A lot can change in four years. In 2013 we created the first Houston Bucket List covering the surprisingly numerous events, attractions and curiosities that make up our city. In the intervening years, there have been vast and sometimes radical changes to the landscape, the culture and even the personality of Houston and Houstonians. As such, it seemed like time for a revision.
Given the rapid growth of the entire region, it felt only right to expand our coverage area from 2013’s 30 to 100 square miles, including areas as far away as Galveston and Conroe. Since early March, we’ve been counting down the bottom 90, which you can find online. Here you will find the best of the best Houston has to offer, the top 10 things to do before you kick it, and a full list of the rest.
Last time, we heard from many of you who set off to conquer them all. Even if you managed to accomplish that task, there are plenty of new items on this list and a chance to get to know Houston like you may never have before.
Houston is not a pretty city. That fact has long loomed over the region as a deterrent to both tourism and self-confidence. Early settlers were lured here with drawings of lush green river valleys. When they arrived, they found a flat, mosquito-infested marsh. Instead of rivers, they got bayous, and not even the black, swirling Louisiana variety. No, these were muddy sloughs, lazily winding their way toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Over nearly 200 years, we built around them, trying to figure out what to do with what many considered glorified drainage ditches. The biggest concern wasn’t how they looked, but how to prevent the flooding they frequently caused. Some were straightened, even concreted. That only exacerbated the problem and left us with, if it’s possible, even uglier views out our windows.
Then, in 2010, the Kinder Foundation had a different idea. What if we returned at least a portion of one of the bayous to its original state and built around ? “The one thing we really wanted was for it to feel like you were out in nature,” says Anne Olson, president of Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the organization responsible for the incredible changes to Buffalo Bayou Park just west of downtown. “To retain the natural landscape was the basis of the plan.”
If the bayou system is the region’s circulatory system, Buffalo Bayou is the vena cava, drawing flow from west of the city, where it cuts through wealthy, wooded suburbs on its way into the heart of the city, where it collides with White Oak Bayou — the inferior to Buffalo’s superior. The reshaping of the park between Shepherd Drive and downtown included a literal reshaping of the bayou itself, returning it to its original snakelike curves as it moves slowly east.
Not only did it provide a beautiful natural landscape, but it mitigated the very flooding straightening had only served to increase. Does it still flood? Absolutely. In fact, there have been two record flood events since the park’s reopening in October 2015. But as Olson explains, the park was literally built to flood. “The park benches, the trash receptacles, the signage, that has all stood up really, really well,” she says. “Everything has been designed to withstand the abuse that it takes.”
But in addition to communing with nature alongside the concrete jungle, there is plenty of stuff to do within the boundaries of the park, from miles of looped hike-and-bike trails aided by numerous pedestrian bridges crossing streets and the water while offering stunning views of the skyline, a skate park, kayak and canoe rentals, a restaurant with scenic overlooks of the bayou, performance spaces and both the Waugh Street bat bridge and the fabulous cistern, two more on our top 100 list.
Buffalo Bayou and its surroundings will never rival the illustrations that fooled early homesteaders into coming here, but the Partnership has turned at least one of the city’s “ditches” into something quite beautiful. And with plans to extend the reach of the park through downtown beyond Allen’s Landing (also on our list) and east into what is now a blighted, mostly industrial area, Houston may shake its ugly-duckling persona once and for all.
No. 1 on the 2013 list is perhaps the most iconic attraction in Houston. Since 1957, kids (and some of us adults) have delighted at winding their way through Hermann Park on the miniature train behind the replica steam locomotive. The two-mile track runs 30 minutes and costs less than five bucks.
After a renovation in 2008, three stops were added to the rail line, making the train now more than just entertainment. Riders are welcome to climb aboard — or disembark — across from the Museum of Natural Science (just one block from the Children’s Museum), at the M.D. Anderson train station near the Texas Medical Center and adjacent to the METRORail stop on Fannin. For parents shuttling kids to various museums, families visiting loved ones in the hospital and anyone wanting a quick commute in and out of the park, the railroad is now as practical as it is enjoyable.
There aren’t many things in Houston that someone could argue should absolutely and without question make every Houstonian’s bucket list, but this certainly qualifies.
