What to do in Dallas: A guide to visiting the Hilltop
SMU alumna Meredith Carey ’15 is the travel bookings editor at Conde Nast Traveler and host of the Women Who Travel podcast. At the request of her longtime friend and SMU Young Alumni Board Member Katelyn Hall ’15, ’17, Carey wrote this fun resource for Mustangs planning a trip to campus to celebrate SMU’s upcoming Family Weekend and Homecoming Week on campus.
Where to stay
This downtown hotel – first opened in 1912 – got a full revamp back in 2018, and while it’s now packed with upgraded amenities and under the Marriott umbrella, it manages to keep its historic charm and design. While the rooms offer plenty of space to spread out, you’ll really want to spend most of your time here exploring the rest of the hotel. The lobby alone features a barber shop, coffee shop and must-visit gift shop. The spa is another major draw with 30-minute express massages that easily squeeze into any itinerary. But the crowning jewel is The French Room, one of Dallas’ best fine dining experiences, perfect for celebration brunches and dinners whether or not you’re staying here. 15 minutes from campus.
One of Dallas’ newest – and hippest – hotels, the Virgin is filled with artsy touches, Instagrammable moments and the playfulness Sir Richard Branson is known for. It’s a good fit in the Dallas Design District, which is filled with art galleries, restaurants and high-brow design shops. As gorgeous as the public spaces are, the rooms themselves have plenty of functionality, including luxe linens and a well-lit vanity. There are plenty of spots to eat, drink and people-watch, too, like the Commons Club restaurant, serving up New American food, the rooftop pool and the lounge-y café. 20 minutes from campus.
Just a few blocks from the Adolphus, this downtown hotel in Hyatt’s portfolio offers spacious rooms with Mad Men-meets-Texas design, mixing mid-century modern furniture with cow prints and leather. It’s all a nod to the building’s 1960s origins as the First National Bank building, but the hotel now sits squarely in the 21st century. Be sure to make reservations at one (or all) of the Thompson’s four restaurants, including the buzzy Catbird bar and Monarch, a wood-fired Italian food joint on the 49th floor with views over downtown and the Trinity River. 15 minutes from campus.
It doesn’t get much closer to SMU than the Lumen, which sits on Hillcrest Avenue across from Meadows School of the Arts. It’s filled with stylish, minimal rooms in tons of configurations, including suites with kitchenettes. The ground-floor Front Room Tavern is a great spot to gather for meals, and you’re within walking distance of Snider Plaza’s restaurants, shops and more. Directly next to campus.
Located across I-75 from SMU, and across the street from the shops and restaurants at Mockingbird Station, The Highland is both pet- and family-friendly, making it a great choice for visiting families and alumni. Amenities are plentiful, too – from a 24-hour fitness center with spin bikes, to a spa, to heated outdoor infinity pool that’s open year-round. Bonus: Knife, led by chef John Tesar, one of the city’s best steakhouses, is conveniently located on the hotel’s first floor. 5 minutes from campus.
Also SMU-adjacent, this spot sits across I-75 from the George W. Bush Presidential Center, within walking distance of Ford Stadium and the Boulevard. There’s a quirky, artistic vibe here, with geometric guest room murals and neon light-filled lounge areas. There are desks in every room, perfect for working remotely, and complimentary Wi-Fi. Rollaway beds and cribs are available on request. It also features Seely’s Mill barbecue restaurant/bar on site. 5 minutes from campus.
SMU students, alumni and parents get special rates at the Virgin Hotels Dallas, Lumen and Beeman, among others. Learn more at https://campustravel.com/university/southern-methodist-university.
