Brownsville has a population of fewer than 200,000 residents, but the southernmost city in Texas is large in stature thanks to its strategic location on the Gulf of Mexico and the international border.
For year-round residents of Brownsville, the attraction is average temperatures of 74 degrees and a climate touted by the local Chamber of Commerce “as one of the most delightful in the nation.”
Brownsville has recently been recognized as one of the safest cities in America and often is ranked as one of the U.S. cities with the cleanest air quality.
Gateway to Semitropical Beach Playgrounds
Visitors know Brownsville as the gateway to semi-tropical beach playgrounds on both sides of the border with South Padre Island just 45 minutes away on the U.S. side and bustling downtown Matamoros just 18 minutes across the Rio Grande from historic Market Square in Brownsville.
Brownsville is truly on the border with a good portion of its 150 square miles running along the Rio Grande border with Mexico, and Gateway International Bridge an easy walk from downtown Brownsville and one block from the University of Texas at Brownsville.
U.S. border crossing entry data shows that more than 1.4 million pedestrians use the border crossing at Brownsville each year.
“People on the U.S. side wanting to go to Mexico can simply park their car on the U.S. side, walk over to Mexico and have access to several tourist attractions in Matamoros. People on the Mexican side are able to walk over to the United States and have access to hundreds of retail outlets in Downtown Brownsville,” says the Cameron County government which has its seat in Brownsville.
Brownsville’s Colorful 19th-Century History
As can be expected by its border location, Brownsville’s 19th-century history included a role in everything from the Texas Revolution to the Mexican-American War to American Civil War.
The Mexican side of today’s border was visited by early explorers in the 16th century and was first founded in 1686 and then first settled in 1749.
The first battle of the Mexican-American War was fought in 1846 about five miles from present-day Brownsville and the city gets its namesake from the commander of U.S/ Fort Texas on the Rio Grande, Major Jacob Brown, who died from injuries suffered from a cannonball hit to his leg during a siege of the fort.
Fort Texas was renamed Fort Brown, by General Zachary Taylor, in charge of the U.S. forces, and the future American president.
Brownsville was Established as a City in 1848
After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, the area officially became part of Texas and businessman Charles Stillman began selling lots in the newly named Brownsville. A year later, Brownsville was named the county seat of Cameron County.
“Time has seen Brownsville grow from a Mexican War military post to the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley and one of the most important historic sites in the State of Texas,” says the city of Brownsville “A Brief History”. “Brownsville was a prominent player in the Civil War, earning the title "back door to the Confederacy" because trade goods, especially cotton, could be taken to Mexico and shipped out, avoiding the Union blockade of Confederate ports.”
The last battle of the Civil War took place just east of Brownsville on May 13, 1865, with the Confederate side led by larger-than-life Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford who was the city’s mayor and also at one time or another a doctor, lawyer, journalist, member of the Republic of Texas Congress, a member of the state senate, and a Texas Ranger.
The famous post-Civil War overland cattle trail, the Chisholm Trail, started in the Brownsville area with owners of big ranches sending their cattle to the Kansas railheads.
The 20th Century Steams into Brownsville
Stillman, the founder of Brownsville, was one of the richest men in America and his empire included silver mines, real estate, cotton brokerage firms, and riverboat companies. Brownsville was connected mostly by water to the outside world until the first steam engine reached the city in 1904.
“It was cause for celebration because passengers could travel by rail from Brownsville to anywhere in the U.S. while farmers and merchants could ship their wares to any market in Texas or the U.S. The 20th Century had arrived!” says the City of Brownsville.
Even the first Pan Americana flight to Mexico City from the Brownsville City Airport in 1929 had a bit of history to it as the pilot of the flight was Charles Lindbergh.
Brownsville’s economy received a boost in 1936 with the opening of the Port of Brownsville providing a deep sea commerce outlet.
What to Do When Visiting Brownsville
Brownsville has no shortage of interesting and fun things to do. Visitors should check out the following:
- Boca Chica Beach + SpaceX Starbase: The coast meets the cosmos as 1,055 acres of outdoor recreation including swimming, birding, camping, fishing, and surfing coexists with Elon Musk’s space-travel hub which is drawing space exploration tourists from around the world.
- Children’s Museum of Brownsville: Hands-on creative and interactive exhibits, workshops, and special events that can keep children and their families happily occupied for hours. Note: Closed Monday and Tuesday; Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $9 per person
- Gladys Porter Zoo: This zoo with exotic animals is located on a 31-acre botanical park that opened in 1971. Highlights include the Russell Aquatic Center which houses a 30,000-gallon tank and interesting marine life such as nurse sharks. Don’t forget to check out the exotic flora while you visit the zoo and get a peak at the recently born endangered baby giraffe. Open 7 days a week (9 to 5 weekdays and 9 to 5:30 p.m. weekends) with adults $15.50 admission; children (ages 2 to 13) $9.50 and seniors $12.50.
- Hit the Hike and Bike Trails: Brownsville is home to some of the top hiking and biking trails in Texas including the Paseo de la Resaca Trail System (7 miles of paved hike and bike trails), Monte Bella Trails Park (7-mile single track mountain bike course and disc golf course), Historic Battlefield Trail Map (Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park is part of this trail).
- Go Birding: Brownsville is in the middle of two of the most significant aviary fly-ways in North America and a wonderful place to go birding with hundreds of species migrating through the region every year. Sabal Palm Sanctuary (with 3 miles of walking trails, bird viewing blinds, feeding stations, butterfly gardens, and a river observation deck), and Resaca de la Palma State Park are great sites to visit.
- Dean Porter Park: Located across E. Ringold St. from the zoo, this park is a great place to relax and unwind with the 25-acre park featuring a pool, children’s spray park, two playgrounds, a fitness trail, and several large and small picnic pavilions. A big bonus is the Children’s Museum of Brownsville is located inside Dean Porter Park.
If you want to eat like a local in Brownsville, check out these great places:
- Vermillion Restaurant and Watering Hole: Serving American and Tex-Mex fare since 1934 with a motto of “not fancy, just good!”
- Dirty Al’s Seafood Market and Cajun Kitchen: Lays claim to the freshest local seafood and authentic Cajun dishes.
- Madeira Restaurant: Fine dining in Brownsville with everything from Ribeye Wagyu (served with truffle fries) to Dobladitas de Pato en Mole Poblano (duck in mole sauce) to baked Chilean sea bass marinated in miso and sake.