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When friends who aren't from Houston ask what there is to do here, it isn't always easy to come up with a clear answer. Houston is, after all, a place to live and not necessarily a tourist destination. But while I was amassing a list culled from the staff at the Houston Press, online crowdsourcing, comments left on blog posts and my own knowledge of the city, it became clear that there is more to do in Houston than I think people realize. As a friend from a small town once told me, "If you can't find something to do in Houston, you aren't trying hard enough."
The result is the Houston Bucket List, 100 things to do in Houston before you die. While curating the list, I crafted rules to control the number of options. Whatever the thing or activity, it must occur within 30 miles of City Hall (which excluded Galveston, the Texas Renaissance Festival and a handful of other iconic things to do in the area), and it must either be unique to our city or at least have a twist that is all Houston.
Growing up in Houston, I often found the lure of other cities and faraway adventures to be far more interesting than those in my backyard. But as I've gotten older and seen many other places, I've come to the conclusion that Houston is one of the most interesting cities on the planet. Much of it, however, is not the flashy extravagance of other locales. What makes us fascinating is buried below the surface — sometimes, like the downtown tunnels, literally. Hopefully this list will make you want to do some digging of your own.
THE TOP TEN:
Ride the Hermann Park Train
While I was contemplating the weight of the decision to crown a single activity as the No. 1 item on the Houston Bucket List, it struck me that riding the Hermann Park train was nearly a no-brainer. Children and adults love it. It has been around for seemingly forever. It can serve as actual transportation now that it has stops, including ones near the METRORail and the Texas Medical Center. Most important, it's fun.
For more than 50 years, the train has been a fixture in this beautiful urban park. After a renovation in 2008 that included the lake, stops were added along the ride, which winds through the park, around the lake, past Miller Outdoor Theatre and to the southern edge of the Medical Center.
It's a joy no parent can deny his child and no adult should deny himself. If a ride on the Hermann Park train is not quintessential Houston, I'm not sure I know what is.
Make Out Upstairs at Marfreless
This spring, the dream was dead. Marfreless, the quiet speakeasy hidden in the back of the River Oaks Shopping Center behind a purple door and under a stairwell, was closing along with its infamous upstairs red room. If you're an adult who has lived in Houston for more than a few years, you should be aware of the makeout lounge where dates have been caught drinking and getting to first base (and beyond) for many years now. My fiancée and I both admitted we had been in that lounge — but not together — then we never spoke of it again.
But as if Cupid himself had plunged an arrow deep into the heart of Houston, a miracle happened, and it was announced that Marfreless would rise again this summer. Hearts swooned and young lovers added this time-honored Houston tradition back to their bucket lists, an item so important that it made our top ten.
Go People-Watching at the Galleria During the Holidays
It's a mall. It's chaos. The parking is more confusing than the labyrinth Daedalus used to imprison the Minotaur. But there are few other places in Houston more festive during the holidays than the Galleria. From the massive Christmas tree on the ice-skating rink to the line out the door of the Apple Store, it's crazy and sparkly and filled with joy...until someone tries to steal your parking space.
If you panic in crowds, this might be your living hell, but if you can stand it, soak in the yuletide joy and fa la la la la your happy self from Macy's to Nordstrom and back. Do what we do: Use one of the lesser-known parking lots — we can't tell you which one or we'd have to kill you — and grab a window seat at the Daily Grill. Have a holiday cocktail, listen to jazz music, and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the Christmas rush in style.
Watch the Bats Fly Off Into the Night from the Waugh Street Bridge
There's something both haunting and amazing about watching 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats swirl out from under the Waugh Street bridge every night at dusk as they head out to eat their weight in mosquitoes (bless their hearts). The first time I ever saw the long, dotted-black trail across the sky over Allen Parkway, I thought it was a bird migration. Turns out it was just suppertime for the largest colony of year-round bat-bridge residents in the state. (Austin's bat colony is about five times the size, but it migrates south for the winter.)
As Buffalo Bayou developed, the city wisely took advantage of this natural attraction, building an observation deck alongside the bridge for visitors to watch as the tiny, mosquito-eating badasses take wing all at once. Standing silently on the bridge — bats don't like loud noises — you can hear the rush of wings as they fly off. I've never been there when they return in the morning, but it must be equally fascinating. For a closer look, ride or walk under the bridge during the day, but watch out for guano.
Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (and Carnival)
Visiting the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in all its grand spectacle is a sensory experience, somehow blending an amusement park (so tantalizingly close to where a real one used to be), a live concert, a food festival, a zoo and, well, a rodeo. It engages all the senses. See people crazy enough to strap themselves to the backs of pissed-off bulls. Smell the mix of barbecue, funnel cakes and manure. Listen to the booming bass of country bands rumbling behind thin vinyl tent walls. Taste a fried candy bar — twice if you decide to eat it before getting on a carnival ride that spins you in circles. Feel the warm fur of a baby animal in a petting zoo.
