Everything’s bigger in Texas. And that can be said exponentially about Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States and a metropolis that blends international cultures with southern charm and hospitality. Founded in 1836, there’s a nice mixture of history and modern approaches to everything from business and the arts to dining and nightlife. Take a look at our first-timer’s Houston guide for the top things to do in town.
The city’s colourful history can be seen everywhere. Downtown, explore Buffalo Bayou, where the city was founded. A walking tour is a great way to explore this area. Market Square Park is home to 19th century architecture, restaurants and entertainment options. Bayou Bend, the 28-room 1920s mansion is former home of Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg and now one of the premiere collections of decorative art dating from 1620 to 1876. And history buffs flock to Battleship Texas, the last of the battleships to serve in World Wars I and II.
“Houston,” of course, was the first word uttered from the surface of the moon in 1969 and the Johnson Space Centre is a must-visit for space enthusiasts. Just 45 minutes from downtown, it’s a great day trip, especially for those with the time to schedule the Level 9 tour, which goes behind the scenes. Visitors can even dine with an astronaut on certain days throughout the year.
Lovers of the great outdoors will have many options in Houston and nearby Galveston Island, which is another 40 minutes south of the Johnson Space Centre. An overnight stay here gives visitors just enough time to visit the beaches, boardwalk, Moody Gardens and terrific seafood restaurants. Stay at the stunning and historic Hotel Galvez. Back in Houston, one of the most unique activities is the nightly emergence of 250,000 bats at dusk from under the Waugh Drive Bridge, located over Buffalo Bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive. The best views are from a boat.
Luxury accommodations (and affordable rooms, too) can be found in a variety of Houston hotels. The JW Marriott Houston is one of the newest and within easy reach of world-renowned shopping at Houston Galleria, along with the Westin Oaks Houston and Royal Sonesta. Hotel Icon, meanwhile, is an architectural marvel in a former bank building dating back to 1911. The Houstonian Hotel is home to a spectacular spa and health club, while Lancaster Hotel is located near the expansive Downtown Theatre District. For those wanting a more intimate experience, La Colombe d’Or Hotel & Restaurant is set in a historic mansion, one of the smallest luxury hotels in the world.
In addition to the Houston Theatre District, which is home to nine different arts organisations housed across multiple world-class venues, the Houston Museum District is an association of more than 20 museums, galleries and cultural centres.
If the massive Houston Galleria, doesn’t have everything you need, CityCentre offers superb shopping opportunities, as well as the utterly charming Kuhl-Linscomb, 80,000 square feet spread among multiple buildings carrying gift items, books, apothecary products, personal grooming, home decor and fashion items.
Wining and dining is a favourite pastime for locals and visitors alike, with thousands of restaurants spanning the culinary spectrum. The original Ninfa’s on Navigation Boulevard serves up Tex-Mex, while Hugo’s brings the flavours of Mexico City and Caracol delivers Mexican-inspired seafood in a modern setting. Steaks are a must in Texas and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse and Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille are always popular choices.
Southern classics like fried oysters and shrimp and grits are crowd-pleasers at Lucille’s, while Houston’s close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico means that oysters are a huge draw at several restaurants. Intimate culinary tours are one of the best ways to experience a variety of the city’s classics, as well as the latest and greatest finds.
For cocktails and nightlife, it wouldn’t be Texas without a margarita and El Big Bad has a variety of house-infused tequilas to make some of the best in town. OKRA Charity Saloon is a concept run by several restaurant and bar owners where 100% of proceeds are donated to charity, one per month as voted on by patrons in an on-site voting booth.
To see as many sites as possible in our Houston guide, Houston CityPASS offers discounted admission to top attractions and museums.
Header image: The downtown Houston skyline at night © VisitHouston / Jim Olive
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Have you been to any of the places in our Houston guide? Were would you recommend to first time visitors? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Steven Lindsey