Fort Worth: Where cowboys and culture meet

Head to a rodeo, check out the museums or grab a gourmet bite in this bustling city

We quickly scan the Cowtown Coliseum for a row of empty seats and make a beeline for a staircase several sections down. We have to steer our distracted boys toward their chairs, their eyes transfixed on the Wild West scene unfolding at Fort Worth’s Stockyards Championship Rodeo. Bright red gates swing open and release a cowboy white-knuckling the reigns of his horse bucking wildly into the air. Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” blares over the speakers, competing with the audience’s escalating roars until the eight-second buzzer temporarily silences the arena. It’s hours past our weary crew’s bedtime, but even the baby is now clapping along with her brothers, whose closest idea of a cowboy before this moment was Woody from “Toy Story.” They grow increasingly enthralled by the quintessential Western lineup of team roping, barrel racing and bronc riding. When the 7-and-under mutton scramble competition is announced, our oldest finds his cowboy legs and there is no stopping him from running into the dirt ring with dozens of other kids. No trip to the city of cowboys and culture is complete without experiencing the world’s only year-round rodeo. But wander through Fort Worth for a few days to discover the nation’s 16th largest city has evolved far beyond its rough-and-tumble past, offering travelers everything from world-renowned museums and architecture to vast outdoor and culinary scenes.

Distance from Austin: An easy, straight three-hour, 200-mile drive along Interstate 35 separates Austin and Fort Worth.

Don’t miss: Home to five main entertainment districts all within three miles of one another, Fort Worth puts fun at your fingertips. Explore the true American West in the Stockyards National Historic District, where the world’s first indoor rodeo still goes on at the historic 2,300-seat Cowtown Coliseum every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. There are a few other ways to get a glimpse of the town’s Wild West past: check out the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, located in the Stockyards’ original mule barns; witness the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive, where real cowhands drive Texas Longhorns; or go boot-scooting at Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk. Bring a cowboy hat and boots home as souvenirs — several western wear shops dot historic Exchange Avenue and some even have bars inside in case shopping makes you thirsty. Art and architecture enthusiasts are in heaven in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, one of the largest arts districts in the nation boasting five internationally recognized museums including the Kimbell Art Museum, a modernist icon designed by Louis Kahn featuring the new Renzo Piano Pavilion; and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, designed by modernist Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Fort Worth’s cultural district is also home to the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, dedicated to honoring some the most influential women of the American West. Set aside some time to stroll around Sundance Square, a 35-block dining, entertainment and shopping mecca where you will find 34 restaurants and bars, 21 shops and boutiques as well as live theaters, museums and galleries lining charming red brick streets. It’s also a great spot to hang out in Fort Worth’s pedestrian-friendly downtown. We sipped coffee beneath 32-foot-tall white Teflon umbrellas while watching our kids splash in the water fountains jetting up in front of the historic Chisholm Trail Mural. Spend a pretty fall day strolling the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens, where you won’t break the bank looking at the beautiful blooms (admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children) found in Texas’ oldest botanic garden. It’s now home to over 2,500 plant species and 23 specialty gardens like the serene 7-acre Japanese Garden ($5 admission) boasting koi-filled ponds, meticulous landscaping and dramatic waterfalls.

Eat here: Get a sweet start to your day at Ol’ South Pancake House, a Fort Worth family owned and operated staple since 1962 serving up southern home-style cooking 24 hours a day. Signatures include the restaurant’s famous German pancakes filled with fresh-squeezed lemon juice, powdered sugar and whipped butter and the Southern fried chicken and Belgian waffles — but our boys loved their Texas-shaped waffles and my husband and I filled up on the South of the Border omelet with a side stack of buttermilk pancakes, a savory-sweet combo big enough to share. Head to Rodeo Goat, Fort Worth’s hottest burger mecca tucked in the West 7th District, for a family-friendly lunch or dinner best enjoyed on the patio with a cold draft in hand. Innovative burgers come with clever names like Cowboy Murrin and Chaca Oaxaca and out-of-the-box toppings like fried eggs, brisket chili, blackberry compote and grilled peaches. Satisfy pre-rodeo cravings cowboy-style at Cooper’s Old Time BBQ in the Stockyards. For a casual-meets-culinary dinner experience, duck into Little Red Wasp Kitchen + Bar for a wide array of local craft beers and cocktails, knife + fork sandwiches served with house-made chips, fabulous nightly features like shrimp and grits and Grandma’s fried chicken and wow-worthy desserts like doughnut holes rolled in cinnamon and sugar.

Stay here: Fort Worth boasts around 13,500 hotel rooms, but we found the Sheraton Fort Worth Downtown Hotel a comfortable and convenient spot in the heart of the city. Located across from the Fort Worth Water Gardens, the Sheraton recently underwent a major renovationand is a comfortable option for families or those choosing to hang their hats for a few days.

Always free: Fort Worth offers plenty of fun for free. Several of its must-see museums have free admission, like the permanent collection at the Kimbell Art Museum, home to Michelangelo’s first painting, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which houses hundreds of works by great American West artists. Take a free tour of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing Western Currency Facility. And it won’t cost you a penny to walk, run or cycle along the Trinity Trails, 40 miles of trails fringing the Trinity River.

Kids will love: Delight kiddos at the Fort Worth Zoo, the oldest zoo in Texas that now houses nearly 7,000 native and exotic animals. Exhibits mimic natural habitats, allowing visitors get up-close views of diverse species from around the globe in action like black rhinos, white tigers and red kangaroos. Our kids marveled at the playful lion cubs, got eye-level with gorillas and crocodiles and even pet a python.

Famous festival: Check out the annual Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo ( running from Jan. 15 to Feb. 6, which started in 1896 and now brings around 1 million people to the Will Rogers Memorial Center for the livestock show and daily rodeo performances.

Not to miss nearby: Take a diversion to Dallas, just 30 miles east of Fort Worth, or check out the family friendly attractions located in Grapevine, just 25 minutes away.

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