From left to right: Pecan Lodge (Photo by Kathy Tran), rise no. 1, The Rustic (Photo by https://www.instagram.com/carly_mc/) Dallas
Where to eat and drink
For a quick bite near campus
Breakfast lovers should head to Shug’s Bagels, a top-notch bagel spot near the SMU Bookstore opened by SMU alumnus Justin Shugrue ’17 in 2020. The menu is stacked with classics like the Shug, a bacon, egg and cheese with a hash browns on a roll; and the Reuben, an everything bagel piled with pastrami, swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. For lunch and dinner, you’re flush with options. Bubba’s Cooks Country in Snider Plaza has been serving up family-style fried chicken, chicken-fried steak and heavenly biscuits since 1981. Olivella’s Pizza and Wine Shop in Hillcrest Village, across from McFarlin Auditorium, dishes out Roman and Neapolitan pizzas and can’t-miss salads. As for tacos, Torchy’s Tacos, Urban Taco and Velvet Taco are all within a short drive of campus.
For something new
Plenty has probably changed since the last time you were in town. Here are a few of the hottest spots that have opened in the past year or so. Kessaku, located on the 50th floor of The National building downtown, has just 60 seats and offers some of Dallas’ best sushi and sashimi, alongside jaw-dropping views. In Deep Ellum, Aaron Franklin of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue and Tyson Cole of Uchi opened Loro Asian Smokehouse, serving a mashup of Texas barbecue and Southeast Asian cuisine. The smoked prime bavette and the char siu pork belly are must-orders for the table. If your group can’t decide on what to eat, head to Exchange Hall, a 26,700-square-foot food emporium in downtown Dallas with 16 eatery options, including Monkey King Noodle Co., Revolver Taco, Ichi Ni San and more. As for new watering holes, check out Thunderbird Station, a laid-back spot from the creators of Double Wide; or Atlas, a Bishop Arts cocktail bar dedicated to concoctions from around the world.
For barbecue cravings
Dallas isn’t short on barbecue options; it depends how far you want to drive to get the good stuff. In Deep Ellum, about a 10-minute drive south of campus, Pecan Lodge has been serving up sausage, pulled pork and banana pudding to long lines of hungry Dallasites for years. Plan on standing in line for a while, but it’s worth it. Cattleack BBQ, one of the best barbecue spots in the state, sits about 10 minutes north of campus in a string of nondescript industrial warehouses. Order the beef or pork ribs and some smoked turkey. And if you’re flying in or out of Love Field, stop by Heim, located near the airport entrance. The Dallas outpost of the renowned Fort Worth barbecue joint is known for its brisket and beef short ribs.
For pre-Boulevard brunch
Near campus, Henry’s Majestic is known for its brunch cocktails (there’s a build-your-own mimosa bar) and extensive menu. Fill up on buttermilk fried chicken thighs and charred tomatillo chilaquiles. If you’ve got a big group, head to The Rustic, owned by SMU alumni Josh Sepkowitz ’01 and Kyle Noonan ’03, where brunch is served family style at $18 per person at outdoor picnic tables. Live music starts up around 12:30 p.m. on the weekends. And if you can manage to snag a reservation, the RH Rooftop Restaurant has become one of the city’s hottest brunch venues.
For a Dallas classic
It doesn’t get much more classic than rise no. 1, which has made a reputation in town as the best spot for soufflés. Start with the restaurant’s famous marshmallow soup – a tomato soup with large pieces of goat cheese – and then pick a savory soufflé, like mushroom or ham and gruyère. For a decidedly less airy meal, grab some Tex-Mex, either at Highland Park Village’s Mi Cocina or Mariano's Hacienda Dallas, home to the original frozen margarita. For a quick, filling meal, check out Jimmy’s Food Store, an old-school Italian market in East Dallas that makes the ultimate sandwich. And if fine dining is what you’re after, Dallas is chock full of options, like Fearing’s, The French Room and the more recently opened Town Hearth.
