If you’re a newcomer to Houston, you’ll be surprised at its vast international feel. The multicultural diversions range from history museums to boutiques and mouth-watering dining, with such an assortment that you’d need at least a week in town to even make a dent in the supply. If you have kids along on this trip, you’ll most likely want to check out Space Center Houston (where you can meet an astronaut!) or see the spectacular fish and beautiful white tigers at the Aquarium in downtown Houston.
If you have even a passing interest in art, Houston will make you breathless with its selection of art museums. To get a good sampling of the city’s most popular attractions, invest in a CityPASS. But if you just want to kick back and enjoy a pretty day, head downtown to my personal favorite, Discovery Green, for a walk in the park and a lakeside lunch.
In Texas’ younger years, seafaring folks arrived at the frontier via the island of Galveston, and the city’s port was one of the nation’s busiest. But with the construction of the Houston Ship Channel and the first steamship’s passage up the Buffalo Bayou to the city itself in 1837, Houston’s relationship with the Gulf of Mexico and international shipping changed dramatically. Now the fourth largest city in the country, Houston’s immediate connection with the ocean adds to its global significance.
Want to do the best possible whirlwind tour of Houston? It’s pretty much a snap with the Houston CityPASS, which covers five attractions at a savings of more than 40 percent over the combined cost of individual admission. Attractions include Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium and the Houston Museum of Natural Science; for your last two attractions, you can choose either the Houston Zoo or the Health Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts or the Children’s Museum. (Read on for descriptions of these attractions.) Passes can be purchased online in advance of your trip.
At Space Center Houston, you can take a behind-the-scenes tour through NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where you may get a glimpse of the historic Apollo Mission Control Center and check out the new Saturn V Complex at Rocket Park. Occasional offerings in the tour include a visit to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and a peek at astronauts training for future missions. Visit on a Friday for a chance to meet an astronaut.
Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the country’s largest, with numerous visiting exhibitions complementing a strong permanent collection with works by Picasso, Gainsborough, O’Keeffe, Botticelli, Munch, Pollock and more.
Popular exhibits at the Downtown Aquarium include rain forest, Louisiana swamp and Gulf of Mexico habitats, as well as white tigers from India.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science has something to suit just about everyone, from dinosaur fossils and colorful gems to Egyptian artifacts and African wildlife. Kids and adults alike will appreciate the creative interactive exhibits.
You can walk through a huge model of the human body, including a 27.5-foot intestine, at the Health Museum. New to the Amazing Body Pavilion is a soundproof screaming booth where you can test the decibel level of your voice. The museum is also home to Houston’s first 4D theater.
Elephants and giraffes and chimps, oh my! These are just a few of the creatures you can check out at the Houston Zoo. Hour-long behind-the-scenes tours are available, allowing guests to meet a zookeeper and learn more in depth about how the animals are cared for.
In addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, art lovers should also be sure to check out the Menil Collection, housed in the first American building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The museum is home to the eclectic collections of John and Dominique de Menil, who amassed a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs and decorative objects from ancient times to the contemporary period. You’ll see work by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Ernst and Johns.
In the Bay Area, wander the tiny streets with a camera and photograph about three dozen brightly decorated fiberglass pelicans, which serve as landmarks in Old Seabrook, a town offering a handful of sweet little homegrown shops and galleries.
In nearby Alvin, visit Bayou Wildlife Park to ride a tram past habitats serving as home to some creatures from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.
You’re also close to Galveston County’s only winery, Haak Vineyards and Winery, producer of the award-winning Blanc du Bois. Look for the winemaker’s lovely olive orchard, too.
Visitors can enjoy the great outdoors thanks to a 12-acre park in the middle of town. Discovery Green replaces parking lots facing the George R. Brown Convention Center. A perimeter of century-old live oak trees provides a natural framework within which designers built the Great Lawn, grand-scale pieces of art, a boating pond, a giant fountain (fun for kids to splash in during hot days), dog fountains and runs, picnic grounds, a playground, an amphitheater, jogging trails, and places to play bocce ball, horseshoes and croquet.
Green is key here, as all concessions are eco-friendly and utilize biodegradable products. A full schedule of performing arts includes opera, blues, jazz and ballet on various stages, and monthly offerings include authors’ readings and ballroom dance lessons, Pilates and yoga classes, kids’ writing workshops, and much more.
