. However Fort Worth, Dallas’s rough-and-ready sibling, offers something fresh and unique.
There are two main zones in Fort Worth. The downtown area is modern, chic and vibrant. The wealthy of Texas party till late in rooftop cocktail bars that line Sundance Square alongside hip bistros and art galleries, probably the most well-known of which is the late Thomas Kinkade’s showroom. In late April a week long arts and music festival takes over downtown and a carnival atmosphere takes hold.
The Historic Stockyards is the real point of interest for UK tourists. Five minutes drive from Sundance Square, you feel you’re in cowboy town even before clapping eyes on the first steer or Stetson. The centre is set around East and West Exchange Avenue and has barely changed in the past 150 years. It is immaculately maintained in all its chunky timber and cobblestone glory.
It is a working stockyard so ranch hands and cowboys mingle with the tourists on their way to view cattle in the pens before bidding on the animals in the stock exchange, which lies next to the Rodeo stadium. Here you can see one of the most kitsch events – a cowboy ‘exhibition’ where they practice lassoing the calves and shooting balloons from the saddle of a galloping horse.
At weekends live bands play country music on grassy forecourts around the centre and at 11.30am and 4pm every day Longhorn cattle are driven down Exchange Street, along the cowboy walk of fame, to the pens opposite the cowboy hall of fame. It’s doubtful whether non-Texans will have heard of any of the inductees here apart from Tommy Lee Jones (yep, the actor from movies like The Fugitive and Men In Black), but it still makes an interesting hour’s perusing and the air-conditioned exhibitions make a welcome relief from the dry, baking heat of the day.
The Stockyards is clean and spacious yet all the best sites are within easy walking distance and refreshments are plentiful. The most iconic place in Fort Worth to quench your thirst is Bill Bob’s.
Billy Bob’s (pictured below) is a huge diner, bar, nightclub, concert venue and pool hall all in one, with space for a live rodeo too on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s the kind of behemoth only found in the USA.
All the biggest names in Country music have played here, from legends like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, to modern stars such as Eric Church and Dierks Bentley. This is real cowboy nightlife. The crowd is friendly and proud of their heritage. The night usually starts with a honky-tonk (a live band) and a bull riding contest in the dirt pit out the back.
On a weekend the locals pack out the concert area in front of the dancefloor to listen to the latest star crooner, while those without a seat prop up the bars near to the couples who line dance late into the night in leather boots and Stetsons. It’s a scene that most Europeans might assume only exists in movies. But it’s real and it’s in Fort Worth.
There are other areas on the outskirts of Fort Worth also worth exploring. Arlington sits in between Fort Worth and Dallas. Here you will find Six Flags amusement park as well as the home stadiums of the Dallas Cowboys American football team and the Texas Rangers baseball team. Do go to a match if you get the chance. Sport in America is less a game, more an event. You can have a great time without watching any action on the pitch – similar to polo matches and rowing regattas in the UK. It’s all about enjoying the party with a bit of sport thrown in.
Heading out west on Interstate-30 you come to a series of towns, colloquially referred to by locals as ‘Hicksville.’ Folk here have rarely left the state, never mind the USA. Some don’t even leave their town. The dwelling of Mingus, for example, 100 miles west of Fort Worth, boasts 10 bars between its 250 residents, most of which are little more than oversized garages attached to bungalows. It’s worth stopping here for a couple of hours at a diner or a bar if the opportunity arises. It’s not to everyone’s taste but towns like Mingus are nothing if not unique – a slice of the ‘real’ Texas.
And if it’s the ‘real’ Texas you’re looking for, Fort Worth is the place to go.
Where to eat
Traditional American and Tex-Mex cuisine dominate the menus in Fort Worth, but it is cooked to the very best standards.
Booger Red’s Saloon (105 E. Exchange Ave, 817-624-1246) epitomises the best of American food. It’s all about the meat and Booger Red’s does an especially amazing slow smoked Brisket for £5.
For a taste of top quality Tex-Mex in lovely outdoors surroundings head to Joe T. Garcia’s (2201 North Commerce Street, +1 817 626 4356, joets.com). A plate of combo fajitas with rice, beans and tortilla come in at £7. The outdoor garden and fountain area is very popular at weekends so prepare to queue for entry.
Just around the corner from Booger Red’s, the Cattlemen’s Steak House (2458 North Main Street, +1 817 624-3945, cattlemenssteakhouse.com) is the place to go for the perfect steak. Try the Cattlemen's Bone-In Rib Eye Steak for £25, but clear your schedule first because at 18-oz you could be chewing for a while.
Where to stay
For those on a budget the quaint Miss Molly’s (109 West Exchange Avenue, +1 817 626-1522, missmollyshotel.com), a renovated 19th Century bordello house, is worth considering. It’s located behind John Wayne’s star on the Cowboy walk of fame. The Wild West themed rooms start at £65 per night.
The Hyatt Stockyards Hotel (pictured above, 132 East Exchange Avenue, +1 817 626-6000), opposite the cattle exchange, has the best location in town. It offers good modern comfort with a small pool out the back and rooms from £90 per night.
Alternatively the Stockyards Hotel (109 East Exchange Avenue, +1 817 625-6427, stockyardshotel.com) is beautiful period accommodation that boasts sumptuous antique furniture and ambience straight out of a John Ford western. Rooms start at £125 and Booger Red’s restaurant is next door.
The Omni Hotel is located in downtown, away from the Stockyards (1300 Houston Street, +1 817-535-6664) At the Omni you receive great service and luxury from £185 a night for those who want 21st Century comfort.
How to get there
British Airways (0844 2092770) flies daily to Dallas Fort Worth from Heathrow. Fares start at approx £725 return including taxes.
For more information www.fortworth.com; fortworthstockyards.org