The Best Tourist Attractions in Houston (The 2016 Edition)

A former Houston underground drinking water reservoir has become the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern and is available for docent-led tours.
A former Houston underground drinking water reservoir has become the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern and is available for docent-led tours.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership / Photo by Katya Horner

We'll start our list of best tourist attractions in Houston with the newest sight we think worth seeing, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. (By the way, we kept this list restricted to attractions within the city limits, so sorry, Galveston, sorry, Hindu temple in Stafford.) Part of the expansive and ever-improving Buffalo Bayou Park that winds through the area just west of downtown, the Cistern is a reclaimed architectural relic.

Built in 1926, the facility was once the reservoir for the city's drinking water. About the size of one and a half football fields, the cistern was decommissioned in the mid-2000s when an irreparable leak was found. Rows of elegant 25-foot-tall concrete columns fill the interior, making for an eerie scene echoing a pharaoh's tomb or a Hollywood movie set. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership took over the site in 2011 and, after some structural work, opened the space to the public, giving visitors a peek at the unintentional beauty of the former reservoir.

Environmental art exhibits are being planned for the space, but for now it's open for docent-led tours. The tours are 30 minutes long and scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $2, and admission is free on Thursdays. Prior online registration is required. 

The Cistern is just one of the many attractions at Buffalo Bayou Park. There are miles of hiking and biking trails that run along the bayou banks, pontoon boat tours and the Johnny Steele Dog Park, along with the Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park. Public art dots the park, and the pyramid-shaped Houston Police Officers Memorial by the late Texas artist Jesús Bautista Moroles is especially worth a visit. 

The Johnny Steele Dog Park / Buffalo Bayou Park features a large wading pond and plenty of shade.
The Johnny Steele Dog Park / Buffalo Bayou Park features a large wading pond and plenty of shade.
Photo courtesy of Visit Houston / Photo by Julie Soefer

Special events are scheduled year-round but the most popular draw is the nightly flight of 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. The colony lives under the Waugh Bridge and every night at sunset, they leave the bridge en masse. Watch from the banks of the bayou or from the water; pontoon boats regularly offer sunset tours. 

ArCH Walking Tours offers guided tours of Buffalo Bayou, along with several other neighborhoods and districts. 

Insider tips: The bats, while amazing to watch as they leave the underside of Waugh Bridge, aren't so nice up close. If you use the trail to pass under the bridge, be prepared for a bit of a stink. The bats' droppings aren't quite as dangerous as toxic waste, but they're pretty dang close. Be prepared to hold your breath and walk very, very quickly as you pass under the bridge (getting bat poop in your hair really sucks). 

Visit Buffalo Bayou Park from dawn to dusk daily; lighted areas 6 a.m. to 11 pm. 3422 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-752-0314 or visit buffalobayou.org. Free. 

The Astronaut Gallery is just one of the hundreds of things to see and do at Space Center Houston.
The Astronaut Gallery is just one of the hundreds of things to see and do at Space Center Houston.
Photo courtesy of Visit Houston

There are hundreds of things to see and do at NASA Space Center, always a favorite attraction for tourists and locals alike. Activities include interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, spacecraft, live presentations, photo galleries, special events, mission briefings and much more. Special temporary exhibits such as "Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition," which was on display this summer, add to the offerings.

Oh, and you can see space suits and other memorabilia from past missions and even try the ejector seats used in the early stages of the program. (The seats were removed from the spacecraft to prevent crew members from leaving each other behind in case of an emergency.)

A 90-minute behind-the-scenes tram tour of the NASA Johnson Space Center, the site of astronaut training and mission control, is included with every paid admission. There's a stop at Building 9, the Vehicle Mock-Up Facility, and Rocket Park, which is home to Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built. You'll see historic Mission Control (where those famous words, "Houston, we have a problem," were heard), and new Mission Control, which coordinates with the International Space Station and lots more.

A 45-minute tour of the shuttle replica Independence mounted on top of the original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft is also included. (Separate timed tickets are required for each.) 

Get to the tram and Independence tours 15 minutes before your scheduled departure time. If you miss your tour, you might be able to catch the next one, but that's a maybe. Best best is to be on time.

General admission gets you access to almost everything at the Center. There are a few optional extras, including free presentations by former astronauts and Lunch with an Astronaut ($29.95  to $49.95). Both are scheduled for Fridays and are rare opportunities to spend some time with a few of the men and women who have ventured into space. 

Insider tips: Allow your inner geek to come out. You won't lose any cool points if you get excited about touching a moon rock or meeting an astronaut. It's a big, big freakin' deal! 

Weekends, school vacation times and holidays are busy at the Space Center. The best times to visit are early morning on weekdays. 

Spend a few extra bucks and opt for the audio tour that's available for the Center. It gives you the background on the exhibits and displays and keeps you from having to read any info plaques. 

If you want to skip standing in box office lines, buy your tickets online and print them out or save them to a mobile device. 

