The Rest of the Best 2014: Houston's Top 10 Parks (Inside the Loop)

There have been a few changes to our choices of top ten centrally located parks since 2013's list. The top three spots are filled by the same parks, but not in the same order as last year. A couple of things affected our choices. One, better weather. The recent drought certainly left its mark on Houston's green spaces, but signs of recovery are abundant. Two, programing. Some spots are lovely but offer very little in the way of education or entertainment while others have several organized events a day.

10. Market Square Park 301 Milam Street, 713-223-2003

One of several parks in the shadow of downtown's skyscrapers, Market Square Park is smack in the middle of the oldest part of the city's central business district. A dog park is sectioned off on one side, Niko Niko's has a standing cafe and there's still lots of room for watching Alamo Drafthouse on the Road film screenings, listening to concerts from diverse music groups such as Cello Fury, Bingo games and lots of bike-related events (Critical Mass and Bayou Bikers meet here regularly). There are also frequent festivals, such as the Annual Mardi Gras Jamboree and Gumbo Showdown sponsored by Saint Arnold Brewing Company and the Downtown District.

9. Houston Arboretum & Nature Center 4501 Woodway Drive, 713-681-8433

The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is an oasis within shouting distance of both downtown and the Galleria area. Less congested than its neighbor Memorial Park, the Arboretum has three specialty gardens (wildlife, hummingbird and butterfly and the Carol Tatkon Sensory Garden), lots of woodsy trails and best of all, lots and lots of events. Yes, technically, most the Arboretum's offerings are "educational" (which, we would like to remind you, is not a bad word), like the children's day camp programs (Tyke Hikes for kids 18-months-old to three years old with a parent, Tadpole Troopers for three to five year old kids and Naturalist Explorers for kids five to eight years old). Adults can learn about Texas based horticulture (and become a Texas Master Naturalist). Our favorite events at the Arboretum are Tapas on the Trails (an adult, outdoor happy hour with gourmet food and wine throughout the woods), Arboretum at Night tours, bat walks and the upcoming Naturally Wild Family programs (you, your kids and a naturalist, outdoors). Of course, it's always nice just to walk the trails or sit by a pond.

8. Mason Park 541 South 75th Street, 713-928-7055

Braes Bayou winds its way through Mason Park making for great scenery. At more than 100 acres, the park is plenty big but the intersection of the bayou keeps things feeling more intimate. There's a swimming pool, several tennis courts, basketball courts, soccer fields, a baseball field, a great park center and much more. It's hard to find a more beautiful view of the bayou east side of downtown. (One word of warning, the soccer players here are fierce. Bring your A-game or stay on the sidelines. Wannabe's and "just average" players will seriously get their asses whipped.)

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7. Tranquillity Park 400 Rusk Street, 832-394-8805

A two-block section of downtown, with City Hall on one side and the Federal Courthouse on the other, Tranquillity Park was named after the spot of the first landing on the moon, the lunar Sea of Tranquility (yes, it's spelled differently). The park opened in 1979, a decade after that historic moment and indications of its space age origins are still visible. There's a plaque with the words first transmitted from space ("Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed") and reportedly a replica of one of the footprints left on the moon by Armstrong.

Designed to resemble the moon's surface of craters and mounds, with the steel cylinders of the Wortham Water Fountain echoing the Apollo rocket boosters, Tranquillity Park is an oasis for downtown workers and the site of frequent family and music festivals.

6. Buffalo Bayou Park 1800-3600 Allen Parkway/Memorial Drive, 832-395-7000

Buffalo Bayou Partnership has continued to improve and restore the Buffalo Bayou Park waterfront, adding trails, public art and pedestrian bridges. Houston's largest bat colony calls the Waugh Street bridge home. Annual events include festivals, boat rides and canoe competitions.

5. Sam Houston Park 1100 Bagby, 713-655-1912

Started in 1899, Sam Houston Park is the oldest official green space in the city and among the loveliest. The Heritage Society has several restored homes of Houston's earliest residents (among them a 1823 cabin and the Jack Yates house, built in 1870) on the grounds. There's also a museum with some standing and touring exhibitions. Recent exhibits included a look at the history of the Foley's department store, vintage rag dolls and Houston eateries.

There are several large festivals and events held in Sam Houston Park throughout the year. (Our word of warning here: parking can be scarce during large events. Plan accordingly.)

4. Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark 103 Sabine Street, 713-222-5500

Okay, okay, we admit it. Lots of the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark is covered in concrete, which means it's not such a great green space, but it is a terrific venue for skateboarders and their friends. Most of the time you can find a nice mix of beginners and advanced athletes. Unlike some of the city's soccer fields, the competition here is friendly as well as fierce. Several events, including concerts and fundraisers, attack pro-skaters.

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3. Hermann Park 6201 Hermann Park Drive, 713-524-5876

It was a toss up for our top three spots, Hermann Park, Discovery Green and Memorial Park are all lovely green spaces with lots of programming. Hermann Park is among our favorites because of all the various education and entertainment environments it offers. There's Miller Theatre and its hill, the Japanese Garden (a word of warning about the ducks: they are territorial), the reflection pond, the train and the woods. The METRO train has a convenient stop just outside the Japanese Garden which makes parking free visits possible. The annual Shakespeare Festival as well as free performances by Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet and Houston Symphony every summer and several music and dance festivals are on the schedule throughout the year for Miller Theatre. The Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Zoo, some riding stables and a public golf course all border the park itself. Several museums and Rice University are just a little further away (a couple of blocks).

2. Discovery Green 1500 McKinney, 713-400-7336

Discovery Green is nestled between the George R. Brown Convention Center and several area hotels and shops, making it attractive for anyone on the east side of Main Street. More than 300 events are on the schedule throughout the year, including concerts, film screenings, festivals, flea markets and more. Of course, there's also lots and lots of green space available for sitting and sunning or people watching. There's a dog park and several food choices.

Courtesy of GHCVB/Photo by Julie Soefer
1. Memorial Park 6501 Memorial Drive, 713-863-8403

Memorial Park has bounced back from the drought that turned it brown and patchy a couple of years ago and it's now in our No. 1 spot. Every weekend you can find softball games, exercise classes and plenty of joggers/walkers enjoying the park. There are also frequent mock battles between costumed knights and warriors. And the golf course is said to be among the best municipal courses in the country. Large events in the include the bayou City Arts Festival (the park becomes a huge outdoor art gallery and market). At 600 acres, the park is h-u-g-e so take a look at a map of it before you spend an hour driving around looking for the right field or the game will be over by the time you get there.

As its name implies, Memorial Park was dedicated to honor the memory of soldiers lost during World War I when it was created in 1924. The site had been home to Camp Logan, a World War I US Army training camp, before Will and Mike Hogg bought the land. The Hoggs sold it to the city for cost. Archeologists dig in the park looking for relics from the Camp Logan era (Camp Logan was the site of a race riot in 1917 when black soldiers felt they were being treated unfairly and ground zero for a Spanish Flu outbreak that devastated the city in 1918.)

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