Rest of the Best: Houston's Top 10 Tourist Attractions (For Locals Too)

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Whether it's hauling around out-of-town relatives and friends or because you just want something different to do, Houston has plenty of tourist attractions.

Here's our list of tourist attractions that locals will enjoy.

10.The George Observatory at Brazos Bend Park 2901 FM 762, Needville 281-242-3055, hmns.org

A satellite of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the family friendly George Observatory comes in at our ten spot. There are three domed telescopes open to the public -- 36, 18 and 14 inches. The observatory attracts newbies, amateurs and serious hobbyists and no matter what your interest in astronomy, there's something at the observatory that you'll find fascinating. Staffers and guides are on hand to walk you through the process, pointing out standout stars and planets.

Expect crowds during special events (such as a comet watch), but attendance is usually manageable and though you might have to stand in line for a few minutes, everybody gets a chance to see the stars. Sleep-overs and group visits are available (be smart and get your reservations in at least three months before you plan to visit).

Open to the public every Saturday year-round, the observatory's hours vary depending on the season, 3 to 10 p.m. or 3 to 11 p.m. Admission to the Observatory is $5. Admission to the planetarium is $3. Admission to the park is $7 per adult.

9.Saint Arnold Brewing Company 2000 Lyons Avenue 713-686-9494, saintarnold.com

Sure, serious beer connoisseurs flock to Saint Arnold Brewing Company for the tours and tastings, but the facility also offers a great lunch that anyone can enjoy. During the week, tours are at 2 p.m. On Saturdays, it's noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Guides explain the workings of the brewery as well as the Saint Arnold specialty beers. The $8 admission fee includes the tour and a souvenir glass.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. We suggest the daily special. It varies so ask your server for details. For $17.55 you get two courses and beer. On the day we checked the special was spring greens with balsamic vinaigrette and short ribs (braised in Santo beer, a Saint Arnold specialty) with herbed potatoes and haricot verts. There's a full menu of other offerings from burgers to duck BLT, slow dough pretzels and a Saint Arnold root beer float. Of course, you can take your own lunch or snacks to enjoy after the tour.

A couple things to keep in mind -- wear closed toe shoes if you want to take the tour. Also kids are allowed only if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

8. Houston Public Library, Julia Ideson Building 500 McKinney 832-393-1662, houstonlibrary.org

As far as we know, the Julia Ideson Building, part of the Houston Public Library System, is the only entry on our list that has a resident ghost. Built in 1926 in the Spanish Revival style by architect Ralph Adams Cram, the building is said to be haunted by the ghost of a former caretaker and his dog. The pair have good taste, the Ideson Building is beautiful inside and out. Inside there are original murals by Emma Richardson Cherry, an early Houston artist and community organizer, amazing wood- and tile work. Outside, there are two separate stately gardens. The lush greenery is an oasis from the busy downtown streets that are just a few feet from the building's gates. A wing was added recently for additional space. Architects echoed the style and the addition is seamlessly married to the original structure. The library is home to local and Texas archives, as well as other historic collections. A spacious gallery hosts exhibitions that speak to Houston's cultural history; one recent show featured art by Emma Richardson Cherry.

7. Discovery Green 1500 McKinney 713-400-7336, discoverygreen.com

The newest attraction to make our list is Discovery Green, a 12-acre park that was opened downtown in 2008. In the six short years since its opening, Discovery Green has become an entertainment mecca for the city. Some 600 public events are held there each year, with most free of charge. Offerings include outdoor film screenings, music concerts, festivals, flea markets, outdoor exercise classes and more. A hot air balloon ride, winter ice skating and kayak sessions are among some of our favorite past events. There are several gardens and lawns, a lake, an amphitheater, separate dog parks, fountains, a small library, two restaurants and lots of public art. Food vendors line the park's walk ways. Underground and street level parking are available.

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6. The Japanese Gardens in Hermann Park 6000 Faninn 713-524-5876, houstontx.gov

The entire Hermann Park complex is a must-see for visitors and locals alike. The Japanese Gardens are our favorite spot in the park. Designed by famed Japanese landscape architect Ken Nakajima, the strolling gardens seem to be a tiny, intimate oasis. In fact, the gardens are spread out over five acres but so carefully designed that each area manages to flow into the next and still feel secluded.

The gardens are home to a gaggle of rather noisy, territorial ducks. Smart folks give them a wide berth.

