Hidden Summer Gems in Downtown Dallas

Summer in the Dallas-Fort Worth area brings with it the promise of certain traditions. There’s the Addison Kaboom Town! Fireworks display, the Bastille on Bishop celebration in Oak Cliff and Denton’s North Texas Fair and Rodeo — to name just a few. But if you want to stay close to the city proper and still beat the crowds while beating the heat, then you’ve got to get off the beaten path. Luckily, Downtown Dallas is home to some of the city’s most interesting yet lesser-known attractions.

Dallas boasts an array of interesting exhibits and public artworks, some of which may be familiar, but others of which feature fascinating backstories. Take, for example, the colorful sunburst mosaic at Saint Jude Catholic Chapel at 1521 Main Street. It was created by Gyorgy Kepes (1906 – 2001) a Hungarian-born artist who immigrated to the U.S. in 1937. Kepes taught for a time at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) before founding the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The church commissioned this mosaic by Kepes before it opened in 1968.

Then there’s Emmanuel Gillespie’s “African Contribution to World Culture,” a series of five panels depicting African motifs on the side wall of the South Dallas Cultural Center facing 2nd Street and South Fitzhugh Avenue. The panels were installed in 2007 as part of the Office of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Collection. For a full list of public artworks in Downtown Dallas, browse the online listings at the Public Art Archive.

Many Dallasites have enjoyed a quiet afternoon at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, but how many have visited the Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum at 2501 Harwood (just above the St. Ann Restaurant)? Centuries of samurai culture are on display here, represented by more than 1,000 pieces of authentic armor, helmets, masks, weaponry and saddlery. This museum is the only one of its kind outside of Japan.

For a glance back at some of Dallas’ more unusual history, the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower owns a sizable collection of memorabilia associated with La Reunion, a socialist utopian settlement that sprang up in what is now West Dallas in the 1850s. Hundreds of immigrants from France, Switzerland and Belgium, some of whom had been forced into exile for political reasons, came to settle near the Trinity River. However, the group didn’t have the agricultural skills necessary to keep itself fed and by 1859 the colony had largely disbanded. The exhibit showcases historic materials such as photos, family rosters, maps and narrative accounts to give visitors a more personal view of the people who — however briefly — made their homes in North Central Texas.

After taking in all that culture, it might be time to caffeinate. Skip the ubiquitous options and check out Full City Rooster in the Cedars or Noble Coyote in Expo Park. Both offer intimate settings in which to enjoy small-batch, freshly roasted coffees made with ethically sourced beans. If you’re looking for some good reading to go along with your java, check out Deep Vellum Books at 3000 Commerce, an independent bookseller known for nurturing new voices and carrying titles from independent publishers. Literature in translation is a major focus at Deep Vellum, and works by world-renowned authors share shelf space with books penned by local writers.

And what about night life? For a different kind of dramatic experience, Expo Park’s Ochre House Theater is a 50-seat alternative theater company known for producing outstanding productions using minimal materials. Its next performance will be the premiere of “Picasso: Matador de Malaga,” which explores the imagination of the storied artist and features dance from world-class flamenco artists.

Finally, to take in Downtown Dallas from a different vantage, rent a canoe and head out on the Dallas Trinity Paddling Trail. This 10.2-mile aquatic trail offers views of both the city skyline and the surrounding natural habitats, from floodplain to forest.

What’s your favorite out-of-the-way destination in Downtown Dallas? What Downtown Dallas locales do you gravitate toward when you want a relaxing but distinctly cosmopolitan experience? Keep the conversation going and share your Downtown Dallas discoveries with us on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’re looking for more recommendations on great things to do, see and experience in Downtown Dallas, sign up for our newsletter.