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downtown houston at night.
Shannon O'Hara

The 19 Best Things to Do in Houston

SmarterTravel

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Houston has such a diverse range of attractions that you’d need a week to make a dent in the supply. From NASA’s astronaut training center to funky visionary art installations and sprawling urban green spaces, you’ll have your choice of fun things to do in Houston.

Want a whirlwind tour of the major Houston attractions? It’s a snap with the Houston CityPASS, which covers five key sights at a savings of nearly 50 percent compared to the total cost of individual admission. Attractions include Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as well as either the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts, and either the Kemah Boardwalk or the Children’s Museum. Here’s what to expect from each one.

Space Center Houston

kids at space center houston.
Space Center Houston

At Space Center Houston, take a behind-the-scenes tram tour through NASA’s Johnson Space Center, checking out the historic Apollo Mission Control Center and the heaviest rocket ever flown. You can also see spacesuits from past missions, explore a replica of the shuttle Independence, and touch a rock taken from the planet Mars.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

purple tunnel museum of fine arts houston.
Hugh Hargrave/Visit Houston

Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the country’s largest, with numerous visiting exhibitions complementing a strong permanent collection of works by Picasso, Gainsborough, O’Keeffe, Rembrandt, Chagall, Pollock, and many more. Don’t miss a quick stroll through the small sculpture garden across the street, which is free to explore.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science

dinosaur skeletons at houston museum of natural science.
Fotos593/Shutterstock

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has something for just about everyone, from dinosaur fossils and colorful gems to Egyptian artifacts and seashells from around the world. Between the exhibits, the planetarium, and the butterfly center, there’s enough to keep you busy for a whole day.

Houston Zoo

cheetah at houston zoo.
Shaffaq Abbasi/Shutterstock

If you’ve got kids in tow, the Houston Zoo is a must-see stop. Bears, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, and sea lions are among the creatures that roam the habitats here. Animal encounters and behind-the-scenes tours are available for visitors who want a closer look.

Downtown Aquarium

downtown aquarium houston.
Julie Soefer/Visit Houston

Houston’s Downtown Aquarium is smaller than you’d expect—you can see the fish and other animals in less than an hour—but the on-site rides include a carousel and a Ferris wheel as added bonus fun for kids. And the whole family will love the beautiful white tigers.

Children’s Museum Houston

kids at children's museum houston.
Visit Houston

Yet another family-friendly Houston attraction is the Children’s Museum, designed for kids up to age 12. Little ones can learn about everything from math to modern-day Korean culture in the museum’s hands-on exhibits.

Kemah Boardwalk

kemah boardwalk at night.
Sergio Garcia Rill/Visit Houston

About 20 minutes outside Houston are the rides, games, and restaurants of Kemah Boardwalk, all perched right on the waterfront. You can also explore a zip-line, rainforest exhibit, and stingray reef.

Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens

bayou bend collection and gardens houston.
Rick Gardner

Part of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens displays furniture, ceramics, and other decorative arts in the former home of Houston art collector and “First lady of Texas” Irma Hogg. The stately house is surrounded by some 14 acres of manicured gardens.

The Health Museum

houston health museum exterior.
Visit Houston

Walk through a huge model of the human body, including a 22-foot backbone, at the Health Museum. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum hosts a number of temporary installations and screens films in its McGovern Theater.

The Menil Collection

menil collection sculptures houston.
Visit Houston

Looking for free things to do in Houston? Art lovers shouldn’t miss 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, with an emphasis on more modern works. Artists on display include Matisse, Picasso, Ernst, and Johns.

Discovery Green

discovery green houston.
Mark Taylor Cunningham/Shutterstock

Visitors can enjoy the great outdoors right in downtown Houston thanks to a 12-acre park, Discovery Green, located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center. A perimeter of century-old 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 on hot days), dog fountains and runs, picnic grounds, a playground, an amphitheater, and jogging trails. Check out the events calendar to find out what’s going on during your visit, from yoga classes to concerts.

Sam Houston Park

historic home in sam houston park.
John_Silver/Shutterstock

Another lovely green space surrounded by the high-rise towers of downtown is Sam Houston Park, where you can tour a number of historic homes maintained by the city’s Heritage Society.

National Museum of Funeral History

day of the dead display at national museum funeral history.
National Museum of Funeral History

It may seem like a grim place to visit on vacation, but the National Museum of Funeral History is surprisingly interesting. The 15 permanent exhibits include the history of cremation and embalming, artifacts from presidential and papal funerals, and hearses dating back to the 19th century. The museum also examines how other cultures deal with funerals and death.

Buffalo Bayou Park

biking in buffalo bayou park houston.
Nate Hovee/Shutterstock

Need some exercise? Hit the walking, jogging, and biking trails that run along the bayou through central Houston in Buffalo Bayou Park. You can enjoy great views of the downtown skyline and even tour an eerie underground cistern that once housed the city’s water supply and now makes for a fascinating tour.

The Orange Show and Smither Park

smither park houston.
Sarah Schlichter

Lovers of visionary art should check out two Houston attractions located right next to each other: The Orange Show and Smither Park. The former is a funky, folksy ode to the orange, created over several decades by a retired postal worker using reclaimed materials such as iron, bricks, and tiles. Smither Park is a community project, showcasing the work of hundreds of local artists, including colorful mosaics, found objects, and even a large grotto plastered with pieces of road signs.

Holocaust Museum Houston

dutch rescue boat at holocaust museum houston.
Courtesy of Holocaust Museum Houston

Fresh off a major renovation and expansion, the Holocaust Museum features a permanent exhibition on Anne Frank and other young diarists, a human rights gallery, a collection of paintings by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak, and a Dutch rescue boat from World War II, among other moving exhibits.

Sports Venues

minute maid park houston.
Visit Houston

Sports lovers can catch a game at numerous venues in Houston, from baseball’s Minute Maid Park (home of the Astros) to the nearby Toyota Center, where the NBA’s Rockets play. Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are held at NRG Stadium.

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

buffalo soldiers museum houston.
Julie Soefer/Visit Houston

One of the lesser-known things to do in Houston is a visit to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which celebrates the military contributions of the African Americans who served in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

artist at houston center for contemporary craft.
TripAdvisor

Another unique Houston attraction is the Center for Contemporary Craft, where you can see rotating displays of ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, fiber art, and more. You can also meet the center’s artists in residence and get a look inside their studios.

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Sarah Schlichter was hosted by Marriott and Visit Houston. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. June Naylor contributed to this story.

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