Fair Park, a classic conglomeration of Art Deco buildings and spacious grounds built for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, is undergoing a renaissance. Built to commemorate the Republic of Texas's independence from Mexico, it is the only intact and unaltered, pre-1950s world's fair site in the United States. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark for its architecture (the only such landmark in Dallas), Fair Park is an attraction year-round, but especially so during the annual State Fair of Texas (last weekend of Sept and first 3 weeks of Oct).
The 277-acre grounds include several museums and performance and sporting facilities like the State Fair Coliseum, Cotton Bowl, Fair Park Bandshell, and Starplex Amphitheater, one of the city's top concert venues. The two major areas are the Esplanade and the Lagoon. There's much to see and do at Fair Park, so depending on your time, you may have to pick and choose. Plan on 2 or 3 hours minimum, and a full day during the State Fair of Texas. Below are the highlights:
The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, 3800 Parry Ave. (tel. 214/915-0860; www.thewomensmuseum.org), is a huge coup for Dallas. The pet project of a trio of Texas women and designed by Wendy Joseph, the chief designer behind the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., this exciting $25-million museum is an ambitious, high-tech architectural feast, audacious enough to encompass the accomplishments of women over the past century.
The museum presents two dozen mostly interactive exhibits, with a clear predilection for engaging the visitor with technological wizardry. Audio guides (hand-held cellphones) feature the voices of "mentors" Connie Chung, Gladys Knight, and the late Texas governor Ann Richards. "It's Amazing" is a glass labyrinth of female stereotypes, behind which are revealed several women who defied convention; "Mothers of Invention" showcases popular inventions by women (such as Liquid Paper, conceived by a Dallas secretary, and the brown paper bag). The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students ages 13 to 18, and $3 for children ages 5 to 12.
The Hall of State, 3939 Grand Ave. (tel. 214/421-4500; www.hallofstate.com; Tues-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; free admission), is the centerpiece and principal Art Deco legacy at Fair Park. Inside is a Texan's dream, the Hall of Heroes, with larger-than-life (as any Texan will tell you they were in real life) stalwarts of the Republic of Texas, including Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Venture into the four-story-high Great Hall, yet more proof that bigger is always better in Texas.
Trains evoke nostalgic feelings of travel and exploration in just about everyone; the collection at the Museum of the American Railroad, 1105 Washington St. (tel. 214/428-0101; www.dallasrailwaymuseum.com), including 28 locomotives, steam-era Pullman passenger cars, and Dallas's oldest surviving train depot, is sure to feed such impulses in visitors of all ages. The entry in the "Bigger in Texas" sweepstakes? Big Boy, the world's largest steam locomotive. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm; admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children; guided tours are $7.
The African American Museum, 3536 Grand Ave. (tel. 214/565-9026; www.aamdallas.org), is the only museum in the Southwest (and one of eight in the country) that focuses on the African-American experience and culture. The standout exhibit is the fine collection of African-American folk art, supplemented by a survey of African art objects and contemporary African-American art. Admission is free; it's open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5pm, Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday from 1 to 5pm.
The Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park, 1300 Cullum Blvd. (tel. 214/670-8443; www.dallaszoo.com), which contains a small but diverse collection of marine life, is currently closed for renovations, but will reopen in 2010. When it does, it will again highlight some of the weirder aquatic specimens in the marine and freshwater world, including walking fish, four-eyed fish, upside-down jellyfish, and desert fish. And who can resist watching the piranhas and sharks being fed? The newest and largest addition is the Amazon Flooded Forest, a 10,000-gallon tank with 30 species from the Amazon River. Normal hours are daily from 9am to 4:30pm; admission is $4 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 11.
The Museum of Nature and Science, 3535 Grand Ave. (tel. 214/428-5555; www.natureandscience.org), is the former Dallas Museum of Natural History now merged with the Science Place and IMAX theater. Families can view the kind of wildlife that roamed Texas before steers and longhorns, namely, dinosaurs, and explore permanent exhibits like Paleontology Lab and Prehistoric Texas. You can also entertain the kids with more than 300 hands-on science exhibits -- such as lifting a half-ton with one hand or playing with electricity -- and the massive, domed IMAX theater. The Planetarium features stargazing shows Monday through Saturday.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Sunday from noon to 5pm; admission is $8.75 for adults, $7.75 for seniors, $5.50 for children ages 3 to 12. Admission to the planetarium shows is $4 for all, while IMAX screenings are $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and children ages 3 to 12. Combo-pack tickets for all exhibits, including one IMAX screening, are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $11 for children ages 3 to 12. Parking is free.
Fair Park Passport -- Get in to seven Fair Park Museums for a single price, a savings of 40% over retail admission prices, with the newly inaugurated Fair Park Passport, available by calling tel. 214/428-5555 or logging on to www.fairpark.org. Tickets are $24 for adults and $14 for children ages 3 to 12. Participating museums are the African American Museum, the Hall of State, the Museum of the American Railroad, the Science Place, the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park, Texas Discovery Gardens, the Museum of Nature and Science, and the Women's Museum.