With Houston landing at number seven on the New York Times list of places to visit in 2013 last week, I decided to give you seven things not to look at when you visit on Monday. Today, I go for the opposite approach.
Houston is not exactly a beauty queen. I've heard that there is a formula for potential mates that goes something like looks + brains + sanity = constant. So, if you have a really hot chick who is super smart, she's likely batshit crazy. The goal for long-term relationships is the partner who balances out along the scale. That's Houston. Parts of it are beautiful and others butt ugly. We have some ingenious innovators and plenty of rednecks. We have no zoning laws to keep things organized, but that chaos leads to some really handy conveniences.
The bottom line in Houston is that you can't take a standard city tour and expect to get to the heart of what we are all about. And while guides like Fodor's might give you a good sampling of great places to see and things to do while you're here, we bet they don't crackle with excitement about these gems of the Bayou City.
The Original Farmers' Market
Ever since people in Brooklyn and Portland and other havens of hipster happiness decided that farmers' markets weren't just for hippies and, you know, farmers anymore, farm to table everything has been springing up all over every city in America and, right along with it, quaint little farmers' markets like the one we have Sundays in Discovery Green Park or Wednesdays in front of City Hall or Tuesdays on the Rice Campus, etc. But, the original bad boy of farmers' markets is the one on Airline along a pothole-filled street that got that way because big trucks filled with fruits and veggies trudge through there every day. My grandmother went there every Tuesday to barter with the people behind Canino's. It's still the coolest market in town.
That pothole-laden street mentioned above stretches from about a half mile south of the farmers' market WAY out north almost to the airport. If you want to take one of the most interesting scenic drives in town, this is it. But you won't find a tree-lined oasis. Instead, you'll find dudes waving fresh Gulf jumbo shrimp the size of porn star schlong for sale out of the back of a truck (fresher and less expensive than at any supermarket), flea markets filled with junk and funnel cakes, and more piñatas than you can literally shake a stick at. Cruise by with your windows open on a Saturday and take in the smell of chicken roasting on an open grill on one corner and the sound of a live Mariachi band on the other.
There are hidden hoods in every city that startle even longtime residents. Take for example Acres Homes, a nine-square-mile mostly African-American community just north of the city. Yes, there is the kind of crime that often accompanies impoverished neighborhoods, but there is also some of the best barbecue in the state, tiny churches that rock harder than a metal fest every Sunday and the kind of overgrown, pastural setting you rarely see in the city. In fact, it is no surprise to see guys on horseback on the same street as your car, big chicken coops behind kudzu-covered fences and brush so thick, you'd think you were in the Piney Woods.
Nothing says weird in Houston like the Montrose -- a super-eclectic, inner-city hood filled with gay bars and killer restaurants for you outsiders -- and nothing says "really fucking weird even for the Montrose" like Lola's, the dive-iest of all dive bars in a city with a shit ton of them. It's so divey, even hipsters don't ironically hang out there because it even freaks them out. Sure, some fancy hotel bar might get rave reviews for its whiskey flights and signature cocktails, but if dank, seedy and full of "character" (if that's what they call it) is how you like your bar, Lola's Depot is it.
The Tunnel System
Often visitors stand around in downtown in the middle of summer at lunchtime wondering where the hell everyone is. They're in the tunnel, son. If Houston should be known for anything, it is our creative use of air conditioning. When the humidity and the temperature are both in the 90s in August, stadiums with retractible roofs and tunnels connecting downtown buildings and filled with restaurants, dentists and dry cleaners just make sense. The massive tunnel system is jammed to the gills at lunchtime and has about every food offering a city as gastronomically diverse as Houston can offer.
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If you wonder why I would suggest visiting a cemetery while you are in Houston, you only need to take a look inside the gates of Glenwood to understand. As much a beautiful, tree-lined park as a cemetery with criss-crossing driving paths and loving rolling hills (yeah, we have a few of those here, even if they are manmade), the place where the late Howard Hughes is laid to rest is about as serene as it gets and within two miles of the center of downtown. Photographers love to shoot there and others just like to drive around the well-kept grounds listening to the birds.
Houston Roller Derby
Yes, we have all three of the major pro sports here and professional soccer plus state-of-the-art facilities for all of them. But if you want to see some hard-hitting, skull-cracking action, Houston Roller Derby is where it's at. Part of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, Houston's four teams include the Psych Ward Sirens and the Bayou City Bosses. It may not have the stunning setting of Minute Maid Park or the shiny hardwoods of Toyota Center, but the action is second to none and a lot more interesting than the Astros at the moment.