Guide to ... Dallas

Big-city Texans know how to kick up their heels, writes David Whitley.

STAY

Budget

Bargain-priced accommodation in central Dallas usually equals a park bench but some residents do rent out spare rooms via airbnb.com. Otherwise, you're looking at staying in an anonymous part of the giant urban sprawl and making sure you have a car. The Best Western CityPlace Inn (4150 North Central Expressway, 827 6080, bestwestern.com, from $US95) is decently close to the action and falls into the surprisingly acceptable motel bracket. More of the same chain-like adequacy can be found near Love Field Airport, while the Best Western Hotel and Conference Centre (8051 Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway, 972 680 3000, bestwestern.com, from $US68), further north, is a step up in quality, if down in price.

Mid-range

The Indigo (1933 Main Street, 741 7700, hotelindigo.com, from $US183) is just lovely. Friendly staff and a tropical, beachy feel give it oodles of character. The bright yellow bedrooms are very much love-or-hate, though — be warned. The nearby Magnolia (1401 Commerce Street, 915 6500, magnoliahoteldallas.com, from $US149) is a downtown steal as well — big mirrors make the rooms feel more spacious than they are and a makeover has embellished a genuinely stylish swagger. The Belmont (901 Fort Worth Avenue, 393 2300, belmontdallas.com, from $US121) is a relative bargain — the retro-chic feel, city views and judicious tarting up of a classic building make up for the slightly isolated location.

Luxe

The Adolphus (1321 Commerce Street, 742 8200, hoteladolphus.com, from $US186) is the one with the wow factor, with wall-to-wall wood panelling, billowing plants and tapestries making the lobby scream "opulence". The bedrooms are more subdued but still have touches of classic glamour. The Palomar (5300 East Mockingbird Lane, 520 7969, hotelpalomar-dallas.com, from $US218) puts a fun twist on the upmarket business hotel, with free wine tasting every evening, leopardskin robes and plants in the corner of the perky-feeling rooms. The Stoneleigh Hotel and Spa (2927 Maple Avenue, 871 7111, stoneleighhotel.com, from $US248) has a detached refinement about it, with lots of natural light, smart-without-being-cold colour schemes and spacious standard rooms.

Lash out

The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek (2821 Turtle Creek Boulevard, 559 2100, mansiononturtle creek.com, from $US360) has a relaxed but stately feel that's popular with visiting dignitaries. It's in a leafy location and a coral colour scheme runs throughout. Slightly closer to downtown, the Ritz-Carlton (2121 McKinney Avenue, 922 0200, ritzcarlton.com, from $US373) is your classic corporate luxury hotel but there's plenty of cat-swinging space and all the facilities you can care to mention. Joule (1530 Main Street, 748 1300, starwoodhotels.com, from $US41) is the star, though: bold and in the heart of downtown, all surfaces are varnished to superhuman levels and startling art installations make it stick in the memory.

SHOP+PLAY

To market

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This city does malls better than it does stalls but the Dallas Farmers' Market (1010 South Pearl Expressway, 939 2808, dallasfarmersmarket.org) is definitely worth a look. It is open from 8am to 6pm daily and is a good opportunity to stock up on locally grown produce if you plan to cook for yourself rather than power dine. Alternatively, you can time your trip to coincide with the Dallas Flea Market (thedallasflea.com) on South Lamar Street, which is rather more grand than it sounds. Luring in creative types from all over Texas, it is like a farmers' market for artists four times a year.

Go shop

JFK buffs can stock up on questionable DVDs, pamphlets and books from the conspiracy theorists hanging around Dealey Plaza but a better souvenir is a reprinted copy of The Dallas Morning News from the day of the Kennedy assassination. They are available at The Sixth Floor Museum's shop. Other fitting purchases in this cowboy city are boots, hats and belts, and Wild Bill's Western Store (311 North Market Street, 954 1050) has a glorious array of them. For big-label shopping, Nieman Marcus (1618 Main Street, 741 6911, niemanmarcus.com) is the major department store to check out and the super-swanky Highland Park Village (hpvillage.com) has the honour of being the US's first shopping centre.

