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.
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.
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.
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 CityPASS. The $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).
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.
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.
There are two light shows a day (Wednesdays through Mondays) at the James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. While you can visit the structure anytime, it's the light shows that have a real wow factor.
Turrell created a space that essentially frames the sky for the viewer. You walk into the Skyspace and look up through a square opening in the roof that floats over the structure. That's impressive enough.
During the light shows, at sunrise and sunset, light projected onto the underside of the roof gradually changes color. It's blue one minute, then green or pink the next. As the artificial light changes, it seems to change the natural light seen through the opening.
The Skyspace sits in front of the Rice University School of Music and the acoustics have been optimized for musical performances.
Insider tips: Keep in mind the light shows start 40 minutes before sunrise and ten minutes before sunset. Check the website for show times, which differ from actual sunrise or sunset.
Reservations are required for the sunset light show only. You can make reservations online at skyspace.rice.edu.
There are several parking lots close to the Skyspace. The Greenbriar lot (enter at gate 13A or 13B on Greenbriar) is cheapest, with a flat $2 per day fee. The Alice Pratt Brown Lot / West Lot 1 (enter at gate 8 on University) is closest but costs $1 for every 15 minutes. Both lots require credit cards for payment.
As at least one Houston Press staff member can attest, the Skyspace is not a make-out spot. It can be romantic and all, but please — no kissing.
Stay off the grass hill and away from the light panels. They're actually part of the installation. Also, leave your dog at home if you plan to see the lightshow. The Skyspace interior is a dog-free zone.
The James Turrell Twilight Epiphany Skyspace is on the campus of Rice University, 6100 Main. 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays. Light show times vary daily. For information, visit skyspace.rice.edu or e-mail email@example.com. Free; reservations required for sunset light shows.
Unlike Boston or heck, even Galveston, Houston isn't known as a big preservation town. While we have a downtown historic district, it isn't a compact area filled with pristine historic buildings. Nope, instead you'll find a huge 20th-century parking lot next to a tiny 19th-century building. There are several significant structures scattered around; you'll just have to do some walking around to see them.
Start at Sam Houston Park, home to the Houston Heritage Society. The park has ten historic buildings dotting its expansive green lawns. The oldest surviving structure in Houston, the stately Kellum-Noble House, is the park's showpiece. It was built in 1847, and the home's walls feature the original bricks made from mud from the banks of the nearby bayou. There's also the 1870 Yates house, built by Reverend John Henry Yates, who was an emancipated slave who became a minister. (The home was originally built in the Freedmen's Town area, just a few blocks away from where it now sits.)
The Heritage Society's museum, with exhibits about Houston's early years, also sits on the park's grounds.
Sam Houston Park is open dawn to dusk daily. The Heritage Society Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Docent-led tours of the historic structures in the park are scheduled 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 1100 Bagby. For information, call 713-655-1912 or visit heritagesociety.org. Admission to the park and museum are free; guided tours are $15.
Several blocks north of the park is the downtown Historic District. Again, the 19th-century structures aren't all in a row but they are close enough that you can walk from one to the other. (Visit downtownhouston.org for more details about the area's offerings.)
We like the the Scholibo Building (912 Prairie Avenue) and the Henry Brashear Building (910 Prairie Avenue), both located behind the former Rice Hotel. The Scholibo Building was constructed in 1880 and the Henry Brashear Building in 1882. These aren't the fanciest of 19th-century structures downtown and yes, the unassuming pair are much tamer takes on Victorian architecture than the rather ornate Sweeney, Coombs & Fredericks Building (301 Main), which was built soon after in 1889. Still, we like their simple elegance and staying power.
For a look at High Victorian architecture, visit the Houston Cotton Exchange (202 Travis Street). Built in 1884, the Cotton Exchange was the hub of business in Houston in the pre-Spindletop Texas economy.
Be sure to stop by Market Square Park for a snack and a sit-down when you're in the area. The park is just one square block, but it's jammed with public art (James Surls’s Points of View is there), manicured lawns, blooming gardens, a restaurant and a dog park. Outdoor film screenings and other events are planned year-round. Several bars and restaurants surround the park. Just across the street, on the side of the Treebeards restaurant building, is the Houston is Inspired-sponsored graffiti-style mural by popular local artist Gonzo247.
Visit Market Square Park 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. 301 Milam. For information, call 713-650-3022 or visit marketsquarepark.com. Free.
The Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, also known as Houston Selfie Central, is dramatic. It's also loud. And wet. Thousands of gallons of water splash down both sides of the U-shaped 64-foot-high wall every minute. The result is a loud rumble and, depending on the wind conditions, sometimes a bit of a mist. The park, almost three acres of prime Galleria-area real estate, is filled with hundreds of live oak trees.
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Insider tips: You'll be able to take selfies with no problems, but if you're planning on taking a big group, doing posed professional shots or using a tripod, you'll need a permit. (Visit uptown-houston.com for a permit application.)
Parking can be tricky. It's the Galleria area, so there's very little street parking. There are lots of mall and individual store parking garages, but the free ones are meant to serve shoppers, not park visitors. Best bet is the Williams Tower parking garage; enter from West Alabama and Waterwall Drive (one block west of West Alabama and Post Oak). Parking fee is $3 per 30 minutes.
There are no public restrooms at the park.
Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 2800 Post Oak Boulevard. For information, call 713-850-8841 or visit uptown-houston.com. Free.