Live Large. Think Big. That’s the Dallas marketing slogan and one on which the metropolis delivers in true Texan style. But there is also a very different side to Dallas, as JD van Zyl found – one which boasts a buzzing gay scene, a rich cultural experience and unrivalled Texas hospitality.

“Why do y’all think Dallas is nothing but cowboys and JR?” grumbles Michael, a 20-something lad originally from neighbouring Fort Worth, in that distinctive Texas drawl that is almost impossible not to mock. “This city is so much cooler than that 80s crap. I’ve been to San Francisco and New York and Miami and none of them have anything on Dallas.”

A few days ago I would have casually dismissed my newfound friend’s ramblings, but after a few days in the Texas metropolis I am starting to see where he is coming from. As the ninth largest city in the United States, Dallas certainly has a buzz about it. More than anything though, it has heart.

Right now we are standing at the Tequila Shack inside the Roundup Saloon, a country-western club with six bars, a huge dancefloor and a crackling atmosphere. As you’d expect lovers of country music are well catered for here, but more than a fair bit of Gaga and high energy dance beats ensure it never gets boring for the rest of us. And then we haven’t even touched on the barmen – most of them topless, ripped and donning tight fitting jeans and cowboy hats…

Not just conservative rednecks

Today is my fourth day in Dallas, and the more time I spend in the city and its surrounding areas the less I understand why it is so far down most gay travellers’ must-visit-destinations lists. That is if it features at all. It isn’t because people don’t know about Dallas – love it or hate, the 80s TV series certainly put the city on the map. The only logical conclusion is that what people know about it, or at least think they do, is as outdated as the shoulder pads Sue Ellen sported 20-odd years ago.

Because scratch a little beyond the conservative Red State veneer and you’ll discover a modern city that bristles with a rich multi-cultural offering, a thriving gay scene and a larger-than-life personality. Not only is Dallas home to one of the largest gay populations in the US, it is also the birthplace of the LGBT Cathedral of Hope mega-church which boasts more than 4,000 local members as well as satellite branches in Houston, Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City.

It might not be possible to shorten the time of the actual flight to Texas, but business class on American Airlines certainly goes a long way to lessen the effects of jetlag on both the body and the spirit. So seamlessly effective is the AA offering that when it became clear I would miss my Chicago-Dallas connection because of a delayed departure courtesy of dismal Manchester weather, I was effortlessly booked onto the next plane leaving Chicago O’Hare even before we’d touched down. And nothing signals your arrival in US airspace better than being served freshly baked chocolate chip cookies onboard.

Partying the night away Texas style

The gayest area in Dallas is without a doubt the Oak Lawn neighbourhood along Cedar Springs Rd and Oak Lawn Ave, where an impressive array of clubs, bars, restaurants and shops successfully cater for the LGBT community. Arguably at the top of the heap is the Roundup Saloon which has accurately been called “the best galdanged gay bar in the U.S. of A” by one Stateside gay publication. Regardless of which night you pick to pop in, there is always something on the go – from karaoke or line dancing lessons with Juanita to pumping clubby tunes on Saturday nights.

Just across the road from Roundup is JR’s Bar and Grill a big and friendly bar with a brilliant patio from where you can admire the talent sashaying past on the pavement below. Prefer somewhere you can party until the small hours of the morning? Then simply walk on over to adjoining Station 4, which guarantees a packed dancefloor on weekend nights, while the Rose Room Theatre upstairs hosts drag shows from Thursday to Sunday every week. Sue Ellen’s, which also forms part of the same complex, on the other hand is for lesbian revellers what JR’s is for the boys with its aptly named Lipstick Lounge and Vixin Lounge especially popular with the girls. For an extensive list of hotpots in Dallas click here, while the Dallas Tavern Guild website also provides handy information for the city’s night-time offerings.

Surprisingly steeped in culture

Texas is renowned for its bigger-and-better-than-anywhere-else approach, as is evident from the Dallas slogan ‘Live Large. Think Big’. Nowhere is this grand scale more clearly visible than in the Dallas Arts District – the largest of its kind in the country, sprawled over 68 acres and 19 adjoining blocks. Once a neglected corner of downtown Dallas, the scale of the now leafy Arts District is simply staggering. Punctuated by some of the city’s most significant cultural landmarks, the area is a symphony of cutting-edge architecture which ranges from Foster + Partners’ gargantuan AT&T Performing Arts Centre with its lobby clad in striking red glass to the light-filled Symphony Centre penned by I.M. Pei.

Slightly less light and bright, but no less fascinating by any stretch, is The Sixth Floor Museum which recounts Dallas’ most notorious day in gripping (and often goose bump-inducing) detail. Vivid photographs, films and artefacts celebrate the life of John F. Kennedy and chronicles the events which ultimately led to his assassination on November 22 1963. It was from a window of the museum, which formerly housed the Texas School Book Depository, that shots were fired at the presidential motorcade after it rounded the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza. Was Lee Harvey Oswald a lone gunman, or was he just a pawn in a much greater conspiracy? A visit to this must-see museum might just help you make up your mind.

The Great Gay West

No visit to Texas would, however, be complete without a nod to its wild west past. This is something best taken care of in neighbouring ‘Cowtown’ Fort Worth, the self-styled City of Cowboys and Culture. The city’s entire tourist-based Stockyards district is devoted to swaggering cowboys and their Texas Longhorn herds, with the daily cattle drive down Main Street ranked as the undisputed highlight. For an undistilled Western experience, time your Ft. Worth visit to fall on a Friday or Saturday and get yourself on over to the Cowtown Coliseum to witness strapping cowboys tame their beasts in a live rodeo spectacle. If all that heterosexual testosterone is too much to bear then the World Gay Rodeo Finals, taking place in Ft. Worth October 7-9th 2011, should be a much more palatable alternative.

Not easily stuffed into a box

It’s hard to leave Dallas without being completely bowled over by the city. The sheer scale on which Texans operate – from their gargantuan pickups and the overly generous portions of fried chicken to their glistening skyscrapers – is reason enough to create a lasting memory. What makes an even bigger impact though, is the hospitality of the locals and their effort to welcome you to their city.

Dallas would struggle to compete with the glitz of New York City or the hedonistic thrills of San Francisco’s Castro, that’s true. But for something a great deal more authentic, it undoubtedly holds the trumps.

Travel Toolbox

Where to stay: Chic, sophisticated and centrally located, the Hotel Palomar is a great option and offers an extensive fitness centre and pool area (which goes down a treat with those nursing a nasty hangover). For something a little more charming and quaint consider the Daisy Polk Inn, walking distance from the rainbow flag-flying establishments of Oak Lawn.

How to get there: American Airlines flies to Dallas (its largest and primary hub) direct from London, and via Chicago from Manchester and Dublin. The airline’s Rainbow Team, headed by George Carrancho, was the first airline sales division and website dedicated to the LGBT community and to this day the airline remains extremely active within the community. Visitwww.aa.com/rainbow for more information on AA offers tailored specially to LGBT travellers.

Dallas Pride: The 28th Dallas Pride, known locally as the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, takes place on Sunday September 18th 2011 and promises to be bigger and better than ever. The theme for this year is ‘It Only Gets Better’ and will include a parade through Oak Lawn. For more information visit http://www.dallasprideparade.com/.

JD van Zyl is a freelance motoring journalist with a keen passion for travelling. For more information about him or his work visit www.jdvanzyl.com.