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North Hills Monthly

Picasso, Tiffany, Birds and Butterflies—McAllen, Texas is a Hidden Gem

Dec 01, 2014 10:30AM ● By Vanessa Orr
Like most people in Pittsburgh, when the weather gets cold, I start thinking about going somewhere warm. So when I got invited to visit McAllen, Texas, located in the Rio Grande Valley about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, I tossed some shorts in the suitcase and headed down south.

The town turned out to be even warmer than I expected, from the spiciness of its food to the friendliness of everyone I met. One of the first things that I noticed while there is that people go out of their way to make you feel welcome:  I went there as a stranger, but left feeling like I was part of an extended family. The people in McAllen are proud of their home and more than happy to show it off—and I was amazed by all that the area has to offer.

McAllen is probably best known to nature lovers, as it is home to the World Birding Center, which is a network of unique birding habitats and nature centers, as well as the National Butterfly Center, where more than 200 species of butterflies have been documented. A tram ride through Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park gave me the chance to see vultures, long-tailed grackles, (which are only found in south Texas) and chachalacas, which resemble plump roadrunners. The 750-acre park is also home to 550 acres of original sub-tropical thorn forest including twisted mesquite trees, which are both eerie and beautiful at the same time. “Of all the plants in south Texas, only two are trying not to kill you,” laughed our guide, Hannah Buschert. 

The Old Hildago Pumphouse is another part of the World Birding Center, as well as a beautifully preserved piece of south Texas history. Because south Texas only gets an average of 23 inches of rain per year, the pumphouse was built in 1909 to carry water from the Rio Grande to what was once brushland, suitable only for cattle; with its help, the area first became known for its cotton, and it is now the number one producer of sugarcane. The area is also still known for its citrus industry, especially ruby red grapefruit. Visitors can take a tour of the pumphouse and learn all about the history of the Rio Grande Valley, as well as enjoy the beautiful flora and fauna along its walking and bike paths.

I think my favorite stop was Quinta Mazatlan, a stunning adobe home built in the 1930s that is now a sanctuary for more than 100 species of tropical birds, native trees, flowers and plants. The home itself is an architectural gem, featuring a 25 x 55 foot adobe block bathing pool, 6,739 square feet of living area, and a massive sunken tile tub—one of two that were originally built in the bathroom. The house was originally built by Jason Matthews and his wife, Marcia, and includes original Mexican tile throughout, as well as ceiling beams made of Lebanese cedar—a gift from the King of Lebanon to Matthews, who fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the War of Independence from the Turks. After the couple died in the 1960s, a church group used it as a coffee house until it was heavily damaged in 1967 by Hurricane Beulah; its next owners spent 30 years returning it to its original splendor before it was bought by the city of McAllen in 1998.

Because McAllen sits near the Mexican border, that country’s influence can be seen in much of the area’s architecture, as well as in its art and its food. McAllen boasts the type of cultural scene that you would expect in a much larger city, from cutting-edge restaurants such as House Wine & Bistro  and SALT, which are both owned by Larry and Jessica Delgado, to Pepper’s at Uptown and Republic of the Rio Grande. A must-stop is Frida’s Grill & Cantina, where hosts Sergio J. Luna and his mother, Adela, make you feel like you’re dining in their home (on extremely elegant cuisine); you also have to have Delia’s Tamales for breakfast at least once in your life.

One other must-stop is IMAS, the International Museum of Art & Science, which you would never expect to find in a town this size. The museum, built in 1967, features a series of 29 Picasso lithographs, as well as nine pieces of Sebastián’s work on-site, and 20 stained glass windows from the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany that are on long-term loan from a local private collector. There are only three galleries dedicated to Tiffany in the world; McAllen is one of those sites. The museum also has four revolving galleries, as well as many hands-on activities for children; it is definitely the only museum that I’ve ever visited where I got to hold a bearded dragon on my shoulder one minute, and peruse Picasso’s genius the next.   

I haven’t even touched on some of the amazing shopping opportunities in this town, or the live music or art galleries that make it such a dynamic place to visit.

Thinking of visiting McAllen, TX? Here are some suggestions:

Places to stay:

Homewood Suites by Hilton:

Renaissance-Casa de Palmas:

Places to eat:

Delia’s Tamales:

Frida’s Grill & Cantina:

House Wine & Bistro:

Pepper’s at Uptown:

Republic of the Rio Grande:

Roosevelt’s at Seven:


Places to go:

Bentsen State Park:

International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS):

National Butterfly Center:

Nuevo Santander Gallery:

Old Hidalgo Pumphouse:

Quinta Mazatlan:


To learn more, visit