Live music

The Granada Theatre (3524 Greenville Avenue, 824 9933, granadatheater.com) is a historic building that plenty of guitar-wielding bands trundle through. They are at varying levels of obscurity — you will rarely get an internationally recognisable name in here — but the website always lists other bands that "go well with" that night's act as a reference point. The Palladium Ballroom (1135 South Lamar Street, 972 343 2444, thepalladiumball room.com) has less charm but attracts bigger acts. The true Texan experience — with mechanical bull rides, line dancing and country bands — comes next door at Gilley's (1135 South Lamar Street, 214 421 2021, gilleysdallas.com), Dallas's most famous honky-tonk.

Nightclubs

Escapade 2001 (10701 Finnell Street, 654 9950) offers something a little unusual. It is a huge space with multiple rooms and each is devoted to a style of Latin music, making it perfect for those who want to shake their thing and get all steamy. Zubar (2012 Greenville Avenue, 887 0071, thezubar.com) is a good place to see local electronic music acts as well as DJs. There's a friendly, unpretentious vibe, too. Almost the exact opposite is Suite (4515 Travis Street, 520 9135, suitedallas.com), which is a sleekly designed retro-meets-modern hangout for the rich, beautiful crowd who like to show their spending power via bottle service.

SEE+DO

Icons

Dallas, alas, is best known as the city in which US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. To form your own theory, you first need to head to Dealey Plaza to familiarise yourself with the layout, then head up to the Sixth Floor Museum (411 Elm Street, 747 6660, jfk.org) at the Texas School Book Depository Building. The displays are extensive and cover most perspectives. For the fictional shooting of J.R. Ewing in the Dallas TV series, Southfork Ranch (3700 Hogge Road, 972 442 7800, southforkranch.com) can be found in the satellite town, Parker. A new Dallas icon, the 122-metre Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava, hasn't yet opened but is already a skyline fixture.

Culture

Dallas likes big things and proudly boasts that its arts district is the biggest in the country, spanning 19 blocks. The centrepiece is the Dallas Museum of Art, pictured (1717 North Harwood, 922 1803, www.dm-art.org). It's a good all-rounder, covering art from across the world and containing token pieces by most of the big names but lacking knockout highlights. The hugely engaging Nasher Sculpture Centre (2001 Flora Street, 242 5100, www.nashersculpture center.org), opposite, has a smaller collection but you're more likely to leave it with a big grin on your face. If acoustic is more your thing than aesthetic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (692 0203, dallassymphony.com) has a reputation for a willingness to take risks.

Footwork

In a city that's about as pedestrian-friendly as a minefield, the Katy Trail is a saving grace. The 5.6-kilometre route links the Knox-Henderson and West End areas of the city along an old railroad, which means you're not having to battle traffic every two minutes. It's divided into a cycle path and a soft-surface running and walking track. The lining of trees gives it a cut-off, peaceful feel. White Rock Lake, pictured, north-east of the city, also provides a nice respite — 15 kilometres of hiking trails around the waterfront. You might have to dodge a few anglers, however.

Follow the leader

Generic city bus tours that tick off most of the highlights — while throwing in the chance to gawp at some seriously expensive houses — are available with Hello Dallas Tours (261 5651, hellodallastours.com) for $US30. However, you can also get around by Segway. Dallas Segway Tours (972 821 054, dallassegwaytours.com, from $US83.36) offers trips on these odd contraptions along the Katy Trail and around Dealey Plaza. Meanwhile, the Dallas Centre for Architecture (742 3242, dallascfa.com) offers walking tours for those entranced by the city's skyline. Separate $US10 tours explore the arts district and the Main Street area of downtown.

