McAllen Delights with Innovative Cuisine and Vibrant Art

This Texas border town is teeming with charming cosmopolitan attractions.

Festivities in McAllen, Texas
Photo: Courtesy of Visit McAllen

Long prized as a destination for birders and shoppers, the Texas border town of McAllen has evolved into a city with an impressive dining scene, a bounty of outdoor recreation opportunities, and enriching museums and entertainment.

McAllen is located at the southernmost tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, second only in size to the city of Brownsville in the region. Though McAllen is a bustling cosmopolitan city, drive just a few minutes out of town and you'll find charming, small Texas towns such as Edinburg and Weslaco, to get a slower slice-of-life perspective. It's 80 miles inland from South Padre Island, and just about 20 miles north of Reynosa, Mexico.

Here are a few recommendations for what to see and do on your next visit to McAllen—a mix of tried-and-true spots along with some trendy new hotspots for your itinerary.

Around Town

The Rio Grande Valley is internationally recognized by birdwatchers for the diversity of bird species that can be seen here. Up to 500 species of birds soar through the skies and swim the lakes of this area. Many are "valley specialty birds," which can only be spotted in this region.

For that reason, many parks around the area cater to birders—nine are designated as part of the World Birding Center here in the valley. Quinta Mazatlan, a lush 1930s Spanish revival-style estate tucked away on its own preserve right in the city of McAllen, is one such destination. But birding is only one part of the attraction here. Visitors can explore the grounds and learn about the history of the eccentric original homeowners, Jason and Marcia Matthews, publishers of the American Mercury Magazine. Also be sure to check out the Folk Art Room, featuring vibrant handmade local works of art.

Quinta Mazatla
Cynthia J. Drake

The International Museum of Science and Art is home to a small but mighty collection of Latin American art, combined with engaging science and technology exhibits, including a digitally-equipped climbing wall, a biozone where you can see and learn about animals, plus an art studio that invites visitors to create their own works to take home.

Head downtown for more local art, with a self-guided tour of McAllen's street art. Many murals are located in the entertainment district on 17th Street downtown, between Austin and Dallas avenues. This walkable district is also home to 40 restaurants and bars, and is the center of nightlife in McAllen. Just outside town, a new beautification initiative currently underway is the Irrigation Pipe Public Art Project, which will transform more than 200 irrigation pipes into canvases for local artwork.

In the winter months, treat yourself to some juicy locally grown oranges and grapefruits, chief exports from the Rio Grande Valley. You can find a few pick-your-own citrus farms, as well as roadside stands from McAllen to surrounding towns like Mission and Weslaco. Year round, visit the McAllen Farmers' Market, open every Saturday at the McAllen Public Library. In addition to fresh produce, I love supporting local artisans like Denise Eason of Ice Cream & Bananas, who incorporates fun flavors like "Milkshake and Fries" into her menu of frozen treats.

Where to Eat

Locals will implore you to visit Delia's Tamales, and for good reason: this classic Mexican dish was perfected by Delia Lubin after she immigrated from Reynosa in the 1980s and started the original location of Delia's in McAllen, now expanded to several locations across South Texas. The menu includes classic pork, chicken, and bean tamales, in addition to more specialty fillings like sweet cream cheese.

Delia's Tamales
Cynthia J. Drake

SALT New American Table offers a menu of small plates (try the house-made potato chips with gorgonzola cream, or Burrata al Panna served with fig preserves), salads, and mains like honey-infused duck breast, and a ravioli prepared with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, and Asiago cream. Owners Larry and Jessica Delgado earned a James Beard nomination in the outstanding restaurateur category in 2022, and they own two additional McAllen restaurants.

Costa Messa is a popular favorite for Tex-Mex, with two locations in McAllen. Try the queso flameado for a deliciously cheesy appetizer along with local favorites like tacos de trompo (pork) or tacos alambre (sirloin). A botana platter will let you sample a little bit of everything: fajitas, quesadillas, flautas, fried zucchini, and all the fixings.

España, a newer restaurant that opened in McAllen in late 2020 offers "nouveau" Mediterranean cuisine, including traditional Spanish tapas, paellas, and a variety of meat and fish entrees, including Cigar Box Salmon, which is smoked in cherry wood in a cigar box.

Where to Stay

Overnight accommodations in the Rio Grande Valley range from luxury options to truly unique overnight stays.

Casa de Palmas is designed in a Spanish courtyard style, with three levels of rooms situated around a swimming pool, with an on-site restaurant and bar, and a free area shuttle.

More than a million people pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, located five miles from McAllen, and a simple, 92-room hotel is available on-site. The Alamo Inn B&B in nearby Alamo offers uniquely decorated rooms that pay homage to historic figures of the RGV and is frequented by birders. Cambria Convention Center offers a great location near the McAllen Performing Arts Center, the McAllen Convention Center, and downtown McAllen.

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