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
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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.

Best Dog Park
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T.C. Jester Park in northwest Houston offers a great place for your pups to get their exercise in and play with their furry friends. Divided into two sections, the park offers 31,000 square feet for large dogs and 16,000 for small ones. There are benches where dog owners can sit, and water hoses to keep dogs cool and hydrated. Trees provide ample shade and there's plenty of room for pooches to laze the afternoon away if they so desire. Or, if you want to take your hound for a run, hop on the paved or gravel paths that run along White Oak Bayou through the park.

Tellepsen Family YMCA

There are only a few scraps of evidence that the old downtown YMCA ever existed on the spot where the gleaming Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA now stands. It's nice that they've kept some old signs and a few other little touches while at the same time completely doing away with the old building and replacing it with a facility that is still a pleasure to behold and even more fun to use. The Tellepsen YMCA offers up all the modern conveniences, every kind of cardio machine you've ever heard of, a bevvy of weight machines for those looking to tone up, a slew of classes throughout the day so that you can get your exercise on when it fits your schedule, and pools and saunas, if those activities float your boat. And you can become a member of the YMCA for a price that won't cause you to break a sweat.

In a city not especially known for its scenery, Houston can still surprise you. Heading west on Westpark, just past the Fox 26 studios and with the Houston Chronicle compound looming a little further down the way, look to the northwest and you'll be dazzled by a postcard-perfect view of Uptown, an aesthetically pleasing jumble of condominiums, hotels and office buildings dominated by the Williams Tower and a couple of high-rise construction projects. Turn your head 180 degrees and you'll see Greenway Plaza and Lakewood Church; 90 degrees more and it's the glass towers of the Med Center poking above the lawns of West U. Turn one more time and you'll see railroad tracks, an electrical substation and a pair of huge water storage tanks — the stark, utilitarian beauty of infrastructure that's all too easily taken for granted.

Best Place to Ride Go-Karts
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This mega-party-place has your standard go-karts, your "superkarts," your two-seaters and your wicked F1 model, which tops out at approximately 30 mph. Whenever we ride in one of those bad boys, we feel like Mario Andretti. Sometimes we like to mix it up and fit in a trip to the arcade, or to the vast laser tag and mini golf courses. This place has it all – and there's plenty of great party packages and other discounts to choose from. The kids will love it, and so will you.

Best Bike Trail
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Memorial Park offers some of Houston's best mountain bike trails. Seven miles of color-coded dirt trails snake around the southwest quadrant of the park, from the easy green to the challenging blue and brown trails. For road cyclists, the paved Memorial Park Trail runs from the 610 Loop east through the park. A future section of greenway will connect the trail to Buffalo Bayou Park and downtown. But who needs to leave Memorial Park? The mile-long Picnic Loop is good for as many laps as you need.

Best Play-by-Play Announcer
Photo by Marco Torres

In a city with some pretty well-established, exceptional play-by-play voices across the major sports, the one whose sound registers as clearly "big league" from the first word you hear is, ironically, the voice for the most niche of the "big league" teams in town — that of Houston Dynamo play-by-play announcer Jeremy Branham. The 2017 season marked Branham's second of describing not just Dynamo action, but any soccer assignment of any type, and that fact may best encapsulate why Branham is so good — you'd never know it when listening to him that the Dynamo is his first soccer announcing gig. Big league baseball, football and basketball play-by-play guys generally hone their skills at lower levels of their sports first. Branham has been able to convey that same level of knowledge and passion, comparatively, on the fly. In addition to his Dynamo duties, Branham handles radio play-by-play for various University of Houston sports, sideline duties for the Cougar football team and U of H studio shows on ROOT Sports. Enjoy Branham while he's still doing these assignments in Houston, because his sound and work ethic will undoubtedly take him to bigger assignments down the road.

Best Sports Franchise
Photo by Jack Gorman

They say it's always darkest before the dawn, and if that's the case, then the 2013 season for the Houston Astros was the darkest shade of black known to baseball-loving mankind. During that season, the Astros won 51 games, far and away the worst year in franchise history. Well, from those ashes a phoenix has risen, and in 2017, the Astros won their 51st game on June 24, a solid two weeks before the All-Star Break. Now, ask any baseball experts which MLB team is best positioned for long-term success, and the Houston Astros are on their short list. The Astros have a core nucleus of young franchise players in their twenties — Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, to name a few — and a payroll that allows them flexibility going forward in locking up some of those pieces to long-term deals. Since the Houston Rockets won the 1995 NBA title, the city has been in a championship drought — but of all the local teams, the Astros have the best chance to break it.

Best Sports Role Model
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Originally from the Dallas area, former Houston Texans offensive lineman Wade Smith decided to make Houston his permanent home during his four seasons (2010-2013) as the team's starting left guard. The big winner in Smith's decision to settle in Houston after his 12-season run in the National Football League ended: the hundreds of kids whom Smith has helped become more proficient in reading. Through his Wade Smith Foundation, Smith continues to convey his lifelong passion for reading by launching initiatives targeting child literacy, most notably the release of two children's books addressing literacy and bullying, and events like July's "Smitty's Day at the Park," where Smith and several of his former NFL teammates conducted a free football camp at Levy Park for kids grades K-6. The only condition kids needed to fulfill for attending the camp? They had to read one book and answer questions about it on their registration form. The participation of former teammates and NFL alums in Smith-related events, everything from the day at Levy Park to a July roast of Smith, which also raised money for his foundation, is a sure sign of peer respect for not only an NFL career well played, but Smith's service to others during and after his playing days.

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