From left to right: McCartney’s University Apparel, the Boulevard, Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge (Photo by Ryan Duffy https://unsplash.com/@rduffy on Unsplash)
What to do
Where to grab an Instagram pic
Obviously the tree-lined beauty of the Boulevard and steps of Dallas Hall are picture-perfect. If you’re looking for a photo-op off campus, head to Trinity Groves to walk alongside the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and snap pics of the Dallas skyline behind you. The reflecting pool in front of the Winspear Opera House also makes for a beautiful backdrop. And if you’re hunting for great street art, Bishop Arts and Deep Ellum have you covered. One particular favorite: the Love Equation mural on the side of Below Zero rolled ice cream shop.
Where to spend a night out
Cocktail snobs have plenty of choices in Dallas, from the tried-and-true Midnight Rambler in the Joule Hotel to the speak-easy mezcaleria La Viuda Negra to the new Apothecary bar on Greenville Avenue. Those looking for dive bar vibes should park it at Lee Harvey’s, known for its extra-large backyard; Single Wide, Double Wide’s miniscule sister bar on Lowest Greenville; or the beloved SMU haunt, Milo Butterfingers, which has been dishing out drinks and darts to students and alumni since 1971.
Where to take the kids
If you’re traveling with kids in tow, know there’s plenty to keep them entertained (and wear them out) across the city. If you prefer outdoor adventures, head to White Rock Lake and the nearby Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which has a dedicated children’s garden offering discovery programs and tons of space to romp around. Downtown, a visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is a great way to fill the day, exploring the Sports Hall, Gems and Minerals Hall, Energy Hall, and even the Children’s Museum, perfect for tots ages 5 and under. After time at the museum, explore the area on the M-Line Trolley with stops at Klyde Warren Park and near a number of downtown hotels.
Where to grab some SMU swag
There are two main spots near campus to expand your collection of red and blue apparel in your wardrobe. The first is the SMU Bookstore, which stocks T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, jerseys and the like. McCartney's University Spirit, located across Hillcrest from McFarlin Auditorium, features customizable and unique options, like Greek life gifts, quirky SMU apparel and more.
Where to shop
You can find spots like Nordstrom, Zara, Macy’s and more at NorthPark Center, a few exits away from campus via Central Expressway. Also near campus sits America’s first shopping center, Highland Park Village, home to luxury stores like Chanel and Dior. When it comes to shops you can only find in Dallas, here are a few places to drop on your must-visit list: Commerce Goods + Supply, located in the Adolphus hotel and stocked with wonderful gifts, jewelry and Stetson hats; and also downtown, there’s the Dallas Farmers Market, which not only offers regional produce for sale in The Shed, but also tons of local vendors in The Market. The Bishop Arts District is loaded with one-of-a-kind finds like Dolly Python, a vintage store built for shoppers who like to dig for clothing and home gems; The Wild Detectives, a coffee shop and bookstore with a relaxing backyard; and nearby Spinster Records. If you’re looking to bring home more edible souvenirs, you can’t go wrong with chocolate. Head to Dude, Sweet Chocolate in Bishop Arts for chocolate bars, truffles and barks, or to Kate Weiser Chocolate in NorthPark Center or Trinity Groves, for jaw-dropping, hand-painted chocolates that almost look too pretty to eat – key word being “almost”.
From left to right: Midnight Rambler, Kate Weiser Chocolate (Photo by Sofi Aclin), M-Line Trolley (Photo courtesy of McKinney Avenue Transit Authority)
About the author
Meredith Carey ’15 lives in Brooklyn and is the travel bookings editor at Conde Nast Traveler and host of the Women Who Travel podcast. The daughter of two Mustang alumni, she is originally from Dallas. During her time on the Hilltop, she was a Hunt Scholar, Meadows Scholar and member of the Delta Gamma sorority and worked at The Daily Campus. She majored in journalism and Spanish and minored in math. Some of her favorite destinations include New Zealand’s South Island, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and the British Virgin Islands. One of her favorite trips was visiting the Sossusvlei salt pan in the Namib desert where the burnt orange sand dunes are more than 1,000 feet tall and there are 900-year-old petrified trees.
Meredith Carey ’15 on assignment at SXSW in Austin, Texas in 2019