Another lovely green space, in the shadows of downtown’s high-rises, is Sam Houston Park, which offers guided tours of historic homes in the park. Hiking and biking trails also wind through downtown along Buffalo Bayou.
Houston’s night life is becoming legendary, due in part to Houston Pavilions. This complex houses Lucky Strike Lanes, House of Blues and Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, among others.
If you’re a sports fan, see which teams are in town. The Houston Astros play Major League Baseball downtown at Minute Maid Park, and the NBA’s Houston Rockets play a couple of blocks away at the Toyota Center. The Houston Texans play NFL teams at Reliant Stadium. The world’s largest rodeo — the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — also takes place at Reliant.
You could spend a month checking out Houston’s great restaurants and still have options to spare. It’s not just Tex-Mex (though there’s plenty of that to be enjoyed) — you’ll find all sorts of cuisine from around the globe, from traditional American Southern to Italian and Asian. Houston is a meat-lover’s paradise; there are plenty of places to sink your teeth into a juicy T-bone or some delicious pulled pork. And don’t miss a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the fajita.
Cullen’s Upscale American Grille, on Space Center Boulevard, is run by chef Paul Lewis, who studied in England and earned stripes at the Four Seasons in Houston. Steaks and seafood are the specialty here, with more upscale choices in the elegant main dining room and less expensive casual fare at the “Grille.”
Foodies familiar with the original Uchi in Austin were thrilled when it opened a second location in Houston in 2012. The restaurant’s creative and beautiful sushi dishes are worth the sometimes-lengthy wait for a table (reservations are highly recommended).
In Clear Lake, Tommy’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar is your destination for crawfish enchiladas, Louisiana-style gumbo, oysters on the halfshell and seafood platters — with a hefty dose of gracious hospitality on the side.
For a bit of a splurge, head to Oxheart, which offers a choice of three menus each evening. Dishes change regularly, but might include options such as heritage chicken poached with lemongrass, galangal, Vietnamese herbs and young ginger, or gently steamed vermillion snapper with smoked pine nuts and sofrito of preserved shellfish. The dining room has just 30 seats; be sure to reserve ahead.
Pappas Bar-B-Q, which has multiple locations around the city, is a Houston-bred joint, committed to filling you up with real Texas barbecue. You can’t go wrong with combination platters of sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, smoked sausage, ranch beans, potato salad and coleslaw.
Ninfa’s, on Navigation Boulevard, is where you go to find the roots of the national fajita craze. It began with tacos al carbon, created by Mama Ninfa, which you’ll find here in Tex-Mex heaven.
Shopping in Houston
Shopping is a full-time occupation for some Houstonians, and you can get in on the action easily. Start with the city’s many malls; the Galleria, Houston’s best known shopping center, is so large and so popular that the surrounding neighborhood is often called “the Galleria” (though its official name is Uptown). Beyond the malls, you can also find blocks of stores downtown and near the Rice University campus. Need some souvenir ideas? One favorite — which can be found in nearly any gift shop throughout Houston — is a dark-blue coffee mug inscribed with the famous quote from Davy Crockett as he was leaving Tennessee to move to his new (and fateful) home: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”
Not to be missed is the world-famous original Galleria in Uptown Houston, visited by more than 26 million people each year. Stores include Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Gap, Gucci, Lucky Brand Jeans and much more. In addition to shopping and dining, there’s also an indoor ice skating rink (open year round).
Near the Galleria at the European-style Uptown Park, find the Ann Taylor LOFT, Bill Walker Clothier, Mint Baby and the Cigar Vault, among other exclusive retailers. There are also several day spas here.
Just a couple of blocks from the Rice University campus, Rice Village has more than 300 stores for browsing. The mix of national chains (like Chico’s and Urban Outfitters) and local boutiques makes this a fun and eclectic place to hunt for clothing, housewares, jewelry and gifts.
Bargain hunters should head out of town to the outlets of Katy Mills, about 25 miles west of Houston. Retailers here include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole and many more.
Looking for edible souvenirs? Head to any of the legendary Goode Company barbecue restaurants and pick up a gift box of seasonings, spices and barbecue sauce to use when you’re grilling back at home.
–written by June Naylor