McAllen, Texas is a place of surprising discoveries. This south Texas community, just five miles from the US-Mexico border, is home to the World Birding Center headquarters making it an annual destination for avid bird-watchers. It is also home to the National Butterfly Center with over 200 species of butterflies including many rare varieties. But McAllen isn't just about things with wings. This is a community with a fascinating history, a nest of creativity, and a booming culinary scene. Here are a few reasons you should add McAllen to your travel plans.
Historic and Beautiful
Built in 1909 to draw water from the Rio Grande and channel it to nearby farms, the Old Hidalgo Pump House with its network of smoke stacks and steam driven irrigation pumps transformed Hidalgo County into a year-round farming phenomenon producing crops of citrus, cotton, and sugar cane. Today the old pump house has been restored and serves as a museum. Docent-led tours showcase the enormous machines along with a series of exhibits, photographs, and artifacts depicting the history of the area.
The lush grounds surrounding the Old Hidalgo Pump House along the banks of the Rio Grande serve as a wing of the World Birding Center. A stroll along the wooden boardwalk beside the river is a fantastic way to spot tropical kingfishers, tiny hummingbirds with iridescent feathers, and brilliantly colored butterflies.
The historic heart of McAllen is Quinta Mazatlan, a 1930's hacienda that embodies the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of arches, adobe, and beams. Built by Jason Matthews, a true renaissance man who is said to have ridden through the desert with Lawrence of Arabia fighting the Turks, Matthews built Quinta Mazatlan as a home for his family, but in doing so he left McAllen an extraordinary gift. Guided tours are offered providing insight into the history and design of the mansion and entertaining stories about the family. Don't miss the master bath with massive his and hers tiled bathtubs.
The Folk Art Room features over 1,400 pieces of Mexican folk art from the collection of local artist, Ann Moore. The whimsical collection provides a dazzling experience of color and a peek into Mexican celebrations and traditions.
Outside of the house, history literally rises from the estate grounds that have been transformed into a botanical history lesson, beginning with a prehistoric landscape and continuing through the present. And, of course, there are birds...lots of birds!
A Nest of Creativity
Art and science merge at the Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of Art and Science (IMAS). On the art side, the museum houses an astonishing collection of world-renowned treasures including a permanent exhibit of lithographs by Pablo Picasso. There is also a world-class collection of stained glass windows that are part of the Sacred Visions: Stained Glass Windows From The Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios exhibit.
The science wing includes hands-on experiments and opportunities to get up close and personal with iguanas and Sally the boa constrictor - if you dare. Don't miss the Science in a Sphere exhibit in the IMAX theatre.
The art of McAllen continues in the downtown art district. Here galleries, studios, and restaurants thrive in over 30,000 square feet of space. In the middle of the district, the former public library has been repurposed as the McAllen Creative Incubator. The space includes several art studios, as well as a gallery, paint lab and the Idea Lab. Emerging artists from several genres including painting, photography, and music all exhibit their works here. It is a nest of creativity offering workshops in everything from drawing to violin lessons.
A Booming Culinary Scene
The culinary scene in McAllen is hot - and not just because it's in South Texas. From traditional Tex-Mex to innovative contemporary cuisine, there is something to please every palette. If burgers are your thing, don't miss Peppers Uptown where there are 15 burgers on the menu including the Ginormous Burger with double meat, jalapenos, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions.
Larry and Jessica Delgado have two delicious options for dining - House. Wine. & Bistro Restaurant and SALT. Both locations serve contemporary American cuisine. The atmosphere at SALT is farmhouse modern with an open kitchen where you can watch the magic happen.
Tamales are a breakfast tradition in South Texas and Delia's Tamales is the place to indulge. Sold by the dozen or the half-dozen with choices like chicken and cheese, pork or spicy chicken and jalapeos - these foil wrapped treats will start your day off right.
No visit to McAllen would be complete without dinner at Frida's Grill and Cantina. Ranked number one out of 100 restaurants in South Texas since 2013, Sergio and Mary Luna continually serve up contemporary cuisine with authentic Mexican flavors. Steaks, seafood, quail, and traditional Mexican favorites are all on the menu. Hand built by the Luna family, Fridas has a sentimental value that is evident in every dish Sergio prepares.
Where to Stay
Beamed ceilings, dark red tiles, and whitewashed walls set the stage at the beautiful and historic Casa de Palmas hotel in downtown McAllen, just steps from restaurants, galleries, and shops. But the star of the show is the "Sausage Tree" (kigelia pinnata) in the hotel courtyard with its heavy vines cascading down from thick limbs. Each night around 10:00 pm the tree blooms producing a stunning display of blood red flowers.
Have you been to McAllen? What did you discover?
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