Upcoming Events

There are several ways to save on ticket prices. Space Center newsletter subscribers and social media followers have discount offers sent to them. Houston-area Walmart stores, McDonald's, Luby's and Fuddruckers restaurants and Randalls grocery stores all offer discount coupons for $5 to $7 off regular admission prices every summer. 

Space Center Houston is also one of the attractions included with the Houston CityPASSThe $46 to $56 City Pass includes admission to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Downtown Aquarium, the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Kemah Boardwalk or the Children's Museum of Houston. Pick up your CityPASS at any of the included attractions or online at citypass.com/houston.

While most of the Space Center exhibits and attractions are indoors, the tram tour and tour of the Independence involve going outside. Both tours can be delayed or even canceled in case of bad weather.

There's no outside food allowed in the Center, but there are picnic tables outside available where you can enjoy any goodies you brought with you. 

Finally, no selfie-sticks are allowed in the Center.

Space Center Houston visiting hours are seasonal. Usually 9 or 10 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 9 or 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 1601 NASA Parkway. For information, call 281-244-2100 or visit spacecenter.org. Prices vary from $19.95 to $31 depending on your age and audio tour options. Paid admission includes a timed tram tour and a tour of the (separate ticket required). 

The Menil Collection includes some 900 works of African art including masks, sculptures, textiles and ceramic objects.
The Menil Collection includes some 900 works of African art including masks, sculptures, textiles and ceramic objects.
Photo courtesy of Visit Houston

Houston has its share of world-class museums. Among the most impressive is The Menil Collection, an absolute must-see. Built around the private holdings of John and Dominique de Menil, the Collection includes art and artifacts from ancient times to the late 20th century. The Collection is much more than an art museum; it's a whole neighborhood. Spread over some 30 acres, several buildings and an abundance of green spaces make up the campus. (The architecture and design of the campus are as enjoyable as the art works they showcase.) 

Temporary exhibits fill some of the galleries, while works from the permanent collection rotate through the majority. Recent exhibitions include Andy Warhol's Sunset, "Francis Alys: The Fabiola Project" and "Picasso: The Line." 

Insider tips: There are three parking lots on the Menil campus. For the Bistro, bookstore or Collection, use the lot on West Alabama. For the park, Rothko Chapel, Byzantine Fresco Chapel and future Menil Drawing institute, use the lot by the Chapel on Yupon. For the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, use the lot on Richmond. 

The Menil Collection is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. The Menil Park is open dawn to dusk daily. The Menil Collection is at 1533 Sul Ross. Menil Park is at 1450 Branard. For information, call 713-525-9400 or visit menil.org. Free. 

Glenwood Cemetery is home to the last president of Texas, Howard Hughes and lots of people who had Houston streets named after them.EXPAND
Glenwood Cemetery is home to the last president of Texas, Howard Hughes and lots of people who had Houston streets named after them.
Photo by Olivia Flores Alvarez

History fans will enjoy the Glenwood Cemetery. A quiet oasis just off bustling Washington Avenue, Glenwood is the final resting place of hundreds of Houstonians, from early settlers to 20th-century luminaries. Along with a great view of downtown, it has some spectacular monuments. Headstones range from elaborate, lifesize sculptures of angels and towering Victorian obelisks to modern, minimalist markers and simple, weathered stone tablets. 

Among the interred is Charlotte Baldwin Allen, the wife of Augustus C. Allen, who, along with his brother, John Kirby Allen, co-founded Houston. Charlotte is often called "the mother of Houston." Anson Jones, the fourth and final president of the Republic of Texas, is at Glenwood (there's a historical marker at the graveside, one of many at the cemetery). 

Philanthropist George Hermann (yep, as in Hermann Park); Texas Governor and Humble Oil co-founder Ross Sterling; businessmen George and Herman Brown (the guys who made millions with Brown & Root company, now called KBR); and Oveta Culp Hobby, Houston Post newspaper publisher and secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (does Hobby Airport ring a bell?), are there. 

Astrodome builder Judge Roy Hofheinz, Hollywood actress Gene Tierney and local television news anchor Ron Stone are there. Of course, many consider Glenwood's most famous resident to be billionaire Howard Hughes.

You can look for the graves of famous Houstonians if you want. Or you could just walk a few feet in any direction and you'll come across a headstone bearing the name of someone who's had a street named after him or her. 

Glenwood Cemetery docent-led walking tours are presented quarterly in conjunction with Preservation Houston. Tours focus on Glenwood's architecture, history and art.  

Insider tip: The usual "You're at a cemetery; please act like you got some sense" rules apply during your visit. Leave the funerals and mourners alone. No sitting on the headstones. No suggestive selfies with the angel sculptures. Keep the noise level down. Basically, don't be an ass.

There are no public restrooms at Glenwood Cemetery. Plan accordingly. 

Visit Glenwood Cemetery 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 2525 Washington Avenue. For information, call 713-864-7886 or visit glenwoodcemetery.org. Free admission; walking tours by Preservation Houston are $15. 



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