Brownsville is located in the southernmost part of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and has a vibrant Hispanic heritage. Settled in the mid-1800s, Brownsville is one of the few places in the world where you can experience the diversity of two countries, go bird-watching, explore wildlife refuges, and learn about the Mexican–American War all in the same day.
Here are 11 fabulous things to do in beautiful Brownsville.
1. Old City Cemetery
Established in 1853, the Old City Cemetery chronicles Brownsville’s storied history. Markers throughout the cemetery highlight the many adventurers who traveled from foreigh lands to Brownsville seeking a new life. Brownsville’s European roots are evident in the elaborate marble tombs and headstones and the ornate iron fencing. Many of the plots feature Hispanic folk art in the form of paper art, silk flowers, and homemade nichos.
The cemetery is free to respectfully explore. The main gate is locked, but you can get the access code from the curator of the Brownsville Heritage Museum or walk to the bottom of the hill to the path.
2. Linear Park
Located on the site of the Southern Pacific switching yard, Linear Park is part of the Brownsville Historic Battlefield Trail, a 10-mile paved bike path connecting the Mitte Cultural District and the southern end of the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park. Linear Park is a great location for a casual picnic and features an amphitheater, benches, monuments, and a bike-share stand.
3. Stillman House Museum
Located next to the Brownsville Heritage Museum, the Stillman House is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Brownsville. It was built in 1851 in the Greek Revival style. The former home of Charles Stillman, founder of Brownsville, the structure features original windows, flooring, furnishings, and doors, as well as courtyards housing herb gardens and courting benches.
4. Gladys Porter Zoo
Nestled in the heart of Brownsville is the Gladys Porter Zoo, a botanical and zoological experience dedicated to the preservation of all Mother Nature has to offer through education and conservation. The 31-acre zoo opened in 1971 and is home to over 400 animal species, 47 endangered species, and over 250 tropical species and subspecies. Named after Gladys Porter, the daughter of Earl C. Sams, former president of J.C. Penney, the zoo is known for its success in breeding endangered wildlife species. Gladys Porter was the first zoo to successfully breed the Jentink’s duiker. On an afternoon excursion to the zoo, you will see orangutans, giraffes, walk-through aviaries, and a herpetarium, among numerous other exhibits.
5. Costumes Of The Americas Museum
This is a fun must-do in Brownsville. The Costumes of the Americas Museum was a passion project of Florence Griswold, who desired to preserve and chronicle cultural heritage and history through the clothing styles and folk art of the Southwest and Mexico. Over the past 70 years, this eclectic museum has expanded its extensive collection to include colorful costumes, headpieces, and jewelry from North, Central, and South America.
6. Boca Chica State Park
Located in the southeast corner of Brownsville off of Texas Route 4 is Boca Chica State Park and Boca Chica Beach. Boca Chica Beach is a long expanse of white sand offering fishing, sunbathing, and surfing. The park is a prime location for bird enthusiasts, offering sightings of Harris’s hawks, horned larks, and flocks of brown pelicans.
Boca Chica just also happens to be the new home of SpaceX’s launch site and control center. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, has tentative plans to incorporate the village of Boca Chica into a new town and change the name to Starbase, Texas. Unfortunately, there are no tours of the facility as of yet, but you can park in the distance at several locations to watch a launch from your vehicle.
7. Resaca De La Palma State Park World Birding Center
Resaca de la Palma State Park is part of the World Birding Center and encompasses 1,200 acres, the largest area of native habitat in the birding center network. It was also the location of the second battle of the Mexican–American War. The park’s diverse habitat attracts a wide variety of animal life, making it an ideal location for photography enthusiasts. Bring your camera and prepare to be delighted by rare migratory birds, green jays, chachalacas, herons, horned lizards, and alligators. Resaca de la Palma is located within Brownsville’s city limits, but once you enter the park, you’ll feel like you are worlds away.
8. Historic Brownsville Museum
The Historic Brownsville Museum is housed in the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, built in 1928 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the permanent exhibits is the Rio Grande Engine No.1, an 1872 Baldwin wood-burning, narrow-gauge locomotive, the last of its kind. The exhibit contains information about the Rio Grande Railroad, the passengers, and the cargo from its initiation in 1872 onward. The museum also chronicles events from the founding of Brownsville, border skirmishes, and the evolution of the Republic of Texas.
9. Brownsville Heritage Museum
The Brownsville Heritage Museum covers the history of Brownsville from its founding in the mid-1800s through the middle of the 20th century. Maps, artifacts, and photographs show the harsh realities of frontier life in Brownsville. Brownsville’s historical timeline also features romances between some of the richest people in history, inventive entrepreneurs determined to make a name for themselves, and political coups to overthrow the president of Mexico.
10. Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park
Located just 6 miles from the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park is a distinctive destination where you can learn about the first major battle of the Mexican–American War of 1846. Palo Alto is the only national park dedicated solely to telling the story of the war between Mexico and the U.S. As you walk the half-mile paved trail to the battlefield overlook, stop to read the historical markers that explain what happened on this site 160 years ago.
11. South Padre Island
No trip to Brownsville would be complete without a visit to South Padre Island, Texas’s tropical seaside resort area. South Padre Island is a barrier island offering kayaking, beachcombing, and sandcastle competitions and festivals. A couple of experiences not to be missed on South Padre are the sand dunes and the sea turtle rescue facility.
The sand dunes are located, quite literally, at the end of the main road. Be sure to wear a wide-brimmed hat and apply sunscreen. Free street parking is available. You’ll feel like Lawrence of Arabia as you hike your way over a sand dune or two on your way to a nearly empty beach that is perfect for walking and beachcombing. A word of caution: People do drive on the beach, and the vehicles can be hard to hear over the ocean waves.
Sea Turtle, Inc is a sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation, and education facility where you’ll learn about the importance of sea turtles and how we can help these graceful creatures of the ocean. During your visit, you’ll meet the permanent residents of the facility, including Allison, who lost one of her flippers during a predator attack. In 2009, Allison became the first sea turtle in the world to be successfully fitted with a prosthetic flipper.
Brownsville brings the best of two countries to its markets, shops, and culinary scene. One of my favorite places to have lunch in Brownsville is Lola’s Bistro. Skip dining inside and make your way to the back patio, which overlooks a beautiful lagoon. The menu offers freshly made lighter fare. My two favorite dishes are the avocado toast and the steak churrasco. You can’t go wrong with either one. Lola’s is located near the Gladys Porter Zoo and is closed from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Another thing to remember when visiting Brownsville: Don’t forget your sunscreen or water. The sun is deceptively intense in the southern part of Texas. I say this from experience, since I battled a nasty bout of dehydration and sunburn after a couple of days exploring.