In all honesty, the concerts most nights are anticlimactic. The real action is along the midway, inside the livestock portion of the show or during the, you know, actual rodeo. This is the place where, at least for a few days out of the year, you can let your inner cowpoke out for a mosey. Strap on your Ropers and stroll around in a big felt hat. No one will blink twice.
From its very beginnings, it was a controversial topic. So many failed fits and starts just to get a single 7.5-mile track laid between downtown and the Texas Medical Center. And when light rail finally came to a city with some of the least helpful mass transit in the country, the complaints continued: The construction killed business; cars were running into the trains with regularity. Yet it is still one of the most heavily patronized sections of light rail in the country, and after even more gnashing of teeth, it's expanding north, east and south into underserved areas that will no doubt use it like crazy.
It's fascinating that a city the size of Houston has shunned usable mass transit for so long. We all love our cars, but does anyone actually love the traffic? At every turn we shoot down referendums, sue the city and demand that our elected officials pull funding from this boondoggle. Still, people keep on riding, and more will follow suit when the new lines open next year. Look, if Dallas can build and maintain a light-rail system, Houston sure as hell can.
Take in an Astros Game from the Crawford Boxes
The Astros suck. Let's just get that out of the way right up front. No one thinks they are good. Whether or not they're on the right path is debatable. But this isn't about the team. It's about their stadium. Despite whatever you might think about the 'Stros, Minute Maid Park is as fine a ballpark as you will find in Major League Baseball. It was the first in Houston's renaissance of stadiums and remains the most classic and stylish of the entire group.
Which is exactly why a trip to Minute Maid, even if the team playing there is awful, should be on your list of things to do, and if you are going to do it, you may as well sit in the Crawford Boxes. Referred to as a "short porch" because they're only 315 feet from home plate — one of the shortest distances for a home run in the majors — the boxes are elevated bleachers that provide one of the best views of the entire stadium. And because the distance is so short, there's a decent chance a home run will end up in your lap...or the lap of a neighbor. If the roof is open, it feels as if you're watching an old-school baseball game. And even if the Astros are no good, the other team might be, so there's that.
Enjoy Some Tex-Mex at the Original Ninfa's on Navigation
If Houstonians were to vote on the city's official cuisine, my money would be on Tex-Mex. As I told a friend a few years ago, it seems there is a taqueria opening every week on virtually every block. I'm fairly certain there's a grand opening for a new one in my bathroom this weekend. And yes, there are a ton of worthy choices for where to spend your hard-earned cash on fajitas, queso, guacamole and margaritas (never forget the margaritas), but none can match the experience and the food of the Original Ninfa's on Navigation.
In 2010, Robb Walsh, the former Houston Press food critic and author who's now part owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant himself, ranked Ninfa's fajitas No. 2 on his list of favorite dishes in Houston, which makes sense given the fact that this is the place that made fajitas famous. Despite a poorly conceived franchise venture that has left a handful of "Ninfa's" restaurants open in Texas and Louisiana, the original on Navigation is the only one worth visiting and the best place in town to get truly authentic Tex-Mex...the unofficial food of Houston.
Have Date Night at Spindletop on Top of the Hyatt Regency
Eating at hotel restaurants may seem old-fashioned, particularly one with the history of Spindletop, but some of the finest food (not to mention some of the best bars) in any city can be found inside some of its better hotels. The rotating restaurant on top of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Houston certainly qualifies. Since 1972, it has been serving up wonderful seafood and inspiring views of the skyline to Houstonians and guests from out of town.
The first thing to be concerned with at any restaurant is the food, and Spindletop doesn't disappoint. Despite its age and old-fashioned nature, it serves up remarkably fresh and interesting menu items. More important, you get to enjoy them while taking in some of the best views of the city. And because the room slowly rotates — this is not an amusement park ride, so no worries about getting dizzy — you'll get to take in 360 degrees of downtown Houston. There are plenty of wonderful things to do on date night, but an evening at Spindletop should be at the top of any Houstonian's list.
Picnic on the Hill for a Free Performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre
Sure, you could sit in the seats for a show at the nearly century-old free outdoor theater, but where's the fun in that? The first time I ever sat on the hill was when I was a kid. My aunt took me to see a musical performance. We sat on a big quilt and ate sandwiches. I'm sure I was more enamored of the food than the performance, but it's an experience I've repeated a handful of times in adulthood, most recently with my fiancée and her niece.
The views from the hill are excellent, and during cooler months, there are few places more pleasant than Hermann Park. The wide range of performances showcased at Miller offers enough diversity that I can't imagine anyone in Houston not being interested in at least one show a season. Best yet, it's always free. Don't forget to bring wine!