Craft breweries, mesquite-grilled barbecue and a vibrant arts scene are just a few things you don't want to miss.
Midway between Dallas and Lubbock is Abilene, Texas, a midsize city with big charm. Started in the 1880s as a place where stockmen could transport cattle, Abilene today is a thriving community that’s home to Dyess Air Force Base and is a hub of higher education. Abilene has plenty of things to do, so don’t let the grass grow under your feet — get going on this list of local pastimes that are guaranteed to be fun and uniquely Texan.
Summers are warm in Abilene, but there are plenty of places to get wet or just cool off. Picnic on the shady banks of Elm Creek, stroll through a scenic oak grove or take a dip in the historic swimming pool at Abilene State Park, which spans 500 acres. Drop a line in Buffalo Wallow Pond or rent a kayak to explore the park’s centerpiece, Lake Abilene. Fishing and boating are allowed at Lake Kirby Park & Nature Play Area, which also features pavilions and a beautiful boardwalk that is a popular spot for bird watching. At Lake Fort Phantom, you can swim, fish, ski and even sail and windsurf. To make a big splash, head to Adventure Cove water park to enjoy the leisure pool, two water slides and a lazy river. Abilene also has five splash pads with water features for all ages, from sprayers to slides to massive dumping buckets.
Go Two-Stepping at an Authentic Western Dance Hall
Abilene has a distinctive Western streak, so learning how to two-step comes with the territory. Don your boots and head to any of Abilene’s Western-style dance halls — there are several spots to choose from, including the aptly named Guitars & Cadillacs (hat tip to Dwight Yoakam) and Oplin Dance Hall, which claims the largest dance floor in the Abilene/Big Country area. Don’t forget to learn a good line dance and a country waltz while you’re at it! If you visit in May, you can join Abileneans two-stepping in the streets during the Western Heritage Classic’s street dance. And people come from all over the country to attend the annual Cowboys Christmas Ball in nearby Anson, which dates back to 1885 and honors the tradition of Western dance.
Eat Real Texas Barbecue
Cowboy-style, mesquite-smoked, fall-apart-tender meats are what define Texas barbecue, and naturally, Abilene offers a number of choice establishments to sample its unique flavors. Locals love Betty Rose’s Little Brisket (meat by the pound, sandwiches, catfish and banana pudding), Jay’s BBQ Shack (try the brisket queso with homemade chips), Joe Allen’s Pit Bar-B-Que (burgers, seafood and mesquite-smoked ’cue), Sharon’s Barbeque (try the brisket Frito pie and the jalapeno cheese sausage) and The Shed Market (don’t miss The Herc Sandwich: jalapeno sausage, chopped brisket, pulled pork, barbecue sauce and green chile mac-n-cheese piled on a potato bun).
Raise a Glass During a Craft Beer Crawl
Abilene has hopped aboard the craft beer train, with several new microbreweries opening their doors over the past few years. A craft beer crawl is a great way to get a taste. Start at Grain Theory, where you can enjoy a brew along with inspired pub fare from their spacious balcony overlooking downtown. Then make your way to the award-winning Pappy Slokum Brewery, where you’ll find a roster of creatively named beers like Douchebag Jimmy and Stripper Dust. At Sockdolager Brewing Co. in the hip SoDA District, you can listen to live music or do yoga while you sip. Amendment 21, a Prohibition-themed distillery fittingly nestled into a historic factory, offers a robust menu of whiskey cocktails plus its own Blood Orange IPA and Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer. You’ll also find plenty of local brews — including beers from Red Gap Brewing in nearby Cisco — on tap at The Mill Wine Bar & Event Center, Cypress Street Station and other Abilene restaurants and watering holes.
Catch a Show at the Historic Paramount Theatre
In the 1920s and ’30s, theatergoing was about more than the show on stage or screen — the theater space itself was designed to transport guests to faraway lands they’d likely never visit. These “atmospheric theaters” are few and far between today. Paramount Theatre was saved from the wrecking ball and restored thanks to the Abilene community. Opened in 1930 as a part of the Wooten Hotel development, the theater is known for its Spanish-Moorish Deco architecture, including stars and clouds that move across the ceiling and mimic the sky. The theater is now operated by a nonprofit organization and shows a mix of classic, family and art films as well as live theater productions.
