Best Volleyball
Photo courtesy of Sideout VolleyBar

Brand new to Near Northside in 2017, Sideout Volleybar offers far more than just some sand and nets. The three brightly lit sand volleyball courts are surrounded by a patio for spectators, a full-service bar with endless Texas craft beer selections, and a lounge area full of colorful Adirondack beach chairs, for those who perhaps didn't come for the volleyball or are waiting for a turn on the court. A ping-pong table, a jumbo-size chess set, a cornhole set and other bar games are set up beneath the bar's towering, decades-old tree, which is wrapped in blue party lights at night. If you come to play, it costs $40 an hour to reserve a volleyball court, with online booking available in advance.

Best Dynamo
Photo by Victor Araiza via CC

After two seasons, in 2015 and 2016, that saw the Houston Dynamo finish 15th and 19th overall in the 20-team Major League Soccer, and also saw the squad go through multiple head coaches, expectations were low for the 2017 Dynamo campaign. Oddly enough, the same could be said for Dynamo forward Erick Torres, who in his first two seasons with the team (also 2015 and 2016) scored the same number of goals as the team mascot (zero, with apologies to Diesel). Suffice it to say, 2017 was considerably better for the team and Torres, who finally evolved into the goal scorer the Dynamo expected when they signed him to a five-year contract using their "Designated Player" clause. Torres showed off versatile goal-scoring chops throughout 2017, tallying goals while in play and also on free kicks. The Dynamo took a big leap forward with a new style of play and overall philosophy in 2017, and clearly Torres figures in as a big part of that in the years to come.

Brazos Bend State Park

The alligators should be enough to drag you to this daytime getaway just south of town, and the park has gators to spare — gators in the nooks, gators in the crannies, gators disguised by the general greenery, even brazen, family-friendly gators sunning themselves on the trails. But that's only where the attraction begins; Brazos Bend State Park is a bustling paradise for native fauna, from your run-of-the-mill deer, rabbits, raccoons, possums and wading reptiles to exotic migratory and local birds. And Brazos Bend has flora too, lush and dense all along the miles and miles of hiking trails and unspoiled wetlands.

Best Fans
Photo by Marco Torres

In this day and age when it's easy (and cheap) for fans to stay home and enjoy their teams' games just fine thanks to the beauty of high-definition television, stadium atmosphere becomes a much bigger deal to attract fans to live events. Stadiums with a distinct feel will draw crowds, and a huge reason the Houston Dynamo have one of the best game-day atmospheres in this town is the presence of the Texian Army, a self-described "independent, organized supporters group for the Houston Dynamo." However, "organized" doesn't begin to do justice to the show the Army puts on at the north end of BBVA Compass Stadium before and during Dynamo games. Every game begins with the Texian Army leading the crowd in the catchy and melodic  "We Are Orange" chant, and the Army-generated drumbeats pound throughout the match. If you go to a Dynamo game and happen to become enveloped in a mysterious orange mist, that probably comes from the harmless-yet-awesome smoke bombs that emit the periodic festive vapors of the Army.  The Texian Army has also been known to travel very well on Dynamo road trips, bringing its orange enthusiasm wherever it's welcome (and Dallas).

Best Jogging Trail
Photo by brian carlson via CC

Houston is adding 150 miles of paths along its bayous as part of the city's Greenways 2020 initiative. But of all these new trails, perhaps none are more scenic than a portion just north of downtown, near the confluence of White Oak and Buffalo bayous. Stretching from Hogg Park in Near Northside to the UH Downtown campus, this biking and walking trail offers a majestic entrance into the city, replete with panoramic views of the skyline and several of the area's main traffic avenues, including I-10, I-45, Main Street and at least one rail line. (Watching freight trains pass above you on an old rail bridge is more fun than it might sound.) Walk south from Hogg Park and the ambience quickly changes from sunflower fields to old-timey urban. You are now more or less at Allen's Landing, the birthplace of Houston — and there's plenty of beautiful old architecture to prove it.

