So, you've made it to town for the Final Four and you are shocked to find out there are no tumbleweeds, we all aren't walking around in ten-gallon hats and the area surrounding downtown and the medical center is not filled with strip malls and urban decay. Welcome to Houston!
Now, what are you going to do? Unfortunately, Houston is not a city built for tourists. It's spread out. There aren't a ton of traditional "attractions" and mass transit is, how shall we say this, shitty. But, what makes our city so great is that you have to dig past the sprawl and chain strip mall hell to find the real Houston.
Fortunately for you, we've done the work for you. Now, you can enjoy H-Town like a resident with these ten alternative places to visit while you're in Houston.
Night Life Where You Might Consider Going: Washington Avenue Where You Should Go: Market Square (Honorable Mention: Alabama Ice House)
If you want to get drunk with a bunch of Jersey Shore wannabes, surrounded by cops just waiting for you to do something stupid, by all means, hit Washington Avenue. But, if you want a decidedly more laid-back vibe where you can get your crunk on just as easily, Market Square is the place.
Not only does it have a nice park for hanging out early and maybe grabbing a bite to eat at Niko Niko's, it has the oldest bar in Houston, La Carafe, and Warren's, one of the best bars in town for getting an extremely strong drink with a side of Texas sass. Equally worthy is Alabama Ice House, outside of downtown on the western edge of the Montrose area (yes, we call it "the" Montrose 'round here), where you can hang outside under the oak trees and sip a Lone Star just like a regular Texan.
Upscale Night Life Where You Might Consider Going: Hotel ZaZa or Midtown Where You Should Go: Marfreless (Honorable Mention: Anvil)
Say you want to take your nighttime drinking up a notch and go for something a little more classy. Stay away from Midtown and try Marfreless, the speak-easy style bar under the staircase behind the River Oaks shopping center. Despite being known to locals as a makeout lounge (it was once thought you weren't a true Houstonian until you had done a little spit swapping upstairs), Marfreless is short on sleaze, but long on quiet chatter and good drinks. It's a damn fine place to take a date. If you like your cocktails more complicated, try Anvil. It might take a few minutes to get whatever amazing concoction they've whipped up for you, but it will be worth it.
Live Music Where You Might Consider Going: House of Blues Where You Should Go: Anderson Fair (Honorable Mention: Rudyard's)
There is a ton of great live, local music in Houston and it rarely resides inside places like the House of Blues. Instead, head over to venerable folk music establishment Anderson Fair, birthplace of Texas songwriters like Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Lucinda Williams. Surprise, surprise, they aren't from Austin. There was even a documentary film made about the legendary venue recently. It's quiet, dark and pretty much what you'd expect from a folk music hang. If you want something louder, head a few blocks to the west to Rudyard's British Pub, where you can play darts downstairs and/or listen to some loud, local music through the best sound system in the city upstairs.
Pre-Dinner Activities Where You Might Consider Going: NCAA Concert Series Where You Should Go: Waugh Bridge Bat Colony (Honorable Mention: People-watching in Memorial Park)
We know the NCAA is bringing Kings of Leon and Kenny Chesney to Houston for evening concerts during the weekend, but you can see them when they come through a town near you. To truly soak in Houston, a better bet for pre-dinner fun is a trip to see the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony head out on their nighttime prowl, which they do every night at dusk.
Around 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge year round, making it the largest colony of that species living in a single location without migrating in the state of Texas (the similar Austin bat colony migrates south in the fall). If bats eek you out, try some people watching in Memorial Park. Yes, that woman is jogging in full makeup and no, that guy does not realize that short shorts and giant headphones with antennae went out of style in the '70s.
For the Kids Where You Might Consider Going: The Aquarium Where You Should Go: The Orange Show (Honorable Mention: Hermann Park Train)
Before you grab the kids and take them to the gaudy Tilman Fertitta-owned carnival in the theater district downtown, try something a little more understated and a lot more unique. Just southeast of downtown in a nondescript, blue-collar neighborhood sits one of the strangest monuments to fruit you will ever see. Built by Houston postal worker Jeff McKissack, the Orange Show Monument is a bizarre tangle of tunnels and balconies all built by this odd man over the course of almost 25 years. He used virtually everything he could find to build this memorial to his favorite fruit and it has been well kept. Best yet, it only costs a buck to get in. If the kids need a little more stimulation, head to Hermann Park and take a ride on the recently revamped mini train. Don't be embarrassed if you dig it too. We all do.
