Houston might not seem like much of a tourist town to locals — people come here to work or go to school, not sightsee — but it does attract thousands of tourists every year. With the conventions going on at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the rodeo at Reliant Park, the various "districts" (Museum, Theater and such), and year-round schedule of professional sports, Houston is on the vacation map for people from around the world. Here are our favorite tourist attractions. As usual, there's a caveat — these are attractions inside the Houston city limits. There's another list for the must-visit sites outside of the city (Moody Gardens, Galveston's Strand District and the like).
10. The Houston Astrodome 8400 Kirby Dr.
The Dome gets on our list even though it's not open to the public any longer. Before officials flatten it into another parking lot or remake it into apartments/a museum/homeless shelter/business complex (or any of the other ideas that get bandied about every time we start to wonder what to do with the icon/relic), visitors should get a look at it. There's lots of history to the Dome; it was the site of dozens of important concerts and sports matches; it was the first of its kind; and along with the now-gone Astroworld, it anchored much of the city's entertainment for years.
Drive around the Dome for a good idea of its size. And feel free to toss your suggestions for its renovation. (They couldn't be any worse than the ones we've already heard.)
9. The Downtown Tunnels A six-mile long maze of tunnels connects many of Houston's downtown buildings, but the tunnels are more than just a way to get around. With dozens of shops and restaurants, and a lot of pride by building owners, the tunnels are cheerful and attractive (experienced tunnel users can ID their location from the materials used for the walls and floor — Shell buildings boast travertine marble). Get a haircut, grab a burger or indulge in a massage.
You can take a tour of the tunnels, which we recommend. And a word of warning, get the best map you can before you head out — one wrong turn and you'll go blocks out of your way. The 'you-are-here' maps that dot the walls range from helpful to indecipherable. Thankfully, there's always a restaurant or shop you can pop into for a breather.
8. The Galleria 5085 Westheimer 713-966-3500
Mega-malls have become commonplace, but the Galleria continues to stand out because of its classy veneer. The mall has some 400 shops, including Gucci, Apple and Tiffany & Co., spread out over several levels, making window shopping a day-long adventure. Take a break at any of the dozens of restaurants or watch the newbies try to navigate the ice skating rink. Expect every holiday to be commercialized to the max (Christmas and Valentine's Day here are way over the top) and everything you see to have a price tag. (Bonus points for its excellent air conditioning system; strolling through its cool corridors is a welcomed respite from the Houston heat often waiting just outside the door.)
Houston has a special relationship with artist James Turrell, one that was cemented by the installation of his Twilight Epiphany Skyscape at Rice University. There are two free "light shows" a day (reservations required), but the structure is enchanting between shows, too. Tranquil and meditative, Twilight Epiphany is among the best public art in the city.
6. Market Square Park 300 Travis
We like Market Square Park because it has lots packed into a small space; park just one time and enjoy a variety of activities. There's the park, an adjacent dog park, on-site restaurants, a full schedule of events and the entire thing is ringed by some of the oldest buildings in Houston ... which just happen to house some fun, funky bars and eateries.
5. Houston Arboretum & Nature Center 4501 Woodway 713-681-8433
Like its neighbor, Memorial Park, the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is an unexpected green space. Surrounded by busy freeways and bustling shopping centers, the Center offers educational activities year round (learn how to grow an orchid or how to spot a migrating bird), there are even some semi-chic evening events (wine tastings on the trails). But most people just enjoy wandering through the Center's abundant and lush lawns and woods.
4. The Menil Collection 1533 Sul Ross 713-525-9400
If visitors have just one hour to spend, we recommend the Menil Collection. Inside and out, it's an oasis. The museum itself is a work of art and its expansive lawn is surrounded by low-slung bungalows and huge, old trees. Two things set The Menil Collection apart — price (always free) and personality (always low-key).
3. Discovery Green 1500 McKinney 713-400-7336
Some people call Discovery Green Houston's version of Central Park. We get the comparison — a large park smack in the middle of downtown, surrounded by skyscrapers. Still, Discovery Green isn't just a Central Park knockoff. It has its own style and flavor. Hundreds of free events are on the park's schedule throughout the year — from free movie screenings to ice skating, concerts to festivals. Even when there isn't a event going on, there's still plenty to do. We suggest a visit to the Listening Vessels, huge concave sculptures that allow you to stand across the lawn from someone and hear a whispered conversation.
2. The Houston Museum District Main at Bissonnet 713-715-1939
Houston Museum District officials like to boast that visitors can go around the world without ever leaving the zip code. True, we've seen amazing exhibits of art by European masters, heard concerts by Middle-eastern superstars, and petted animals that usually call the polar regions home all in one day.
A visit to the Museum District requires some planning, unless you don't mind circling the neighborhood for a parking area and are okay sharing lunch with 300 elementary school children. The offerings here are world-class, and a little planning can make your visit go smoother. Even if you don't go into any of the museums — and we enthusiastically recommend that you do — you can enjoy the district's great architecture and lovely green spaces.
1. Space Center Houston 1601 NASA Pkwy 281-244-2100
The pride of Houston — NASA. It's what made us the Astro-city. These days missions have been grounded, but the historic artifacts of the country's extra-terrestrial adventures and tragedies are preserved at the Space Center Houston. Don't get the idea that Space Center Houston is a museum — yes, it houses lots of NASA's historical artifacts, but it features a robust schedule of exhibits (Star Wars-related exhibits are a favorite, for obvious reasons) and 'interactive adventures' (translation: on-hands exhibits packed with bells and whistles for kids).
Our favorite Space Center Houston event? The regular Lunch with an Astronaut offerings. A genuine, real life astronaut with plenty of amazing stories to tell sits at every table with a small group of visitors. Very, very cool.
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