Houston was once home to AstroWorld, amusement park extraordinaire. Sadly, AstroWorld is gone, but we still have a world-class family entertainment facility – the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Wait, wait, yes, it's a museum, but it's not the kind where you have to whisper and the exhibits are safely tucked behind velvet ropes. Here, kids are encouraged to talk and touch, even to squeal with delight, if they are so moved. Blending education with entertainment, the museum presents a variety of permanent shows and a year-round schedule of touring exhibitions. Previous shows have included "Imperial Rome," "Frogs! A Chorus of Colors" and the internationally touted (and controversial) "Body Works 3."

The Houston 48 Hour Film Project is for both your viewing and participating pleasure. Houstonians get the chance not only to watch films created in the titular time frame, but also create one themselves. Teams are given a list of guidelines, including a genre and a prop, a line and a character that must be used to create their own seven-minute masterpiece. Winners selected by the judges go on to the national competition in Phoenix. This year's contest attracted so much attention that the number of entries was capped, and the screening of the locally made films nearly sold out the River Oaks Theatre in March. Sure, most of the entries wouldn't stand up to the offerings at other local festivals, but how many others feature a drug cartel that actually runs meat, a fridge that opens up to the Hobby Center stage or a radio show featuring a sexy chef, who was actually a Houston Press staff writer? (Hey, how do you think we knew it was so fun?)

Set in the golden gay triangle next to JR's Bar and Grill and the Mining Company, South Beach is the pretty boy of the bunch. And here, it's all about the dancing. Regularly importing DJs from Miami, San Francisco and New York, South Beach offers some of the best and newest dance music anywhere in Houston. The club boasts a custom made "EAW Avalon series sound system" (whatever that is), a "full color water cooled matrix laser light show (translation: a light show), and, wait for it, "liquid ice jets" (cold water misters) that cool the dance floor down. There are also floor shows and celebrity appearances, so the action is never the same two nights in a row.

This paragraph should really just begin and end with "$6 pitchers." But if that's not enough to convince you, keep in mind that this gigantic West Gray pub has an obscenely cheap, and extended, happy hour six days out of the week, and all day on Sunday. Add to this a free buffet, and you're a fat, happy, drunk man or woman.

Photo by HP Staff

Nestled in a nondescript little office strip on the lower end of Richmond, Absinthe is a terrific bar, but one that doesn't exactly spread the word about itself. There's no sign, no indication that the low-slung little building houses anything at all, but open the impressive wooden doors and you've entered a wonderfully cozy little enclave. It has couches and comfortable chairs, music that's high-quality but not overpowering in volume, and some of the best bar munchies around — freshly made mini-pizzas, quesadillas and carpaccio are all standouts. It's a great place to start an evening, and you get to feel like you've been let in on a fantastic secret. Let's just hope they don't put up a sign.

The ARE is no newcomer to the hip-hop game. He started searching for the perfect beat in 1991 and hasn't stopped moving since. First getting his feet wet as a member of the legendary Houston rap group K-Otix, nowadays the ARE bares the production skills behind the boards to more than prove himself. From winning the Houston Red Bull Big Tune competition to working with a veritable who's who in the rap game, he has shown that he makes some of the best hip-hop in Houston. And this year, the ARE decided to do the world a favor and released his most recent works online to download for free.

You may not be able to afford to stay at the Magnolia, but that shouldn't keep you from nabbing a drink in the hotel's posh second-floor bar. There's something almost ethereal about the place, which is decked out with plasma TVs and dozens of leather couches and chairs. There's live jazz every evening, and a billiards room. A setting this luxurious doesn't merely have a pool table. It has a billiards room.

West Alabama Ice House is a perennial Best of Houston® winner, most deservedly, so rather than subject you to a rewording of bygone blurbs, we'll just give the place the Zagat treatment. It's not plagiarism if you're quoting yourself, right? "Cheap beers, pretty bohemian bartenders, roots rock and free hot dogs on Friday make this icehouse in the heart of the Montrose a weekly stop for many River Oaks rednecks, broke punk rockers, bikers, yuppies, dog enthusiasts and lager lovers in general." "This place has always been more of a family barbecue than a watering hole, albeit one where even your ne'er-do-well uncle can fit in." "Around back there are more picnic tables, horseshoes and hoops to shoot." "You gotta watch for the drunks pitching horseshoes." "A lot of these folks aren't the best when it comes to aiming."

Houston has a nice tradition of short-form improv, so it was nice to see a change of pace this year with The Greatest Thing in the History of the World. The long-form improv troupe works in the style perfected by the Upright Citizens Brigade. (In fact, many of the members of GTHW have trained with UCB in NY — oops, we mean New York.) For those unfamiliar with long-form improv, it's like a Saturday Night Live skit that's created on the spot. GTHW is introducing Houston to the style at venues such as Rudyard's, the Proletariat and Walter's on Washington. Their name might be too long to remember, but it's also pretty hard to forget. So keep your eyes out for the next flyer to find out why size matters in instant comedy.

Two architects took eight tons of cardboard and three tons of wood and created a surreal landscape that consumed all of Rice Gallery. Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues of the collaborative team Ball-Nogues previously worked with architect Frank Gehry, the don of cardboard furniture. But Ball-Nogues did Gehry one better — instead of using cardboard to make chairs, they used it to craft a terrain of their own design. They die-cut cardboard into curves and sandwiched it together to create a sturdy but undulating surface. Visitors traversed it and slid down the cardboard slopes of what was truly an interactive installation and a spectacular blend of architecture and sculpture. "Rip Curl Canyon" is one of the coolest things we've seen in a long time.

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