Sight Seeing Where You Might Consider Going: Space Center Houston Where You Should Go: The Tunnel (Honorable Mention: The Funeral Museum)
Other than the overused "Houston, we have a problem" cliché, Houstonians are thrilled NASA is a part of our community. Unfortunately, the drive down to Space Center Houston is as overhyped as it is overpriced. For a more uniquely Houston experience, take a trip underground into the city's tunnel system. We live in a city built as much on air conditioning as oil and the tunnel is a tribute to our desire to stay cool in the summer. The complex tunnel system connects dozens of buildings and is filled with shops, restaurants and more than its share of dry cleaners. Don't worry if you get lost. Most of us do at one time or another. We're friendly folk. We'll be happy to point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, the tunnel is closed after 6 p.m. and on weekends, so if you need something to do Saturday, try the Funeral Museum, just in case you thought there wasn't a museum for everything.
Shopping Where You Might Consider Going: The Galleria Where You Should Go: Hong Kong City Mall (Honorable Mention: Phoenicia Specialty Foods)
The obvious choice for shopping is the upscale Galleria and it's fine, with its Park Avenue stores and year-round ice rink, but if you really want to get a peek inside our city and have a chance to soak in some of the incredible diversity in Houston, you need to visit the Hong Kong City Mall. Just southwest of downtown, the Asian mall has dozens of restaurants and shops including the incredible Hong Kong Food Market. The array of Asian food you can find there will rival any place in the U.S. If you feel like taking a slightly longer drive, head out west to Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a somewhat smaller but equally fascinating market featuring Middle Eastern fare, including fresh pita bread and a kitchen-goods aisle that can take an hour to browse.
A Little Culture Where You Might Consider Going: Museum of Fine Arts Where You Should Go: The Menil Collection (Honorable Mention: Rothko Chapel)
It's hard to tell anyone to stay away from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, we aren't telling you to do that, especially with their current Impressionist exhibit, but if you're a real art lover and want something you'll only find here, don't miss The Menil Collection. Home to the permanent collection of John and Dominique de Menil, this beautiful museum contains works from Max Ernst, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso, just to name a few. It is one of the finest private collections you will find anywhere. Just a block away is the de Menils' commissioned tribute to minimalism, the Rothko Chapel. The bottom line is, if you love art, there is more than enough to see in Houston and these are a couple of the finest examples.
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A Walk in the Park Where You Might Consider Going: Hermann Park Where You Should Go: Glenwood Cemetery (Honorable Mention: Brazos Bend State Park)
We love Hermann Park. Don't get us wrong. But, it is an obvious choice for tourists and is packed with kids on the weekends. If you want a more interesting park experience, we recommend Glenwood Cemetery. The acres of rolling hills (yeah, hills!), dotted with grave stones dating back to the 1800s, are, surprisingly, a very quiet and lovely place to take a walk, no matter how weird it may seem to stroll through a graveyard. You can see the final resting place of some of Houston's most famous deceased residents including Howard Hughes. If you are a little creeped out by dead people, we highly recommend the 45-minute drive south down 288 to Brazos Bend State Park. The 5,000-acre park is home to an amazing array of wildlife, including alligators, who are widely visible and almost close enough to touch, though we suggest you avoid that activity.
Getting Some Exercise Where You Might Consider Going: Gym in your hotel Where You Should Go: Rice University Track (Honorable Mention: Heights Boulevard jogging path)
Good for you for sticking to your workout regimen. It's more than we can say for ourselves, but enough about our laziness. Instead of using your 24 Hour Fitness membership or dropping by the weight room at the hotel, why not take a jog around Rice University? The three-mile track around the circumference of the campus is lined with beautiful overhanging oaks and is generally a quieter exercise escape than Memorial Park. You can even jog through the beautiful campus and check out the engineering nerds and their ironic T-shirts. If you feel like really going native with your run, try out the jogging path along Heights Boulevard in Houston's oldest neighborhood. There are a lot fewer people than in most public parks and you can catch a glimpse of some historic Victorian homes along the way.