Attend a Rodeo
Rodeo in West Texas is something everyone must experience at least once in their lives. (After that, you can truthfully say it’s not your first rodeo.) Pull on your hat and boots (available at one of the many Western outfitters in town) and cowboy up. From the Western Heritage Classic in May to the West Texas Fair and Rodeo in September, there are plenty of opportunities to see all the roping, bronc and bull riding, and barrel racing you can handle. Bonus: Rodeos aren’t all about the aforementioned events — there are vendors, rides, games and live music, not to mention the awesome people watching.
Take a Food Tour
Abilene’s dining scene isn’t just steak and potatoes. You’ll find award-winning restaurants, international cuisine, coffee houses and food trucks. Abilene Food Tours pair craft beers, wines and cocktails with small bites from local restaurants. Tours are offered downtown as well as in Abilene’s SoDA district, which has blossomed over the past several years, transforming from an area full of empty warehouses to an entertainment district with over a dozen wineries, bars, breweries, cafes and restaurants.
Catch Some Live Music
Live music is a huge part of the Abilene lifestyle. The annual Outlaws & Legends Music Fest features two days of live country music on The Back Porch of Texas. The ArtWalk, held downtown on the second Thursday of every month, includes live performances. And multiple venues offer live music regularly, including Potosi Live, Betty Rose’s Little Brisket, The Mill, Mulligan’s, Lytle Land & Cattle and The Ice House at Lone Star Dry Goods.
If hunting for vintage treasure makes your heart race, you won’t be disappointed in Abilene. With 29 antique stores in town, you’ll find everything from flea markets to consignment shops to antique European furniture. Whether you want to make a girls’ weekend out of it or just while away an afternoon, start your adventure at Vintage Marketplace, where you can pick up a guide to all the shops in town. You’re sure to find a one-of-a-kind souvenir to take home from your visit to Abilene!
Discover Why Abilene Is the “Storybook Capital of America”
The magic of children’s literature comes alive in Abilene, and there’s no better way to get to know the city than by embarking on a Storybook Sculpture Scavenger Hunt. Download a free map to discover sculptures all over town inspired by storybook characters including Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, as well as favorite Dr. Seuss characters. Kids of all ages will love having their pictures made with life-size storybook characters, and four-legged friends will appreciate tagging along for an outdoor adventure. Several sculptures reside at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, which spotlights the work of award-winning children’s illustrators and promotes literacy and a love of the arts. Each June,The Children’s Art & Literacy Festival honors the museum’s featured summer artist and the entire city celebrates with a parade, magic shows, costume contests and new sculpture unveilings.
Take a History Lesson
They say that to know where you’re going you have to know where you’ve been, and Abilene’s rich history tells quite the tale. At the Taylor County History Center, you can explore the area’s history from its earliest days via several historic buildings including a courthouse, jail, bank, post office, schoolhouse, cabin and petrol station, along with thousands of Old West artifacts. Take a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown and tour the renowned Swenson House mansion and grounds. Frontier Texas! gives visitors an interactive experience of the Wild West, while the Grace Museum offers art and history for all ages.
Visit a Working Ranch (and Enjoy a Steak Dinner)
The area around Abilene is full of ranches and farms — they’re an integral part of West Texas life. Although many working farms are off limits, others welcome visitors for tours and other activities. Shockey Stables will take guests on trail rides and Vinson Ranches allows guided hunting. Guitar Ranches has been raising cattle for three generations and offers a variety of hunting and lodging packages, as well as UTV tours, biking and canoeing. Or for a horse of a different color, head to May Farm in nearby Hawley to pet pigs, goats, sheep, bunnies and even tortoises. At Denton Valley Farms, about 20 minutes southeast of Abilene, you’ll find seasonal activities such as strawberry picking, hayrides and pumpkin patches, plus a farm store offering local produce, honey, milk, eggs, meats and canned goods. Perini Ranch is an area legend — while it’s known as a steakhouse serving mesquite-grilled beef and Southern-style comfort food in a barn-turned-restaurant, it also has several guest houses on the property.
This article was sponsored by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce.