Learn About Harlingen, Texas

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Harlingen, a city, located in Cameron County, lies in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley of Southern Texas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the Gulf Coast. At over 104 square kilometers in size, it is the second-most populous city in Cameron County as well as the region’s most populous. The well-known South Padre Island Beach is just a short drive away, as are several excellent spots for bird watching. 

The town’s cultural scene is thriving, and there is a homey feeling to be found here. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in small-town charm, authentic Mexican cuisine, and the rich Texas history.

History

Portrait of Harlingen’s founder, Lon C. Hill

To attract farmers from the Midwest in 1904, Lon C. Hill purchased a large area of fertile delta land where he built irrigation canals. He chose the name Harlingen as a nod to the Dutch city of the same name, which had a similar canal system. Vegetables and cotton were the primary sources of income in the early years of the town’s existence.

Commerce and transportation flourished in the area. Military facilities were built during World War II, resulting in a significant population increase. Additionally, a significant portion of the economy in the late 1980s was tourism, citrus fruit, grain, and cotton production.

Activities

A bird’s eye view of the expressway in Harlingen, Texas

There is a large industrial-agribusiness-port complex between Harlingen and Brownsville, another city in Cameron County. Located in the middle of an agriculturally intensive region, the city is a modern and well-planned metropolis. Moreover, it is a major transportation and distribution hub for the lower Rio Grande Valley.

Due to its location at the junction of two major flyways, the city is also a popular destination for tropical birdwatchers. At the Harlingen Thicket Bird Sanctuary, there are several Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail locations. The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is adjacent to the stunning Laguna Madre, while the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a noteworthy stop for winter tram tours.

You’ll find a wide variety of birds and butterflies at the nearby Los Ebanos Preserve. The trail system at the World Birding Center is extensive. As the region’s largest celebration of wildlife, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is held each year in March. Arroyo Queen is one of the most popular tours. Extravaganza Folklorica was notable for its inclusion of ethnic attire, music, and dance.

Places to Visit When in Harlingen

Downtown Harlingen

There’s a lot to learn, see, and do in Harlingen, which has often been regarded as a Midwestern farm town in the core of the Rio Grande Valley. Still, it offers an eclectic and creative experience in South Texas with a vibrant mural tradition and Market Days on Jackson Street (the hub of activity) on the first Saturday of every month. Downtown Harlingen is a wonderful, walkable experience where you can enjoy art, history, and even its unique shops. 

The historic district is teeming with quaint shops and restaurants in the city’s oldest buildings. Colorful murals decorate the streets, and palm trees stretch for miles along the horizon.

During Market Days, you’ll be able to shop in one of the Valley’s largest outdoor malls, where vendors, food, music, handmade crafts, plants, collectibles, and one-of-a-kind treasures are on display.

Iwo Jima Monument and Memorial Museum

Battle of Iwo Jima War Memorial Sculpture

The Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen is the city’s most well-known historic site. Sculptor Dr. Felix de Weldon cast the official bronze version of this massive structure in Washington, D.C., using this working model as a guide. 

With its six patriotic figures, the monument is just as powerful as the original rendering, inspiring the veterans and visitors who visit the memorial on a regular basis. He gave it to the nearby Marine Military Academy as a way to inspire the next generation of cadets, as well as to honor a local soldier commemorated in the monument and to take advantage of the mild climate. 

Moreover, the Marine Military Academy’s museum and gift shop are just across the street. Museum exhibits and displays are primarily focused on the U.S. Marine Corps, including the Hall of Fame for Iwo Jima Veterans and a moving documentary film about the Battle of Iwo Jima.

World Birding Center

brown owl perched on a branch

The Rio Grande Valley is home to not one but nine distinct locations. There is something for everyone at each site that comprises the World Birding Center, from first-timers to seasoned birders.

With more than 500 types of birds to see in all four seasons, this is a must-see nature destination. The nine unique locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas paint a colorful picture of birding in the region’s palm-fringed resacas, rare thorn forest, riverside woodlands, and crashing surf.

The World Bird Center network has something for everyone for birdwatchers, from historic adobe mansions to breathtaking views of the Rio Grande from high above and pristine wilderness to teeming swamps. World-class birding experiences are offered to visitors through a variety of activities like wilderness walks, float trips, and state-of-the-art educational exhibits.

Harlingen Performing Arts Theatre

Ballet performance during a stage play

This community theater in Harlingen, Texas, is considered one of the most outstanding in the Rio Grande Valley. This town’s cultural hub, located in the heart of the city, aims to arouse interest in the arts among the people who live there. Consequently, it has a long history of delivering high-quality performances and engaging the community.

Harlingen Performing Arts Theatre is the place to go for an evening of dance and drama. Volunteers of all ages perform, dance, sing, design, and promote shows in the theater. A number of plays and musicals, including beloved family favorites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Seussical the Musical, are presented throughout the year. Oklahoma!, Steel Magnolias, and other well-known and lesser-known musicals are also among the works featured. It’s a community theater at its finest in this venue.

Carlito’s Wine House

Carlito’s Wine House is a great place to meet friends for a drink or two. Cozy couches, dim lighting, and exposed brick walls adorn the spacious interior. Carlito’s offers a wide selection of domestic and seasonal craft beers. Wine can also be ordered by the glass or bottle from their extensive wine list. The classic cheese platter is big enough for four or five people to eat at once with a group.

The Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum

interior of a vast building in black and white

The Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum has both in spades, especially when you consider that the museum’s main exhibition hall is accompanied by a slew of historic buildings. 

Museum visitors can tour the Paso Real Stagecoach Inn, the original home of Harlingen’s town founder, Lon C. Hill, and the city’s first hospital on the museum’s grounds. The area also includes what was once the Harlingen Air Force Base’s Air Patrol Squadron and Brig during World War II. This building’s permanent collection includes historical artifacts and photographs from Harlingen and Texas. The museum’s main building houses a variety of changing exhibitions showcasing the arts and culture.

These are the places to put at the top of your to-do list if you ever have the opportunity to spend a day or even just a few hours in Harlingen to maximize your stay.

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