Living along the Gulf Coast has some distinct advantages. There are the beaches and the wonderful seafood, but there is also the strange and unique experience of traveling by boat, which our landlocked neighbors cannot share. Since 1929 ferries have been transporting visitors to the island from the mainland and back for free. Today at least one ferry is in operation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on State Highway 87. And while the traditional route to Galveston, on Interstate 45 across the causeway bridge, might seem more convenient, it is well worth the occasional wait for the three-mile crossing, which takes about 20 minutes.
Besides the interesting visual perspective of the island, the mainland and places like Texas City across the bay, the area’s rich wildlife is frequently on display. From the pelicans that perch on pilings at docking stations to the bottle-nosed dolphins that can often be seen chasing dinner in the boat’s wake, there is no shortage of visual entertainment. Some choose to feed the seagulls off the stern, but don’t be surprised if you get a few dirty looks from the locals, who would prefer not to have to wash their cars the minute they exit.
Many Texans are familiar with the massive colony of bats living under the Congress Street bridge in Austin. In the shadow of the state capitol, nearly 1.5 million of the winged creatures emerge at dusk in the warm months of the year in what is the largest urban group of Mexican free-tailed bats in North America. But Houston has its own version that is equally impressive. In fact, the Waugh Street Bridge is home to a quarter million of the critters, representing the single largest year-round colony in the country. (Austin’s colony migrates in winter.)
Much as in Austin, the bats come spinning out from beneath the bridge at dusk, off to consume mass quantities of insects — one of the real benefits of these otherwise kinda scary little guys. On some nights, hawks and other birds of prey will perch nearby looking to swoop in and make a snack of one of the bats, making this a spectacle of almost proportions. And while Waugh Street is certainly the most impressive bat colony, pedestrian and vehicular bridges along many area bayous have become home to some of Houston’s 11 bat species.
While may have rekindled an interest in medieval times, with its bloodlust and ample bosoms, Houstonians get a dose of it every fall — well, the bosom part anyway — with the Texas Renaissance Festival, about an hour north of the city in Plantersville. Founded in 1974, it has grown to host more than half a million visitors every year, many of them regulars (“rennies” as they are commonly called) who camp out every weekend in the surrounding campgrounds.
It’s quite a remarkable undertaking considering the breadth of offerings and the size of the festival grounds, which span 60 acres. From themed shows and shopping to fried everything on a stick, it feels a bit like being in a episode minus the dragons and zombies. Gatherings like the RenFest are not unique to Texas, of course, or even this part of the state, but it is one of the oldest, largest and, among those who patronize such events, most well respected. And if you go, make a point to camp at least once. The nighttime activities in the campgrounds get even closer to approximating the middle ages than does the festival.
It should come as no shocker to anyone around the country that one of the world’s largest rodeos is in Texas. Folks from different parts of the world tend to think we all wear ten-gallon hats and have ranches with oil wells, so why not have the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in our literal backyard, even if it reinforces a tired stereotype?
Still, as the rodeo has grown, it has gone well beyond ropin’ broncs and ridin’ steers. The month of March is dominated in Houston every year by trail riders, a massive parade, barbecue cook-offs, carnival rides, a livestock show filling the entire convention center, and some of the biggest names in country and pop music. Those artists, in fact, are the driving force behind the record-breaking 2.6 million visitors the rodeo scored in 2017, the most the event has had in 85 years.
Even if the very idea of ranch life makes you feel uncomfortable, at least go to the carnival, where you can eat a bunch of fried stuff and then barf it up on one of the insane rides that cover nearly half the entire compound. Plus, the sight of Houstonians decked out in their cowboy (and girl) best is impressive.
Water and batteries. Look up hurricane preparedness and these are probably the most common items on any list. Other suggestions might include a generator, refilled prescription medication, flashlights, candles, gasoline…even alcohol. For those of us who grew up in Houston less than 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a standard part of life between roughly June and October every year.
If you’re new to the area, it must be confusing and probably a little scary. Hurricanes conjure images of cities under feet of water, palm trees whipping in 100-plus-mile-per-hour winds and idiot weathercasters trying to keep their balance in driving rain storms. They are all that, but having lived through a few in our lifetimes, we can tell you that they are often more bust than boom.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready. Pick up a preparedness list. They are everywhere come June 1, when hurricane season officially starts. Get a good weather app for tracking storms. Know if you are in a flood plain or an evacuation zone. Pay attention when the time comes. But don’t worry. You’ll be fine. And stock up on alcohol because it will give you something to bring to the neighborhood hurricane party.
