Strolling the sparkly sidewalks in downtown Abilene, it’s easy to feel the youthful energy.
The city’s center has experienced a renaissance in recent years. The galleries, shops, restaurants and watering holes bustle. New construction bangs and hums, bringing more craft breweries, apartments, a distillery, lofts and good places to eat. Public sculpture and vibrant murals mix with historic ones to celebrate the city’s Western heritage and vibrant arts scene.
What quickened the city’s downtown rebirth is a wonderful Texas story, complete with a beautiful old theatre, a generous and elusive fairy godmother, and the magic of smart strategic planning. The happy ending is a charming mixed-use district that has attracted new life, industry and visitors to the city.
One reason for the optimism is the construction of a full-service convention hotel. A 206-room Doubletree by Hilton adjacent to the city’s convention center and cultural district is projected to open at the end of 2021, bringing more guests to enjoy arts, drinking and dining. The hotel is a homecoming for the Hilton brand. Just a few blocks away is where it was born. In the 1920s, a young hotelier named Conrad Hilton opened a 260-room “Hilton Hotel,” the second of “three of Texas finest moderate prices hotels” he advertised throughout the state. The building still houses a gorgeous ballroom and apartments.
New proprietors have revived Hilton’s early spirit. Hot news this year: Abilene was listed as No. 14 among U.S. cities where millennials chose to move in 2019, and the newcomers have brought ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit with them. The local chamber of commerce operates a dynamic group of young professionals 570-members strong, while an energetic and collaborative Downtown Association plots holiday decorating, shopping days and festivals.
This year’s City Sidewalks and Downtown Christmas Days, December 2-7, will make the area sparkle during the holidays. Elaborate lights are already being strung, and a Parade of Lights and week full of festivities are set to inspire everyone with the Christmas spirit.
The project that launched the area’s rehabilitation was the gorgeous 1987 restoration of the glamorous Paramount Theatre. Built in 1930, the theatre’s auditorium replicates a Spanish/Moorish courtyard at night. Locals and visitors enjoy a busy slate of events there: movies, local theatre productions, opera, concerts, ballet and traveling productions. The theatre will be filled for the season with performances of “The Nutcracker,” as well as a nostalgic showing of the classic film “White Christmas” December 13 and 14.
Other restoration followed the Paramount. The cornerstone of the cultural district is The Grace Museum. Once a hotel for railroad travelers, the four-story building now serves as an art, history and children’s museum. Current shows include “Hung Liu: The Long Way Home,” an exhibit of recent work by the Chinese-born American artist, which runs through February 22.
A few blocks over, just past the historic site of a real old West shoot-out, the Frontier Texas! Museum and Visitors Center gives an overview of the region’s early inhabitants. The outside architecture echoes the ruins of the U.S. Army forts that dot the plains, but the inside is all high-tech. Life-sized holographic images tell tales curated by Texas historians, who crafted scripts that used the characters’ own words. A dignified Comanche chief shares his heartache, while a buffalo hunter, military man, frontier wife and others talk about hardships and beauty on the Texas frontier. The finale is a theatre-in-the-round experience that simulates life on the plains.
Other downtown venues include the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, a place where adults and children can celebrate the original artwork produced for favorite storybooks. Opening Nov. 14 will be the colorful “Yuyi Morales: Soñadora,” spotlighting the work of the first Latina to receive a Caldecott honor for her book “Dreamers.”
The NCCIL and Children’s Art & Literacy Festival each June celebrate Abilene’s “Storybook Capital of America” trademark, a designation gleaned from the city’s more than two dozen whimsical public sculptures. Scattered throughout green space and sidewalks are bronze characters from children’s books: Cat in the Hat, Lorax, Toothiana, Stuart Little, to name a few. Kids can download an app and hunt for the creatures, and they’re readymade for family photos.
The historic properties north of the railroad tracks, as well as the blossoming SoDA District just south, house a myriad of drinking and dining options, from woodstove-fired pizza, upscale comfort food or steaks, pubs, delis, burgers, cocktails, or a relaxing sunset with steak and wine among the silos of an old mill. Craft brewery choices abound, and the upcoming Belsnickel Beer Stroll hosted by the creatives at the Center for Contemporary Arts December 6 is a grand way to try them all. Watch for a pop-up opportunity to boot scoot, as the roving Eller Hall hosts family-friendly hootenannies. The city also was recently certified by the Texas Music Office as a “Music Friendly” community, and is nurturing a lively scene for performing artists. That’s music to our ears.
Six of Abilene’s Best:
1. Abilene Regional Airport daily flights
2. Driving: Two-hour drive on Interstate 20 from Fort Worth or Midland
5. City Sidewalks and Downtown Christmas Days Dec. 2-7
6. Winter Lightfest Nov. 28-Dec. 29
This article is a sponsored collaboration with Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau