Bucket List 2017: Cars, Canoes and Christmas Traditions

Strange sights about at the annual Houston Art Car Parade.EXPAND
Strange sights about at the annual Houston Art Car Parade.
Gilbert Bernal
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Back in 2013, we put together Houston’s first Bucket List. We’ve heard from a lot of you who have pinned the list to your refrigerators or tucked it away in a folder so you might take a crack at all 100. We hope you made it through your list because a lot has changed in four years in Houston.

Four years later, it's time for a new, revised edition complete with new attractions (or sadly closed old ones) and expanded to include a wider area. In our first bucket list, we limited ourselves to 30 square miles from City Hall. This time, we’ve expanded that to 100 miles, which covers places like Galveston. It seemed to us that our entire area is ripe for the list making.

For the next few weeks, we’ll be unveiling 90 of the 100 essential things to do in and around the Bayou City. Our top 10 will appear in an upcoming issue along with a full, printable list much like last year, so stay tuned.

Our first installment included marathons, mega churches and two stepping. Our second batch took us to Galveston for the first time and late-night grocery shopping. Next up was diversity and birds (and the diversity of birds). Finally, we got into some art and bingo. Our fifth post included gators, roller derby and Halloween. Last week, we rounded out the first six posts with, well, flesh in various forms. For No. 7, we got into some grand Houston traditions, including cowboys, fried chicken seafood and camping. Last week, we featured a bunch of widely different things in one post including the outdoors, the LGBT Pride Celebration and haunted hotels.

For the final of our nine posts leading up to this week's top 10, we round out the bottom 90 with art cars, oysters, Christmas traditions and one of the biggest and most lucrative ditches ever dug.

Ride an art car in the annual Houston Art Car Parade.

The Houston Art Car Parade, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary this past weekend, is one of our city’s most interesting spectacles. What began in the late ‘80s as a curiosity with about 40 cars and 2,000 spectators has grown to one of the largest of its kind with more than 250 vehicles participating and over a quarter million turning out to cheer them on as the parade by on Allen Parkway and through downtown Houston. If you’ve never witnessed these sometimes quirky, sometimes downright unbelievable feats of automotive engineering, make sure you plan for next year. Better yet, befriend an art car enthusiast and ride in the actual parade!

Eat the area’s best oysters at Gilhooley’s.

Imagine a dive bar just off the water in a tiny coastal town. No doubt, it could be a fun place to hang out for a night and have a few beers, but it probably doesn’t conjure thoughts of gourmet seafood. You haven’t been to Gilhooley’s. The little shack with a patio in Santa Fe, however, has some of the best oysters you can get anywhere on the planet. Brought in fresh every morning, they are amazing on the half shell, but even more incredible when wood roasted. The rest of the food is typical of what you might find at a bar near the water — fried and more fried — but the oysters are world class and worth the drive. Pro tip: go for lunch when the service and noise level is decidedly more appealing.

Do some ethnic grocery shopping.

One of the biggest benefits to living in a city with the kind of radical diversity we have in Houston is the food. There are restaurants of every variety, many remarkably authentic. But if you prefer to do the cooking yourself and want to give some ethnic cuisine a whirl, don’t fret when you see an item in a recipe you’ve never heard of. Grab fresh hummus at Phoenicia or any Asian import you can imagine at H Mart. If you can’t find a Mexican spice you need at Fiesta, it probably doesn’t exist. And little bakeries like Hot Breads (Indian) and Manena’s (Argentinian) will have you set with more carbs than your diet should ever allow.

Have a picnic on the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.

If you want to have an iconic Houston date moment, bring your partner to the hill at Miller Outdoor Theater for one of its many events. Have a picnic basket full of food and chilled wine on the grass while the sun sets and the performers keep you entertained. It’s not only romantic, it’s entertaining. And when you are done, take a stroll across Hermann Park. By the time you are done, your beloved will be swooning.

Spend a night on “The Island” at Main Street and Alabama.

Midtown has grown by leaps and bounds. There are midrise mixed use development buildings springing up next to seriously sketchy flop houses, which will seem to be dwindling by the day. Set amongst the progress and right on the METROrail is what area dwellers refer to as The Island. The block of bars, restaurants and shops including Continental Club, Tacos a Go Go, Natachee’s Supper ‘n Punch, Sig’s Lagoon and Double Trouble Caffeine & Cocktails (among others) is a great place to grab some food, have some drinks and catch some great live music. And when you need to wipe out the hangover the next day, swing by another spot on our list, The Breakfast Klub, which is behind the bars on the same block.

Ride the rides at the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier.

It took two hurricanes to reset what had been a staple of life for tourists on Galveston Island for decades. In 1961, Hurricane Carla destroyed the original Pleasure Pier and it was replaced by the Flaship Hotel. But, 2008’s Hurricane Ike left the hotel in tatters. Enter billionaire Landry’s owner Tilman Fertitta, who resurrected the huge, over-the-ocean attractions from carnival games to amusement park rides. It is now a destination for families and one of the signature points of sightseeing on the island. It is a tad pricey, but it’s hard to beat a ride that literally flies you out over the waters of the Gulf.

Take a nature walk in Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens.

One oft overlooked nature spot is north Houston’s Mercer Arboretum. The entire park along Cypress Creek is more than 300 acres of beautiful gardens, ponds and wooded walking trails on both sides of Aldine Westfield Road. Slightly more well-groomed than its urban cousin, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center (which you should absolutely visit as well), the scenic walks are lovely and the botanic gardens are breathtaking.

Canoe Armand Bayou.

Most of us still think of most bayous as something to avoid save perhaps Buffalo, but even that isn’t a destination for the average water lover. But Armand Bayou in Clear Lake is a different story. The 2,500-acre nature preserve at the spot where the bayou balloons in size just north of where it empties into Clear Lake is an incredible piece of urban wilderness. On the bayou, you can see wildlife galore including plenty of gators. The brackish water also makes for some of the most interesting fishing opportunities in the area. Most importantly, it is peaceful and quiet despite being mere minutes from the hustle and bustle of civilization.

Get in the Dickensian Christmas spirit with Galveston’s Dickens on the Strand and A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre.

Charles Dickens managed to highlight the best and worst of his 19th century England in his famed novels. Fortunately, we have chosen to accentuate the positive with Galveston’s Dickens on the Strand and the Alley Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. Two of our favorite Christmas pastimes can even be sandwiched into a single day if you are up for it. For over four decades, folks in Galveston have been dressing up like merry Brits and galavanting around the city’s historic district for some Christmas fun while the Alley has been serving up a holiday haunting with the Dickens classic. Both are spectacular ways to get in the holiday spirit in a city that often feels more like the tropics than jolly old London town come December.

Take the Port of Houston Authority Sam Houston boat tour.

There is a tendency to forget that when Houston began to rapidly expand its energy-rich economy, it required an almost unbelievable feat of engineering. Digging a ditch that connected the Gulf of Mexico and the heart of the petrochemical industry literally reshaped our entire region and few things provide a more dramatic perspective of that than a ride on the Port of Houston Authority Sam Houston boat tour. The always packed tourist attraction takes visitors deep into the ship channel as massive tankers float by mile after mile of refineries. You’ll see Houston in a completely different way after this boat ride.

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