Sculptor David Adickes has left a legacy of oversized sculptures across the area, from the 67-foot, full-bodied Sam Houston statue in Huntsville to the giant visages of former presidents on massive heads near downtown. They are all perfectly odd and ideal for selfies. In the case of the Sam statue (or Adickes’s Beatles), you might need to do it from a distance, because that thing is huge.
But for an easier shot, everyone loves the “I Heart Houston” installation along Interstate 10 near Yale Street. Of course, you might be taking your life in your hands trying to get a selfie along the feeder road, but, hey, it’s like getting a picture with Billy Gibbons or Willie Nelson. If you get a chance, you just do it.
What makes getting a snapshot with these quirky works of art so different is their unique connection to the city. It would be like a selfie from the top of the Empire State Building or at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. It is an instantly recognizable H-Town meme that shows you rep your city well.
In certain parts of the country, they do not know what kolaches are. Pity them. They are probably the same people who call “cheese dip,” bless their hearts. For Texans, the kolache represents perhaps the pinnacle of breakfast pastries (all due respect to croissants and doughnuts): flaky dough surrounding spicy Polish sausage and cheese. Around here, there is no more perfect place to get one than at Shipley, the all-time Houston doughnut institution.
And if you are going to Shipley, choose the location on Ella Street in Oak Forest, the oldest in the city, or the one on North Main in the Heights, where you might be lucky enough to find the elusive -stuffed variety. Both spots offer some of the finest kolaches in the state, even though they’re part of a doughnut chain. The dough almost crumbles around the sausage, and melts away once it hits your tongue. The warm interior is coated with cheese balancing out the tangy sausage. It’s hand-held food perfection.
While you’re there, grab a half-dozen doughnut holes. The yeast-y doughnuts from Shipley have nearly managed to run every other establishment out of town, including Dunkin’ and Krispy Kreme, so they are the real deal.
Every spring, if you take a drive toward Brenham along Highway 290, you’ll see a curious site. Scores of families in their spring finery will be sprawled across hillsides and meadows, their cars just yards away, hazard lights blinking as they hang halfway off the highway. That’s because it’s wildflower season and everybody wants a photo of his or her little tike and, if possible, the whole damn clan (dogs too!), lying in the stunning Texas native flowers that grow naturally on roadsides between Houston and central Texas. It’s all the more impressive considering there are typically only three or four weekends per year with optimal wildflower growth.
Closer to town, you can approximate the experience along White Oak Bayou, where wildflower seeds have been spread for more than a decade, but nothing quite tops the fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes along the drive from here to Fredericksburg. Ironically, because the bluebonnet is the state flower, it is illegal to harvest them and probably frowned upon to trample them as well, but sometimes you do what you gotta to get a shot of your kid dressed in his Easter best squatting in the sea of purple and orange. We certainly won’t hold it against you.
The 2017 Houston Bucket List
1. Visit Buffalo Bayou Park.
2. Ride the Hermann Park Railroad.
3. Take the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry from Galveston Island to the Bolivar Peninsula and back.
4. Watch the bats take off at the Waugh Street Bridge.
5. Get medieval at the Texas Renaissance Festival.
6. Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and carnival.
