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The light rail tracks on Pacific Avenue slice through the West End Historic District in Downtown Dallas. (Photograph by Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo)

10 Reasons to Love Downtown Dallas

Fifteen years ago, the initial in Dallas’s nickname—the Big D—stood for “Deserted.” After 5 p.m., office workers fled the downtown made famous by J.R. Ewing and his oil-pumping clan, leaving nary a soul among its high rises and freeways.

Today J.R.’s iconic Dallas Stetson rests in Downtown‘s Old Red Museum, while hundreds of restaurants and a sparkling array of cultural institutions are luring locals back to the city’s central business district to live by the thousands—and inviting visitors to come explore.

“We’ve traded the ‘Big Hair, Big Cars’ [stereotype] for a real cosmopolitan flair,” observes Andrew Bottomley, chef concierge of the Joule Hotel, a coolly elegant 160-room oasis that serves as canteen and watering hole for the neighborhood.

“[Dallasites] used to want to look at Downtown. Now they want to live in it,” says real estate broker Steve Shepherd, who lives on the 15th floor of a repurposed mid-century bank building. “Downtown now gives you a real sense of community. It’s what people are looking for.”

Travelers can take in the sights as easily from the free, pink-hued D-Link bus as they can from on high in the Reunion Tower, a 561-foot-tall cement-and-glass lollipop that explodes nightly into an LED-powered light show to commemorate everything from St. Patrick’s Day to gay pride. Today, when it comes to its downtown, the Big “D” stands for “Delightful.”

Here are ten reasons to visit:

  1. Opened in 2003 and designed by Renzo Piano, the Nasher Sculpture Center melds a garden full of contemporary art with warm interior galleries to form the nucleus of the Dallas Arts District, a section of Downtown that also includes the Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre.
  2. Are you being watched? That would be a “yes,” if you’re walking past 1607 Main Street, where Chicago-based contemporary artist Tony Tasset rolled a gargantuan eyeball, modeled after his own baby blues, into a vest-pocket park. The three-story pop-art-inspired peeper, Eye, is a bit bloodshot, but it’s certainly a head turner.
  3. The Dallas Farmers Market, located in a new residential area on the southeastern cusp of Downtown, is bringing urban living to new heights with its focus on Texas-farmed and organic vegetables and fruits.
  4. The temple of Texas style, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store, has brought sleek haute couture to the American heartland since it opened its doors on Main Street in 1914. Even today, in an age of waning customer service, shoppers praise the store’s helpful staff and fashion-forward finds.
  5. If freeways encircle Downtown Dallas like a moat, Klyde Warren Park acts as a bridge to the city’s outer core. The 5.2-acre “deck” park built directly atop Woodall Rodgers Freeway connects Downtown to the posh Uptown neighborhood and features pop-up fountains, a children’s playground, hundreds of trees, a lunchtime food truck roundup, and Sunday morning yoga. Plans are afoot for four more downtown parks.
  6. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza delves into the events surrounding the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Built on the same building floor from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle, the museum’s thoughtful and moving exhibits—accented by video, photographs, and timelines—put the tragic day in context, ensuring its relevance for decades to come.
  7. The Dallas Museum of Art, across from the Nasher Sculpture Center, has the kind of exhibitions (in addition to the more than 23,000 works of art comprising its permanent collection) and enthusiasm that wins awards. Known for its American and European paintings, the DMA also possesses impressive decorative arts holdings. Tip: Make sure to check out the reproduction of a French villa designed by the legendary Coco Chanel.
  8. If Dallas had a Brooklyn, it might be the eastside Deep Ellum, whose array of music venues, breweries, and barbecue joints lends a youthful, hipster patina to what was once scruffy warehouses and pool halls. A bonus: the neighborhood is accessed easily from Downtown by DART, the city’s streetcar. Hungry? You can’t beat the $8 pulled-pork sandwich at Pecan Lodge. The ambitious order the $9 “Hot Mess,” featuring shredded brisket, chipotle cream, cheese, and sea salt-crusted sweet potatoes.
  9. Downtown abounds with watering holes at the ready to quench a late-night thirst, but none is as elegant as Midnight Rambler, an edgy cocktail bar in the Hotel Joule that features concoctions such as the “Cobra Snake Necktie” and their signature “Cuffs & Buttons,” served with spiced bourbon and stone fruit.
  10. There are literally hundreds of Downtown restaurants, but one not to miss is Lark on the Park, a new bistro adjoining Klyde Warren Park. Brunch highlights include slow-drip coffee (drinkers are provided with a small hourglass to perfectly time their first sip) and the shishito (sweet-pepper) omelet with caramelized onions, cheddar cheese, habanero-corn salsa, and lime crema.

New Orleans-based writer Andrew Nelson is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @andrewnelson and on Instagram @andrewtyrrellnelson.