EAT+DRINK

Cafe culture

The Lily Pad (1920 Main Street, 529 6706) is a good spot for a downtown bite on a sunny day. The timber deck overlooks the Main Street Garden, and there's a healthy-ish menu that includes pressed wraps and organic frozen yoghurt. For something more substantial, Cafe Madrid (4501 Travis Street, 528 1731, cafemadrid-dallas.com) in Knox-Henderson is a perennially popular tapas joint that acts as a community hub as much as a restaurant. The Cosmic Cafe, pictured (2912 Oak Lawn Avenue, 521 6157, cosmiccafedallas .com) is a riotous hive of colour, elephant paintings, murals and Eastern spirituality. It's also a fun vegetarian oasis in a city of steaks.

Snack attack

Fuel City (801 South Riverfront Boulevard) is in essence a truck stop-petrol station but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who'll dispute that its tacos are the best in Dallas. For good burgers, Hunky's (3940 Cedar Springs Road, 522 1212, hunkys.com) has a classic 1950s diner look that is at odds with its mostly young and hip clientele. On-the-go heaven, however, must look very much like Eatzi's (3403 Oak Lawn Avenue, 526 1515, eatzis.com). It's a huge grocery store and deli with freshly made salad boxes, crab cakes, rotisserie chickens, artisan bread, pastas and cakes. Walk in hungry and you'll walk out with enough to feed a coachload.

Top of the town

In a city where cattle is big business, there's fierce competition for the title of "best steakhouse". Nick and Sam's (3008 Maple Avenue, 871 7444, nick-sams.com) is always at the top, or very close — in no small part due to the complimentary caviar handed out with each cut. For a dress-up dinner in elegant, formal surroundings, go for The French Room, pictured, at the Adolphus Hotel. Seasonal ingredients are key and the list of the restaurant's awards is Tolstoy-esque. Dallas's flashiest celeb chef, however, is Tom Colicchio at Craft (2440 Victory Park Lane, 397 4111, craftrestaurant.com). His $US110 tasting menu changes regularly and he's famed for simple ingredients done very well.

By the glass

The Old Monk (2847 North Henderson Avenue, 821 1880, oldmonkdallas.com) is a fab pub with arguably the best beer selection in Dallas. The timber benches outside are a winner on a hot day, too. The outdoor area at Barcadia (1917 North Henderson Avenue, 821 7300, barcadiabars.com) is also very popular and many come here to play on the vintage arcade games as they sip. For wine lovers, Vino 100 (2909 McKinney Avenue, 969 9463, vino100dallas.com) in the buzzing uptown precinct is a fabulous idea. It's a shop that sells 100 great wines for less than $US25 a bottle and morphs into a terraced bar with live music at night.

Hot tip

It's important to know what you're getting into when you get off the plane at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Dallas is a largely unchecked sprawl, slavishly devoted to cars and multi-lane freeways. There are some genuinely enjoyable areas but they're spread out. There are two options: try to conquer it all but feel somewhat detached using a rental car, or rely on boot leather, iffy public transport and cabs to concentrate on a couple of the more appealing parts of town. The car option will involve getting angry at toll roads and valet parking charges; the green option will limit your exploratory powers and necessitate the odd hair-raising dash across a six-lane road.

Getting there

Qantas has recently started flying directly to Dallas from Sydney. It's a monster flight but returns start from $2004, 13 13 13. qantas.com.au.

Visas and currency

No visas are required but the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation registration is obligatory. Fill in the forms at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta and shell out the $US14 fee at least 72 hours before travel or risk being turned away at passport control. Currency is the US dollar and $US1 = $0.93 at time of writing.

Calling Dallas

The US country code is 1 and most — but not all — Dallas numbers have the 214 dialling code. To call any seven-digit number listed here from overseas, add +1 214. Other numbers are listed in full.

More information

visitdallas.com.

The writer was a guest of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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