7. Prep for hurricane season.
8. Snap a selfie with a David Adickes statue.
9. Order some kolaches and doughnut holes at Shipley.
10. Go wildflower hunting along Highway 290.
11. Tour the Saint Arnold brewery.
12. Go Christmas shopping in the Galleria.
13. See a Catastrophic Theatre production.
14. Go two-stepping at Wild West.
15. Go sailing on Clear Lake.
16. Run in, volunteer for or cheer on the Chevron Houston Marathon.
17. Visit the International Quilt Festival.
18. Take a day off and explore the downtown tunnel system.
19. See a Joel Osteen sermon at Lakewood Church.
20. Have date night at Spindletop Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency downtown.
21. Get some late-night pie at House of Guys.
22. Pick up a knockoff bag on Harwin.
23. Go to Day For Night Festival.
24. Bike the Ant Hills in Terry Hershey Park.
25. Tailgate at a Texans game.
26. Spend Día de los Muertos on Houston’s east side.
27. Catch some beads at Mardi Gras Galveston.
28. Visit the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum.
29. Take a Caribbean cruise from Galveston.
30. Do some 3 a.m. grocery shopping Disco Kroger.
31. Have some chicken and waffles at Breakfast Klub.
32. Get a cheap massage in Chinatown.
33. Take in a midnight movie at River Oaks Theatre.
34. See a concert at White Oak Hall.
35. Go birding at the rookery on Bolivar Peninsula or the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge.
36. Go ice skating at Discovery Green.
37. Sit with the Red Rowdies at a Rockets game.
38. Take a ride on METRORail.
39. Attend mariachi mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
40. Hit the beach in Surfside.
41. Have a blue margarita and listen to dirty mariachis at Club No Minors.
42. Visit the MFAH, CAMH and the Menil.
43. Play bingo at SPJST Lodge 88.
44. Take your pooch to Congressman Bill -Archer Dog Park.
45. Run the Memorial Park loop.
46. See Houston’s birthplace at Allen’s Landing.
47. Go to Buc-ee’s and buy some Buc-ee Balls…and use the bathroom.
48. Have a Pedal Party on Washington Avenue.
49. Go meatless at Govinda’s in the Hare Krishna Temple.
50. Check out a gun show.
51. Eat Vietnamese crawfish at Crawfish Café or Crawfish & Noodles.
52. Count some gators in Brazos Bend State Park.
53. Have Sunday Funday in the gayborhood.
54. Take the Minute Maid Park tour.
55. Bathe yourself in light at a James Turrell art exhibit.
56. Learn some Texas and Houston history inside the Julia Ideson Building.
57. Dress up for Halloween on lower Westheimer.
58. Ride along the extensive bayou hike-and-bike trails.
59. Enjoy a Houston Roller Derby match.
60. Latin dance at Club Tropicana.
61. Indulge in barbecue or a burger or a steak at the Killen’s restaurants.
62. Visit Space Center Houston.
63. Volunteer for the Houston Food Bank.
64. Visit the grave of Howard Hughes at Glenwood Cemetery.
65. Buy fresh seafood at Rose’s in Kemah.
66. Catch one of the annual UH/Rice baseball games.
67. Hit the Airline flea markets on Sunday.
68. Get your skate on at the North Houston Skate Park.
69. Drive through Prestonwood Forest to see crazy holiday light displays.
70. Learn about conservation at the Houston Zoo.
71. Enjoy some fried chicken at Barbecue Inn.
72. See an international soccer match.
73. Go down into the Cistern.
74. Get some culture in the Theater District.
75. Drink in history (and alcohol) in Market Square.
76. Go camping in Huntsville State Park.
77. Dance to ’80s music at Numbers.
78. Put on your best cowboy gear to watch the trail riders on Go Texan Day.
79. See the entire area from on top of the San Jacinto Monument.
80. Get some seafood with a view at historic Gaido’s.
81. Dine on fajitas and a margarita at Ninfa’s.
82. See a singer-songwriter at Anderson Fair.
83. Kayak Buffalo Bayou.
84. Go fishing for all kinds of stuff.
85. Hit the links at the Golf Club of Houston tournament course.
86. Get your jam on at the Houston LGBT Pride Celebration.
87. Drink a cold one at West Alabama Ice House.
88. Learn about Galveston’s history and hauntings on the Hotel Galvez tours.
89. Check out the slabs in Sunnyside or Cloverland Park.
90. Take in some Friday night lights at a local high school football game.
91. Eat the area’s best oysters at Gilhooley’s.
92. Do some ethnic grocery shopping at Phoenicia, Fiesta and H Mart.
93. Have a picnic on the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.
94. Spend a night on The Island.
95. Take a nature walk in Mercer Arboretum.
96. Take a canoe on Armand Bayou.
97. Ride an art car in the annual Art Car Parade.
98. Get in the Christmas spirit with A Christmas Carol at the Alley Theatre.
99. Take the Port of Houston Authority Sam Houston boat tour.
100. Ride the rides at the Galveston Pleasure Pier.
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