Maybe you were one of those kids who resented a trip to tour factories and other proud bastions of industry in and around the city of Houston. If so, have fun, hippies, because nothing says masterhood like carving the natural resources of Mother Earth into mechanical submission! Me, I love a good look 'round at how things are made. I still have a program on the history and manufacturing of concrete on my DVR after three years because it's bloody fascinating.
If you share this love, then come on with me. We've got some great places to take tours through.
Blue Bell Creameries Though it's a drive out to Brenham to do so, one of the best tours available within reasonable distance is of the Blue Bell Creameries. The price is very affordable, $6 for adults and $4 for kids and seniors. It's a 45-minute walk through the plant with a well-versed staff regarding the history of the company and the exact ice cream making process. Plus at the end they give you free samples of any flavor you like. It's a trek, but if for some reason you're taking a trip to Austin, it makes for a fun and informative stopover. But warning: It's not open on weekends.
Hamilton Shirts Technically you don't actually tour the workroom at Hamilton Shirts. However, you are able to watch the work being done on the luxury men's wear products through a large picture window, and the showroom also contains plenty of information and pictures of the company from its more than a century of business. It's a testament to the old-fashioned but hands-on and caring way they continue to make their product.
Mrs. Baird's Bread There is pretty much nothing in the world like the wondrous smell of fresh-baked bread, and the Mrs. Baird's factory will show you how it's done. At the end you even get free bread and butter, and unlike a lot of other tours in Houston, this one is completely free.
South Texas Nuclear Generating Station Down in Bay City, you can actually tour a nuclear power plant, and I can't think of anything more science fiction than that. It can be a little more of a hassle than most other tours. You have to fill out a form and get approval, for instance, but that's a small price to pay to put a face on one of the most frightening industries in the world.
Wortham Theater Center Houston First offers a backstage tour of the Wortham Theater Center, and it is not to be missed if you can make it. The cavernous labyrinth that hosts our ballets and operas is full of history and interesting trivia, to say nothing of the fact that you experience the sheer scale of the place. It really is like a cathedral to art, and checking out backstage only enhances the magic.
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Houston Food Bank I know it sounds a little weird, but give the Houston Food Bank a shot sometime. It's actually really neat to watch all the food go around on conveyor belts, and it's also a good place to introduce kids to activism and community outreach. Even adults will benefit from a better understanding of how we help feed the needy in the city.
Kegg's Candies Houston's got its own real-life Willy Wonka chocolate factory over on Westpark Drive. Touring Kegg's will net you free samples and an intimate knowledge of how cocoa becomes finished candy, including handling the cocoa pods. Afterwards there's the massive retail store to peruse and a goodie bag. The only downside is that it's pretty much by reservation only and you need a group of at least ten. It's also one of the more expensive tours at $8.50 a person ($3.50 under three), and likely to be more once you start picking through the store. I mean, you could conceivably not do that last part, but who in their right mind would?
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Railean Distillery Less than an hour outside Houston is the Railean Distillery, serving up some fine rum and vodka. The tour is run by founder and master distiller herself Kelly Railean, who will be happy to explain the whole process. You also get to sample spirits and keep your souvenir shot glass, which is a steal for a $5 tour. It's the only major distillery within easy driving distance of the city. Twenty-one and over only, obviously.
Port of Houston One of the more exciting tours you can take is by boat. The Sam Houston has been showing off one of the busiest commercial ports in the world for more than half a century, and is also free of charge for the ride. You'll get a chance to hear the history of the port, see a variety of birds and sea life that live there, and spot the many international vessels that berth there with cargo. It's a great chance to see the big ships that roam the seven seas up close and personal, as well as spot the massive machines used to unload them.
Saint Arnold Brewery Touring the Saint Arnold Brewery is damned near a rite of passage in Houston. It's one of the most expensive tours, sadly, at $10, but it is rare in that it offers Saturday tours. You can also bring kids with you, though of course they aren't allowed to sample the wares. It's a great learning opportunity, though. Also, if you go on your birthday, you can get a free Happy Birthday pint glass, which is a nice touch. Saint Arnold is a company with its fingers in all sorts of local music and art, and wandering its inner workings is truly to be part of Houston's identity.