A skeptical big city dad and daughter are thrilled by the fun and Wild West culture found in the little-known Texas town of Abilene.
Commonly referred to by locals as “The Big Country” or “The Friendly Frontier,” Abilene, Texas came into existence in 1875 along with the arrival of settlers traveling on the Texas and Pacific Railway. A 2½-hour drive from Dallas, it’s a perfect getaway destination for a combination of Western frontier history and big city culture in a small town atmosphere. In fact the locals joke that it’s the “home of the 5 minute traffic jam.”
Living in New York City and never having been to Texas, I was suspicious — yet excited — to see what was so special about Abilene.
To ensure that I planned my trip with the most fun-filled attractions and events, I logged on to the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau (325/676-2556 and 800/772-7704), where I researched and compiled my “must-see” destinations. I got quick responses from the convention staff and when I had additional questions they responded promptly.
So, I packed up my 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, and off we flew to Abilene.
Day One: Getting Our Bearings
On our first morning, we headed down to “FrontierTexas,” a Visitor’s Center and Museum, where we purchased a “Round-Up Pass” which allowed us to visit six attractions for one low price. Our first stop was at the Abilene Zoo (325/676-6085), only 15 minutes from downtown. W.K. Baker, the Director, explained that the zoo was being reconfigured under a new master plan to give visitors a more educational and concise view of which animals come from which region of the world. A great zoo is one that is constantly enhancing and introducing new exhibits, and clearly the one in Abilene is following this path. They had all the usual animals that one would find at a zoo, but it was not too large to cover in a day. A sure tell-tale sign for me was that I did not hear that common phase from my daughter; “I’m bored…” Our favorites were the giraffe, tigers and, of course, the rhino, and my daughter loved the flamingos!
After the zoo, we took a scenic 35-minute drive from Abilene to view the largest wind farm in the world. The Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center is supplied by wind turbines scattered across the county and truly a sight to behold!
After our scenic trip, we headed off to Lytle Land & Cattle Company (325/677-1925) for dinner, where I just had to order the Abilene Steak. Normally I am not a big beef eater, however I figured that while we were in Texas, I should have some red meat and needless to say, it was one of the best steaks I have had.
Day Two: Culture in Abilene
The next day we headed downtown for our culture day and returned to “Frontier Texas,” where all exhibits were very kid-friendly. We found their use of first-person narrative projection very realistic. The audio and visuals were very clear and gave you a concise picture of what the early settlers encountered in Texas. You truly felt like you were reliving the old west amongst the cowboys and Indians.
While most museums in New York are normally “hands off,” Dylan loved that she could touch and feel everything. We were even allowed to jump inside the stagecoach and take photos. In addition, the museum utilized a cylinder format for information and documentation display. Whereas most museums spread their information across a large space making it overwhelming, here, the same amount of information was consolidated into a circular format. Both Dylan and I loved the rotunda viewing hall, which not only gave you a 360-degree cinematic view, but the stools swiveled, so Dylan was busy spinning while I watched the movie. A must-see in Abilene!!!
Next, we walked two blocks to the Grace Museum (325/675-4587) which houses an Art, History and Children’s Museum all under one roof. The Art Museum’s signature piece is “Grace Notes,” an interactive sculpture by Edward Weiss with which both kids and adults can create music. The first and third floor of the museum offer sculptures and paintings, however the most fun can be found on the second floor which houses the Children Museum. Everything on this floor is interactive and hands-on; there is even a toddler section. A good half-day could be spent playing around here, and it’s a perfect place to keep the little ones busy on rainy days.
After leaving the Grace, we headed over to the NCCIL (National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature) (325/673-4586), where we got a first-hand look at a children’s illustration from sketch to print. Not only do they present the works of famous illustrators, but they host a free drawing class on Saturday for everyone. For history buffs, or those that are not into drawing or painting, walk over one block to the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum to see vehicles, uniforms and artifacts of WWII. One of the most interesting items for me was an authentic Concentration Camp Identification Arm band.
After a day of culture and shopping, we decided not to attend “Gone with the Wind” at their fully restored 1930s Paramount Theatre (325/676-9620) as I didn’t think Dylan would have lasted an additional 4 hours. So, we opted to grab dinner at Cypress Street Station (325/676-3463), where besides the good food, the main attraction was the tableside dessert preparation of anything flambÃ©e…
Day Three: History & Fun
On our last day we were off to Buffalo Gap Historical Village (325/572-3365), where they “preserve and present the history and heritage of the Texas frontier.” Think of a small town stuck in the late 1800’s but with no inhabitants. This allowed us to see, first-hand, the tools, weapons and medical instruments that the early settlers used. My favorite building was the Jailhouse, built out of stone and in its original location. Of course, I could not help but remind my daughter how lucky she was not to be living back in those days after she asked where the TV was. In an effort to teach and keep history alive, the Buffalo Gap not only has its own vintage baseball team which competes in tournaments, but they also host monthly lectures.
For lunch we headed off to the Perini Ranch (800/367-1721), where owner Tom Perini stopped by to say hello to everyone in the restaurant — a very personal touch. Not only has he catered to elected officials, but has been invited to cook multiple times at New York’s famous James Beard House. As lunch was very inexpensive, I was surprised how authentic and delicious everything was, especially their Strawberry Short Cake. On the ranch there are also live longhorn cattle, and Dylan was very excited that she could go outside and get a closeup view. A few miles up the road from the Perini Ranch you will find the Abilene State Park (325/572-3204), where one can camp, hike, swim, etc.
After lunch we headed down to the local amusement center PrimeTime (325/690-5555), where you can spend the entire day bowling, go-carting, playing video games, etc. We spent four hours there and, as we are always on the hunt for a homemade ice cream shop, found an authentic Mexican creamery called Paleteria Garcia after speaking with some locals. We grabbed an assortment of delicious treats and headed off to Rose Bud Park to hang out at the prairie dogs habitat which has a small circular brick wall which allows visitors to view them as they go about their daily lives. In fact, this would be the perfect evening picnic destination, especially as there was a playground near by.
Sitting there, eating our treats, both Dylan and I agreed this was a great vacation. For dinner we went to the Beehive Restaurant (325/675-0600)where we sampled some great Texas cooking. Even Dylan raved about the Lobster Bisque special that night.
Although there are many chain hotels and campgrounds, we chose to stay at the Sayles Ranch (325/669-6856), located in the historic section of Abilene. All accommodations are like your own private house; ours even included a washer and dryer. The dÃ©cor was very Texas shabby chic and it was very reasonably priced and centrally located; only about 7 minutes from downtown Abilene.
Abilene is surely a sleeping giant when it comes to art, history and culture. And, the food was outstanding. We found the locals to be very friendly and overall would recommend this town to anyone. Because we did a family trip we did not take advantage of the nightlife the town has to offer, but definitely plan to next time we visit. In addition to Broadway shows, there are also year-round events, like their local historic home and garden tours and country fair. Check out the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau for more fun things to do.
Thank you Abilene, we had a great time!!
For more fun ideas on places to stay in the area, see Hotels in Abilene.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.