Best Urban Wildlife
Photo by Chris Fleming via Cc

The ducks of Post Oak Boulevard have been through a lot this year. Not so long ago, these few dozen waterfowl were happily nesting in the bushes, raising their little duck families in the pond at Post Oak and Hidalgo, or enjoying the bread-crumb generosity of shoppers on their way to and from the Galleria or else the residents of nearby condominiums. Then the bulldozers came, agents of a new, slightly ominous-sounding planned development known as Boulevard Houston. The pond is intact, but the widening of Post Oak has drastically cut down the size of their habitat; on the street side, the once-sizable lawn surrounding the pond has been reduced to a grassy strip hugging the curb. Still, the ducks endure. They can be found enjoying the shade of the bushes hugging the Loop 610 embankment, defending what little grass they've got left or, after a good rain, enjoying a drink in the puddles of the half-finished road. When the boulevard is finally finished, these ducks deserve an acre or two of thanks.

Best Stadium Announcer
Photo by Dknights411 via CC

Back when the Houston Rockets won this city's last two NBA championships, in 1994 and 1995, the booming voice you heard over the public address system introducing the teams and rousing the crowd  was that of Matt Thomas. Thomas, a Houston native and University of Houston graduate,  was in his twenties back then, and it's been a circuitous route through radio gigs in Minnesota and Utah, but Thomas returned to his roost behind the microphone on Rockets game nights at Toyota Center again this past season. This time, however, it was part of an expanded role, which also has Thomas handling radio play-by-play duties for Rockets road games as part of his assignment. When you add in a daily, midday sports talk show on the Rockets flagship, Thomas undoubtedly has one of the busiest work schedules of any local broadcaster in any NBA market. However, as proficient as Thomas may be at his roles as a talk radio host, play-by-play guy and stadium announcer, Rocket fans are probably hoping his role as "good luck charm" is the one that pays off most handsomely.

Wildcat Golf Club

As basic as the checklist may be for most weekend and casual golfers in Houston — greens fees, speed of play, quality of course, availability of beer, to name the key criteria for most — some courses check all the boxes more easily than others, but no course checks them all more emphatically than Wildcat Golf Club. Since opening in 2001, Wildcat has become a destination for Houstonians seeking private-course qualities at a public-course price, including very reasonable (like, a few hundred bucks annually) membership fees. Perhaps belying the everyman price you can pay to golf at Wildcat, it's fairly routine to spot local athletes and celebrities golfing there, as the course's ownership group has long-standing relationships with all the major league teams in town. Additionally, the rolling hills and views of the city make Wildcat a superb option for corporate golf events, and the pristine clubhouse is an ideal spot to hold private events, even wedding receptions.

Unless you work way up there, for many Houstonians there are only a couple of reasons to go to The Woodlands: You're either getting married, starting a family and resigning yourself to the Suburban Life, or you're going to a concert at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Next time, however, consider staying a while. In addition to offering first-rate service and a poolside bar on the second-floor rooftop, The Westin at The Woodlands is also right along The Woodlands Waterway, surrounded by bars and restaurants like Crush Wine Lounge (which can turn into a flashy dance club on the roof at night) and The Refuge Bar & Bistro, serving up small plates and specialty flatbread and cocktails. Take a free trolley ride along the waterway or up to Market Street, a pedestrian mall right across from the Pavilion where you can spend an afternoon shopping and find everything from sushi to Spanish wine and tapas for dinner.

Best Bowling Alley
Photo by Tinou Bao via CC

Bowl & Barrel is the bowling alley for people who don't actually care what their score is and are not embarrassed about needing to use the bumpers. In fact, maybe they just came for drinks and a cheese board, with bowling as the background noise. That's fine at Bowl & Barrel, the upscale alley within CityCentre that reminds you of absolutely nothing about wherever you went bowling as a kid, trading flashy disco lights for dim-lit, rustic chandeliers hanging from a wooden ceiling. Be sure to order one of the bowling alley's sharable cocktails for the table — the Velvet Mule comes in a pitcher the size of a bowling ball.

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