5. Houston Arboretum and Nature Center 4501 Woodway 713-681-8433, houstonarboretum.org

Located in Memorial Park, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is equal parts nature sanctuary and outdoor classroom. Along with the wooded areas and walking paths (more than five miles of trails in total), the Center offers a full schedule of educational opportunities. There are classes and day camps for kids -- Tadpole Troopers for kids three to five years old, Naturalist Explorers for students five to eight years old. Little kids can enjoy Tyke Hikes. Each program includes supervised outdoors educational activities and most also offer craft projects, story telling, games and more. Looking for fun as a family? No problem, the Arboretum offers Naturally Wild Families programming. Adult events and classes include evening hikes, wine tasting on the trails, nature photography and naturalist training. You don't have to be part of a group or class to enjoy the Arboretum - just wander along the trails if you want. Activities are as structured or unstructured as you want.

4. Moody Gardens One Hope Boulevard, Galveston 800-582-4673, moodygardens.com

Yes, Moody Gardens is in Galveston, but we still consider it a Houston-area attraction.

With a 1.5 million gallon aquarium filled with penguins, stingrays, seals, sharks and more, the Aquarium Pyramid is a spectacular look at life underwater. Animals from the North and South Pacific, South Atlantic and Caribbean seas fill the aquarium. Over at the Rainforest Pyramid, rare and endangered animals (giant Amazon river otters, Chinese alligators and Saki monkeys) as well as exotic plants from across the Americas, Asia and Africa create a unique interactive experience. The MG 3D Theater features the largest movie screen in Texas, 3D screenings and surround sound. The 4D Special FX Theater has 3D screenings, plus wind, sound and movement special effects to make you feel part of the action on the screen. There's also a museum, an 1800s paddlewheel boat, a man-made beach and the annual Festival of Lights celebrating the winter holidays.

Tickets vary per attraction/age of visitor but we suggest the one- or two-day pass ($59.95 and $79.95 respectively). That gets you admission into the Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest Pyramid, MG 3D Theater, 4D Special FX Theater, Ridefilm Theater, Discovery Museum, Colonel Paddlewheel Boat, and seasonal attractions Palm Beach or Festival of Lights. One day passes allow for one entry; the two day passes allow for unlimited entries over two consecutive days.

Animal encounters can get pricey, but hey, you're hanging out with a penguin or a seal, so it's worth it. Public penguin encounters are $50 per person; private penguin encounters are $350 for a group of four. The penguin and seal encounters are $250 per person (ages 16 and older only). You'll get a tour by a staffer, hear about the animals and then spend some time with them. (Oh, if you get a whiff of a slightly fishy smell in the car on the drive home - yep, it's you.)

There are several cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and food court options on the property. Consider an overnight stay at the Moody Gardens Hotel to make your visit complete.

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3. Space Center Houston 1601 NASA Parkway 281244-2100, spacecenter.org

Sure, NASA and the Johnson Space Center aren't especially busy these days, what with the cutting back of funding and programs, but that doesn't diminish the history of the American space program that's on display at Space Center Houston. (Come on, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." That's heroic, historic stuff.) You can have lunch with an astronaut, view artifacts from previous missions (astronaut suits, flags, space capsules, even space junk), tour the training and operational facilities, watch films about space, see historic photos or enjoy a number of interactive exhibits.

Along with NASA-related displays, there are frequent touring exhibits. It seems NASA and the folks behind Star Wars have a mutual love and the Space Center has hosted exhibits of one-of-a-kind film memorabilia, costumes and interactive activities.

Admission prices vary per attraction and visitor age.

2. Port of Houston/Sam Houston Boat Tour 7300 Clinton Drive 713-670-2416, portofhouston.com

For the majority of Houstonians, the Ship Channel is mostly out of sight and out of mind. That's unfortunate because while, yes, it's an industrial area it's also a wondrous waterside city-in-a-city. The Port of Houston/Sam Houston Boat Tour offers a different view of the channel. During the 90-minute cruise, visitors see expansive watery vistas, huge international cargo ships, tug boats busily directing channel traffic and the port's Turning Basin Terminal operations.

Ride in air-conditioned comfort on the 95-foot boat. There are tours at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. There are limited 6 p.m. tours on select Fridays and Saturdays. No tours during November. All tours are free.

See our profile of Ship Channel photographer Lou Vest.

1. James Turrell's Twilight Epiphany Skyspace Rice University, 6100 Main 713-348-475, skyspace.rice.edu

The top spot on our list of Houston tourist attractions for locals is James Turrell's Twilight Epiphany Skyspace, an outdoor structure constructed from stone, steel, concrete and grass that is "simultaneously a functional performance space and an experiential work of art," according to the university's website. Just before sunrise and at sunset, an LED light show is projected on to the ceiling and through an opening in the roof. Visitors can stand inside the structure or watch from outside as the light show and change in sky mix to create something that is definelty larger than the sum of its parts. The Skyspace, one of the largest Turrell has ever made, is the only construction of its kind that's engineered for acoustics. (The structure serves as a laboratory for Rice University music students.)

The Skyspace is officially open one hour before sunrise to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays. (Closed Tuesdays.) Admission is always free.

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