Despite looming large as a potential travel destination for years our team here had not yet paid a visit to the great state of Texas. That changed with a recent trip to Houston, America’s 4th largest city, and while it wasn’t the cliched (but still wonderful) outdoorsy Texas cowboy experience, it left us mightily impressed and wanting more.
Despite having so much to offer as a tourist destination, Houston somehow seems to fly under the radar in the popular consciousness of travellers. It shouldn’t. Apparently even travelling chef/TV host Anthony Bourdain had overlooked Houston for far too long, and soon after we visited he aired his first episode in 15 years on Houston culture and cuisine.
Houston has something for everyone: the shopper, the bar hopper, the foodie, the artist, the sports enthusiast, the culture hound, even the nature lover. Here are just a few of the diverse experiences, not to mention cuisines and cultures, that Houston holds in store for you.
Take It All In
When I travel, I usually to try “not” to stand out as an obvious tourist as I explore a city. That had included avoiding the city tour bus in other cities in favour of taxiing and, more often, walking around myself. This time, however, having arrived early in town with virtually no sense of what to expect or where to go, when the option of a midday tour atop a London-style red double-decker presented itself I (literally) jumped aboard. Particularly because it was a warm, sunny day in late October that needed to be enjoyed.
The wide-ranging guided tour around Houston was an exceptional experience and I both recommend it to newcomers and will do more of them myself in the future when visiting an interesting and very large city for the first time. The trick is to take this tour on the first day of your visit. Learn about the city, get your bearings, and see interesting sites and neighbourhods that you can then make plans to go back and properly visit those that really caught your attention.
Enjoy A Little Space
Houston, as in “Houston, we have a problem” is home to the manned space mission operations for NASA, and mission control for a manned space flight. The Space Centre Houston is the visitor centre for NASA’s facility and it’s an amazing attraction that should be on your must-see list. For the history buff, science nut or dreamer, this is powerful stuff and really get you thinking on an interstellar level.
The Centre includes a huge indoor array of shows, exhibits, hands-on demos, impressive walk through zones and all sorts of space ships, equipments and moon rocks. Outside things gets even more impressive as you can actually board the shuttle Independence which sits atop the actual modified Boeing 747 that flew the space shuttles across the country. Down the road at Rocket Park don’t miss the chance to see the enormous (you can’t imagine) Saturn V rocket that the Apollo missions used to get into space.
Biking On The Bayou
We spend a wonderful couple hours out on rented bikes with Bayou City Bike Tours one afternoon (great to work off some of the food we’d been over-enjoying) discovering the bayou system and parks of Houston, particularly the massive Buffalo Bayou Park. The bike paths are well designed, safe, and extensive. Our guide was a colourful well-worn fellow with a wealth of knowledge on Houstonian history, both distant and more recent, and showed us during our ride both how important the bayou/river system was to the founding and growth of Houston, and the risk of flooding (which came to pass in an unimaginable way in 2017).
Graffiti As Beautiful Art
We were very fortunate to be in town as things we getting into gear for the second year of the Houston Urban Experience (HUE) Mural Festival. Artists from all around the world were in town to transform walls and sides of building into one of the biggest art displays in the world. One of the most famous American graffiti artists, Houston native Gonzo247 (aka Mario Figueroa Jr.) took us into his world as he gave us the background of the movement in Houston and we toured countless completed masterpieces and (most enthralling) came across numerous artists busy on designs that were still in various stages of completion. Another must-see when in town, the murals can been viewed all year round.
Let’s Play Ball
Houston is a great sports town, and being America’s fourth largest city it comes as no surprise that the full complement of pro sports team are here (well, as long as balls are used). With the Houston Rockets in basketball, Texans in football (and the Oilers before them), MLS soccer team Houston Dynamo and perhaps the best know, and oldest, the Houston Astros (yes, named after the local space program’s astronauts).
We were lucky to get a special tour of Minute Maid Park, the newer home of the Houston Astros (the old one being the iconic Astrodome, with its “astroturf”). Tours are open to the public, and even in the off-season it’s a great experience for sports fans of all types. (Update: Our tour was made all the more memorable as we were given the goods by our guide that the Astros would be a very strong team in the coming season and in the end, they actually did win their first World Series title!)
Lots of Museums, And Good Ones Too
One of our afternoons was dedicated to discovering the many museums the Houston can be proud of. The various oil booms of the last century have brought significant wealth, and equally significant support of the arts from private and public sources. We gave several museums a good, but generally quick run through, and wonderfully some were free to the public. We took in a limited run Edgar Degas exhibition at the impressive Museum of Fine Arts Houston, a thorough and enjoyable walk through the Contemporary Arts Museum (with work by every nearly every modern painter and sculptor we could think of from Picasso to Warhol). We ended up at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (and its Cockrell Butterfly Centre) and missed a few more good museums along the way.
And Lots Of Great Food And Drink
A review of Houston wouldn’t be complete without a look at the truly diverse culinary offerings that we (and recently Anthony Bourdain) were able to sample and savour. Houston benefits from well established ethnic communities such as Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Africa and the particularly the significant Mexican community. Our food experiences included Hugo’s, an upscale Mexican restaurant helmed by a charismatic and award winning chef (and author) Hugo Ortega to Underbelly, the latest creation of equally renowned chef Chris Shepherd, a wonderfully unique farm-to-table creole fusion of all the cuisines of Houston and region. Add in trips to the local, and massive Hard Rock Cafe, the quaint patio vibe of LowBrow and the authentic Texan BBQ at Jackson Street BBQ, and instead of covering Houston cuisine, we had only just started. In fact, Houston’s 10,000 restaurants would take thirty years to get through one day at a time. A return trip is definitely in order, as the vibrant Houston food scene, and its nightlife are definitely worthy of entire articles themselves.
Talking about nightlife, our crew definitely took on Houston’s bar scene full force, and we were introduced to the scene with the help of our local guide Mike. Mike runs the Downtown Historic Pub Crawl (through Urban Adventures) and it was one of the highlights of the entire week. We started off in Barringer Bar in an 1870s era building, and worked our way through more historic/classy bars, The Houston Watch Co., Conservatory, Pastry War, and finally Dean’s Downtown, with stories from our guide Mike along the way. Of course, after the official tour ended, there was still more work to be done, so we forged on with some of the great advice we’d picked up along the way.
Where to stay
As a major North American metropolis Houston boasts a full range of accommodations in all price ranges. We recommend staying downtown within walking distance of the bar/nightlife district, and the Green Line public light rail that can take you to many of the key Houston neighbourhoods. We stayed at a lovely new property, the Aloft Houston Downtown, whose hip boutique hotel vibe yet affordable rates targets millennial visitors (like ourselves 🙂 ). The rooftop patio bar threatened to be a bit of a scene but had been delayed in its opening by a few weeks, darn! So maybe next time.
How to get there
Again, as a major U.S. city, most of the major airlines have direct, reasonably affordable flights from and to major Canadian airports, and Air Canada and Westjet are in on the route too.
Check out the Houston CityPASS
Designed for tourists this booklet gives you admission tickets to multiple top attractions for almost half price, and avoids the need for regular ticket purchase lineups.
Lots of great places to shop in Houston but The Galleria, Texas’s largest shopping mall with 400 retailers and restaurants, is a good place to start.
For more check out…
The Visit Houston website has lots of info and ideas.