More and more people are getting wise to the fact that one of the best places to do some canoeing runs right through the center of Houston. Whenever we feel the need to get our hands on a canoe and do a little paddling on the water, we head straight for Buffalo Bayou, where we can commune with nature right in the middle of the city. There are stretches — particularly the areas running through River Oaks (go figure) — that are still wild and verdant, and on our trips down the waterway, we've been able to see great blue herons and take in the natural beauty of Houston that is so easy to overlook while navigating through the daily hustle and bustle of urban life. Put in at Sabine Street near downtown, paddle up to Shepherd at sunset and, from a view possible only on the water, watch the bats fly out.

NRG Stadium

From a sheer analytical standpoint, it's impossible to name anyone else on the Texans aside from J.J. Watt as the Best Houston Texan. After all, this past summer, his peers in the NFL named him the best football player on earth, with Watt taking home top honors in the NFL's Top 100 for 2015, the first defensive player in the history of that poll to do so. Another 20-sack season in the books will do that. Amazingly, Watt found ways to improve upon what was seemingly an already perfect skill set by taking snaps on offense and scoring three touchdowns in 2014. Beyond that, he has become the most high-profile Houston athlete nationally in the history of this city, making appearances on sitcoms, awards shows and commercials on what feels like a weekly basis. It's J.J. Watt's world; we're all just watching it on Instagram.

READERS' CHOICE: J.J. Watt

Sure, this trail will lead you on a leisurely ride through some of the Heights's fancier neighborhoods. But in the past year, the Heights Hike and Bike Trail has become a critical connector in Houston's growing bike trail network. At one end, where the trail dumps you out near UH-Downtown, it's easy (and, most important, safe) to hop right onto the pristine Buffalo Bayou trail. At the other end, a newly finished connector near Lawrence Park leads cyclists right onto White Oak Bayou trail, which, at last check, is open all the way up to Acres Homes. We're talking many miles of unbroken, off-street cycling space that stretches across town — which, in a traffic-clogged city like Houston, is sorely needed.

Dogs and their human companions both find the Paul Carr Jogging Trail that runs through the Heights Boulevard esplanade the best place for a walk. Magnolia trees, live oaks and a few palm trees line the 60-foot-wide wooded strip that extends from 4th to 20th streets along Heights. Weaving in and out of the shade is a mulch-filled path. Gazebos, a playground, a Victorian rose garden and a World War II memorial dot the 1.9-mile course. It passes some of Houston's most impressive early-20th-century architecture and is the site of frequent public art exhibits. There's consistent foot traffic from early morning to past dusk, but with so much open space, there's more than enough room for everyone — canine and human — to feel comfortable.

Toyota Center

With the emergence of J.J. Watt, Jose Altuvé, Carlos Correa and James Harden, it could be argued that Houston has four of the best players at or below the age of 26 in all of sports. And while the Texans are working to overcome more than a decade of futility while the Astros surge toward respectability after three of the worst years in MLB history, the Rockets reached the NBA's final four in 2015 and seem poised for a long run of playoff (and potentially championship) success. They have the kind of young roster most teams crave (Harden was runner-up for the MVP award at only 25) and a clever, dexterous general manager in Daryl Morey, who pulls talent out of thin air and manages the team's salary cap like a Wall Street genius. The Texans and Astros may be on the come, but the Rockets are already there.

The only way this route works is on foot, at sunset. Start at the parking lot of the CVS at Westheimer and 610. Walk south on the sidewalk and look up as your view is dominated by one of Houston's tallest and most recognizable skyscrapers, the Williams Tower, looming so close you'll pass through its shadow. A little further on, a single line of pine trees shields you from one of Houston's most congested roadways, until the view opens up onto a panorama of The Galleria, a few condos and sun-splashed mid-rise office buildings nestled within a canopy of trees. Ignore the car lots and strip centers on your left and keep your eyes pointed west, as the sun descends and 610 South stretches toward Bellaire like a concrete finger beckoning toward the horizon. You're almost there.

Minute Maid Park

Longtime Astros play-by-play man Bill Brown doesn't call as many games as he used to, but whenever he is in the booth, it's like listening to your super-knowledgeable favorite uncle call balls and strikes — he's no homer, but it's not hard to guess who he's rooting for. Although frequent partner in the booth Alan Ashby is a not too distant second, nobody gives better deadpan baseball talk, whether the two are discussing the Astros' pitching rotation, front-office moves, the latest MLB gossip or, best of all, when the game grinds to a standstill and their banter wanders off on a tangent way past left field. However, the second the Astros make an exciting play, the nine-year-old baseball fan in Brownie instantly comes out and no one in Minute Maid Park — or listening at home — could be more excited.

The beaches near Houston often undeservedly get a bad rap. Houstonians have plenty of great choices for sun and surf, but the one that stands out is Galveston's East Beach, a good stretch of coastline that offers both free and pay parking, access to bathrooms and outdoor showers, and occasional live music. Beachcombers can rent chairs and an umbrella if they don't want to bring their own from home. One more important distinction: Unlike many other Galveston-area beaches, East Beach allows alcohol. When the seaweed level's low, East Beach has some of the clearest water in the area.

Tellepsen Family YMCA

The old downtown YMCA was a dark, dank relic of 1930s physical fitness, but the Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA is our go-to place when we want to hit the gym to burn off the beer calories. Replacing the historic building less than two blocks away, this YMCA opened in 2010, but we still have to stop and admire the sleek, modern glass structure whenever we show up. The gym boasts plenty of equipment, and those who like to work up a sweat before work can easily get themselves together for the day in the spacious locker rooms. Tellepsen also offers tons of exercise classes for anyone looking for a more structured workout, and the physical trainers on staff are always a good option for those looking to improve their exercise regimen. READERS' CHOICE: LA Fitness

Discovery Green
Photo by Katya Horner

Officially, the Sarofim Picnic Lawn is the dedicated space for picnicking at Discovery Green. But with almost 12 acres of cultivated gardens, lawns and promenades, not to mention a lake and a couple of fountains, there are lots and lots of choices as to where to spread your picnic blanket. Want a sunny spot in the middle of a manicured lawn? Or maybe you'd rather sit in the shade of a large tree? Or lounge on the bank of a peaceful lake? Need a tented cover with a bit of privacy? Somewhere your dog is welcomed? All of those choices and more are available at Discovery Green. Food vendors and cafes are located in the park to supplement your picnic basket. And with some 600-plus free performances, festivals and activities a year, there's plenty to do after you finish your lunch.

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